Pentagon May Come To Regret Prioritizing R&D Spending Over Weapons It Needs Now
Over the last two years, President Trump has made good on his campaign promise to raise military spending. Between 2016 and 2019, U.S. annual defense spending rose $100 billion, an amount greater than the entire military budget of Germany. And the biggest increases are in the weapons accounts—R&D is up by nearly a third, procurement by over a quarter.
This sounds a lot like the Reagan years, when a new president committed to “peace through strength” inherited a debilitated military from his predecessor and pledged to modernize it fast. What followed was the last great military buildup of the Cold War, an investment in new warfighting technology so profound that even now, three decades later, the joint force continues to rely on the weapons Reagan bought.
Judging from what President Trump has said and done, he thinks a lot like Reagan. But Trump’s subordinates at the Pentagon are on a different vector. Despite big funding increases, they haven’t stepped up the purchase of new weapons very much. For instance, at the rate the Air Force is buying new Pegasus tankers, it will take 30 years to replace the service’s decrepit Cold War aerial-refueling fleet.
In the case of the Navy, it continues to buy Virginia-class attack subs at a slower rate than Cold War subs are being retired. So instead of increasing, the size of the submarine fleet will continue shrinking. Ten years from now, the Navy will have a third less attack subs than it says it needs to meet the demands of national strategy. Under current plans, the sea service doesn’t meet its goal of 66 attack subs until 2048.
And then there is the Army. It has a plan for modernizing most of its battlefield equipment, but the 2020 budget request will reveal a delay of five years in upgrading its only heavy helicopter, the Chinook. Without that upgrade, the Army will have no organic means of airlifting its next-generation jeep (the “joint light tactical vehicle”). Plans to replace the Chinook with a more capable airframe don’t come to fruition until the 2040s.
What is going on here? How can the Pentagon increase spending by $100 billion, and yet barely increase the pace at which many critical military systems are being bought?
The short answer is that planners have become so enamored of new warfighting technologies that they are spending much of the Trump increase on R&D rather than bending metal. As reported this week by Bloomberg News, the research and development request that acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan rolls out next week will be the biggest ever, about $104 billion, targeting everything from hypersonic weapons to robotic vehicles to quantum computing.
All of the new technologies are intriguing, and might help America to stay ahead of Russia and China on future battlefields. But we are skipping a step by not taking advantage of the Trump budget boost to buy more of the weapons we need in the near term to replace an increasingly aged arsenal. If we face an east-west war or a big economic setback before all the gee-whiz ideas reach the force, America’s warfighters might not be much better off than if Obama had won a third term.
Consider, for instance, the F-35 fighter—a program that was conceived two decades ago to replace the Cold War tactical aircraft of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Planes for all three services are now in production, and testing indicates they will perform very well against any potential adversary through mid-century. It is not uncommon for F-35 to shoot down over 20 adversary planes for every loss it experiences in military exercises.
That is a capability the joint force needs today in Europe and the Pacific. But look at what has happened to plans for buying the F-35. In 2013, the Obama administration was planning to buy 110 new F-35s per year by 2020. That goal shrank to 92 by the end of the Obama years, and has continued to shrink in the Trump era. The 2020 budget request will propose buying only 78 new F-35s for all three domestic users—48 for the Air Force, 20 for the Marine Corps, 10 for the Navy.
The Air Force has a requirement for 1,763 F-35s, because its entire Cold War fleet of fighters is aging out. So far it has met about a tenth of that requirement. At 48 new planes per year, it will take a third of a century to meet the Air Force’s remaining needs. The production rate is so far below what had been planned earlier in the program’s development that in 2030 half of the Air Force’s fighter fleet would still consist of aged, highly vulnerable Cold War airframes.
That is no way to win a war. Intelligence estimates point to huge losses for any non-stealthy tactical force that confronts a near-peer adversary a dozen years hence. F-35 was conceived to prevent such outcomes from occurring, but at the rate the new fighter is being bought defeat could occur anyway.
I should mention that I have business ties to companies building F-35 (and the tanker, and the submarine, and the helicopter). But this isn’t about any particular system, it’s about the arithmetic of modernization. If you don’t buy new stuff fast enough, whether it’s radar planes or amphibious warships, what you have ages out while your adversaries keep gaining on you. And that’s where we will be with the Pentagon’s 2020 budget request, despite an ambitious R&D agenda.
History shows that surges of spending for new weapons don’t last long. As Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners points out in a March 5 note, by the time President Reagan’s second term began, Congress had grown so concerned about rising deficits that it started to put the brakes on military modernization. That could easily happen again, because the federal debt is so big now that a 1% increase in interest rates would raise the government’s annual cost of debt service by over $200 billion.
So imagine that interest rates go up by 2-3%. Or imagine there’s a recession. Or imagine a resurgence in overseas terrorism. Any of these distractions could bring the current surge in weapons spending to a close. The Pentagon should be following President Reagan’s example of buying new weapons now, while it has the money, because it probably won’t have the money for long. There’s nothing wrong with researching hypersonic munitions or battlefield robotics, but if it is done at the expense of near-term improvements to the force, America’s military might not reach that bright future before it suffers major defeat.