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April 06, 2009

Obama’s Progressive Defense Budget
Posted by Max Bergmann

Defense budget image

Since coming to office Gates has discussed the need for the military to move in a dramatic new direction, but action had been limited – until now. The budget laid out by Gates gives a clear indication that the Obama administration is serious about finally shedding the legacy of the Cold War and building a military that is suitable for the 21st century. In fact, this budget closely resembles what many progressives have been calling for on defense over the last few years.

First, this budget represents a clear move toward a more balanced strategy and is a dramatic departure from the strategy of “transformation” that the Bush administration blindly pushed under the leadership of Secretary Rumsfeld. The U.S. military after the Cold War remained heavily focused on developing its conventional forces to fight a conflict with a modern enemy that did not exist. Following 9-11, The Rumsfeld Pentagon under the catch-phrase of “transformation” was given free rein to invest in the high-tech conventional capabilities that they thought would be crucial to modern warfare. They were wrong. One of the main lessons of Iraq was that even though our conventional military capabilities were so powerful that we could destroy an enemy regime rapidly and with few troops, this still did not ensure a peaceful or stable aftermath – in fact so few troops and so much firepower severed as a handicap. Therefore it makes little sense for the military not to prepare for stability and COIN operations. Since even if our forces are called upon to undertake a conventional fight, our forces will still likely have to engage in stability and COIN operations following any successful conventional operation. Investing more in stability and COIN is therefore about making the military more balanced so that our forces can engage in the entire spectrum of operations, not just conventional operations.

Second, this budget makes the hard choices that the Bush Pentagon didn’t make. Under the Rumsfeld Pentagon almost no weapons systems were cut. This was the case even though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed a fatal blind spot in our military capabilities. This budget actually goes through and makes the hard choices and trade offs that needed to be made. For example, the Future Combat Systems, – the Army’s modernization program – has been paired back dramatically. While FCS makes sense in principle, it has morphed into a monstrous program that has not been informed by the lessons of Iraq. The budget also does a lot of other good things, such as reining in government contracting and cutting back a missile defense program that has little utility.

Third, conventional programs are NOT being neglected. Conservatives will criticize the cuts in the big weapons programs, as evidence that Obama is “weak on defense.” But this budget has not come with cuts in overall defense spending. Base spending on defense this year rose by more than $20 billion. What Gates and Obama are doing is shifting money away from needless programs that are either outdated, redundant, or simply not cost effective (i.e. the F-22). The budget instead increases investments in a number of conventional weapons program such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Let’s be clear: the vast bulk of defense spending will remain focused on conventional priorities. And that amount of spending is massive.

Fourth, this budget is not overly focused on the “last war," There have been criticisms from conservatives (and some progressives) that this budget excessively embraces and institutionalizes the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. Conservatives, like Kori Schake, who was an adviser on the McCain campaign, insist that this budget has gone too far in that direction:

Gates's emphasis on institutionalizing counterinsurgency sounds remarkably like fighting the last war, and too little effort has been directed toward redressing those vulnerabilities in U.S. military power most likely to produce losses in future wars. The United States is already reasonably good at counterinsurgency, as a result of the Iraq war, and the equipment has adapted relatively quickly despite a balky Pentagon bureaucracy…Rumsfeld denigrated the human element of warfare to focus on high-tech innovation. His successor is about to make the reverse mistake.

There are a number of problems with this. First, we are still fighting both these wars. This budget is not focused on the “last war” it is focused on the current wars. It would seem wise to maintain a focus on the wars we are actually fighting, especially since there is a possibility we may be fighting them a while. Conservatives like Schake are the ones focusing on the “last war” – namely the “Cold War.” Second, Schake assumes we have figured out COIN. We have not and there are a number of capabilities that we need to improve upon. Third, this budget does not denigrate “high tech innovation,” it simply does not view building high tech systems as a panacea or that these systems are worth building no matter what the cost. Finally, we are still building the weapons systems needed to maintain conventional dominance, believing otherwise is foolish.

It is worth noting that some progressives also share this fear – that by investing in COIN capabilities, we will be more inclined to engage in COIN operations in the future. This is a legitimate fear but I think it is misplaced. The military’s job is to be prepared as possible for future contingencies and to improve its capabilities. This does not mean that we should be engaging in continuous COIN operations around the world – these operations are exceptionally challenging and have a very low success rate. But it is the job of political leaders to make these decisions, not the military.

This budget is an effort to move the military in a new direction that is more focused both on the wars that we are in and on the irregular contingencies that we will likely face in the future. In doing so it is a dramatically positive step in creating a more balanced force.


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We ought to try to use plain English when we discuss the US military budget.

First, it is not progressive. If it were, it would be about 1/10 of what it is. Specifically, there is nothing in Mr. Korb's CV to indicate that he is a progressive, least of all his service in the Reagan administration.

It is also not a "defense" budget since the military forces are primarily used for aggression.

The term "balanced strategy" means that the US wants to be able to defeat a foreign army in a country which fails to accept US world hegemony, and then also have the necessary resources to occupy and rebuild the country in our fashion. The mere intention to do this is not progressive, as well as being immoral and illegal.

