Election aftermath: what’s in it for the military?

Dec. 1, 2006
Last month Military & Aerospace Electronics ran a page-one headline reading “Defense industry upbeat; military spending to stay healthy over next decade.

John Keller, Editor in Chief

Last month Military & Aerospace Electronics ran a page-one headline reading “Defense industry upbeat; military spending to stay healthy over next decade.” That headline basically is still true, but none of us can ignore results of the November elections and the pending Democrat takeover of Congress.

It took less than a day after election results were in for the first casualty to fall-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Some ask who’s next-Dick Cheney or Condoleezza Rice? We don’t know the answers at presstime, but a re-examination of the issues affecting the military seems to be in order.

As of next Jan. 3, the Democrat Party will control the U.S. House and Senate for the first time in 12 years, and it won’t be business as usual in Washington. It’s a given that noticeable changes are bound to happen eventually; still, some things will remain the same.

Remember that Democrats control Congress, but they don’t control all the government. The Bush Administration is reeling from the body blows delivered during the election, but its members are bound to find their footing soon and will do everything possible to prevent the Democrats from sabotaging their evolving national security plans.

Many forces are at work that will influence the Democrat Congress as well as the Republican administration. It’s clear that the United States is at war-in the mountains of Afghanistan, on the streets of Iraq, and in the minds al-Qaida chieftains and those of other international terrorist syndicates.

The war in Iraq in particular may be unpopular, but the U.S. and international militaries have significant forces deployed there that need material and financial support. The troops in Iraq will not be left hanging, even as Democrat leaders plan how they’ll bring pressure to bear for their early redeployment.

An immediate pullout from Iraq would leave the United States vulnerable and embolden the nation’s enemies. Democrats know that, even if they’re reluctant to admit it out loud, so any changes in American military deployments will come slowly.

The influential Government Electronics and Information Technology Association (GEIA) predicted before the elections that U.S. defense spending will grow to an annual $609.4 billion over the next decade, up from planned expenditures this year of $439.3 billion.

Broken down by activity, GEIA experts say military procurement will grow from $105.8 billion this year to $119.1 billion in 2017 -- an increase of 1.2 percent. Likewise, military operations and maintenance is expected to grow from $229.6 billion to $241 billion over the next decade-an increase of 0.5 percent-while the military research and development budget is expected to decline by 0.7 percent, from $76.1 billion this year to $70.9 billion in 2017.

The big question is will these numbers hold in view of the election results? I think the answer is yes, but the way in which the government will spend the money may change over time.

First, don’t expect cuts in military or intelligence spending right away. If those cuts come, they will come later, once the incoming 110th Congress sorts out its collective priorities-and only if world events and political realities permit congressional leaders to attack the defense budget.

One potential target of the new Congress is the large supplemental spending budgets that fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although those supplementals may not be so large as previously expected, members of Congress will be reluctant to cut supplementals too deeply. If the American electorate perceives them as abandoning American fighting forces in the field, their congressional majority may be short-lived indeed.

In addition, defense industry and Pentagon experts already had been planning for a substantial drop-off in supplemental spending even before the elections. The GEIA, in fact, predicted two months ago that supplemental spending will all but disappear over the next few years; the troops, GEIA analysts said, will be brought home by 2008. When that happens, just for fun watch members of the newly elected congressional leadership trample each other to take credit.

One area to keep in focus now that Democrats control Congress is homeland security. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new emphasis in this area-particularly if Congress seeks to shift U.S. defense priorities from confronting enemies overseas to defending the U.S. homeland.

A new emphasis on homeland security is a central component of the Democrat six-point agenda for the new Congress. In the long term, look for how existing military technologies and those in development might shift toward homeland defense.

Keep in mind that even without any terrorist attacks on American soil, Congress will push for more homeland defense initiatives and technologies-particularly as they relate to airport and seaport security, as well as to securing domestic nuclear and chemical facilities.

The GEIA predicts that total U.S. government spending for homeland security will approach $80 billion during the fiscal year that ends next fall. Even before the Republicans lost control, Congress showed a willingness to allocate more for homeland security than the Bush Administration requested. Look for that trend to accelerate under Democrat stewardship at least over the next two years.

It won’t be easy, however, to increase homeland security spending in beneficial ways. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is still trying to define itself and its mission.

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