Forward Observer: Army in Extremis

Despite widespread warnings that the Army is the sickest of our armed services and in danger of dying from overwork in Iraq, the Pentagon's latest budget projections show the Army getting less than the Navy and Air Force every year from fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2013.

The cold figures confirm fears of Army leaders that their post-war financial future is likely to be bleak, as was the case after Vietnam.

The Pentagon comptroller, in her little noticed report, "National Defense Budget Estimates for FY 2008," sets down the following figures of total obligational authority -- which includes money available from other sources besides annual appropriations -- in comparable fiscal 2008 dollars.

* Fiscal 2008: Army, $128.6 billion; Navy (including Marine Corps), $139.8 billion; Air Force, $136.6 billion.

* Fiscal 2009: Army, $135.8 billion; Navy, $144.2 billion; Air Force, $139.4 billion.

* Fiscal 2010: Army, $135.4 billion; Navy, $145.9 billion; Air Force, $138.1 billion.

* Fiscal 2011: Army, $131.2 billion; Navy, $145.6 billion; Air Force, $138 billion.

* Fiscal 2012: Army, $129.3 billion; Navy, $144.4 billion; Air Force, $137.6 billion.

* Fiscal 2013: Army, $126 billion; Navy, $143 billion; Air Force, $136.3 billion.

I know from decades of studying the defense budget that the next president and/or Congress could make the Pentagon's money pie bigger than today's comptroller is projecting or give the Army a bigger slice of the pie.

But the truth is there is not enough money in sight to finance everything the Army and its champions want to do: Fix or replace gear worn out in Iraq and Afghanistan; add thousands of soldiers, and keep spending billions on the dog's breakfast of vehicles, aircraft and communications called the Future Combat Systems.

The House stood up to the military industrial complex last week and voted 397-27 for an fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill that cut a whopping $867 million out of the Army's prized FCS. This vote was the latest proof that hawks, doves and in-betweeners all agree something has to give in the Army budget.

The next question is whether the Senate will follow suit and stand up to the generals and Boeing, the FCS lead contractor, by cutting the $162 billion program to slow it down for a closer look.

Unless the Army finds a way to broaden the base of support for FCS, the program is in danger of being canceled, like the Comanche helicopter and Crusader fast-firing big gun.

Critics as diverse as the Government Accountability Office; House Armed Services Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Chairman Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii; Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, have all expressed deep doubts about FCS.

Given the Army's record of fumbling big procurement programs, I think everybody would be well served if Congress or Defense Secretary Robert Gates named an outside commission with no ties to Boeing to examine FCS and tell us in plain English where the systems are now and where they should go next in the light of budget constraints.

Members of the panel that wowed the Senate Armed Services Committee April 17 should be candidates for this truth squad. They were retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey; historian and retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales; former Pentagon manpower chief Larry Korb, and Krepinevich.

I would add former Defense secretaries Melvin Laird, a master of the art of the possible, and William Perry, who has great technical smarts and speaks plain English; Thomas Christie, the former Pentagon chief of operational testing who can see through Army smoke, and Robert Chapman, who as former Vice President Al Gore's point man got the Big Three auto companies to agree to build a fuel efficient car -- only to have the effort derailed by the Bush administration.

The royal commission need not go outside the Beltway to blow away the smoke hanging over the FCS and to think outside the box.

For starters, why not bring in Iraqi military experts and ask them what kind of vehicle they would like to help pacify their country after American troops left?

Let the ailing Big Three auto companies build hundreds of the vehicles in a hurry for Iraq, broadening the political and industrial base of support for FCS and providing a test bed for the vehicle the Army could order for itself.

Why not tailor at least part of the FCS network of high tech, interconnected men and machines to what is needed here at home to respond to natural disasters or terrorist attacks?

Ask homeland security chiefs about fitting FCS to their first responder needs. The Army on FCS has been suffering from a bad case of foreheaditis.

As Abercrombie put it in persuading his subcommittee to cut $867 million out of FCS, still keeping a hefty $2.8 billion in the ambitious leap-frog effort, "the Army is in trouble. It has serious readiness problems and has massive, unfunded bills for repairing equipment damaged in combat, [and] adding more troops to its ranks."

The House saw the wisdom of addressing those and other immediate needs before leaping as far as the Army wanted to go into the untested parts of FCS. Hurray for the House.

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