America spends too much and gets too little from its defense budget. This is the biggest challenge Boeing exec Pat Shanahan would face at the Pentagon.
President Harry Truman made this observation about his successor, General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower, liberator of Western Europe:
“He’ll sit here and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be anything like the Army.”
I think about this as Patrick Shanahan, who played an important role in turning around the troubled 787 Dreamliner program, has been named by President Donald Trump to be nominated as deputy secretary of defense. If he’s confirmed, it won’t be anything like Boeing.
To be sure, as the former head of Boeing’s missile-defense business, Shanahan is no stranger to what Ike called the military-industrial complex. He will also have as his boss the smartest and most qualified member of the Trump Cabinet, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis.
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As Mattis’ No. 2, Shanahan won’t have a mere ceremonial role. Nor are his big challenges going to involve the requirement that he recuse himself for two years from any dealings with Boeing. Even Donald Trump’s budget, proposing to increase military spending by about 10 percent while savagely cutting domestic spending, is only a secondary headache.
The United States faces a crisis in defense procurement. We’re spending more but getting less, and the consequences could be dire in a major shooting war.
The most infamous example is Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a program that may end up costing a staggering $1.4 trillion. Intended as a stealth “do it all” jet that would replace almost all fighters for the Air Force, Marines and Navy, the F-35 has turned into the great dismal swamp of procurement programs.
RAND Corp., the eminent defense think tank, condemned the fighter a few years ago after running simulations: “Can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.” Lockheed claims most of the problems have been worked out. Many defense experts are skeptical. Trump has criticized the plane’s cost.
Production of the much more capable F-22 stealth fighter was shut down after producing a mere 187 of the air-superiority jets. The reason: ruinous cost overruns.
Nor is the naval fleet immune. The USS Gerald Ford, first in its class of new supercarriers, is overdue and over budget. It will cost an estimated $12.9 billion (without airplanes), more than twice the price of Nimitz-class carriers, although the amount will go down some as more Ford-class flattops are built.
The Ford will join the fleet at a time when many naval scholars are questioning the viability of carriers. Advanced anti-access/area denial (AA/AD) tactics and weapons, such as China’s cheaper and more numerous “carrier killer” missiles, make these capital ships much more vulnerable, even obsolete.
Much more can be found in the budget of a nation that accounts for about 36 percent of world defense spending, according to the independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Different sources and ways of measuring show we spend more than the next eight, or 13, nations combined.
Even with congressional austerity, the approximately $583 billion in this fiscal year is only a baseline. Add in the Department of Homeland Security, the nuclear administration of the Department of Energy, Department of Veterans Affairs, funding for Overseas Contingency Operations and assorted “black” (classified) hidey-holes, and the cost of defense is considerably higher. Anywhere from $800 billion to $1 trillion. A trillion dollars alone was proposed by the Obama administration to modernize the nuclear arsenal over time.
Some costs are necessary to protect the nation. Others are driven by 16 years of war or policies that require us to enforce the liberal world order. Few living Americans can remember when we were suspicious of maintaining a large standing military, aside from the fleet, and wary of “foreign entanglements.”
Most of us don’t even think about the “military Keynesianism” aspect of such spending — using it to stimulate the economy and maintain a huge private-sector cluster of arms makers (they export, too). It’s gone on in various degrees since the onset of the Cold War.
It’s also easy to ignore. The American economy is so huge that baseline defense spending has actually gone down as a percentage of gross domestic product — about 3.3 percent in 2015 vs. 5.6 percent in 1988.
Still, this — let’s call it what it is — industrial policy carries opportunity costs. For some context, Amtrak’s fiercely debated subsidy has historically been about $1 billion a year. Estimates for fixing the dangerous water system in Flint, Mich., topped out at $400 million, some much lower.
Shanahan alone can’t fix all this — and I am assuming he is a patriot, not someone out to protect the status quo for his former employer and industry. But he knows throwing more money at the Pentagon would only encourage more waste.
He understands some of the common threads of broken procurement. For example, the F-35 was asked to do too much, especially to serve the Marines as a short takeoff and vertical-landing jet. Many programs fester long after they should have been canceled. Others are political gifts, such as the extra Abrams tanks the Army didn’t need but a congressman wanted.
Seeking to gain technological advantage is very American. Our superior weapons in the First Gulf War stunned the world, especially China, which began a furious modernization. But always pushing the envelope costs money, brings budget-busting unknowns and often limits the numbers of big-ticket systems. (The Zumwalt-class destroyer is another example, with only three ships now planned.)
This would matter most if we fought a peer adversary, something that hasn’t happened since 1945. Then, we lost thousands of airplanes and more than a dozen capital ships.
The United States intends to fight its next war with a sophisticated so-called Third Offset Strategy, using innovation to preserve our superiority. We shouldn’t assume China and Russia aren’t trying the same things. (What if things go wrong? Read the novel “Ghost Fleet”).
We can only hope their corruption, cost overruns, waste and procurement disasters are worse than ours. Or that Pat Shanahan and his colleagues can turn the needle in the right direction.