These are the main points. The rest is just bickering over the details of how to waste the hundreds of billions of dollars, which the US doesn't have, that are basically just corporate welfare.

The main probem that Obama's defense cuts face is opposition from congress. To discontinue production of the F-22 would result in job losses in a variety of congressional districts which could be a problem in these tough economic times. So often it appears the militarily uselss programs such as the F-22 survive not through necessity but because they bring the pork back home.

Peace has an excellent point, one I've made myself. Congress-critters are the primary culprits for excessive corporate welfare spending because they love the money flow into their districts, and even brag about it. But let's not give them the cover of calling it "progressive defense" spending. Make them label it properly: Excessive corporate welfare for useless military junk, solely intended to increase executive profits, promote pointless labor and provide campaign contributions to congress-critters at a time of deep national financial crisis and of no national threats.

I actually find myself in agreement with conservatives like Kori Schake. Instead of "fighting the last war", DoD senior policymakers and the Obama administration are overly focused on current military conflicts as the paradigm for the future. The fact that we've been fighting CT and COIN conflicts for th past eight years does not -- NOT -- mean that this is the future of warfare.

A year ago, I had a conversation with a senior German military officer. I asked him point blank if he thought that the U.S., NATO, and Germany was overemphasizing asymmetric warfare at the cost of being prepared for more conventional conflicts. He dismissed the premise of the question, stating that without a doubt "the future of war will be cyberattacks and other asymmetrical events."

Less than four months later, Russia did in fact launch a cyber attack against Georgia . . . right before its tanks, infantry and aircraft invaded the country.

There is a saying that no objective is really secure until there is a 19 year old with a rifle standing on it. After the Kosovo war in 1999, military experts were sure that the future of war would be peacekeeping operations backed by U.S. air supremacy. That thinking was reinforced by the past military actions of the 1990s (Haiti, Bosnia, Somalia, guarding the Saudi-Iraqi border). The invasion of Iraq in 1991 was seen as an abbiration; the last gasp of the Cold War.

I am in no way advocating that DoD keep all of the high-end weapons systems. The F-22 has been a disgraceful waste of money in cost overruns and a results-based rationalization for it and other expensive systems (FCS, new destroyers). On the other hand, possible future contingencies against Russia, China, North Korea won't be won by Special Forces, Civil Affairs, and Human Terrain Teams. It will require mechanized BCTs, amphibious Marine MEUs assaulting ashore, and carrier task forces clearing the sealanes and creating air superiority for conventional maneuver units.

The military was unwilling to adjust to the need to be able to respond to "full spectrum operations" in the 1990s, still training against a Warsaw Pact threat. In the same vein, we should not see all future threats as sub-state terrorists/insurgents operating in urban environments. Otherwise, like Iraq and Afghanistan, our troops will learn another set of hard and deadly lessons on the battlefield.

JDB, while I appreciate your analysis, in reality "possible future contingencies against Russia, China, North Korea" would be insane and there is no rational basis for even considering them.

I don't know, Don, if I would go so far as to say that future conflicts with Russia, China, or North Korea "would be insane and there is no rational basis for even considering them." What is insane, unfortunately, is trying to convince ourselves that any type of conventional conflict with a particular nation-state is impossible. We've been proven wrong before on that issue.

Like the German general I referenced above, to him the thought of Russia -- or any other large country -- attacking and invading another country was "unthinkable." Yet, although there were signs that a military confrontation between the two countries was brewing for months, many people expressed genuine shock that war actually broke out.

The challenge for the military is to expect the unexpected. An implied task, therefore, is to then convince policymakers and the public -- who see anything but what's being used for the here and now as a waste of funds -- that prior preparation can prevent future disaster.

Historical examples abound. The generational purging of the military after WWI led to an aenimic force entering WWII, costing many thousands of lives as unprepared and untrained Americans fought in vehicles and equipment that didn't match the quality of the Germans and Japanese.

After WWII, Truman oversaw a drastic downsizing of military manpower and equipment. Did we need our WWII-era size? Of course not, but forces were cut to the bone. Four years later, it was this lack of proper training and equipment that led to the disastrous "Task Force Smith" being overrun when the North Koreans overran the 38th parallel in June 1950 (something at the time was viewed as impossible). That American and UN forces were able to rally and prevent a complete route in the summer and fall of 1950 is still a marvel of military history.

The fact remains that there are volatile areas in dispute among nation-states (Korean unification, Spratly Islands, tensions between India and Pakistan, tensions between Israel and its neighbors, Turkey's impatience with PKK cross-border raids from northern Iraq, power struggle over Caspian region oil and gas, etc.). Russia has proved that it is willing to go to war over its interests. North Korea rattles its sabers, but is it serious? And China could possibly see military recourse as its last option should its economy falter and energy sources become limited.

All I'm saying is that, when the shooting starts and if you then realize you don't have the proper training and equipment, it's too late.

The fact remains that there are volatile areas in dispute among nation-states

All I'm saying is that, when the shooting starts and if you then realize you don't have the proper training and equipment, it's too late.

All I'm saying is that, when the shooting starts and if you then realize you don't have the proper training and equipment, it's too late

All I'm saying is that, when the shooting starts and if you then realize you don't have the proper training and equipment, it's too late.

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