How much defense do we need? How much defense can we afford? Those two questions define the perennial debate on defense spending.

They’re important because defense spending is not cheap. And frankly, some of it’s been grossly overpriced, resulting in investigations of fraud, waste and abuse.

But what’s going on now isn’t a matter of cutting out fraud, waste or abuse. Actions by Congress point to a conscious decision to determine what we think we can afford instead of what we know we need.

The definitive example of the issue comes from the Army Times on Feb. 18. Leaders “have turned down the modernization dial in order to preserve end strength,” said Army Lt. Gen. James Pasquarette. “Whatever was left over after that, [emphasis added] we put into readiness to ensure we had the ability to fight.” Not a good plan, since, as Pasquarrette added, “Russia and China aren’t going anywhere.”

As reported by the U.S. Naval Institute on April 5, the Navy is struggling to keep its fleet of cruisers modernized to meet evolving threats. That’s thanks to “a budget environment where the military services are increasingly looking to ‘divest to invest’” – to shed older systems now to free up funds for newer system later. Therefore, said the story, “the cruiser fleet may not see much support in the upcoming budget cycle.”

Pity: the cruiser, says the Navy’s web site, is a “multi-mission Air Warfare, Undersea Warfare, Naval Surface Fire Support and Surface Warfare surface [combatant] capable of supporting carrier battle groups, amphibious forces or operating independently and as flagships of surface action groups.” Many cruisers carry Tomahawk cruise missiles, and a few are equipped for Ballistic Missile Defense.

But the Navy’s funding problems jeopardize the capabilities of these potent ships.

And the Air Force may see funds that were supposed to go to new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) get used to pay for coronavirus prevention. As filed by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), the “Investing in Cures Before Missiles Act” would both prohibit the U.S. government for using fiscal 2022 spending on the Ground-based Strategic Deterrent program (and the W87-1 warhead modification program) and divert $1 billion from the program to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for research on a universal coronavirus vaccine. More money from the W87-1 modification program would go to the CDC for infectious disease research.

This proposal is on top of the already-dire and increasing need (as detailed by McClatchy on March 29) to modernize the 60-plus year-old ICBM force. As just one example, support gear of the LGM-30G Minuteman III is so old the manufacturers are long out of business: elevators to move equipment, supplies and parts from the surface of a missile silo down the 100 feet to the bottom have broken down, so airmen have had to rig up a pulley system to get the stuff down to the maintenance crews.

Yet those who ought to be concerned, aren’t: “In my humble opinion, we’re building more weapons than we need,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) during a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies discussion.

Unfortunately, others are paying attention. Russia has built up its forces on the border with Ukraine in the face of guarantees of Ukrainian security by the United States. Meanwhile, Chinese aircraft on April 14 made simulated attacks on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Luzon Strait while at the same time violating Taiwan’s airspace with 25 combat aircraft. Worse still, the two sometime Cold War allies against the West have (as reported by American Military News on April 13) simultaneously issued warnings to the US to keep its hand off their presumably intended prey. “The United States is our adversary and does everything it can to undermine Russia’s position on the world stage,” said Russian foreign minister Sergei Rybakov, “We do not see any other elements in their approach. Those are our conclusions.”

Putin also warned the US on April 13 not to deploy two warships into the Black Sea “for their own good.” And as reported by the London Daily Mail on April 15, Biden obliged, rolling over and playing dead for Moscow.

“The Taiwan question concerns China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and core interests [with] zero room for compromise and not an inch to give,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. “We urge the U.S. side to grasp the situation ... immediately stop official contact with Taiwan in any form ... and avoid sending any wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces ...”

Not at all hard to see the threats in these statements – especially as they were issued simultaneously.

Lenin once said that one should probe with the bayonet. If one encounters mush, proceed, but if steel, then withdraw. Based on what they’ve observed to date from the Biden administration, I figure Russia and China don’t expect to find anything but mush.

And that’s how wars get started.

Gary Exelby is a reporter for Paxton News Bureau. He can be reached at gexelby@paragoulddailypress.com.

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