Expensive weapons won't ensure security

Normally sensible and deficit-leery members of Congress are caving in to a huge military spending spike with a speed that leaves the citizen breathless.

They are reading both the record and the public wrong.

The war on terrorism demonstrates that our level of military preparedness is excellent. If anything, we need to exercise restraint while rethinking major long-term needs. To spend billions more on the current corral of weapons systems wastes badly needed resources and could force us to feed the meter far into the future.

As any smart consumer knows, spending more is not synonymous with improving quality of life. Especially if you have to borrow to spend. The same holds for national defense. In this economy, it is imperative to hold policymakers accountable for how they spend money. What the US really needs is better and different kinds of protection.

The recent war in Afghanistan revealed that the past decades' defense investments paid off, even in unexpected circumstances, as they did in the Persian Gulf War. Few lives were lost, and almost every platform returned intact. Once again, the B-52 bomber proved a reliable workhorse, outclassing its B-1 and B-2 successors. As in furniture and homes, newer is not necessarily better.

The war also heightened skepticism toward the priciest weapons systems now in development - F-22 fighters ($70 billion), new attack submarines ($65 billion), Crusader artillery ($15 billion), Comanche helicopters ($43 billion), V-22 Osprey aircraft ($36 billion), and the scientifically dubious national missile-defense system ($250 billion). Instead of these cold-war-type systems, we should fund intelligence-gathering, data-base management, homeland security, arms-control, diplomacy, and peacekeeping arrangements. Yet only modest increases - $11 billion more for homeland defense, for instance - are slated for these tasks. The Bush budget proposes dishing out larger servings from menus already sitting on Pentagon desks.

To go forward with these expensive weapons systems is to place a heavy mortgage on our future, not just to pay for hardware, but also for the training and maintenance to keep them parked in the shed. These commitments will put us right where the Carter-Reagan buildup of the 1980s did: deep in debt and with a barn full of barely used weapons like the B-1 and B-2. When the bill comes due, will the politicians once again apologize for underfunding healthcare for all Americans?

In his budget address, the president suggested that the defense buildup will stimulate the economy. He could not have picked a more imperfect vehicle for doing so. Defense dollars move very slowly into the economy, because Congress must appropriate the funds, the Pentagon must solicit bids and evaluate them, and contractors must assemble the teams and capital to build the systems, often spending years on research and development first. In practice, real outlays lag procurement appropriations by about two years on average. Extended and larger unemployment benefits, a payroll tax cut, healthcare coverage for all - any of these would work fast and efficiently in contrast.

The public and our representatives have demanded accountability and evaluation in programs across the government. For successful programs, such as Head Start, we know how well they work and why. We deserve the same on the defense front. The extra $20 billion thrown at the Pentagon last fall largely is unaccounted for. Congress did not attach strings, and we'll probably never know what simply went to pet projects.

Elsewhere in the new budget, the president and his Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director, Mitch Daniels, state that agency dollars will be linked to grades given them on personnel, financial management, technological progress, program effectiveness, and cost containment through competition. Though OMB gives the Pentagon low marks in all five categories, the budget fails to restrain funding for military programs on this basis.

Will we wake up in two or three years and face yet another round of manufactured austerity in domestic programs?

Our elected officials must exercise leadership and demand accountability for new defense dollars now.

• Ann Markusen is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and professor of Public Affairs and Planning at the Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota.

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