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The Defense Department is spending more money for less capability and fewer planes, Army divisions and combat ships compared with past years, and spending with the wrong focus, according to defense experts who spoke at an event hosted by the Project on Government Oversight on Thursday.
DoD now is spending more on defense in inflation-adjusted dollars than at any time since the end of World War II, including periods of spending highs during wars in Korea and Vietnam and the weapon build up under the Reagan administration, said Winslow Wheeler, citing DoD data.
Wheeler is an analyst at the Center for Defense Information and veteran of defense issues at the Government Accountability Office and Congress.
"The wars that we're fighting, in terms of people deployed, are extremely modest, far fewer than Vietnam, far fewer than Korea," Wheeler said.
While the Army budget is at its highest in inflation-adjusted terms since 1946, the number of Army division equivalents has fallen from a high of 28 in 1953 to 11 in 2008, according to data Wheeler presented. The number of active Navy combat ships has fallen from more than 1,000 in 1946 to less than 400 today while the Navy budget has trended upward — although it's currently lower than high points during the Korean War and the Reagan administration.
In the Air Force, spending has varied since 1946, but the number of bomber and fighter aircraft has been at a low point since the end of World War II for the past several years, Wheeler said.
Acquisition costs in DoD have risen dramatically because of flawed assumptions, including that investment budgets will grow at faster rates than the total budget, allowing DoD to begin more programs than it can afford to keep going, said Thomas Christie, a veteran of defense acquisition and weapon testing programs in DoD. Another false assumption is that operation and support budgets will grow more slowly because new, more advanced weapons will be more reliable.
Christie pointed to an analysis by the GAO showing that in fiscal year 2000, research, development, test and evaluation costs had risen 27 percent above initial estimates on selected weapon programs the GAO studied. In fiscal year 2007, those costs had risen 40 percent above initial estimates.
The Air Force bought hundreds of fighter aircraft annually during the Carter and Reagan administrations, but that number dwindled in the last decade while DoD "went on a procurement holiday" because it was counting on the F-22 and F-35 aircraft, which weren't affordable from the outset, Christie said. The average age of aircraft in the service could double from the historical average to 20 years if buying trends continue. .
Steps needed to reform acquisition include demonstrating that technologies are mature before they enter full-scale development, and building prototypes of systems and subsystems, Christie said.
"This is our biggest problem," he said. "We jump into that stage of a program before we should, and we fail to admit that we're going to have problems."
Christie and Wheeler both targeted the F-22 aircraft, and Wheeler said the pending decision by the Obama administration on how many aircraft to buy could help set the tone for acquisition reform.
Wheeler said a likely scenario is that DoD will buy more F-22s than the current 183 that are ordered, plus a few additional F-18 aircraft, and pay for those additional aircraft by taking funds from F-35, making the F-35 more expensive later.
"A compromise on the F-22 that involves these other airplanes will make everything worse," Wheeler said. "If [Obama] instead makes a clean-cut decision on the F-22 … that's a good sign."
A third panelist, Pierre Sprey, a former DoD official and member of the team which helped design the F-16 and A-10 aircraft, said the Air Force has incorrectly focused on bombing capability over other strategies like close air support, even though a focus on bombing has been shown to strengthen an enemy's resolve and increase U.S. casualties. U.S. air power has decayed, and the Air Force has bought aircraft that's insufficient, ineffective and too expensive, he said.
The event focused on the findings from a new book by Christie, Sprey, Wheeler and other DoD insiders on acquisition reform and recommendations for the Obama administration, called "America's Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress."
Sprey outlined a plan based on four new airplane designs he said should replace the Air Force's "impossibly expensive wish list." Those four designs are:
* A new close air support airplane, about half the size of the A-10 and more maneuverable and survivable.
* To accompany that, an aircraft that would act as a forward controller plane, land right next to troops and bring in close air support, but be more hardy and maneuverable than a helicopter.
* A 5- to 10-ton airlifter for emergency resupply to troops in isolated areas.
* A "super-agile dogfighter" that would be based on an existing engine and be an improvement on the F-16 with higher acceleration and turn, and passive electronics and weapons that would make it a stealth aircraft.
With these four designs, plus purchases of refueling tankers and other standard support aircraft, current Air Force spending levels in the next 20 years would yield 10,000 new aircraft, overwhelming air superiority and full-force availability at the start of a conflict, Sprey said.
"If we go along with the system as it is … what we're forgoing is something that would really serve the nation far better than what we buy and would certainly serve people in uniform best or better," Sprey said.