The Pentagon’s drone budget is on autopilot
The American Conservative
Today’s Pentagon is led by its most widely respected secretary of defense in decades, one more in control and feared by the generals than any since the much-hated Robert McNamara. One would hope that with this stature, Robert Gates is nurturing a plan to reverse the decay afflicting our military forces. Think again. The only plan will make things worse.
It was revealed in early February in an obscure, mostly ignored document that accompanied Secretary Gates’s new defense budget—the “Aircraft Investment Plan, Fiscal Years (FY) 2011-2040.” Though the Pentagon has never been able to stick to even the second year of any of its innumerable future year plans, it is confidently laying out a roadmap for the next three decades for all aircraft in the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.
Contrary to the invective that politicians and their think-tank cronies hurl against the Obama administration, this new plan does not ruin America’s air power with less money, but with more. It promotes some of the most gold-plated, mindlessly ineffective weapons seen since the Imperial Japanese Navy’s mega-battleships were dispatched to the bottom of the Pacific.
Year one of the new plan starts with the smallest and oldest aircraft inventory we have had since the end of World War II. The cause is certainly not that our air arms are being starved of money. Even after adjusting for inflation, current spending is significantly higher than Cold War outlays were for far larger aircraft inventories. The planes our services are now buying are inexcusably more expensive than the ones they’re replacing—deliberately so. Moreover, they come with no commensurate increase in effectiveness. Just the opposite.
In 1970, our fighter and attack aircraft supply stood at roughly 8,000 aircraft. Today, we have just 3,300. The new plan continues that trend, down to 2,900 by 2020, a 10 percent reduction. To get there, the fighter/attack budget will swell by 40 percent, from about $12 billion to roughly $17 billion.
Gazing into their crystal ball, the planners also recommend shrinking the forces for other missions, again while sharply increasing costs. The command, control, and intelligence aircraft fleet will drop 10 percent in only five years—from 580 down to 527—but the bill will soar from $5 billion up to almost $8 billion. Cargo, tanker, and bomber inventories stay roughly level, though their spending increases, dramatically in the case of tankers and bombers. No doubt fearing further embarrassment, the 30-year plan offers no force shrinkage or budget bloat details beyond the year 2020.
The plan’s other unmentioned problem is the aging of our already geriatric aircraft inventory, which the Pentagon propels apace. Quite remarkable are the numbers of F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, and A-10s, all originally designed in the late 1960s, that will be hanging around until 2040 because their replacement, the vulnerable and sluggish F-35, costs an outrageous three to ten times more. Ditto for the bomber, cargo, and tanker fleets, many of which are due to grow even longer in the tooth than the fighters. This shriveling force will cost an extra $9 billion at the end of the decade—on top of the $22 billion we’re spending now.
To make it all worse, this scheme assumes flawless implementation; not a penny of new cost overrun is anticipated—an appalling irresponsibility in the face of Government Accountability Office reports of major weapons overruns of $295 billion since 2001.
Not everyone, however, is swooning. Quite notable is a chart in the plan that reveals a Navy gambit to reach deep into the Air Force’s wallet. With only about 30 percent of the aircraft, the Navy ends up with at least 50 percent of the funding. We have not heard the last of this. Budget share is the most prized jewel in the Pentagon’s cut-throat bureaucratic wars. The Navy’s bullion raid is sure to be met with drawn Air Force knives. The jostling between pro-Navy and pro-Air Force factions in Congress, defined by the location of contractor plants, will be fodder for the Washington press for months to come.
But the real fight to watch will be the brawl over funding for drones—or, as the authors like to spin them, “Unmanned Multirole Surveillance and Strike Aircraft.” In just ten years, this court favorite is slated to grow from 72 units today to 476, a more than 600 percent increase. The money will increase—only proportionally, the planners blithely predict—from about $1 billion today to almost $7 billion in 2020, a 700 percent increase. A virtual declaration of budget war, the plan assigns all that drone spending increase to the Navy. Air Force drone spending will actually decline.
Two assumptions in the drone plan stretch credulity to the breaking point: first, future drones will not experience the ongoing geometric increase in cost of manned aircraft; second, Air Force generals will stand by idly with nothing for themselves while the admirals walk off with an extra $6 billion per year. In reality, total drone spending will be far higher, and the Air Force will never permit itself to fall so shamefully behind.
