In darkened theaters around the country this week, millions of Americans have been getting a civics lesson. In a somewhat romanticized and selective rendering of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” they are seeing how a colorful Congressman managed to work behind closed doors to fund a project – arming Afghans fighting Soviet invaders – with momentous consequences, both intended and unintended.
Today, decisions that may be equally momentous are again being made behind closed doors in official Washington. Many of these are being driven by a single man, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, with a zeal worthy of Charlie Wilson at his prime, if little of his panache.
The Pentagon’s Number 2 has traditionally run “the Building,” managing its vast bureaucracy and effectively being the ultimate allocator of funds among its competing programs and responsibilities. England currently has the unenviable task of playing such a role at a time when defense funding is substantially larger in real terms than it has been over much of the past few decades yet – thanks to extensive, and expensive, world-wide combat and combat-support operations around the world – woefully inadequate to meet the military’s recapitalization requirements.
Matters have been made worse by the fact that neither this nor previous administrations have invested the huge sums required fully to modernize the Army and Marine Corps’ armored forces, the Navy’s fleets and all three services’ air arms. To varying degrees, recapitalization programs have been pursued, but most have been delayed, dramatically reduced in size and, in some cases, simply canceled outright.
The result has been to leave the armed forces fighting today’s wars with yesterday’s weapons. While many have been improved and their useful lives extended with more contemporary technology, our troops are handicapped – and exposed unnecessarily to peril – because they are operating outdated and even obsolescing equipment.
To some extent, this travesty is being obscured by the nature of today’s wars. Counterinsurgency operations place a premium on different weaponry and tactics than would conflicts with what are now euphemistically called “peer” or “near-peer” competitors. In this instance, however, it is not the generals who are guilty of being blinded by thoughts of “fighting the last war.”
Frank Gaffney Jr. is the founder and president of the Center for Security Policy and author of War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World .
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