Over the North Atlantic in 1991, several rare meteorological events occurred simultaneously combining, as Sebastian Junger wrote, into "The Perfect Storm" of massive destructive power. Next January a series of bad congressional actions -- and some awful Pentagon decisions on weapon systems -- may combine with the deteriorating outlook for the defense industry to create a perfect storm for the Pentagon. If that storm hits, it will have an enormously destructive effect on America's ability to defend itself for a generation.
Last year's "Budget Control Act" -- which was intended to give Obama political cover on our bizarre federal debt at least through the election -- also set up a sure-to-fail mechanism (the so-called "supercommittee") to cut spending under the threat of budget sequestration equally divided between defense (to motivate Republican compromise) and domestic programs (except entitlements, giving Democrats reason enough to not do so). The "supercommittee" failed to agree on cuts because the Dems, foreseeably, didn't want to cut anything and insisted on raising taxes.
The result is that "budget sequestration" will be imposed in January unless Congress changes the law and Obama signs the fix. The "sequestration" -- a limitation of future spending -- may amount to $600 billion in defense cuts over the next decade in addition to the $400 billion in defense cuts Obama has already imposed. Congress hasn't moved to fix the problem and, in November of last year, Obama threatened repeatedly to veto any attempt to block defense sequestration.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the automatic cuts from sequestration could cause the U.S. to lose its status as a global power. He reversed himself after what we must assume was a frantic scolding from his bosses. But his bosses are doing no better.
In February, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress, "There is not a hell of a lot of planning I can do," because sequestration makes automatic and equally distributed cuts across DoD accounts, using a "meat-axe" approach.
Both said Obama's military strategy could not be carried out if sequestration was in effect.
Sequestration is timed to combine with some of the Defense Department's worst decisions in recent history on which weapon systems to buy and when. Most or all of these decisions flow from former defense secretary Robert Gates's condemnation of what he called "next war-itis." Believing that we'd never have to fight another conventional war, Gates derided the idea that our defense systems should include the most advanced technologies. But Gates's wrongheadedness is the same thinking that led us -- in World War II and other conflicts -- to trying to fight the next war with the weapons of the last one, or the one before.
Gates, under Bush and then Obama, led the way to some of the worst decisions on weapon systems in living memory.
Two examples suffice. Gates -- with the acquiescence first of Bush and then Obama -- terminated the F-22 air superiority fighter at 187 aircraft. The original Air Force requirement was for 750. Instead, the F-35 "Joint Strike Fighter" was chosen as the basket into which all the Air Force, Navy, and Marine eggs would be stacked.
The last time we tried to do this was in the late 1960s. The aircraft was the F-111. And although it did some things well, the F-111 couldn't do most of what it was intended to do and ended up as a white elephant in the Air Force museum.
The F-35 is a predictable mess because some of the bad decisions made during the F-111 program were repeated in it by people who should know better. As Frank Kendall, acting chief of Pentagon acquisition, said, "Putting the F-35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice." The production before testing is known in the trade as "concurrent development," and the history of Pentagon weapon-system buying is littered with the rubble of concurrent development programs.
It's not just that the F-35's price has grown so much so fast: it's the fact that no one can say -- after a decade of concurrent development -- when the aircraft can be deployed or what it will really cost. Allies who had contracted to buy F-35's, such as Canada, are now re-thinking that decision.
The last F-22 will roll off the production line this month. The "Silent Eagle" version of the F-15, a good gap-filler between the 40-year old F-15s and F-16s and the F-22, isn't being built.
Another great example is the DDG-1000 "Zumwalt" class stealthy destroyer. Being built on budget and on (or ahead) of schedule, the program was terminated at three ships. Insisting on the cancellation, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead decided to go back to building the old DDG-51, with some modifications. The "new" DDG-51 will be extensively redesigned, lengthened, and incorporate some new (to the DDG-51) weapons.
But, of course, the "new" DDG-51 will be billions more expensive than the DDG-1000, will take many more years to build, and -- most importantly -- will be far less capable in combat. It's as stealthy as a Carnival Cruise ship. There are other examples, including the massively idiotic Littoral Combat Ship (on which more billions are being spent), which isn't capable of surviving in a modern combat environment and can't do one of its primary missions -- minesweeping -- because its many electronic systems are prone to failure.
Sequestration and bad decisions on weapons are almost enough for a perfect storm. The one remaining ingredient is the business environment for defense companies, which is getting worse by the minute.
We now have the highest corporate tax rate in the world. Companies can't sacrifice business viability and profits for the public good. And they have to plan for sequestration even if Leon Panetta can't. Which means that they are -- right now -- planning decreased production, investment, and hiring. And implementing those plans won't be delayed until Congress, the Pentagon, and Obama sort things out.
Major defense contractors spend billions on independent research and development when the defense market supports it by buying new technologies. Those IR&D expenditures shrink when the market doesn't support it, and our resulting technological advantage in war -- which won the Cold War and several hot wars since -- disappears. Government labs and research facilities just don't have the capability to produce this sort of research, as their track record proves.
Sequestration -- as Panetta said -- will indiscriminately cut weapon-system spending across every program. It will mean contracts will be breached by the government, programs will be further reduced or cancelled, factories will be closed, and thousands of jobs will be lost. What neither Congress nor the White House seems to remember -- and the past experience is deep and painful -- is that government contracts frequently cost more to terminate than to complete. Contractors are entitled, by contract and law, to termination costs. Lawyers delight in them because they often are awarded after years of litigation. But the government gets nothing for them. No ships, no aircraft, no rifles for the infantry. Just a bill to pay.
That bill will not just be dollars. It will also be paid in a general reduction in our ability to defend ourselves, our interests abroad, and our allies. Without planning for defense, using the matrix of future threats our forces are expected to deter or defeat as a baseline, no one can say how bad that reduction of our defenses will be.
At a recent Air Force Association symposium, the commander of Air Combat Command, Gen. Gilmary Hostage, said, "… at some point, I run out of things to cut. I can only give up so much capacity to gain capability before dwindling inventories make even the best quality less dominant." He added, "… to remain… capable, we cannot maintain the status quo and try to do more with less. That will just lead us down the path to a hollow force."
Just so. Obama's build-down, sequestration, a bad business environment, and a long string of awful decisions on weapon systems in the pipeline will accomplish what no enemy could: the transformation of our military into a paper tiger.
Thus the Perfect Pentagon Storm. Sequestration is coming in January, but the coming storm's massive power is already being felt throughout the defense community.