Forget about the Pentagon as potential victim in the stylized Kabuki drama of fiscal cliff negotiations. In an era of exceptional partisan bitterness that all too often forecloses thoughtful political discourse, it is the very lack of divergent views and spirited debate about defense that endangers American national security. In the absence of a clash of ideas about military affairs, the massive Pentagon budget, holding steady in recent years at a cost of $1.75 billion per day (some $630 billion-plus, annually), will continue to be regularly, routinely passed by huge bipartisan majorities in Congress. For example, only 11 senators voted against the latest allocation for Fiscal 2013.
This failure to debate means that the U.S. military will remain largely on autopilot, continuing to invest heavily in systems that are most traditional -- and most comfortable. Like a slightly improved new super aircraft carrier, the Ford class, or yet another generation of jet fighter planes, like the F-35. This despite the diminishing returns and growing vulnerability of carriers, and the total lack of need for a new jet, given that only one American fighter plane has been shot down by an enemy fighter in the last 40 years.
Aside from reflecting our doubling down on an aging technology, the Ford is the poster child for runaway cost overruns, going nearly a billion dollars over budget in 2012 alone. Sen. John McCain has called out the Ford fiasco as "a national disgrace." As for the F-35, it lives in a budgetary world of its own. Acquisition of about 2,400 of these aircraft is slated to cost taxpayers $400 billion -- and their operation and maintenance will run an additional $600 billion. A cool trillion, at a time when American air superiority is hardly under threat -- and at a time when the economy cannot bear the cost.
There are many other problematic systems out there, almost all of the major ones plagued by significant cost overruns. A 2009 Government Accountability Office audit of the 96 largest defense acquisition programs reflected overspending totaling about $300 billion -- 40 percent above contract prices, in aggregate -- an amount that is roughly equal to the entire defense budget submitted by President Bill Clinton in his last year in office.
Since 9/11, total American defense spending has more than doubled. This despite the fact that our declared enemy, the al Qaeda network, could line up every single jihadi they have -- including from its affiliates in Iraq, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen -- and still not be able to amass enough manpower to fill out the ranks of even one of our Army divisions. More than a trillion dollars were spent in Iraq; now our forces are gone and al Qaeda is on the march there once again. Nearly as much has been spent in Afghanistan, with equally mixed results.
And when it comes to thinking through the needs of bigger wars, the vast majority of our spending remains focused on relatively old weapons systems -- while others are leapfrogging ahead. For example, the Chinese navy is not emphasizing aircraft carriers; instead, it is focusing on making supersonic anti-ship missiles, brilliant seagoing mines smart enough to position themselves right under the keels of our big vessels, and torpedoes that create a bubble of air in front -- to reduce resistance -- so they can close in on their targets at very high speeds. As matters stand, we are spending more and more, and getting less and less in return.
How has this come to pass? For years, congressional earmarks were pointed to as the principal culprit, as individual members took care of their own bailiwicks with juicy boondoggles. But earmarks never accounted for more than a percent or two of the total budget. Nor is it at all clear that Congress is foisting unwanted systems more generally on the Pentagon. The fact of the matter is that the military is in the catbird seat; whatever it asks for will be approved. Conservatives apply much less scrutiny to the defense budget than they do to other functions of government, while liberals fear looking soft on defense.