11/15/2011 05:14 pm ET | Updated Nov 15, 2011

Leon Panetta Warns Against Budget Cuts Despite Reported Pentagon Spending Spree

WASHINGTON -- As the military brass and congressional hawks issue dire warnings about the "disastrous'' effects of cutting the defense budget, a new study details a $1 trillion spending spree over the past decade that has left the military services better equipped than ever.

During the last 10 years of generous war funding from Congress, the military services spent heavily on troops and operating costs for fuel, ammo and other consumable combat supplies, the study says.

But the services also reportedly tucked away as much as $135 billion a year to buy new warships, jet fighters, armored vehicles and other major equipment that not only replaced war losses but expanded the arsenals of all the services.

Since 1990, for instance, the Army has bought 4,000 Stryker armored vehicles for $12 billion, and 15,000 heavy armored trucks called Mine Resistant Armor Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, for $20 billion, according to the study. Both vehicles are new to the the Army, giving it an expanded capability for ground combat.

The Army also purchased 658,606 M4 carbines and 110,830 M240 machine guns. It upgraded 4,300 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 1,100 M1 Abrams tanks with digital communications, GPS navigation systems and other state-of-the-art improvements, the study says. It boosted a planned purchase of 392 .50-cal sniper rifles, originally intended only for elite units, to 3,336 of the rifles and distributed them throughout the force.

"At the start of the second decade of the 21st century, U.S. military capabilities and technology are the most advanced in the world,'' Russell Rumbaugh, a former Army infantry officer and budget analyst for the Pentagon and the CIA, writes in a new report.

"Although much of the U.S. military strength is rooted in the professionalism and dedication of the people in the services, they are also outfitted with the best equipment in existence,'' writes Rumbaugh, currently at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan national security research organization in Washington.

But the build-up of the armed forces is getting scant mention amid the drumbeat of warnings about budget cuts.

In a letter this week to Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Defense Secretary Leon Panetta repeated that the Obama administration has already decided to scale back projected defense spending over the next decade by $450 billion.

These self-imposed cuts, Panetta has warned, would take the Pentagon "to the edge.''

Any further cuts, he said in the letter this week, "would be devastating,'' and the Pentagon would be "forced to terminate most large procurement programs ...''

McCain and Graham, in reply, agreed that cuts of that magnitude "would set off a swift decline of the United States as the world's leading military power.''

Out on the line with the services, however, things look slightly different.

Over the past decade, the Air Force spent $347 billion to buy hardware. But it chose to spend most of the money on two costly aircraft systems: the F-22 stealth fighter and the C-17 airlifter, two of the world's most advanced aircraft, the study says. But because of the cost ($142 million for each F-22), it was unable to buy as many aircraft as it wanted.

In Rumbaugh's analysis, the Air Force spent $38 billion during the past decade to buy jet fighters; for that money it got 220 expensive fighters. During a previous decade, in the 1980s, the Air Force bought less costly fighters -- for $68 billion, it got $2,063 fighters, mostly F-15s and F16s that are in service today in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The smaller but more technologically advanced Air Force that resulted may or may not be well suited to future combat needs. But as Rumbaugh pointed out, it came about not because of budget cuts, but because of how the Air Force chose to spend its money.

The Air Force during the past 10 years also has expanded its operations into the entirely new business of unmanned aerial vehicles, building a fleet of Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk drones currently being used extensively for surveillance, tracking and attack against terrorist targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, Rumbaugh's study says.

The Navy met most of its shipbuilding goals during the past decade, acquiring eight of the 10 amphibious ships it wanted, the two carriers it wanted, a dozen cargo ships, 18 of a planned purchase of 25 destroyers, and 10 of 16 planned attack submarines. The Navy also bought 369 aircraft, about 90 percent of its planned purchase.

The Marine Corps, despite its proud claim to austerity, also did okay, the study says, with $3 billion worth of new helicopters, $14 billion worth of 155 new tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey aircraft, 500 new howitzers, 5,000 trucks, and $7.2 billion worth of MRAPs, among other acquisitions.

Where the services did without, they did so not for budgetary reasons, but because military procurement programs sometimes have to be canceled. Trouble often arises because of technical complexity, cost overruns, or both.

In the past decade, the Army shut down three of its most ambitious and costly acquisition programs -- the Commanche attack helicopter, the Crusader artillery system and the "family'' of vehicles known as the Future Combat Systems. None of these programs were terminated because of budget cuts.

Where congressional budget-cutters might look for efficiencies, then, is at how the military services buy weapons and other military systems. Since 1996, for example, the Army spent at least $1 billion a year on weapons systems it eventually canceled, according to an internal Army report released earlier this year. It had to cancel 22 major programs during the past two decades, 15 just in the past decade.

"This track record of too many cancellations, schedule slippages, cost over-runs and failures to deliver timely solutions to the warfighters' requirements is unacceptable,'' declared the report. "The Army cannot afford to continue acquiring materiel the way it has in the last two decades.''

Worse, the steps the Army has taken to solve the problem appear to have actually made things worse. "In an attempt to not repeat past failures, additional staff, processes, steps and tasks have been imposed,'' the report said. "While well intended, collectively these modifications are counterproductive.''