Here’s something for critics of the country’s defense budget to ponder: After I was confirmed as secretary of the Navy in May 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked me and the other service secretaries to work with Congress to gain approval for a pending supplemental appropriation to the defense budget. This was not a war supplemental; it was still four months before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Pentagon was simply running out of money.
The Navy did not have enough funding to steam ships or to fly airplanes for the rest of the fiscal year. Submarines were being deployed with many of their cruise-missile tubes empty. Warships could not deploy until test and repair equipment was transferred from ships returning to port. The Navy’s deferred maintenance account was billions of dollars in the red. Sailor and Marine Corps housing and bases were, literally, a mess. Military salaries were low, housing allowances below rental costs and medical facilities needed upgrades.
The Army and Air Force were in similar straits. Ammunition stocks were dismally low and precision weapons a luxury. The peace dividends of the 1990s had left the military ill-equipped and ill-prepared for conflict — hardly a situation to be repeated in today’s uncertain and troublesome world. And hardly a way to treat our valiant warriors and their families.
Congress did pass the supplemental that summer, bringing the total 2001 defense budget to $310 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that is equivalent to about $423 billion today. By comparison, the Pentagon is requesting $525 billion for 2013.
Yes, that $102 billion delta is still a lot of money, but military salaries and benefits have increased almost 90 percent during this interval — roughly 30 percent more than inflation — and now consume a third of the budget. Of course, the 2001 readiness supplemental didn’t fix any of the underlying problems. The poor state of military readiness resulted from years of budget cuts, and it took years of budget increases after 2001 to undo the short-sightedness of the 1990s.