The Romans had a saying about how to keep the peace: Si vis paceum, parabellum — If you want peace, prepare for war. In other words, enemies won’t attack if you look too strong to defeat. George Washington liked the saying so much that he paraphrased it in his first annual presidential message to Congress.
President Obama apparently sees things differently, at least when it comes to America’s main ground force. During the eight years of his presidency, the buying power of the Army’s budget for new equipment has fallen by three-fourths. That’s a bigger decline than after the Cold War ended.
Obama’s policies have hurt the Army in other ways too. For instance, U.S. ground troops have been largely withdrawn from Europe and the Middle East, creating a vacuum that countries like Russia and Iran are now moving to fill. If war broke out today, the Army would have to find some way of getting back to those places fast — a logistical nightmare. But the really glaring shortfall is investment in new military technology.
To put that in perspective, the Army’s entire budget request for the fiscal year that began October 1 was $125 billion, not counting the cost of dwindling operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. That amount represents 3% of the federal budget, and less than 1% of the economy. And less than one dollar in five — $22 billion — is going to the purchase of weapons.
How little is $22 billion? It’s a quarter of what Americans spend each year on cigarettes, and a third of what they spend on lottery tickets. More to the point, it’s two days worth of federal spending at current rates for an Army that may need to fight and win wars on multiple continents in the near future. Army leaders figure they could be fighting Russia or Iran or North Korea within five years.
They might have a chance of winning against the latter two countries if the Air Force and sea services show up, because Iran and North Korea can be easily reached by U.S. air power. Eastern Europe is another matter — Russia has deployed advanced air defenses over much of the region that could force the Army to do most of the fighting on its own.
That is a hot topic this week as the Association of the U.S. Army holds its annual conference in the nation’s capital. A hundred exhibitors are showing wares capable of coping with a Russian onslaught in Eastern Europe, even in the absence of air cover. Problem is, the Army can’t afford to buy most of what’s on display. It has had to spend almost all of its shrunken budget on personnel, training and maintenance — leaving little for modernization.
So the Army’s arsenal is beginning to look like a Smithsonian Institution annex. Most of its major combat systems debuted during the Cold War, and due to scarce modernization funding are expected to remain in the force through 2050. Army leaders recently testified that the service’s biggest helicopter, the Chinook, could remain in service for a full century. The Abrams tank and Bradley troop carrier will likely stay in service another 50 years (they began joining the force in the Reagan years).
In addition to being old, these weapons aren’t where they need to be if Russia mounts a surprise attack on the Baltic states, Poland or Ukraine. Moscow launched a ten-year, $700 billion program to modernize its own arsenal at the beginning of the decade, and increasingly has the capacity to defeat the forces NATO could deploy quickly. For instance, Germany, usually thought of as a major military power, has only 250 main battle tanks left, and Russian antitank weapons can defeat them.
Army leaders frankly admit that they would be hard-pressed to deal with Russian drones, jamming systems, antitank weapons, missile barrages and cyber attacks. Even backed up by regional allies, the light forces the U.S. Army currently has deployed in Europe would be no match for the ground and air assault Moscow might mount. The Russians might roll right over them, reasserting their dominance in Eastern Europe and unraveling the Western Alliance — unless Washington resorted to the use of nuclear weapons.
Who knows where that would lead? If Washington wants to avoid the awful choice between losing a war in Europe or going nuclear, then it needs to begin equipping its Army with better firepower, protection, communications and the like. But it can’t go through the usual drawn-out cycle of designing, developing, testing and building new weapons. It needs to quickly upgrade what it already has, because war could be only two or three years away.
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For instance, the Army needs to equip armored vehicles destined for Europe with so-called “active protection systems” that can defeat incoming antitank rounds before they reach the vehicle. It needs to speed upgrades to the Paladin tracked howitzer that is the most common self-propelled cannon in NATO brigades. It needs to provide more Stryker wheeled combat vehicles — some of which are already deployed in Europe — with better underside protection and bolstered firepower.
It also needs to acquire better air defenses against Russian attack aircraft and drones. And given how proficient Russia has become in electronic warfare and cyber attacks, the Army needs to accelerate fielding of its Warfighter Information Network – Tactical to assure battlefield links aren’t lost in the fog of war. All of these programs exist today, but they are dreadfully underfunded. For instance, the communications network won’t reach the full force until after 2040 at its current pace — the goal had been 2028 before money was cut.
The list of needed upgrades is long, but the cost is not high. All of the Army’s most urgent modernization needs could be covered with one additional day of federal funding each year — $11 billion. Since it is only getting $22 billion for everything today, $11 billion more per year would increase its modernization budget by 50%.
To put this in stark terms, Washington can materially reduce the danger of defeat in Europe by increasing the Army’s budget an amount equal to one-quarter of 1% of federal spending. That’s what is required to fund the Army’s most urgent improvements. Of course, we also need to put more of the force back in Europe to deter attacks, and press NATO allies to be better prepared. But the big question is whether Washington will provide America’s Army with the tools to avert defeat.
One day’s worth of federal spending to save America’s soldiers. Is that too much to ask?
I have business ties of one sort or another with several of the Army’s biggest suppliers.