Does Osama bin Laden have a secret submarine fleet nobody told us about? Does Al Qaeda have advanced fighter jets parked on runways atop the mountains of South Waziristan? Why, then, does the U.S. Department of Defense, in the midst of two wars and a "generational struggle" with radical Islamist terrorism, want to spend $92 billion to buy 30 Virginia-class attack submarines, $65 billion for 184 advanced F-22 fighter jets and $29 billion for seven behemoth DDG-1000 destroyers?
To fight China, of course.
The Air Force maintains that it needs the F-22s to replace its aging fleet of older-model F-15 fighters, though it could order more of the latest model, the F-15E, according to the F-22's many critics. Those planes are actually flying over Iraq and Afghanistan, unlike the F-22s, which the Air Force hasn't deployed to the war zones, but rather . But what the speedy and sophisticated F-22s would really be useful for is outmaneuvering increasingly advanced Chinese fighter jets -- if the U.S. and China were to fight an air war over Taiwan. Likewise, the Navy is rattled by advances in Chinese submarines, which have become more stealthy, and it might well find the 14,000-ton Zumwalt and the Virginia submarine handy in a skirmish in the Taiwan Strait.
So how likely is that? In the short run, not very. Taiwan is a flash point, and the possibility of military conflict with China can never be ruled out. But the danger has decreased markedly this year with the landslide victory of Taiwan's Nationalist Party, which ran on a platform of improving strained ties with the mainland. Of course the U.S. military needs to continue to modernize, but our soldiers are being killed by homemade bombs, not stealthy subs. It's preposterous to argue that these hugely expensive weapons systems are needed now to keep the Chinese from overrunning Taiwan, or that Beijing poses more of a threat to U.S. national security than Al Qaeda.
Among those raising questions about national security priorities is Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. In a sign that he appears to be almost as frustrated as his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, with the Pentagon bureaucracy, Gates marched into the belly of the beast -- the Air War College -- to complain that getting the Air Force to help the Army win the wars it is fighting now has been "like pulling teeth." The secretary's specific complaint was how difficult it has been to get the service to build and deploy more unmanned aerial vehicles, the (relatively) cheap drones that can fly over battlefields and beam real-time intelligence to the soldiers below. His overarching message was that the military had better jettison Cold War thinking and prepare for "a constantly changing strategic environment characterized by persistent conflict."
Gates is right, but he will need to do much more to force the Pentagon to prioritize and to rein in the costs of its glitzy new weapons systems. The United States has always been singularly bad at disciplining its defense spending. When the Pentagon tries to make choices, Congress funds its own pet projects, and vice versa. Depressing evidence of this enduring failure comes from the latest report by the Government Accountability Office, whose annual review of 95 major weapons systems found them to be $295 billion over budget and nearly two years behind schedule -- and found that "reforms" adopted in 2003 have not improved matters.
Yet insisting that spending be prioritized to address the most likely national security threats is the only way to protect the U.S. We cannot possibly forestall every peril. Even those who argue that defense spending is still very low as a percentage of gross national product must recognize the cost to the economy of runaway increases in defense spending -- and the cost to our security of money misspent.