The U.S. Navy, with 280 ships, is now far too small to effectively protect this country’s vital interests in the Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. Yet on Dec. 14 Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered the Navy to cut additional ships it was planning to build and instead to buy more missiles and airplanes.
The shortage of missiles, torpedoes and spare parts that concerns Mr. Carter is real. But by not rebuilding the fleet, the Obamaadministration is repeating the blunders of the 1970s—sending sailors and their too few ships on much longer deployments, now trending toward eight and 10 months instead of six. In response, the most experienced sailors and their families, as in the ’70s, are starting to leave the Navy, worsening the other corrosive result of longer deployments: ships and airplanes that break down from a lack of skilled maintenance. The Persian Gulf was recently left without a carrier for two months.
Is the solution to the problem simply a significant increase in the defense budget? No. The source of the problem is not primarily the amount of money, but how that money is spent, or misspent, by the military bureaucracy.
The U.S. currently spends $598 billion on defense, slightly more in inflation-adjusted dollars than in the Reagan administration in 1987, when its defense budget peaked. Reagan-era spending produced a fleet of 594 ships, 15 carriers, 35 Air Force fighter wings, 220 strategic bombers and 20 Army divisions, all with full stocks of missiles and weapons, along with adequate maintenance. Today’s spending has produced a force from a third to half the size, with depleted weapons and low readiness.
The administration’s feeble answer is that our weapons are better, so we need fewer of them. That’s not true in many major categories. For example, the Navy’s primary strike aircraft, the F-18E, is slower, less maneuverable, has a shorter range and carries less payload than the F-14D it replaced. The littoral combat ship (LCS) is faster but has far less capability than the Perry class frigates it is supposed to replace. The LCS has its uses but has too short a range to deploy with battle groups, which renders the fleet increasingly vulnerable to enemy submarines.
There are two principal reasons for this unilateral disarmament by runaway costs. First is the explosive growth of bureaucracy. The Defense Business Board puts the number of civilian defense employees at 970,000, up several hundred thousand from the Reagan years. The board notes that roughly half of all uniformed personnel serve on staffs that spend most of their time going to meetings and responding to tasks from the hundreds of offices that have grown like mold throughout the vast Defense Department, the 17 independent Defense agencies, the nine Unified Combatant Commands, and the 250 joint task forces. This bloat has completely reversed the historic tooth-to-tail reforms that Sens. Sam Nunn andJohn Warner achieved in the 1980s.
With so many layers and offices needed to concur on every decision, it now takes an average of 22½ years from the start of a weapons program to first deployment, instead of the four years it took to deploy the Minuteman ICBM and Polaris submarine missile system in the Cold War era. Yet the U.S. intelligence community estimates that it takes only seven years for Chinese and Russian procurement systems to produce the advanced ships and fighters of the so-called fifth generation.
The procurement process is the second reason defense spending is so inefficient. In the 1980s, when a program was ready for full production, two qualified defense contractors generally competed annually for fixed-price contracts to build surface ships, submarines, fighters, fighter engines and virtually all tactical missiles. Today’s procurement consists of beauty contests to see who gets a 30- to 50-year competition-free monopoly.
Worse, today’s “customer” is multi-service and multi-bureaucratic, meaning endless delays and numberless design changes. Such a system can only be accommodated by paying contractors a profit as a percentage of their costs. These cost-plus contracts provide every incentive for spending to grow.
The five Nimitz-class nuclear carriers built in the Reagan administration cost an average of $3.5 billion each, or $7 billion in today’s dollars. The new Ford-class carriers, built on the Nimitz hull with added technology, are expected to cost $14 billion, but they will carry the same number of airplanes.
The good news is that some now understand the mortal threat this bureaucratic mess represents. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Mac Thornberry, his House counterpart, passed, and President Obama signed, the 2016 Defense Authorization Act. The new law mandates many deep changes, including the reduction of the Pentagon bureaucracy by 25%. Next year Sen. McCain is determined to tackle the hydra-headed procurement system.
Secretary Carter made his reputation as an effective cost-cutter and enabler of common sense in his earlier tour at the Pentagon. With equally savvy procurement leaders in the Navy, there is a huge opportunity to provide the next president with a Defense Department that can rapidly provide the tools to protect this nation’s national security.
Mr. Lehman was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and a member of the 9/11 Commission.