President Barack Obama

In his February 24, Address to Joint Session of Congress, President Barack Obama promised to “reform our defense budget so that we’re not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don’t use.” In the DC Examiner, Heritage senior fellow James Carafano wonders that means:

All the “Cold War” weapons still in the Pentagon’s inventory—tanks, planes, ships—are already bought and paid for. And they are still in use—from aircraft carriers to cruise missiles. Scrap them, and you’ll have to replace them.

Every system that we are buying now or plan to buy has been justified over the last 20 years by Democratic and Republican presidents and funded by Democratic and Republican Congresses based on “future requirements” not refighting the last war.

Missile defense is a case in point. We didn’t start building defenses until after the Cold War ended, and we built it not to counter the Soviet threat but deal with new missile powers like North Korea and Iran.

If the president chooses to scrap all or any of this, there will be little or nothing to replace it. It takes years to get a new program up and running. Many troops entering the military now will be retired before they see any of the future equipment this administration proposes.

This is not the first time we’ve heard rhetoric like this from the White House:

Once upon a time, there was a president who promised to spend less on defense and give us more. And he did—in a manner of speaking.

The president was Jimmy Carter. America’s tragedy in Vietnam had ended. The military was worn out after almost a decade of war. Congress had “financed” combat operations largely by deferring the purchase of new weapons, deferring maintenance, and otherwise cutting corners–paring bases in NATO countries, reducing troops on Korea’s DMZ, etc.

But when Carter came to the White Houses in 1977, rather than simply invest in rebuilding America’s military, he promised America one better. He endorsed Defense Secretary Harold Brown’s “offset” strategy.

America did get more for less—just as the president promised. But, the “more” was just a lot more risk. No matter what fancy strategy or cost-savings a president promises, under-funding the military hollows out the force, leaving it with not enough to maintain trained and ready troops, pay for current operations, and prepare for the future. That’s what happened under Carter. All this became all too clear when the Army Chief of Staff General “Shy” Meyer testified before Congress that he had 16 divisions on paper—only four of them were ready go to combat.