“We have a geriatric Air Force,” says the senior David A. Deptula, a retired three-star general. When flying that F-15 in 1999, he had to make an emergency landing in Turkey after disintegrating wiring caused a bunch of cockpit warning lights to flash on one after another.The U.S. military is aging, and fast. Air Force planes, on average, are the oldest in the history of that branch of the armed forces, which was founded in 1947, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank with close ties to the Pentagon. The Air Force says the average age of F-15 C and D models, which make up about half of the fleet, is 25 years. That’s sprightly compared with the average age of the service’s strategic bombers, 34, and refueling aircraft, 47.
Planned retirements mean the Navy has fewer ships today than it had on Sept. 11, 2001—284 now, 316 then. The USS Enterprise, the Navy’s oldest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, was commissioned in 1961; an estimated 250,000 sailors have served on the ship during its five-decade career. Deactivating the Enterprise, which is scheduled for 2013, will be complex and expensive, Navy officials have said.
Some of the old equipment, battered by warfare, needs to be repaired or replaced. Other vehicles and ships need complete overhauls using up-to-date electronics and other innards. And some especially old models, such as the Air Force’s Vietnam-era Huey helicopter, need to be phased out altogether.
In an Aug. 3 message to the Pentagon’s rank-and-file, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta explained that “platforms from the build-up of the 1980s are reaching the end of their shelf life and must be replaced, and units and equipment that have been stressed by a decade of combat must be reset.”
The cost for all that could reach tens of billions of dollars, with the fix-it bill coming due just as federal budget pressures reach a peak. Washington’s debt-reduction plan calls for cutting $350 billion from the Pentagon’s projected budget over the next 10 years. If lawmakers fail to agree on further savings, the agreement calls for an additional $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts to federal spending, half of them from the military.
The defense-infrastructure problems are coming to a head as the global military balance is shifting. Although the U.S. remains the world’s biggest and most sophisticated power, China is engaged in a buildup that is fueling concern about security along the vital Pacific Rim. Beijing’s investment in radar-evading stealth aircraft and long-range missiles, in particular, has prompted worries in Washington that an aging U.S. military may eventually lose its edge.
The root of the problem isn’t a lack of U.S. spending. China’s annual military budget is $91.5 billion, according to Pentagon estimates, compared with U.S. defense spending of about $700 billion.
But since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Pentagon has spent heavily on specialized gear designed mainly for Iraq and Afghanistan—communications equipment, pilotless spy planes, bomb-resistant vehicles and improved body armor—to protect troops against insurgents wielding small arms and roadside bombs. It has opted not to modernize many ships, tanks and fighter jets dating back to late in the Cold War era.
Much of that equipment has been run into the ground, damaged or destroyed during a decade of combat. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, estimates the service faces a “reset” bill of between $20 billion and $25 billion to repair and replace battered Humvees, tanks and helicopters after they return from Afghanistan and Iraq. The smaller Marine Corps says it has a $12 billion “reconstitution and modernization” bill.
No one disputes that much of the nation’s military inventory is getting old. Some advocates of robust defense spending point to the problem as evidence that further military cuts would endanger national security.Donald Rumsfeld, who served as defense secretary in the Ford and George W. Bush administrations, says constricting the Pentagon’s budget imperils U.S. military readiness for the next conflict. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Rumsfeld presided over a big military buildup, with an emphasis on developing high-tech weaponry. He says today’s push to “balance the budget off the Defense Department” reminds him of the what happened after the Cold War and the Vietnam War.
Others maintain that the root of the problem is wasteful Pentagon spending on weaponry that either isn’t needed or comes in way over budget. “More money makes our problems worse,” says Winslow Wheeler, the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, a research group that monitors defense spending and often is critical of current spending levels. “The solution, I would argue, is a different set of behaviors by the White House, the Pentagon and Congress.”
Much of the equipment currently in service dates to the Reagan-era arms buildup, when the Defense Department reversed the spending decline that followed the Vietnam War. The Abrams tank, the Army’s main battle tank, entered service in 1980. The Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, an armored troop carrier, debuted a year later.The Aegis guided-missile cruiser, a warship designed to counter the threat of Soviet warplanes armed with antiship missiles, entered service in 1983. Today, the bridges of older Aegis ships are reminiscent of the video arcades of the 1980s: monochromatic consoles with push-button controls. “The systems that we are replacing are Commodore 64 technology,” says Navy Capt. Brian Eckerle, invoking the primitive home computer to describe ongoing efforts to modernize Cold War-era ships.
