After two decades of counterinsurgency campaigns in the Middle East, the U.S. military is shifting its focus to great-power competition with the likes of China and Russia.
Countering such rivals will require the Pentagon to free up resources to ensure “every defense dollar [is] spent on programs and equipment that will be relevant in the next fight,” as Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last month. Unfortunately, too much of the defense budget remains geared toward fighting the last war.
Though the U.S. spends three times more on defense than any other country, its technological edge is eroding — due in part to the cost of maintaining aging weapons programs. The share of military spending devoted to operations and maintenance — a major profit source for the defense industry — is 42%, compared to 28% at the height of the Cold War, while weapons procurement has fallen from 30% to 19%. In real dollars, U.S. investments in defense research and development are nearly 40% lower than a decade ago.
The disproportionate spending on legacy systems is driven by how long it takes to develop, test and deploy them. The “life cycles” of contracts for major programs, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, can stretch for decades, forcing the military to sink money into keeping existing programs in operation, rather than investing in new ones. The cost of the Pentagon’s 93 major defense acquisition programs (MDAPs) totals $1.8 trillion, which is $628 billion larger than was projected when the programs began.
As a result, the U.S. is spending more than ever on a dwindling number of dated weapons systems. Nearly 75% of the air force’s fleet is at least 20 years old, for instance. According to a 2020 report by the congressional Future of Defense Task Force, legacy programs will account for 70% of the military’s capabilities by 2030, even though many of those systems “lack the lethality and survivability to be effective in the future.”
To be sure, even some of the military’s oldest assets remain useful for deterring potential adversaries. Yet delaying adoption of next-generation technologies carries risks. China has acquired a range of advanced military gear, including attack submarines, hypersonic missiles, cyberweapons and sophisticated air-defense systems. The Department of Defense projects that “it is likely that Beijing will seek to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to — or in some cases superior to — the U.S. military.”
In his congressional testimony, Milley, the country’s highest-ranking officer, acknowledged that “continuing to purchase and maintain legacy equipment takes needed defense dollars away from the acquisition of systems that are needed for modernization.” Addressing the problem will require commitment from civilian and military leaders alike.
Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, has set a promising example by calling for retiring the tanks and cannon artillery batteries used by the marines in recent wars in favor of new ships and surveillance drones better suited for countering China. The military should conduct comprehensive reviews of its costliest weapons programs, modeled on the army’s “night-court” process, launched in 2018.
That budget-cutting exercise freed up $33 billion for investment in emerging technologies by canceling spending on army equipment that had outlived its usefulness. Finally, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin should speed up the Pentagon’s acquisition process to help companies cross the development “valley of death” and bring promising technology prototypes to scale.
Congress, meanwhile, should identify weapons platforms that can be cut without harming military readiness and stop requiring the service-branch chiefs to submit “wish lists” of unfunded priorities. If Congress fails to act, the Biden administration should create an independent commission to assess U.S. spending on legacy programs and recommend whether to replace or retire them. The panel could be modeled on the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which conducted five reviews of U.S. military installations between 1988 and 2005 that have yielded $12 billion in annual savings.
Greater investment in military technology and equipment is critical, but so is balancing defense spending with other national priorities. Reducing big-ticket weapons programs — or eliminating them altogether — is a necessary step toward winning the wars of the future.
The Bloomberg Opinion editorial board
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