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[Editorial] Budget cut concerns

Weapons acquisition budget down for first time in 15 years, yet welfare expenses increase

The National Assembly’s National Defense Committee curtailed the Ministry of National Defense’s budget for next year by 446.4 billion won ($375 million), from 55.227 trillion won to 54.781 trillion won.

The committee cut the ministry’s “defense capability improvement” expenditures by 612.2 billion won, from 17.336 trillion won to 16.724 trillion won. The expenses, calculated by the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, are needed to purchase or develop advanced weapons.

If the legislature passes the defense budget as adopted by the standing committee, next year’s expenses to build weapons systems will be reduced by 266.6 billion won from this year’s. It would be the first time in 15 years for the country’s defense capability budget to shrink from one year to the next.

The budget for South Korea’s second purchase of Peace Eye airborne early warning and control aircraft was cut 328.3 billion won. The Peace Eye catches early signs of enemy fighter jets and missile launches, and preemptively transmits related intelligence to ground stations to make enemy weapons powerless.

Next year’s budget for a performance upgrade for the nation’s F-35A stealth fighters was halved by 20 billion won. The 15.4 billion won earmarked for the purchase of attack helicopters was crossed out entirely. The 7.2 billion won budget for a controversial project to build a light aircraft carrier was cut by 6.6 billion won, to 500 million won.

Considering that these are strategic weapons, the budget cuts fuel concerns about the nation’s military strength.

On the other hand, personnel operating expenses -- including benefits and allowances -- increased by 215.8 billion won, including an 11.2 billion won increase in the budget for private supplies to soldiers, such as razors and razor blades. Housing allowances for officers and noncommissioned officers increased from 80,000 won to 150,000 won, snowballing the related budget item to 22.2 billion.

Troop health and welfare programs were allotted 791.1 billion won, a whopping 58.5 percent increase over this year. This drastic hike is largely due to a new budget for government grants to enlisted Army soldiers when they are discharged after saving up 400,000 won each month while in service. The grants start next year.

Funds allocated for soldier welfare either increased or remained unchanged ahead of the March 9 presidential election next year, but budgets for weapon systems were slashed.

The administration under President Moon Jae-in has boasted of being more concerned about national security than the previous two conservative administrations were. It has highlighted defense capability improvement expenditures as evidence of its commitment to national security. Given this, it is unusual that the standing committee led by the ruling party axed defense capability expenditures so radically.

It is questionable if the Moon administration is as committed to national security as it insists. When the government drew up extra budgets for pandemic relief on three occasions last year and this year, it squeezed 2.3 trillion won from core defense items, including the upgrade of F-35 fighter jets and Patriot missiles.

Of course, the national defense budget is not a sanctuary. Tax waste must be prevented, and pandemic relief and troop welfare are important. Be that as it may, it is hard to understand the deep cuts to defense expenses that directly affect people’s lives.

North Korea has never stopped escalating its nuclear and missile provocations. Securing advanced weapons and beefing up deterrence are indispensable. It seems risky to expand troop welfare while slashing the budget for advanced weapons.

Yet advanced weapons are useless if the military lacks the will to defend the country. While the international community condemned North Korea’s ballistic missile launches, South Korea’s military authorities called them unidentified projectiles. The South scaled down military exercises, apparently to appease the North. Sexual molestation and related suicides in the military have not stopped.

The Defense Acquisition Program Administration should try harder to secure the budget it needs to improve its defense capabilities, but advanced weapons can only serve as deterrents when buttressed by military discipline. Now both pillars seem to be crumbling.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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