Last month, the U.S. Army's vice chief of staff warned Congress that his service is "outranged, outgunned and outdated." He's right. If Russia invaded Europe today, the Army units guarding NATO's eastern flank would quickly be overrun. The Russians outnumber and outclass U.S. Army units in the region by just about any measure you can imagine -- including the ability to stop friendly air forces from providing the Army with air cover.
The Air Force's new F-35 fighter will fix the latter problem, since it is invisible to Russian radar. But U.S. soldiers will still be vulnerable to Russian rockets, tanks, jamming and cyber attacks, because the Army has been starved of the funding it needs to buy new gear. Much of its combat equipment was purchased during the Reagan years, and efforts to upgrade Cold War weapons are proceeding at a glacial pace. For instance, the Army currently is buying only one fully upgraded Abrams tank -- its signature combat system -- each month.
This is what happens when a country decides to take on military obligations all over the world, but refuses to cough up enough money to meet those obligations. The Army's proposed modernization budget for the current fiscal year represents only two days of federal spending at current rates, or one-half of 1% of what Washington will spend during the year.
The amount available for buying new helicopters ($3.6 billion) is less than what Americans typically spend celebrating Saint Patrick's Day (over $4 billion). The amount requested for wheeled and tracked vehicles ($2.3 billion) is about what we spend each year getting tattoos. The amount sought for ammunition and missiles ($1.5 billion), is barely twice what we will spend on fireworks for the Fourth of July.
If you think President Trump's proposed increase in military spending is going to fix this problem, guess again. His plan for the new fiscal year beginning October 1 will only provide $16 billion above the amount President Obama would have sought. As Jason Sherman and Tony Bertuca of InsideDefense.com pointed out Tuesday, $16 billion wouldn't even cover unfunded priorities the Army has identified for that year -- items like better protection for armored vehicles and more resilient battlefield radios.
And the $16 billion would be spread across all three military departments in the Pentagon, rather than going only to the Army. That's assuming Congress approves any of the President's increase; Democrats are threatening to block repeal of a law that caps military outlays far below what either Obama or Trump considered adequate. If the two parties can't set aside their endless political squabbles, then the U.S. Army will be ripe for defeat in Europe, and the whole concept of The West may be in jeopardy.
The Romans had a saying that "if you want peace, prepare for war." George Washington liked the sentiment so much that he paraphrased it in his first presidential address to Congress. It is probably the origin of the phrase "peace through strength" that Ronald Reagan popularized. However, when you look at the way Americans spend their money today, it seems more like they are preparing to party. Most of the federal budget goes to entitlements, while the military only gets one in seven federal dollars.
And within the Pentagon's modernization budget -- which represents a paltry one-percent of gross domestic product -- the Army gets only one in seven acquisition dollars. How little is that? It's about a third of the $70 billion that Americans spend on lottery tickets each year. It's about a quarter of the $83 billion they spend on tobacco products. It's about a fifth of the $100 billion they spend on illegal drugs (or for that matter, beer).
So it's really no surprise that the Army is still fighting wars with weapons begun during the Reagan years, and that it can only afford to buy one new tank per month. It's not that the Army doesn't have plans for upgrading its weapons -- it's just that there's so little money for implementing those plans. The Army hasn't had a top-to-bottom refresh of its technology since the Cold War ended, while some of its potential adversaries are investing furiously in new warfighting capabilities.
Politicians of both parties have been neglecting this problem for a generation because there were other things they cared about more. Perhaps this is the price we pay for having a Congress in which four out of five lawmakers have never served in the military. Many legislators don't grasp the human consequences of leaving the Army so poorly equipped. If recent spending trends aren't reversed, though, they will soon learn what those consequences are. With each passing year, the outlook for a Russian military victory in Europe becomes more compelling.
This commentary is adapted from remarks delivered to a Lexington Institute seminar on Capitol Hill earlier in the week.
A Bradley fighting vehicle in Iraq during the closing days of the U.S. military occupation. The Bradley is being upgraded and modified to provide the Army with better armored protection, mobility and firepower, but the pace of improvement is hampered by scarce funding. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Timothy Kingston) (www.army.mil)
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