Exclusive Interview: Former Senator, Heritage Call for More Defense Spending

By Evan Moore | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Former Senator Jim Talent (R-Mo.), who served on the Senate Armed Service Committee, spoke to Cybercast News Service recently about America's deteriorating Air Force. He and the Heritage Foundation, where Talent serves as a distinguished fellow, are calling for an increase in U.S. defense spending.

Here is the transcript and audio recording of the interview. Listen to Audio

Cybercast News Service:
How would you characterize the state of the United States Air Force, and what does this incident [involving the disintegration of an F-15] in Missouri bode for the Air Force as a whole?

Former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.):
Well, I'm concerned about the condition of the Air Force and, indeed, all of the services. The equipment, I want to say, is too old, and it's rusty. When I say "too old," I'm not referring to the service members, but the equipment is aging, and with the aging goes a number of classic-type of problems. One of them is maintenance. It's harder and more costly to maintain an inventory. Another is [that] you begin to lose technological superiority.

This results from the years of pretty systematically under-funding modernization and procurement. It's one of the reasons that we at the Heritage Foundation, of course, are supporting the "Four Percent [for Freedom] Solution," which is a significant increase in defense funding up to four percent of the GDP, and then putting that funding into modernization and procurement. Listen to Audio

Cybercast News Service:
Building on that Four Percent for Freedom proposal, we're currently spending about 3.7 to 3.8 percent of our GDP on the defense budget. And [the Four Percent for Freedom proposal] increases that to 4 percent of our [GDP] to allow for modernization, operational support, and training. From a legislator's perspective, how likely of a chance does this have of getting through Congress, even if it's championed by this or the next president?

Well, I think that if the next president asks for it, I think it has a chance of getting through in substantial form. Now, Congress, for example, may ramp us up to that point over the course of a couple years, and that would be alright. I'd rather we got there quickly, because of course you need to be able to plan to spend the money the most wisely, anyway.

But, I liken this to the situation in '81 and '82 when President Reagan came in, and it was pretty much conceded at that point that the force had gone hollow. I now say that it's rusty. It's not hollow, but it's rusty. And, he asked for two double-digit increases in the defense budge, which is more than what we'd need now, if you look at it from a percentage standpoint. And, he got that.

I think if the commander-in-chief asks for it, backed up as he will be by the Joint Chiefs, [then] I think there's a good chance that he'll get it. As you know, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mullen, has already said that we need it. So, I think a consensus is developing that it's necessary, and if we get leadership from the White House, I think [that] there's a good chance that we get it. Listen to Audio

Cybercast News Service:
As you know, none of these things happen overnight, so how did the Air Force, in the long run, come into this situation?

Talent: It began, really, in the post-Cold War era in the early 90s, when everyone thought that we were in a "Threat Trough." I can remember many of these people said, "Well, we're not going to have an existential threat for at least 10 years." This was about five years before 9/11, and well, it was a mistake.

In addition, we responded at the perceived Threat Trough by cutting too much, particularly in procurement and modernization. On top of this, deployment - op tempo -was much higher in the 90s than anyone thought it would be. Everyone thought in the post-Cold War era, we'd use our conventional forces last, and of course, we actually used them a lot more.

I'm not being critical of those decisions. I'm just saying that that may [have] increased pressure, because it drove up OM costs. And, then, finally, we found that the best volunteer force in the history of the service is not cheap, and so we've had healthcare costs in particular going up, and that's eating into the budget.

So, a combination of under-funding of procurement and modernization, higher than expected OM costs because of higher op tempo and higher healthcare costs have all meant not enough money to buy the new systems and the new platforms that our people need. Listen to Audio

Cybercast News Service:
Onto the specifics, as you know, the F-15 has undergone a series of systems overhauls and plugging new material into what is essentially an aging airframe. I believe that their operational life has doubled over what it was originally intended to do. Do you believe that the Air Force can continue to do so for the immediate future while the F-22 and F-35 are still coming into service?

: Yes, the F-15 is an outstanding platform and was specifically made with a view towards, from an engineering standpoint, that it could be upgraded and that the useful life of existing airframes could be increased, and also so that we could upgrade it to new models that weren't new platforms but were also more than just an upgrade also. I think it's doing what we wanted it to do. It's a very successful aircraft and a very successful program, and the service and Boeing deserve a lot of credit for it.

It's not, however, a replacement for the new generation of air-to-air superiority fighters that we're going to need in order to have the kind of superiority that we've gotten used to enjoying. So, I think we can make do with it. We don't really have a lot of choice. I think we can do that, but we need to buy the requirement for F-22 and F-35 also. And then of course, there's a bunch of other needs that the Air Force has that the F-15 doesn't pretend to address: everything from the need for new cargo, new lift, a new tanker, new bombers, medium and long-range.

Actually, in terms of air-to-air superiority fighters, the service is probably a bit better off there than it is in terms of some other requirements. Listen to Audio

Cybercast News Service:
The F-22 has taken about 20 years in order to be called "combat ready." Why did it take so long for that to come to pass, and is there a way that development time could be hastened to bring the next sixth-generation fighter aircraft to the front quicker in the future?

: Well, to answer the second question first, we absolutely have to expedite the design-build cycle, and the Air Force has had problems with that. So have the other services. We just simply must find a way to do that. It was too long even before the Information Age, and now it's ridiculously too long.

