The $489 billion cut to defense budgets engineered by Barack Obama — as well as the played-for-fool Republican accomplices on Capitol Hill — won’t just mean less American military power. These cuts have significant consequences for America’s allies, as well.
Consider the case of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. The Obama Pentagon has reduced the 2013 purchase of Lightnings from 42 to 29 and reduced the planned five-year buy by more than 100 aircraft. This will drive the cost of each F-35 up, yet again; the development costs of the plane remain the same regardless. And because the JSF program has been an international effort since its conception, Obama’s decision increases the cost for everyone.
Thus it comes as little surprise that yesterday Italy announced a significant reduction, from 131 to 91, in its planned F-35 purchases. Rome’s decision threatens to sow doubt among other international partners. The timing of the announcement, only days after the U.S. fiscal year 2013 budget was released, shows that the Italians are following Obama’s lead — the White House has given them cover in using defense reductions as the principle ingredient in accepting government “fiscal discipline.” In “extending” the U.S. buy of F-35s—in practice, the purchase of 179 fewer Joint Strike Fighters through fiscal year 2017—the United States has thrown into question the economics of the program and opened the door for partner-nations to back out of commitments.
The consequences could be felt most critically in the Pacific. Proliferating the F-35 among America’s Pacific partners — traditional allies like Japan, South Korea, and Singapore — and potential new ones such as India — is a sine qua non of any meaningful military retrenchment in the region. But already Australia, arguably our closest ally, is on the verge of backing out. The Aussies had agreed to buy at least 100 F-35′s. A Pacific “pivot” without the Lightning would be a fizzle.
The F-35′s reliance on international partners should be a strength. It affords interoperability, giving the United States a platform around which it can build an international coalition capable of global reach. The Joint Strike Fighter’s inclusion of Italy and other partner-nations should also be a boon to the U.S. defense industrial base, whose future is tied to the F-35 project. Further, the program’s economics favor international purchases, balancing capital costs over more airframes, which also offers the advantage of greater allied power. All of these potential benefits, however, turn on a question of political commitment in the United States. In an environment where the Defense Department is increasingly the bill-payer for domestic, social programs, the F-35 has become a tempting target, and, with the specter of sequestration in sight, there may be more F-35 acquisition “extensions” in store.
But there’s more bad news in the Italian decision. Italy has been a stalwart proponent of the jump jet “B” version of the F-35 that is also critical for future capabilities for the U.S. Marine Corps. Indeed, Italian aircraft carriers are essentially the same size as Marine amphibious ships. For the moment, it is unclear how Italy intends to apportion its cuts — like the Marines, their carriers will be of little use without an airplane — but if cost is the sole driver, Rome will be tempted to go exclusively with the cheaper F-35A and perhaps mothball one of its carriers entirely. The British have already backed out of their F-35B commitment, even though they have yet to kill the two carriers they’ve been building in anticipation. The British think they can squeeze a catapult on their small carriers to accommodate the U.S. Navy’s version of the F-35, designated the “C” model, but it remains to be seen if the engineering makes any sense or is worth the cost. Israel and Singapore, as well as other Asian allies whose airfields are now threatened by Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles, were also intrigued by the jump-jet F-35, but a rise in price is inevitable and will be discouraging.
Indeed, the fate of the F-35 program is as good an indicator of the depth and breadth of Barack Obama’s retreat from U.S. military preeminence. If more international partners on the project start bailing or similarly “extending” their F-35 plans, the pace of American and allied decline will accelerate.
Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.
(flickr/U.S. Navy photo courtesy Lockheed Martin)
Most foreign observers understand the prime imperative of the Italian government of Mario Monti to be turning the course of the Italian fiscal ship—and rightfully so. The future of the Euro still seems to hang in the balance, contingent on decisions made in southern Europe. But this “moment of truth” extends beyond economic questions: Italy’s military, after years of tight budgets and overseas deployments, is approaching a breaking point. If the Monti government, with its new minister of defense, does not commit itself to resourcing properly its armed forces, Italy risks resigning itself to a marginal role in world affairs.
At the center of the storm stands new Italian Minister of Defense Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, a former Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee. Economic and fiscal clouds aside, there is some reason for hope. Leaders matter, and the new Italian Minister of Defense has a track record that suggests he can think strategically and represent Italy’s men and women in uniform effectively. Having had planning and command responsibility for the participation of the Italian armed forces in operations conducted in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, the Mediterranean, Pakistan, and Lebanon, the new Minister has a considerable knowledge of what Italian troops need to uphold their country’s international commitments. Di Paola also oversaw the 2005 Defense Strategic Concept as Chief of Defense Staff at the Italian Ministry of Defense, a forward-leaning document that called for a diverse set of skills, flexibility in their use and the capability to exploit emerging technologies.
Still, Di Paola faces significant structural challenges, namely in the level and disbursement of defense budgets. Italian defense spending, already proportionally lower in historical terms than those of its European allies, has been dropping even further in the last few years because of the budget constraints imposed by the economic crisis. The budget of the Ministry for fiscal year 2011, which covers expenditures for the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force (“Defense Function”) as well as those of the Carabinieri, Italy’s gendarmerie force (“Territorial Security Function”), was approximately €20.5 billion ($27.8 billion), or 1.283% of Italian GDP. This is an amount that threatens Italy’s ability to maintain the current level of commitment to NATO, EU and UN missions and puts at stake its most ambitious procurement projects.
