The Iron Triangle vs. Small Wars

The Iron Triangle vs. Small Wars

A fight is brewing in the U.S. military between manpower and technology. With the economy cratering and defense budgets flattening, we can no longer afford both large armies meant to pacify hostile populations, and legions of high-end air and naval platforms that fulfill our technological dreams. Because of the powerful political backing those high-end platforms enjoy, this budget conflict might spark a broad backlash to our recent fascination with wars of occupation.

Our fetish for counterinsurgency campaigns has now made us a land power. We reacted to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by expanding the ground services, even as the cost of manpower skyrockets. That investment is likely to increasingly crowd out the budgets of the Navy and Air Force, which employ most of our high-technology platforms. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' budget recommendations, announced this week, would delay the Navy's next-generation cruiser and its aircraft carrier build schedule. It also proposes the end of the Air Force's F-22 and C-17 programs and the indefinite delay of the next-generation bomber.

Manpower costs already take a growing chunk of the defense budget each year, and that's before the substantial increases in family support and medical care announced in this week's budget recommendations. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the cost in pay and benefits per active-duty troop rose 45 percent above inflation from 1998 to 2009, from $55,000 to $80,000. Congressionally authorized increases in salary -- political gold in wartime -- has amounted to around 3 percent annually. Health care coverage costs for active troops, which is paid for from the operations and maintenance account, is also experiencing massive cost-growth per service-member.

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