Also beyond belief is the schedule and performance that technology-fantasists on Gates’s staff and in the Navy think they will acquire. Unlike today’s relatively simple, slow, and light Predator drone, the X-47B drone the Navy wants is 20 times larger, weighs 22 tons, and flies at Mach .7. Just two pre-prototypes of the so-called “stealthy” (they never are) drones are costing at least $635 million. The flight plan is already months behind schedule.
No mere vehicle for video cameras, radars, and infrared gizmos to peep on the enemy, the X-47B will not only pretend to find all targets on a hypothetically fogless battlefield, but, replacing manned strike aircraft, will then attack those targets with two tons of guided bombs. Our clumsy attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, using drones carrying much the same sensors as the X-47B, make news with embarrassing regularity. Our Predators and Reapers are tasked with decapitating the al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership, but they prove much more successful at killing civilians, infuriating the previously uncommitted local population into supporting the enemy, and deluding Americans into thinking remote-control bombing of other peoples’ homelands is a freebie spectator sport with no U.S. casualties and no consequences—a truly dangerous fallacy, as the renewed attacks from al-Qaeda’s growing confederacy so vividly demonstrate.
The Navy, however, tops the Air Force’s drone delusions with a vision that it will land its tailless 22-ton beast by remote control on rolling, pitching carrier decks at sea. That will be difficult, perhaps impossible, given the nearly crippling rate of drone crashes we continue to experience while landing on terra firma. Grappling with that task will certainly create the occasion for lots of overruns and schedule slippages. Even without those overruns, the Navy approach appears to offer nothing that can’t be achieved from land with current Predators at about one twenty-fifth the cost.
In any case, capitalizing on Gates’s blessing for these drone projects, the USAF is already forging ahead with secret work on an intercontinental nuclear/conventional bomber drone, a breathtakingly useless concept. Their newly revised Long Range Strike Platform project costs $1.9 billion just for the start-up demonstrator phase. One candidate, the innocently dubbed X-47C, apparently already under a “black” contract at Northrop Grumman, would carry a modest five-ton payload despite a projected total heft upward of 110 tons.
On the face of it, this latest 30-year plan just rubberstamps what the Air Force and Navy have been doing ever since the Cold War started: shrinking our air forces and increasing their age while steadily increasing costs and ineffectiveness. That’s bad enough for American taxpayers, but this new budget has new wrinkles.
Gates has unchained a new aerospace spending monster. It hatched unobtrusively in 2001 with the $4 million Predator to become a $100 million Navy carrier drone that will, in a decade, lead to a literally mindless Air Force intercontinental bomber drone, assuredly nuclear capable, with an unknown sticker price in the billions.
This cost explosion in the drone budget will devour money required for the two necessary and effective forms of air support we owe our troops, capabilities that the aviation bureaucracies in the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps have systematically deprived them of: round-the-clock, immediately available, single-purpose close-air support and on-call emergency aerial resupply straight to the battlefield.
Worse, the huge expansion of the drone fleet deepens the U.S. commitment to a future of worldwide aerial assassinations and bombing foreign lands—and will increase the propensity of our politicians to open these fronts because of the illusion that such aggression will be cost- and casualty-free. The resulting damage to real American security will be incalculable.
But worst of all, the Gates-approved plan for shrinking buys of
unconscionably expensive and ineffective weapons is hardly limited to airplanes.
The same disease infuses a new naval shipbuilding plan and the Army’s future
combat vehicles. These forces, contracting and aging at inflating cost, cry out
for meaningful reform. Instead, the decay is being used as the pretext to funnel
more and more taxpayer dollars to fewer and fewer defense mega-corporations.
They, in turn, recycle increasing amounts of that money into our politics, where
it is eating away at our governance, our democracy, and our security.
Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military
Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. He worked on national
security issues for 31 years for senators from both political parties and for
the Government Accountability Office. Pierre M. Sprey, together with USAF
fighter pilots John Boyd and Everest Riccioni, brought to fruition the F-16 and
led the design team for the A-10 and helped implement the program. Both are
contributors to the new anthology America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon
Reform for President Obama and the New Congress.