The military’s vanishing future

A commentator argues the services are entering an even tougher era than it appears because so many of their future programs have been eliminated.

After this week, everybody is tired of hearing about austerity this, budget cuts that, etc. — but just one more thing: Defense commentator Loren Thompson argued in a blog post Friday that as bad as things appear now for the military-industrial complex, they might look like a picnic after another decade. As the services have been trying  to deal with their current challenges, he writes, many of the advanced weapons systems once were slated to enter service after 2020 have been disappearing.

Wrote Thompson:

Over the past four years, about half of the biggest weapons programs that the Pentagon was planning to equip the joint force with after 2020 have been killed or substantially scaled back. Few observers have noticed because defense spending remains high and each program change is reported episodically rather than as part of a pattern. Nonetheless, at the rate weapons plans are being trimmed, the entire next generation of warfighting systems may soon be gone.

He goes on to describe the Navy’s shattered shipbuilding dreams, and surveys the desolate, wreckage-strewn landscape of Army modernization. As it stands, Thompson warns, the Army might still be using Reagan-era gear 20 years from now, because it just can’t get anything going: Its armed reconnaissance helo, new air defense weapons, and, of course, there’s Future Combat Systems — ’nuff said.

In last place, Thompson argues, will be the blue suited:

And then there is the Air Force, which may be in the worst shape of all. It has seen production of its top-of-the-line F-22 fighter prematurely terminated with barely half of the official warfighting requirement met, both potential successors to its aged radar planes killed, its next-generation search-and-rescue helicopter scaled back, and its planned constellation of secure communications satellites — which would have delivered global connectivity to the entire joint force — canceled after spending billions of dollars. Now critics are complaining about the replacement for its 50-year-old aerial refueling tankers, and assailing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program that is the only hope the service has for preserving global air dominance.

Some of these programs were too expensive and others weren’t well-matched to the emerging threat environment, but most of them will be sorely missed in the coming decades as U.S. warfighters march off to war without their traditional edge in military technology. The fact that so many have been killed even before the big budget cuts arrive is an ominous trend, one that argues strongly for focusing future military cuts outside technology accounts. People may still be the most important ingredient in U.S. military power, but many of those people will be put at unnecessary risk in future conflicts if the Pentagon doesn’t stop hemorrhaging the investment programs needed to keep pace with the military technology of potential adversaries.

What do you think?