- Advocacy & Policy
- Research Center
By Marion C. Blakey
The current budget battles and debt debates of an impassioned Congress have made clear that America’s aerospace and defense industry faces one of its greatest challenges.
Washington’s focus on spending and borrowing cuts is fueled by segments of the American electorate representing a new mix of political forces. Significant numbers of Republicans and Tea Party supporters may cast their lot with Democrats and independent voters in backing across-the-board cuts in key areas for aerospace. Responses from the White House as well as Congress put many aspects of aerospace and defense funding at risk, a critical concern since 60 percent of aerospace industry sales depend on federal programs.
Our nation faces enormous financial questions. All of us in aerospace and defense know that we must do our part to help address them and ensure America’s future prosperity and growth. But choices must be made intelligently and carefully. Unfortunately, this nation has not often responded wisely to budget challenges.
As Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted in his last major policy speech on May 24, “the simplest and most politically expedient approach” is to meet budget targets by “taking a percentage off the top of everything.”
That’s the course the United States followed in the 1970s after the Vietnam War. Gates called the result “a disastrous period for our military” that prompted the Army chief of staff in 1980, Gen. Edward C. Meyer, to say he led a “hollow Army.” The United States repeated that mistake, to a lesser extent, in the 1990s, with a procurement “holiday” that Gates said has produced an inventory of military equipment that for the most part is aging and worn down.
Like Secretary Gates, we are determined to help this nation avoid repeating past mistakes. On the day he spoke, the Aerospace Industries Association released a report by our National Security Council aimed at informing public debate on budget cuts. The report, Defense Investment: Finding the Right Balance, focuses on another common budget-cutting mistake: cutting defense procurement and research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) spending too deeply.
These defense investment accounts appeal as easier targets than more immediate needs like personnel and force structure. But deep cuts to them jeopardize the foundation of U.S. national security.
Since the Cold War, America’s defense strategy has relied on overpowering foes not with more troops but more advanced weapons. That edge helped us prevail over the former Soviet Union and in both Gulf Wars, Afghanistan and the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Americans can be proud of that technological advantage, which our troops certainly deserve. But ensuring it for the future requires funding to develop and acquire advanced products and a vibrant, innovative industrial base to research and manufacture them.
General Meyer’s 1980 warning followed years of procurement and RDT&E funding at 25 percent or less of the defense budget. The 1980s buildup started by President Reagan saw that spending rise to 39 percent, helping us modernize ground, air, surface, submarine and space fleets and accelerating development of the stealthy B-2 and F-117.
In the late 1990s, procurement and RDT&E spending again fell to less than 30 percent of total defense spending. In that decade, the aerospace and defense industry underwent a major consolidation.
The lesson of this report is that procurement and RDT&E spending, which rose again after 2001, needs to be about 35 percent of the defense budget if our industrial base is to remain robust and agile enough to field the advanced weapons U.S. troops need to maintain their edge on the battlefield. Such a robust and agile base also helps the U.S. maintain our technological lead in civil aviation and in space, which together with defense bolster America’s economy.
This report will support a broader initiative we are undertaking to meet the great challenge facing our industry. AIA member companies are working together on an outreach campaign to ensure that the public, Congress and the administration understand the vital role that our industry plays in supporting our national defense, civil and space transportation systems and the economy.
The aerospace and defense industry remains a key strategic asset for the United States. But it is an asset that must be managed, maintained and sustained to ensure we keep our technological advantage.