Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Fierce Urgency of Shame

Last week’s decision by the Air Force to spend up to $100 billion over the next 30 years on an airborne fuel tanker built by a partnership of Northrop Grumman and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS) – rather than by Boeing – offers a teachable moment about an ugly, age-old truth regarding American politics. To wit, well organized political constituencies – and the politicians that cater to them – are perfectly willing to rip off the country for a buck and a vote.

The United States Air Force reports that the Airbus airborne fuel tanker outperforms the Boeing airborne fuel tanker on all five relevant selection criteria. So the issue is quite simple: Should the Air Force buy the best plane possible for the United States military, or should the Air Force buy the best plane possible for some politically well-connected investors and workers and force the military to operate sub-optimal weapons systems as a consequence?

The fact that well organized interest groups – namely, Boeing Corporation and the workers that would be employed by the tanker contract – are unconcerned with the injury they would do to both U.S. taxpayers and the U.S. military in the course of making a few extra bucks should not surprise. It’s a story that could be retold dozens of times over. The fact that Boeing and the workers associated with Boeing wrap themselves up in patriotic garb in the course of hobbling America’s military abroad is what truly grates.

I don’t know whether the military really needs a new airborne fuel tanker, whether a new airborne fuel tanker is a good buy for the taxpayer, or whether the Airbus model really outperforms the Boeing model (and given the track record of military procurement bureaucracies, it’s not unimaginable that the Air Force might have gotten this wrong). I do know, however, that if the military is going to buy one, its decision about what model to buy ought to be based on pure, unadulterated merit – leavened by a concern for getting the best performance bang for the contract buck given the limited resources of the American taxpayer.

Any other consideration forced on the military is a raw declaration that our military’s fighting power should suffer for somebody’s pay check. Those making that argument while boasting about their love for country ought to be deeply ashamed.

Note to the idealists: Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have expressed opposition to the Air Force decision. Now, either they know something about the technical details of the Airbus and Boeing airborne tankers that has escaped the Air Force’s attention, or the promise of a “new politics” is as empty as one might expect.

Chapman Kneecaps McCain

Libertarian columnist Steve Chapman has written what is to date the definitive takedown of John McCain’s various delusions about Iraq. As is Chapman’s wont, it’s a great column overall, packed with substance. Here’s the gist:

McCain portrays himself as uniquely clear-eyed about the war. In fact, those eyes have often been full of stars. When Army Gen. Eric Shinseki forecast that more troops would be needed for the occupation, McCain didn’t fret. Shortly before the invasion, he said, “I have no qualms about our strategic plans.” As the online magazine Salon reports, he predicted the war would be “another chapter in the glorious history of the United States of America.”

He brags now that he criticized Donald Rumsfeld’s handling of the occupation. But McCain didn’t declare “no confidence” in him until a year and a half after the invasion. And let’s not forget the day he took a stroll through a Baghdad market, guarded by attack helicopters and 100 soldiers in full combat mode, to prove how safe Iraq was. The following day, 21 Iraqis were abducted from the market and murdered.

[…]

The point of the surge was to catalyze rapid progress that would facilitate our departure. But now the Pentagon says that come July, we’ll still have more troops than the 132,000 we had before. When Lt. Gen. Carter Ham was asked if the number will fall below 132,000 by the time Bush leaves office, he replied, “It would be premature to say that.”

McCain says the current “strategy is succeeding in Iraq.” His apparent definition of success is that American forces will stay on in huge numbers as long as necessary to keep violence within acceptable limits. We were told we had to increase our numbers so we could leave. Turns out we had to increase our numbers so we could stay.

Five years after the Iraq invasion, we’ve suffered more than 30,000 dead and wounded troops, incurred trillions in costs and found that Iraqis are unwilling to overcome their most basic divisions. And no end is in sight. If you’re grateful for that, thank John McCain.

As has always been the case, men like John McCain define leaving as losing and staying as success. If we stay in Iraq for 100 years, that’s “success.” If we leave, ever, we’ve lost.

