Monday, January 10, 2011

Defense Spending Re-Considered

While Canada continues to dodge the question of tradeoffs--that it cannot afford to have truly modern and well-equipped army, navy and air force (pick one or two and get real about the third), SecDef Gates has gotten heaps of electrons/pages/whatever for his recent decision.  I blogged briefly about it, but return to it after reading a heap of posts on it.

Fred Kaplan is correct to note that this budget is not really about cutting real spending but reducing the growth of spending.  Given that the US is spending far more than everyone else and is in a deep budget hole, real cuts need to be made.  And, given that this administration gets it that debt is a threat to security, deeper cuts are a national security requirement.

But Kaplan raises a big flag, perhaps inadvertently, with this hypothetical: "But third, if Congress is serious about chopping the deficit, the Pentagon budget will have to be cut further—will have to be truly cut."  But we know that Congress is not serious.  Or else we would not have seen a tax cut for the rich (or at all) last month.

Otherwise, Kaplan is correct--there is room to make real cuts, but those will be accompanied by real political battles as they will mean making harder choices with more pushback from the services and Congress.

Max Boot, meanwhile, does his best to lose credibility.  He focuses on the cuts in troops, which I did, as well. However, he seems to think we live on a world without tradeoffs.  It is not clear how cutting the Marines' EFV, for invading beaches, reveals anything about competing with China since the EFV would not be necessary for any fights with China.  Indeed, one could argue that cutting stuff that is not necessary for a future arms race with China improves our ability to fight that arms race.  He basically calls these cuts "Demobilization" but given that the forces will still have more troops than six years ago, how is that demobilization?  Yes, we are cutting back while the fighting is going on, but the troopcuts take place after we are long out of Iraq (end of this year) and after we have turned stuff over to the Afghans (2014). The strangest line: "military budget that’s already stretched awfully thin."  This budget has been increasing for years--how can we call it stretched too thin?  The troops have been stretched by two wars, but one war is nearly over, and I don't think that was a budgetary decision. 

The problem is that Boot ignores the classic definition of strategy--matching ends and means.  Our means are not infinite, our goals need some adjusting.  We need to figure out how to compete without bankrupting ourselves.  If the debt is a threat to our economic viability, and one that only enhances China's threat, isn't dealing with the debt the best way to compete with the Chinese threat?  Again, strategy is about figuring out the tradeoffs that exist and making choices that maximize security, not ignoring tradeoffs that might be painfulo observe.

And we find that some military folks actually see Gates's cuts as "The Right Cuts."  General (ret.) Barno* and Travis Sharp cite Ike, always the way to go in these circumstances: "To amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another."  And to counter Boot, they point out that the weapons that Gates has cut are precisely those that are most vulnerable to Chinese investments:
Countries such as China and Iran are stocking up on relatively inexpensive weapons such as improvised explosive devices, air defense systems, anti-ship cruise missiles, precision-guided rockets, and swarming small boats. These "anti-access" assets are designed to prevent vehicles, aircraft, and ships from getting close to their territory. By buying 573 Expeditionary Fighting Vehicles and 311 Joint Strike Fighters as currently planned, the Marine Corps would have been investing massive resources into just the kind of short-range platforms that anti-access weapons are intended to neutralize.
 To win an arms race one should not buy more, but buy smarter.  Buy stuff that undermines the strengths of the other side, and do not buy the stuff that is vulnerable. They point out expensive does not equal good or appropriate.  Buying cheaper stuff that gets the job done is not unwise, even if it does not make one feel as if one's penis is larger.

* Barno has heaps of credibility in my eyes because he sought to do counter-insurgency in Afghanistan long before it became hip to do so, but got shot down by Rumsfeld because, well, Rumsfeld is about as short-sighted as the folks who drove the finance sector into the ground.

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