Cutting Clinton-Era Weapons Programs Anything But 'Sensible'

July 8, 2011
Thompson: Think tank is misguided in its criticism of F-35 joint strike fighter program.

A July 6 policy paper by the Center for American Progress (CAP), titled "Sensible Defense Cuts," provides recommendations for saving $400 billion in defense spending through 2015.

Some of the recommendations really are sensible, and the authors clearly are correct in their view that the federal government cannot afford to continue funding military activities at the very high level inherited from the Bush years (America currently is generating 23% of global economic output and 46% of global military outlays).

However, the recommendations concerning weapons cuts are not well thought-through, and continue a pattern CAP has exhibited in the past of proposing far-reaching changes to military programs without doing its homework.

In particular, the policy paper calls for slashing the two biggest weapons programs begun by the Clinton Administration -- an odd position for a think tank that usually defends the priorities of Democratic administrations.

Striking Out on F-35 Criticism

The biggest program CAP assails is the tri-service F-35 joint strike fighter, which it complains will cost $1 trillion to operate through 2065.

It says the Navy and Marine Corps versions of the plane should be canceled because the carrier-based F/A-18 Super Hornet remains a highly capable combat system. However, if CAP had done its homework, it would have realized that the $1 trillion bill for F-35 support costs is based on unprovable inflation estimates stretching decades into the future and arbitrary changes in methodology that have little to do with how the program is faring.

It also would have realized that the cost of sustaining current fighters is already higher than the expected costs of the F-35, and would cost about $4 trillion through 2065 -- four times the price-tag for operating the joint strike fighter.

The analysts writing the policy paper are right that the F/A-18 Super Hornet is a credible war-fighting tool today. But the F-35 was conceived to deal with the much more challenging air-combat environment of the future, when flying non-stealthy aircraft into hostile airspace could easily prove fatal.

So CAP needs to get up to speed on naval aviation before calling for steps that could condemn it to defeat in the future.

Missing the Boat on Submarine Attack

CAP has also missed the boat on the Virginia-class attack submarine, the second-biggest weapons program begun by the Clinton administration and the only undersea-warship construction program the Navy is currently funding.

The think tank says the Navy should buy only one boat per year rather than two, without any apparent understanding of the fact that Cold War attack subs soon will begin retiring at the rate of three or four per year.

Virginia-class subs are highly capable, but replacing three of four retiring subs with a single new one each year isn't going to allow the Navy to continue vital missions like sea control and intelligence gathering.

The Navy already is headed for fewer than 40 subs in its conventional war-fighting inventory two decades hence, so cutting the construction rate of new subs in half means that the service will lose its ability to cover much of the world.

If the authors of "Sensible Defense Cuts" have any grasp of what that might mean for global security, it isn't reflected in the recommendations they have rendered.

Anybody with a brain can see that the sputtering U.S. economy can't continue to sustain military spending at Bush-era levels unless a genuine emergency is at hand. But think tanks like the Center for American Progress have a responsibility to do serious research before they propose sweeping changes to major military programs.

The fact that the two biggest weapons programs CAP goes after were begun by a Democratic administration and continue to enjoy strong support from many congressional Democrats suggests that analysts need to revisit their ideas about what is sensible and what is not.

Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D., is chief operating officer of the Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit Lexington Institute and chief executive officer of Source Associates, a for-profit consultancy. Prior to holding his present positions, he was deputy director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and taught graduate-level courses in strategy, technology and media affairs at Georgetown. He also has taught at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

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