I’d only add to Chapman’s column that, before the war, media darling St. John of Arizona was one of the most naive proponents of the “greeted as liberators” school of thought, assuring Larry King on September 24, 2002 that “I believe that the success will be fairly easy.” Five days later, McCain was back on CNN, assuring the American people that “I believe that the United States military capabilities are such that we can win a victory in a relatively short time. And I, again, I don’t think it’s, quote, ‘easy,’ but I believe that we can win an overwhelming victory in a very short period of time.” And so forth.

McCain’s claim to straight-talking rectitude on Iraq today is based solely on the fact that the Washington narrative has been changed as a result of The Surge. It’s almost as if it was designed to have just such an effect.

The Arms Race Myth?

Richard Perle has an interesting op-ed on missile defense in Monday’s Washington Post. The point is that arms races aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be; arms controllers’ belief in an iron-clad law of politics saying that rival states engage in arms races is wishful thinking driven by opposition to arms. He’s more right than wrong.

Perle does overstate his point. He claims that there was not arms racing during the Cold War. Wrong. The US-Soviet nuclear weapons dynamic during the Cold War, to use Sam Huntington’s famous distinction, can be accurately described as a quantitative arms race until the 1970s, when the competition became more qualitative. All along, because US nuclear weapons policy consistently aimed at making a preemptive first strike against Soviet nukes possible (mutually assured destruction was a lot of talk never reflected in weapons policy), you could reasonably call our behavior arms racing. Early on, the Air Force largely based its preferred number of bombers and ICBMs on the number of Soviet nuclear weapons launchers – whether bombers or missiles – and routinely exaggerated those numbers for bureaucratic purposes. Later, when arms limitations talks like SALT occurred, we limited total numbers of platforms but strove for higher accuracy to maximize our ability to pull off a disarming strike.

But Perle’s overall point is still accurate. The Cold War was unique. Today pundits often argue that if we build a missile defense system that works against their missiles, the Russians and Chinese will just build more missiles to overwhelm it. Maybe. But this begs the question of why the Russians have been letting their nuclear arsenal (particularly early warning radar) decay since the Cold War, to the point where people like Keir Lieber and my former Professor Daryl Press can write that we have gained a first strike capability against Russia. One reason the Russians let this happen, presumably, is that they were broke, which would imply that they’ll fix things now that they’re not. Another explanation, however, is that the Cold War ended, and they stopped caring about the nuclear balance.

If that condition holds, Russia might view our missile defense system as a nuisance not worth great expense. They probably still dislike an image of weakness, largely because of Russian domestic politics. Putin may therefore bluster that he would never let the US get too large a nuclear lead, but that is more about symbolism that true responses. Where the rubber meets the road, they may avoid investing enough to match us. No arms race. Maybe they’ll settle for simple qualitative steps like developing decoys that can overwhelm the system. That could be called an arms race, but not much of one.

Likewise, since it built nuclear weapons, China has lived under the shadow of a possible disarming first strike from us (and for years, probably the USSR). They have showed little inclination to deal with this situation by making their missiles mobile, building far more, or deploying nuclear missiles on submarines. Today they are moving anemically toward developing those submarines, it appears, and making their ICBMs mobile. But they are not investing heavily in those capabilities. If they’re in a race to assure a deterrent capability against us, it’s a very slow one. Perhaps this is a legacy of our friendly late Cold War relations. Maybe it’s a hedging strategy born of poverty, which is disappearing. Maybe they figure 20 ICBMs is enough to keep us from getting too confident. Whatever the case, it is hardly inevitable that their reaction to our missile defense efforts will be to build-up to overwhelm our system. That depends on lots of conditions, especially the state of bilateral relations. The more we label them as the object of our arms, the more likely this buildup is.

Unlike Perle, by the way, I’m not for national missile defense – not twelve billion a year of it, anyway. It’s wasteful. One reason is that the conditions of hostility likely to make it useful vis-à-vis rich states are precisely the conditions that would cause those states to arms race enough to overwhelm it (assuming, heroically, that it worked). But neither am I alarmed by missiles defense’s independent implications for international relations. That depends on a lot more than defense systems.

