There’s a big debate in Congress right now about how to fix the way the Pentagon buys weapons. Legislators in both parties believe that if the military got smarter about the way it defines requirements and deals with contractors, it could save vast amounts of money. But here’s a curious thing about the debate: many lawmakers don’t seem to have a clear idea how much is actually spent on weapons. Neither do many of the pundits who comment on the subject or reporters who cover it.
They’re all good at finding shocking stories about how the Pentagon overpaid for hammers and toilet seats — many of the stories turn out to be untrue on close inspection — but almost nobody involved in the debate of reform measures ever makes the effort to put weapons spending in some sort of coherent context. Like explaining what portion of the economy or federal budget is spent on military hardware. Or how it compares with the cost of similar items in the commercial world.
The truth of the matter is that the Pentagon hasn’t spent heavily on weapons since Ronald Reagan was president. Back then, 30 years ago, the buying power of the Pentagon’s procurement budget was twice what it is today, in an economy only half as big. The Air Force, for instance, was buying 180 F-16 fighters every year, not to mention two different bombers at the same time. Today, the entire production run of military aircraft programs often doesn’t reach 180 planes. We haven’t built a new bomber in two decades.