Defense 2.0: America’s Military Badly Needs an Upgrade, by Jason Morrow

The average U.S. warplane finished production in 1979, the same year that the last Chevy Nova rolled off the assembly line.1

But while most Novas have long been banished to the scrap heap, the Air Force is still expected to keep its aging fleet of aircraft running with insufficient spare parts or replacements. Despite the cannibalization of downed aircraft for spare parts, our servicemen are unable to keep more than 75% of our warplanes at flight status.2

The need for new equipment is not limited to the Air Force. The average Marine Humvee (the armored jeep used during the Gulf War) is 13 years old.3 Only 52% of these crucial vehicles in Marine reserve forces are now in good repair. Merely 50% of U.S. naval ships in port are considered ready for rapid deployment, a 30% drop from just ten years ago.4 And these figures don’t even tell the whole story: these losses in military capabilities are in addition to a 40% force reduction since the Reagan years.

The solution? The military must either repair its current equipment or acquire new supplies – but the Clinton Administration appears to have rejected both options.

Repair of the military’s aging equipment is impractical due to the shortage of spare parts. Air Force and Navy personnel report high amounts of cannibalization, which is the act of taking parts from one already grounded aircraft to repair another. This not only serves to further disable an aircraft in need of proper repair, but also increases ground crew workloads. Cannibalization takes twice as long for a crew because it spends roughly the same amount of time removing a part from a plane as it does installing the part in another plane. Assuming some spare parts actually make it through the pipeline, crews must then repair any aircraft cannibalized.

Sound complicated and costly? It should: the GAO estimates that cannibalization wasted 178,000 man-hours over two years for only three major aircraft types.5 Cannibalization is occurring at a rate 75% higher than in 1995.6 Mismanagement and budget shortfalls have made this wasteful maintenance virtually impossible to avoid.

The other possibility – procuring new equipment – also seems unlikely due to the Clinton Administration’s insistence on military budget cuts. Former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger notes that we spend “just over $40 billion a year on procurement,” but observes that “depreciation on our military equipment runs to over $100 billion per year.”7 In other words, we need to spend an additional $60 billion each year simply to maintain our current readiness levels.

Funding shortfalls have taken their toll in other areas of the military as well. With our foreign policy increasingly known as “cruise-missile diplomacy,” one would think that the Clinton Administration would adequately fund the production of such weapons. But shortages brought on by the Iraq and Kosovo conflicts have left the Navy and Air Force scrambling. The Tomahawk cruise missile production line, which closed early this year, could take up to 30 months to restart. The Navy has only managed to keep pace with the demand for such weapons by shuffling missiles between fleets and upgrading older missiles.8

The Air Force, which uses the larger air-launched cruise missile, has taken a far more disturbing approach to the shortage. Boeing has now received government orders to refit nuclear cruise missiles, substituting conventional warheads in place of the nuclear warheads.9

This is not the first time the Clinton Administration has unwittingly undermined our nuclear forces. Federal statutes mandate that our nuclear forces must be kept at the level of 6,000 warheads, the maximum number allowed under START I (the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty). While the U.S. has proposed a further reduction in nuclear warheads under the START II agreement, the Duma, the Russian governing body, has not yet ratified the treaty. But the Clinton Administration never expected that the treaty would take so long to be ratified. As a result, the Center for Security Policy notes, the Administration “failed to program into its future budgets funding for current force levels.”10 As the military cannot under federal law reduce its nuclear warheads until the treaty is signed, our nuclear forces are now faced with a funding crunch. It is unclear whether the Clinton Administration will violate the law or divert funds meant for other Pentagon programs to make up for the shortfall in our nuclear arsenal.

Following the end of the Cold War, many in our government assumed we could live off the Reagan buildup. They did not anticipate that weapons systems do not last forever. As our machinery ages and our weapons are expended, they must be replaced. Until our President and Congress realize that fact, the problems our military faces will only continue to grow. As Lieutenant General Peter Pace observed, “the emphasis on current readiness has jeopardized future warfighting capabilities.”11 Our aging military is badly in need of an overhaul, a fact to which many in our government now seem oblivious.

Jason Morrow is a Research Associate of The National Center for Public Policy Research’s National Defense Center. Comments may be sent to [email protected].


1 General Richard E. Hawley, Hearing Before the Military Readiness Subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services, March 22, 1999.

2 General Accounting Office, “Air Force Supply: Management Actions Create Spare Parts Shortages and Operational Problems,” Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Military Readiness, Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, April 1999.

3 Colonel Robert B. Neller, Hearing Before the Military Readiness Subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services, March 22, 1999.

4 Steven Komarow, “As Iraq Looms, Shortfalls Hastening ‘Downward Slide,'” USA Today, November 10, 1998.

5 General Accounting Office.

6 Chief Master Sergeant Eric W. Benken, Hearing before the Subcommittee on Military Construction of the House Committee on Appropriations, March 10, 1999.

7 James Schlesinger, “Defense: Raise the Anchor or Lower the Ship,” The National Interest, Fall 1998.

8 Jose Martinez, Kosovo Crisis: Pentagon Facing Imminent Shortage of Cruise Missiles,” Boston Herald, April 1, 1999.

9 “Boeing, Raytheon Get Orders to Upgrade Missiles for Kosovo,” The Seattle Times, April 20, 1999.

10 Center for Security Policy, “Clinton’s Defense Increases Look More Like Political Triangulation than a Cure For the Hollow Military,” Decision Brief, January 4, 1999.

11 Lieutenant General Peter Pace, Hearing Before the Military Readiness Subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services, March 22, 1999.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.