Donnelly on the Surge

AEI’s Thomas Donnelly writes for the Weekly Standard blog:

More moderate Democrats are increasingly adjusting to the reality that the Iraq surge has been a military success, and that it is starting to create conditions for workable political compromise in Baghdad as well as Iraq’s provinces–see, for example, the air of desperation that has seized the hard-core anti-war crowd. Yet today’s Washington Post carries an op-ed by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta clearly intended to intimidate Democratic candidates into sticking to their withdrawal pledges no matter what happens in Iraq. The article’s headline, “A War We Must End,” is a hint of the pay-no-attention-to-the-facts nature of the argument.

Donnelly’s readers might be interested in this shocking nugget buried in a smart op-ed by Andrew Bacevich a few weeks back:

In only one respect has the surge achieved undeniable success: It has ensured that U.S. troops won’t be coming home anytime soon. This was one of the main points of the exercise in the first place. As AEI military analyst Thomas Donnelly has acknowledged with admirable candor, “part of the purpose of the surge was to redefine the Washington narrative,” thereby deflecting calls for a complete withdrawal of U.S. combat forces. Hawks who had pooh-poohed the risks of invasion now portrayed the risks of withdrawal as too awful to contemplate. But a prerequisite to perpetuating the war – and leaving it to the next president – was to get Iraq off the front pages and out of the nightly news. At least in this context, the surge qualifies as a masterstroke. From his new perch as a New York Times columnist, William Kristol has worried that feckless politicians just might “snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.” Not to worry: The “victory” gained in recent months all but guarantees that the United States will remain caught in the jaws of Iraq for the foreseeable future.

Something to keep in mind when Donnelly and his fellow-travelers comment on the surge’s impact on the Washington narrative.

My boss Chris Preble was beating this drum weeks ago in the American Prospect.

Reviving Interservice Competition

I recently complained that the US defense budget fails to adhere to a strategy; that it avoids choice between means. This lack of choice is manifest in the preservation of service shares. Each military service has gotten about the same relative share of the defense budget each year under Bush, despite the war on terror. In fact, the shares have basically held since the Kennedy administration.

In recent decades, the Navy got about 26 percent of the defense budget; 31 percent including the Marines. The Air Force also got around 31 percent, and the Army 25 percent. The rest went to defense-wide programs like missile defense. Annual deviations are rarely ever above two percent. This year brings a slight uptick in the Army share; the numbers are 29 percent Navy and Marines, 28 percent Air Force, and 27 percent Army. Current budget shares deviate more from the historical norm if you include the supplemental war appropriations, which favor the ground forces. But the point of a supplemental is that it does not affect the future baseline.

In today’s Christian Science Monitor, Gordon Lubold writes that a Congressional “Roles and Missions” panel, formed under the auspices of the House Armed Services Committee, is set to release a report that questions this arrangement. That’s good news.

Congressman Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee), who chaired the panel, calls the continuity of service shares “a statistical indictment” of the Pentagon planning process. The current US national security strategy – as seen in official documents, rhetoric, and our two wars – is counter-terrorism via counter-insurgency. That is, counter-terrorism is our primary security task, and to accomplish it we aim to deny terrorists haven with wars of occupation meant to resurrect government in anarchic states like Iraq and Afghanistan. We have other objectives – contain rising powers, stem weapons proliferation, etc, but these are secondary.

This strategy favors the Army. Ground forces take center-stage in counter-insurgency and state-building, with contributing performances from aircraft and other government agencies. It follows that our defense budget would flood money into the Army and Marines and cut the Air Force and Navy’s budget to pay for it. Instead, we have given each service the same bump in funds – roughly 35% percent under Bush.

Personally, I think this strategy is foolish. I’d prefer to stay out of other people’s civil wars and hunt terrorists via intelligence agencies and police. Ideally, Congress would push a more workable and cheaper strategy. But helping align forces with the politics that theoretically govern them is still worthwhile. Insofar as we have this flawed strategy, military posture ought to reflect it.

