Former Sen. Chick Hagel knows that when he is confirmed as the next secretary of defense he will have to cut hundreds of billions of dollars a year from the U.S. military budget. But ironically, he may have to approve new expenditures in crucial areas, too.
That is because one of the most fundamental areas of mismanagement during Donald Rumsfeld’s disastrous six-year term as secretary of defense was neglecting to renew “meat and potato” conventional weapons systems and skimping disastrously on maintenance, spare parts and replacement budgets for them. Robert Gates and Leon Panetta have both been excellent defense secretarys. But Republican-controlled congresses still starved them of crucial funds to replace obsolete and ancient equipment
As a result, the U.S. armed forces, especially the U.S. Air Force, find themselves operating equipment that is decades old and, in some cases, aircraft that have been flying since the 1950s.
The U.S. Air National Guard’s fleet of McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagles that defends the airspace of the United States has been grounded for months at a time in recent years because of metal fatigue problems. It is natural to expect such problems to be widespread in Mach-2 supersonic combat aircraft that have been operating for at least a quarter-century and, in some cases, for more than 30 years. But recent Congresses — Republican-controlled ones even much more, in fact, than Democratic ones — seemed to imagine these aircraft could go on flying forever.
There is an excellent case for buying European in the case of small electric-diesel drive submarines. The U.S. Navy urgently needs as many of these as possible, but because of its own insistence, not a single U.S. shipbuilder any longer has the capability to build such submarines. Germany and France — both strong U.S. allies — build excellent diesel electric subs — the French Scorpenes, which have been sold to India, and the German Dolphins, which carry Israel’s survivable second-strike cruise-missile nuclear deterrent.
Trans-Atlantic defense relations would be greatly strengthened if the next SecDef and secretary of the Navy filled this crucial gap in the Navy’s needs and signaled a genuine willingness to cooperate with major European defense contractors in an area where the U.S. defense sector no longer has the capability to quickly and cost-effectively fulfill the need.
It is also long past time to push ahead with replacing the slow and largely obsolete subsonic Tomahawk cruise missile, with its maximum speed of around 650 mph. Russia and even India — with Russian help — are now producing formidable cruise missiles and related anti-ship surface-skimming missiles that fly at Mach 2.8 — around 1,900 mph and three times faster than the old Tomahawk. This is another decision to push ahead with an ambitious next-generation defense program that should not be deferred any longer.
Secretary Hagel will have to cut spending on a lot more programs than he will initiate. But he will need to know where to sensibly invest in the future as well.