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October 24, 2007

Strategic Solvency
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

When I was at Columbia Richard Betts was one of the most popular professors there (And my personal favorite).   His piece on military spending in this month's issue of Foreign Affairs is simply superb and another example of his ability to take conventional wisdom and turn it on its head with simple rational arguments. 

Betts argues that military spending has gotten completely out of control because of overinflated fears. 

In recent years, U.S. national security policy has responded to a visceral sense of threat spawned by the frightening intentions of the country's enemies rather than to a sober estimate of those enemies' capabilities and what it would take to counter them effectively.

He also argues that a strategy based on benevolent American hegemony is a silly idea that would realistically cost trillions. 

The last two U.S. presidents, finally, have embraced ambitious goals of reshaping the world according to American values but without considering the full costs and consequences of their grandiose visions. The result has been a defense budget caught between two stools: higher than needed for basic national security but far lower than required to eliminate all villainous governments and groups everywhere.

His take on what terorrism means for military spending

With rare exceptions, the war against terrorists cannot be fought with army tank battalions, air force wings, or naval fleets -- the large conventional forces that drive the defense budget. The main challenge is not killing the terrorists but finding them...It does not require half a trillion dollars' worth of conventional and nuclear forces.

Betts also has a great response for those who argue that we need to prepare for China.

Although military rivalry with China is more likely than not, it is not inevitable, and it is not in U.S. interests to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy -- something that premature or immoderate military initiatives targeted at China could achieve. There will be time to prepare before such conflict begins in earnest...The correct way to hedge against the long-term China threat is by adopting a mobilization strategy: developing plans and organizing resources now so that military capabilities can be expanded quickly later if necessary. This means carefully designing a system of readiness to get ready -- emphasizing research and development, professional training, and organizational planning.  Deferring a surge in military production and expansion until then would avoid sinking trillions of dollars into weaponry that may be technologically obsolete before a threat actually materializes. (The United States waited too long -- until 1940 -- to mobilize against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. But starting to mobilize in 1930 would have been no wiser; a crash program in aircraft production back then would have yielded thousands of ultimately useless biplanes.)

Read the whole thing.  But if you are too lazy.  There are more excerpts below the fold

On how military spending got so far out of control.

 

In recent years, U.S. national security policy has responded to a visceral sense of threat spawned by the frightening intentions of the country's enemies rather than to a sober estimate of those enemies' capabilities and what it would take to counter them effectively. The United States faces very real dangers today and potentially bigger ones in the future, but these are not threats that can be tamed by current spending on the most expensive components of military power.

The last two U.S. presidents, finally, have embraced ambitious goals of reshaping the world according to American values but without considering the full costs and consequences of their grandiose visions. The result has been a defense budget caught between two stools: higher than needed for basic national security but far lower than required to eliminate all villainous governments and groups everywhere. The time has come to face the problem squarely. The sole coherent rationale for increasing military spending -- to try and run a benign American empire -- is dangerously misguided. But a more modest and sensible national security strategy can and should be purchased at a lower price.

On how to deal with today's threats.

Washington opened the sluice gates of military spending after the 9/11 attacks primarily not because it was the appropriate thing to do strategically but because it was something the country could do when something had to be done. With rare exceptions, the war against terrorists cannot be fought with army tank battalions, air force wings, or naval fleets -- the large conventional forces that drive the defense budget. The main challenge is not killing the terrorists but finding them, and the capabilities most applicable to this task are intelligence and special operations forces. Improving U.S. capacity in these areas is difficult. It requires recruiting, training, and effectively deploying a limited number of talented and bold people with the relevant skills. It does not require half a trillion dollars' worth of conventional and nuclear forces.

On how to deal with military spending and future threats like China.

As for possible future threats, China obviously looms large. If its economic growth continues and its internal politics remain stable, it is bound to act like other great powers in history, flexing its muscles for what it believes are its rights and contesting foreign domination of its neighborhood. Worse yet would be an anti-American alliance between a rising China and a recovered, resentful Russia. Even this prospect, nevertheless, does not warrant Cold War levels of military spending right now. Although military rivalry with China is more likely than not, it is not inevitable, and it is not in U.S. interests to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy -- something that premature or immoderate military initiatives targeted at China could achieve. There will be time to prepare before such conflict begins in earnest. The United States remains far ahead in airpower and sea power, the capabilities that a war in the Taiwan Strait would test. Fighting the large Chinese army on the Asian mainland would always be difficult, but the solution to that problem is not larger U.S. forces but a strategy that avoids such combat (except on the Korean Peninsula, where geography makes a defensible front feasible).