Secondly, the distribution of the funds allocated to defense purposes in the Ministry of Defense’s budget is increasingly unbalanced. The share of personnel costs rose from 46.4% in 2001 to 65.9% in 2011. To the contrary, investments—i.e. procurement and acquisitions—decreased from 25.5% to 24% in the same period, with a nadir of 12.5% in 2006. Costs for training, operations and maintenance were the most penalized during the decade, plummeting from 28.1% to 10%. These numbers confirm that budget reductions have been concentrated by Italian policy-makers on future programs and on the readiness of Italian armed forces, while larger cuts in personnel spending have been avoided as a matter of domestic politics. Recently adopted austerity budgets will produce a further cut of €1.45 billion ($1.89 billion) in 2012. As reported by Defense News, if this cut is concentrated in investments as past experience suggests it may be, it would result in a 28% drop of this part of the budget and necessitate a serious review of all procurement programs.
Indications are that Di Paola hopes to avoid this deep cut to investment spending. During his first hearing at the Joint Defense Commissions of the Italian Chamber of Deputies and Senate on 1 December, Admiral Di Paola stated his intention to tackle the issue of the Italian armed forces’ personnel. The current structure, he pointed out, is no longer financially sustainable and he is open to a downsizing of it. Although in the 2005 Strategic Concept he had established the objective of a professional force of 190,000, a further reduction seems necessary if the Italian military is to maintain necessary levels of material quality and overall effectiveness—down to about 140,000/150,000 troops, according to press speculations. However, such a decision will result in challenging and politically difficult trade-offs. On the one hand, the reduction of volunteers—in 2012 only 9,000 will be enlisted, down from a previous estimate of 12,000—will likely rise the average age of deployed troops. On the other hand, a cut of high- and medium-rank officers would be costly in political terms.
In short, for Di Paola, the Italian bureaucracy and the economic winds sweeping Europe may be tougher opponents than even the ones he faced in the Balkans or in the Middle East.
(photo courtesy of Ministero della Difesa)
On Sept. 18, Army Spec. Chazray Clark stepped on an IED in Kandahar province, instantly losing an arm and both legs. But the 24-year-old Michigan native was still able to say, “I’m OK,” when his sergeant frantically called out his name. The patrol’s commander immediately radioed for an Army Medevac helicopter, or Dustoff. Clark’s comrade applied turniquets and carried him back to the landing zone for pickup. There they waited — and waited.
The Dustoff they needed was only two or three minutes away at a forward operating base. It couldn’t take off because, under Army rules, the rescue helicopters with their clearly marked red crosses need an armed-helicopter escort to enter a hot combat zone — and none were available.
An armed Air Force Medevac helo was available at Kandahar Air Base. It could have been dispatched to pick up Clark, who was still talking and fully conscious. The Army said no; rules are rules.
Finally, a Dustoff crew did fly off from Kandahar without escort. But by now what should have been a 13-minute rescue operation had dragged on more than an hour. Clark was dead when he reached Kandahar.
Now some in Congress, in particular Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), are asking why Clark had to die — and why the US Army insists on conducting its medical evacuations as if our troops were in the Argonne Forest or at Normandy, instead of fighting a ruthless enemy who respects no civilized rules of engagement, even as we foolishly cling to ours.
In the old days, medics of every country went on the battlefield unarmed — the Geneva Conventions even required it. The red cross markings made it clear that their mission was saving lives, often on both sides — so they weren’t legitimate targets.
Even the Nazis in World War II respected that rule. When the Japanese didn’t, American medics learned to carry a sidearm or even a rifle, knowing they were sitting ducks otherwise. Geneva rules don’t apply when the enemy refuses to honor them.
Today, a Taliban that hides behind civilians, gang-rapes women and shoots children has no scruples about killing an American medic or downing a Medevac chopper. The Army has updated the rules in Afghanistan to the extent of sending along an escorting Apache attack ’copter when unarmed Dustoffs must pick up wounded in dangerous areas — even though that means one less Apache to fight the bad guys elsewhere.
But it still insists on painting its Dustoffs with big red crosses, even though that sends the clear message to Taliban killers that we can’t shoot back. It never sends them in alone unless higher-ups deem the area safe — a bureaucratic decision that probably cost Spec. Clark his life.
Interestingly, Marine Medevac choppers are armed and unmarked, as are the Air Force’s. But the Army insists that arming its Dustoffs would only add to their weight, leaving less space for medical supplies and evacuees. The fact that the Marines and the Air Force (and even the British) seem to consider such restrictions suicidal doesn’t faze the Army.
Army spokesmen point out that no Dustoff has ever been shot down in Afghanistan, and that their evacuation-survival rate (92 percent) is stellar. Still, soldiers will tell you of other instances when the lack of escorts delayed the arrival of a Medevac team — at times when every minute can make the difference between life and death. For Chazray Clark, it probably did.
Our soldiers in Afghanistan have to deal with enough absurd rules of engagement without having to put up with one that can turn a serious wound into a mortal one. They deserve better — as do our Dustoff crews.
It takes a special kind of heroism to thrust yourself into the midst of battle, when your entire focus has to be not the enemy but rescuing people you’ve never seen or met — including sometimes the enemy himself.
Those men and women deserve our best — and deserve a fighting chance.
Cross-posted from the New York Post.