The Monitor quotes the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, responding to Cooper’s critique by worrying that ending fixed service shares will unleash interservice competition. I say let them fight. Everyone assumes that because jointness is helpful on the battlefield, it must be great in defense planning. But service cooperation in the Pentagon has become collusion that prevents civilian control and therefore the implementation of national policy. And competition for resources between government entities can spark smarter public policy, including military innovation, as political scientists I know argue.

During the Eisenhower administration, the Air Force, which wielded the big stick – strategic airpower – in Ike’s massive retaliation strategy, got about half the defense budget. The Army and Navy fought over the remainder. Their scramble for relevance made them advocates of alternative strategies that relied less on nuclear weapons, or at least less on nuclear weapons delivered by bombers (the Navy responded by inventing submarine launched ballistic missiles). The strategic debate gave policy-makers both well-crafted alternatives and ready bureaucratic allies for their implementation.

Were the ground forces given half of the defense budget – or if that merely seemed politically possible – the other services’ self-interest might propel them to articulate opposing strategies. Even the Army’s slight gains have recently pushed the Navy and Air Force to rearticulate their relevance. The results so far are disappointing, but more open competition could be useful. The Navy might champion an off-shore balancing strategy and attack the current small war strategy. Civilians might develop a sharper sense of their alternatives.

The beneficiaries of fixed budget shares are the military services, who get budgetary security independent of their contribution to national security. The losers are the civilians trying to run the Pentagon and taxpayers. Cooper’s report won’t change anything alone, but it may help.

The Four Percent Folly

James Jay Carafano’s op-ed in Thursday’s Washington Times, “In Defense of Defense Spending,” exemplifies the illogic of those who want to devote a fixed portion of our national wealth to defense.

Carafano is part of group of think-tankers and Bush administration officials trying to lock in a military budget fattened by two wars. By arguing that we should spend at least four percent of GDP on defense no matter what, they effectively say that whenever we draw down from Iraq, we should take all the war funds and put them into the non-war defense budget — creating a huge increase in base defense spending.

The op-ed is wrong-headed in three ways. It ignores the meaning of the statistic — percentage of GDP — that it hangs its hat on; it implies that changes in threat levels should not affect defense budgets, and it pretends that most U.S. defense spending is related to terrorism.

Carafano’s conclusion:

Defense spending as a percentage of GDP is the appropriate way to measure our national commitment to keeping America safe, free and prosperous. That’s the number policymakers should keep in mind as they look at the president’s budget.

Maybe I have undue faith in government, but I think policymakers can keep in mind more than one number. As my professor at MIT, Cindy Williams, points out, what number you should consider in thinking about the defense budget depends on what you want to know.

Percentage of GDP is useful for historical comparisons of defense’s economic burden. Carafano substitutes the question of what we can afford for what we ought to spend. The United States can afford to spend four percent of its GDP on defense; indeed we can afford to spend far more. That doesn’t mean we should. Whatever your politics, money spent on defense means money not spent on something else: private investment, deficit reduction, infrastructure, a car, etc. The problem is opportunity cost, not economic malaise.

Percentage of GDP is not useful in demonstrating how much we spend on defense compared to the past, however, because GDP grows. Ours is more than six times bigger than it was in 1950, as I wrote here two weeks ago. True, defense’s share of the economic pie has fallen over the last several decades. But that’s because the size of the pie has grown, hiding the absolute increase in spending. The best way to compare defense budgets over time is to look at absolute spending levels adjusted for inflation. That’s what people mean when they say defense spending is the highest that it has been since World War II.

Like most of those who make this argument, Carafano ignores the fact that wealth creation means that he is supporting ever-increasing defense budgets. Why should our grandchildren spend five times more than us on defense just because they are five times richer? Carafano doesn’t say. Nor does he explain why we should spend less on defense next year if there is a recession.