Now, there's a number of things that we can look at doing. I believe that we need to introduce, more effectively, competition within the small business, high-tech community at different phases of the procurement cycle. I don't want to get too complicated with this, but there's got to be a way, without disrupting the kind of security that the general contractors need, to bring to bear the expertise and the innovation of the high-tech community on aspects of programs that are problematical and that are causing us to fall behind. There's got to be a way to do that, and we need to find a way to do it.

We also need to be intelligent about balancing the need for oversight from within the department - program management - and the need to delegate that out to contractors so they have the flexibility that they need. We tend to go all one way or all the other, where we're too stifling in terms of oversight, but then on the other hand, we so devolve authority over procurement that we atomize the process, we stove-pipe it, and people act like their piece of the program is the only part of the program, and cost and time don't matter.

So, it's a very complicated and difficult process. My sense is that what needs to be done is politically possible. I don't think we need to change a lot of union rules, you know what I mean? I don't think we need to get rid of all the regulations so that people on the hill think that we're inviting fraud. I think we just need to roll up our sleeves, figure out how this system works, and just adopt some common-sense kind of changes to get us where we need to go.

But, if we got the increase in funding that I hope we get, if we can't control the problematic costs, it's going to lose political capital, and I don't think that we can do what we need to do.

I'm sorry, but since you're taping this, I think that I can go on and on. Listen to Audio

Cybercast News Service:
You can, sir, feel free. What role do you believe that these fifth-generation fighters, the F-22 and the F-35 will be playing in the global war on terror when our enemies are primarily these third world nations and local insurgencies?

Talent: Well, the immediate thought in terms of their mission is not so much global war on terror, because - in terms of air-to-air superiority - you're right we're not likely to being going up against regimes that can challenge us there. I don't like to talk in terms of potential conflicts with China or anything like that, but the reality is that there are a lot of existing tensions with countries that either are or could become peer-competitors at least in the sense that they might challenge us for air superiority in particular areas. China's an obvious one. The collapse of democracy in Russia is also something that's quite frightening. It's really in terms of those potential threats that you think of F-22.

There was a time 10 years ago where I questioned myself why it was a top priority to develop a new air-to-air superiority fighter, but I don't anymore. If you look at what the Chinese have done since the last flare-up over Taiwan, and if you look at what they're buying, and if you look at how they're developing their [inaudible], I am definitely not saying that they're anticipating a military conflict over Taiwan, but I'm saying that the more clearly they [the People's Republic of China] understand that we have the platforms we need to prevent such a conflict from being successful for them, the less we might tempt them to do it.

I think that's more the kind of threat that I think about F-22 being developed for. Listen to Audio

Cybercast News Service:
Another question on the F-22: It's been proposed that we sell it off as an export model to a few of our trusted allies in order to decrease the per-unit cost of the aircraft. Do you think that this is a good idea, and who do you think that we should consider selling the fighter off to?

: I don't know if I'm prepared to say yes or no to that. I'll say generally that given the situation that we're at in terms of the budget, I think you have to look at everything that's at least plausible in terms of reducing costs.

Obviously we've done this with other platforms as well. So, I have not looked at in detail whether or not it's feasible to sell off any kind of a version of F-22, but it's something that I think you have to look at given the budgetary situation that we're in. But, I never sat on any hearing or got briefed on that when I was a senator, and I haven't since then. So, I don't know about offering an opinion other than to say generally that the Department [of Defense] needs to look at everything up to the point, obviously, where you're risking giving away technology that we just can't give away. Listen to Audio

Cybercast News Service:
Last question in terms of the Air Force, some proposals have been vaunted - in fact, the American Prospect ran an article that advocated abolishing the Air Force as an independent organization and splitting its roles up amongst the Army and Navy. Do you think that this suggestion has merit, and what otherwise, would you recommend be done to improve the Air Force both as an institution and as a fighting force?

: It's not a suggestion that I want to actively pursue at all. I don't want to be unkind and say it has no merit, but it has no merit in my view. This is the sort of thing that if you could go back in a time-bubble when we created the department and we created the Air Force, could you argue if you were far-sighted enough, that there was some way of doing this than an independent service? I suppose so.

But, we're at a point where there's so many other things that we need to do and that's going to absorb our energies, that's just not a very profitable path to go down. A lot of people said the same thing about the Marines over the years. Every once in a while that comes out. But, no, I think that the concept of air power is still, and I think obviously, unique enough that we need a service of its own for that.

Now, what we need to do in terms of the service the Air Force used to think of itself - and really still does - too much as a service where the only people who really went into combat were the pilots and then the crews, and everybody else sort of sat back in bases that were unlikely to be attacked, because we had such air superiority, and they were just sort of reminders for the people in the aircraft.

And, I'm not trying to overstate that case, but I think that the service is working very hard to transform itself into one where everybody understands that they may be, themselves, in a very risky situation because of the nature of the threats that we confront. So all of them think more in terms of innovation, being able to do different kinds of things. I like the training, the really cutting-edge training that they're giving their NCOs now, for example. So I think that the service is looking to how it can transform itself.

In all three services, we need to avoid emphasizing too much - as important as it is - just technology. It's about human ingenuity, and that's always going to be most of it. We have to give them the technology that we need, but we have to train our people and update constantly our doctrine and our vision of who we are.

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