The correct way to hedge against the long-term China threat is by adopting a mobilization strategy: developing plans and organizing resources now so that military capabilities can be expanded quickly later if necessary. This means carefully designing a system of readiness to get ready -- emphasizing research and development, professional training, and organizational planning. Mobilization in high gear should be held off until genuine evidence indicates that U.S. military supremacy is starting to slip toward mere superiority. Deferring a surge in military production and expansion until then would avoid sinking trillions of dollars into weaponry that may be technologically obsolete before a threat actually materializes. (The United States waited too long -- until 1940 -- to mobilize against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. But starting to mobilize in 1930 would have been no wiser; a crash program in aircraft production back then would have yielded thousands of ultimately useless biplanes.)

On how to reduce spending.

Marshaling the political will for restraint will be an uphill battle. A starting point might be the slogan "Half a trillion dollars is more than enough." Modest reductions for a few years and a steady budget eroded by inflation for a few more could tighten the system's belt. The case for cuts should be made on the principle that expensive programs must fulfill unmet needs for countering real enemy capabilities, not merely maintain traditional service priorities, pursue the technological frontier for its own sake, or consume resources that happen to be politically available.

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Hey, I thought you'd appreciate this info, seeing as it's right up your ally! At Public Agenda, we released a new “Confidence in Foreign Policy Index.” In short, our Foreign Policy Anxiety Indicator measures American attitudes toward current foreign policy and the nation’s place in the world, while providing policy makers, journalists, bloggers and ordinary citizens with the public's overall comfort level with America's place in the world and current foreign policy. Here is a snapshot:

- The number of Americans who say they worry at least “somewhat” about a terrorist attack has increased seven points in six months.
- More than eight in 10 people give the government a grade of C or worse on controlling immigration – a finding that has increased nine points since 2005
- Nearly six in 10 say we have a moral obligation to the Iraqi people, while only one-third say the United States should act in its own interest without regard to how it affects the Iraqis
- When asked if U.S. troops should stay in Iraq to control the violence even if it means more American casualties or withdraw even if it means more Iraqi casualties, 55 percent said the United States should still withdraw

Of course, these are only a few of the issues mentioned in Public Agenda’s new report. Check it out at http://www.publicagenda.org/foreignpolicy/index.cfm. Feel free to get back to me with any questions or comments!

Betts' article contains a couple of historical errors that do not affect his main argument, and I don't think I agree with him (to be fair, with IPS) about the F-35. But his main argument is persuasive.

It would be stronger if he had acknowledged explicitly the problem of inertia, or more specifically of stranded investment. Cutting spending on carrier battle groups is not like cutting spending on farm subsidies or food stamps; you could put a couple of carriers in mothballs, and save some money after decommissioning costs were accounted for, but if you ever needed them again bringing them into commission and getting them re-manned would be a time-consuming process. Accounting for risk, it's probably cheaper and certainly easier to keep the carriers on active duty. The problem is that doing this makes part of your decision about force structure for you.

To some extent, the same problem exists when it comes to replacing expensive weapons systems. Say you do decide not to build another aircraft carrier for a while (a defensible decision under the circumstances); wait long enough and you are likely to find it very difficult to ever build one again. The capacity, in terms of physical infrastructure and skilled workers, will at least decay and may disintegrate if it is not used for more than a couple of years.

Now, maybe this is a price worth paying. If the nuclear carrier now being built turns out to be the last in the enhanced Nimitz class, it will be well into the middle of this century before we start to run out of aircraft carriers. By that time we may have figured out another way to project naval and air power, if that's what needs to be done. All I'm saying is that the decision to do something like this (and obviously all major weapons systems present similar issues) is a really big one, just because we're talking about fighting inertia and resolving to leave our stranded investment, as it were, on the beach.

In a way, what this dilemma resembles most in the civilian world is the story of nuclear power plants. The United States decided, in effect, that we weren't going to build any more nuclear plants after the close call at Three Mile Island. Well, fine; we saved a pile of money and gained some peace of mind -- and now we not only find ourselves faced with innumerable obstacles to reinventing the capacity to build, site and operate nuclear plants, we can't even bring ourselves to decide what to do with the nuclear waste produced by the aging plants we already have. So whether we decide to leave stranded investment on the beach or not, we need to understand that just the fact that we have it means facing the risk of major costs no matter what we do.

Betts's focus on budgets, threats and military forces is mis-directed. The main driver for military forces and war is expenditures, the wasteful economic incomes into nearly every congressional district in the country. It has nothing to do with affordability or need. The US doesn't actually need a standing military force to defend the country but what congressional representative will vote against keeping an armaments plant or a military base open, or vote against an ongoing profitable war? Only a rep who wants to lose the next election, that's who, and the fact that aircraft carriers are obsolete is irrelevant.

America is hooked on the military opiate, and with the "Islamo-fascist threat" what choice does it have? The US "needs" to spend more on the military, not less, and it is doing so, increasing the size of the military and producing expensive military stuff with no earthly purpose except for corporate welfare and profits.

"The long-term China threat" is just more hooey. China doesn't threaten anybody militarily and never has. China is too busy with economic development at home and around the world, a field that the US has ceded to the Chinese in its focus on foolish militarism.


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