‘Tis a pity that the F-22 Raptor was not named the Phoenix in the hopes that, despite the best attempts of Republican and Democratic presidents and secretaries of defense to contain the program, it would magically rise again from the ashes. Last week’s vote in the Senate sealed the fate of this most advanced fighter aircraft the world.
Much was made of the courage and rationality of the Senate to act. However, 58 senators took exception, some because it was a free vote and by supporting the proposed increase they could cater or react to constituent interests, and others because their worldview reflected 20th and not 21st century thinking.
Whether the F-22 vote will lead to a more strategically rational defense budget that makes tough choices and responds to the world as it is and not as we would like it to be remains to be seen. However, each of the services’ financial needs currently require far more money than Congress is going to approve even as the war in Iraq draws down and the war in Afghanistan heats up. Given the escalating costs of all Pentagon programs from healthcare to weapons systems to quality-of-life enhancements, for the long term the projected programs are probably 20 percent over budgeted and perhaps even more so.
The key political and strategic question is how to relate the demands of irregular or counterinsurgent conflict with traditional and conventional war at a time when there is no so-called peer competitor in sight while keeping a defense industrial base appropriate to the needs of the department. Note the absence of the word “balance.” The usual lexicon uses that word to avoid the more difficult question of how to balance when there is insufficient money for both. The answer is that you do not.
Critics of change argue that militaries always plan for the last or current war. China, Russia or India could emerge as military threats. Prudence means keeping our powder dry. Hence, we need large defense corporations available to build the advance aircraft, ships, submarines, fighting vehicles and big-ticket items required to win a major conventional war. But while understandable, these arguments reflect a different world.
Regarding future enemies, up until the 1930s U.S. war plans included Britain as a potential adversary. Regarding Russia, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is correct. Not only is there a declining population. About 90 percent of all Russian youth are physically unqualified for service. Further, their military is in a sad state. Yes, Russia has a substantial nuclear arsenal. However, it will be decades before a first-rate military emerges.
China is a favored future bogeyman. Yes, its military is growing in capacity. And there is a lot of it. However, it would be folly to think that the United States is the only power potentially concerned with checking Chinese military power. India, Japan and South Korea among others could prove to be countervailing forces, although a rearmed Japan could possibly outpace China as a problem. The point is that the United States has many options for dealing with a future peer competitor that do not require huge expenditures now for forces needed to fight or deter a conflict that is far from certain ever to arise.
Equally important questions are first how to bring what is called a “whole-of-government approach” to national defense and security rather than making the military the de facto force of last resort, and second how to maintain the high professional standards that have become the signature of our Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. In other words, as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has taken on many tasks best left to other government agencies for which they lack the capability.
This year the Department of Defense will undertake the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review. Started in 1997, the intent was to provide Congress with a strategic roadmap for the Pentagon. Subsequent QDRs have not lived up to that expectation. There is good reason for this deficiency. What is needed is a National Security Review that examines the relevant branches and agencies of government to determine and assign responsibilities, authorities and resourcing for respective roles, missions and tasks including those of Congress.
We have tried that before. In early 2001 the National Security Strategy/21st Century report (known as the Hart-Rudman Commission for its co-chairmen former U.S. Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman) predicted a terrorist attack in the United States within 25 years. It was only off by 24.5 years. But President George W. Bush and his administration sadly ignored this prescient report.
A QDR is too narrow an effort. A National Security Review is desperately needed. And like the Phoenix, maybe the next rendition can arise from the ashes of the past.
Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University. The views expressed are his own. This essay was previously published as “The Flight of the F-22 Phoenix” in the Outside View column, part of UPI‘s Emerging Threats analysis section.