One Air Force pilot describes the navigation systems in his unit’s C-130 cargo planes, which entered service nearly three decades ago, as “antiquated.” A navigator in his unit, he says, bought an off-the-shelf Global Positioning System device that can better provide weather information and the latest civil aviation notices, and even check the accuracy of the government-issued navigation system.During the Reagan buildup, defense-equipment spending crested at around $170 billion a year, adjusted for inflation, says retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Emerson Gardner, who advised former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on weapons and procurement. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, U.S. weapons spending began to decline, bottoming out at around $55 billion a year in the mid-1990s.
Military procurement surged again after 2001, reaching $174 billion in the 2008 fiscal year. But much of the money was spent developing new systems, not on replacing Cold War-era equipment.For example, to protect troops from roadside bombs, the No. 1 killer of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. bought mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, behemoth trucks built with v-shaped hulls. Former Defense Secretary Gates made the trucks a top priority. The Pentagon has spent $44.7 billion buying MRAPs since the crash-buying program began in 2007.
Now, the services have to figure out what to do with a fleet of vehicles designed for such a singular purpose. They are too large to lift by helicopter or carry on some cargo planes, making it very hard to send them rapidly into new combat zones.A string of failed modernization programs has exacerbated the problem of aging inventory. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the think tank, calculated recently that the Pentagon sank $46 billion over the past 10 years into developing next-generation weapons that were never fielded. Many efforts were plagued by cost overruns and technical glitches; some were considered obsolete before ever reaching production.
Among the programs that never made it past the prototype stage: the Crusader, a next-generation howitzer that cost the Army $2.2 billion; the Comanche, a $7.9 billion project to develop a stealthy reconnaissance helicopter; and Future Combat Systems, an $18 billion Army effort to create a new class of digitally networked tanks and armored vehicles.“That is where a significant amount of our acquisition money has gone over the past decade, and this is a primary reason that we have not been able to substantially modernize our force over this time period,” says Todd Harrison, a defense-budget expert at the think tank.
In July, Rep. Randy Forbes (R., Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, held a hearing that raised questions about the military’s overall preparedness to fight future wars, part of a broader effort by conservatives to raise concerns about cuts to defense spending.Adm. Jonathan Greenert, vice chief of naval operations, told the panel some warships may be forced to retire earlier than anticipated because they have been used so heavily in recent years. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the vice chief of the Air Force, offered a similarly bleak vision, alluding to the “hollow” military of the 1970s, when aircraft sat idle on Air Force bases, without working engines.
Not everyone agrees that U.S. national security is at stake. The Sustainable Defense Task Force, a nongovernmental panel endorsed by Reps. Barney Frank (D., Mass.) and Ron Paul (R., Texas), concluded in a June report that a trillion-dollar reduction in defense spending was possible without compromising national security. Doing so, the report said, would require reducing the number of Navy ships and U.S. bases overseas, and eliminating expensive or troubled weapon-development programs. Existing weapons systems, the report argued, could be upgraded instead.The Defense Department is undertaking a top-down review of strategic priorities to decide where it is most able to cut, whether by trimming weapons spending, closing bases overseas or reducing manpower.
The U.S. military has proven itself adept at refashioning older equipment for new uses. The B-52 bomber, which first took to the skies in 1952, was the subject of hand-wringing about its age as far back as the 1960s, when Gen. Curtis LeMay, the legendary, cigar-chomping Air Force chief of staff, told Congress the plane was “going to fall apart on us before we can get a replacement for it.”Designed to drop nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union, the B-52 has been upgraded to carry precision bombs, making it useful in the 21st century.
Retired Gen. Deptula says the kind of age-related problems he experienced in the F-15 fighter jet are now being visited on his son. The young pilot’s squadron was hit with a series of mechanical emergencies, including a broken nose gear and an afterburner that refused to switch off. Gen. Deptula says his wife told their son: “Dave, you really need to get another airplane.”