Defense spending should be guided by threats and our plans to deal with them. That this banal idea needs recitation speaks to the poverty of the arguments made by advocates of the drunken-sailor approach to security budgeting. Four percent of GDP forever, capabilities-based planning — these are the desperate justifications of hawks short of threats to inflate. Carafano does not bother to relate the expensive capabilities he promotes with the enemies that they theoretically protect against. Presumably that is because the Cold War is over; China isn’t much of an enemy, plus its growth is likely to taper off far before it can devote close to what we can to its military, and North Korea, Iran and Syria, according to The Military Balance, together spend just above $10 billion on defense, which doesn’t even get you a year’s worth of spending on a faulty missile defense system around here.

What about the “long war”? That’s where Carafano says all this money goes. But the defense budget is buying and operating mostly carrier battle groups, army divisions and fighter aircraft — tools rarely useful in fighting terrorists, and even then, far more abundant than we need. As for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, suffice it to say that there is reason to doubt that perennial wars of occupation in Muslim countries serve counter-terrorism. But even counting the wars as counter-terrorism spending, the vast majority of the defense budget is still going toward conventional conflicts, not Al Qaeda.

For a sensible take on these matters and the source of this post’s title, see Bernard Finel’s recent op-ed in Defense News.

Air Force vs. Taxpayers

This week’s Air Force Times reports that the Air Force wants an extra $59 million of your tax dollars next year to pay for a campaign to win tens of billions more of your tax dollars.

You see, the Air Force’s research shows that the American public does not appreciate the Air Force as much as the Air Force thinks it should. Air Force generals worry that Americans may conclude that our current wars, which are relatively low-tech, ground power-centric affairs, are a reasonable basis for making procurement decisions. That conclusion may produce budgets that favor the ground forces, thwarting the Air Force’s plan to become the service that runs future wars. And the administration has already refused the Air Force an extra $20 billion for its annual budget.

So the defense budget submitted recently to Congress would more than double the Air Force’s advertising spending to insure that the public doesn’t figure out that platforms like the F-22 are white elephants.

The Air Force defends the funds in this, surprisingly forthright, way (from page 652 of their budget estimate for FY 2009):

Without the funding the ability to educate the American public about Air Force roles and mission will be limited and [sic] ultimately creating a gap between the public and the Air Force that will influence public opinion and the Air Force’s ability to maintain its stature amongst the other Services. Other recruiting programs aided in meeting accession goals but did little to illustrate the Air Force story. This funding purchases capabilities to illustrate the Air Force’s vital role in national defense today and in the future, hi-light the unique capabilities delivered by no other service, depict the most complex and challenging assignments, and show case the USAF.

According to the Air Force Times:

Air Force officials believe Congress and the public are focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Army and Marine Corps do most of the fighting. Therefore, efforts to expand the Air Force’s high-tech fleet of aircraft and the service’s cyber mission are taking a backseat to the immediate needs of the wars.

If that is what the public thinks, I commend our common sense. Silly op-eds and press releases asserting how essential airpower is to counter-insurgency apparently failed to do the trick.

All the services spend big bucks on recruiting. That’s the point of the $53 million the Air Force spent on advertising last year. And that’s low, relatively speaking. In 2005 (the latest set of complete figures I could find), the Army spent $290 million on recruiting-related advertising, the Marine Corps $67, the Navy $100 million, and the Air Force $57 million. The ground services, which need more manpower and take far more casualties, naturally spend more to woo recruits (not to mention a whole lot more on bonuses).

But the extra money the Air Force wants is not going to recruit new airmen; it is for TV, web, and print advertising meant to win public support and funds. It is, in other words, for propaganda.

True, $60 million isn’t much in a defense budget that will cost nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars. But spending our money to convince us to spend more of our money just grates.

The Air Force already has the Thunderbirds, a traveling air-show, to promote itself. (The similar Blue Angels promote the Navy. The Army employs a Parachute Team, the Golden Knights for PR). It was a $50 million promotional contract for the Thunderbirds that recently landed the top brass of the Air Force in the middle of an FBI investigation – one that, as far as I can determine, is ongoing.

Beyond public funds, the Air Force Association, a non-profit organization, exists to sing airpower’s praises (the Navy and Marines have the Navy League). And of course there are the contractors who lobby on behalf of the Air Force contracts that pay their way.

The Air Force has enough ways to sell itself, and then some, without this new request. Congress should say no.