After seven years of incessant warfare, the Bush administration has put the military in a difficult place. Equipment is wearing out more quickly than it can be replaced, to the tune of $17 billion a year. Amorphous missions have stretched our armed forces to the breaking point. West Point graduates are leaving at their highest rates since the 1970s, and the Army is suffering a shortfall of 3,000 captains and majors until at least 2013. No wonder, then, that sixty percent of officers believe the U.S. military is weaker than it was as recently as 2003.
Addressing the challenge of a weakened military is no treat, even in the best of times. And these are hardly the best of times. With an economic crisis that is tightening belts and budgets all around the country, we are unable to spend our way out of the difficulties now facing the armed forces. The era of throwing money at problems is over. The era of strategically channeling money to our most pressing needs has begun.
But a break from the past could do our future some good. Our military isn't suffering from a lack of defense spending. It's suffering from a lack of smart spending. By funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through "emergency supplementals," the Bush administration has allowed budget discipline and fiscal oversight to erode, which means our defense dollars aren't going as far as they could or should.
Administration officials have also failed to tailor defense spending to the current threat environment. America needs to maintain superior conventional forces to deter future adversaries and prevent potential wars. But the cost of hedging for the future must not be a blind eye to the present. The $242 billion F-35 program is a case in point. It's the most expensive aircraft program in DoD history, yet it has neither the flight range to accomplish likely missions nor is it necessary for fighting irregular wars, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. While it would be foolish to cut the program altogether - allies have invested heavily in the F-35, and cancelling it would signal to potential adversaries that we will settle for a less capable military in the future - scaling back could free up billions of dollars for more pressing tasks.
What kind of pressing tasks? Expanding the size of our forces to free soldiers and sailors from long, repeated tours of duty would be one example. Greening our military and adopting better fuel efficiency would save money in the long run and cut down on emissions of greenhouse gases. Not to mention that a military less dependent on fossil fuel - which accounts for seventy percent of battlefield tonnage - would require fewer fuel convoys. Such convoys have been a lightning rod for insurgent attacks, putting troops' lives at risk. Better fuel efficiency would save lives.
Then there is the pressing reality of the present day. The wars we are fighting now and those we are likely to fight in the near future do not call for new attack aircraft. They call for soldiers who speak Arabic and Humvees that can withstand roadside bombs. As budget pressures mount and the incoming Obama administration is forced to make tough decisions on spending, their choices should be guided by the threats we face and the world we live in today. For eight years, conservatives eschewed tough choices on spending and opted to fund tomorrow's battles instead of fighting today's wars. We must work to reverse that trend during the next four years. Our future is certain to depend on it.