Military Dollars, and Sense

The bipartisan agreement to increase the Pentagon’s budget by $81 billion lets the U.S defense establishment fatten current programs and continue to do business as usual while avoiding questions about how to win wars. Such disconnection between ends and means puts bureaucratic interests over strategic success in war. Increasing the budget should be conditioned upon making sure that each increase actually contributes to victory in any theater of operations where the U.S is committed. And this means evaluating which missions—and in what ways—the dysfunctional parts of fiscal year 2019’s $678 billion should be reallocated

It would be difficult to argue that today’s budget does not contain at least $81 billion in waste. A few examples.

Since 2001, the U.S government has spent $2 trillion to $4 trillion—depending on whose estimates you believe—waging the “War on Terror.” The fight has been less than a shining success and, as currently conceived, is supposed go on forever. Why continue this hemorrhage of blood and treasure? Why not aim at ending it? What would it take to do that?

The Afghan war alone this year will cost at least $45.1 billion. Our military operations have no strategic objective, and no strategy for reaching any objective. Even continuing to prop up an unnatural, dysfunctional, Afghan central government seems less feasible by the day. America won’t be in Afghanistan forever. Figure out now how to leave advantageously.

Development of the F-35 fighter plane has cost at least $400 billion. The Pentagon says it needs another $1 billion to finish the plane’s development, and each fighter will cost $100 million. What does that contribute to prevailing in East Asia or anywhere else?

China’s J-20, roughly on the same technical level as the F-35, costs one-fifth as much. Quantity has its own winning quality. To achieve this unhappy balance, the U.S. government gave up on the best fighter in the sky, the F-22. If you cannot show how the number of F-35s you are planning to build before they bankrupt America can prevail in what theater of operations, stop pouring money into them, and figure out a way actually to prevail without them.

The non-military part of the U.S. intelligence budget (CIA, NSA, FBI counterintelligence, etc.) last year topped $57.1 billion. U.S defense does not now suffer, and has never suffered, from lack of information. What’s lacking is responsible judgment up and down the line. The post-1945 U.S. institution of intelligence agencies independent of military and diplomatic operations has proven to be a bad idea. It has resulted in self-referential, bloated bureaucracies of scarce usefulness. The provision of necessary information to the government’s operating departments would be improved by making intelligence directly responsible to them—and by cutting its budget by half.

An inordinate amount of the $678 billion defense budget spent on personnel is due to rank inflation. The Navy, for example, has one admiral for roughly every two ships. The Army has one general for every 2060 soldiers, and the Air Force has one for every 1950 airmen. The U.S. defense establishment has been on autopilot since today’s generals entered the service academies. Few care to look beyond careers in current programs that end in plush pensions and then in jobs in the ever-lengthening and ever-slowing defense procurement chain. Besides, their political masters do not press them to win wars, but reward them for projecting reassuring images. No surprise, then, that neither the senior military nor the intelligence agencies have any plans for actually defeating anybody, except bands of irregulars—and they have not done well at that, either.

Consider nuclear forces which, subsequent to the Nuclear Posture Review, are now the Pentagon’s “number one priority,” and are to receive some $9 billion more. Our establishment, far from considering dispassionately what it takes to fight, survive and win in a nuclear environment, continues to plan and build for “deterrence.” Thus it neglects:

1) self-deterrence—Our officials have proven consistently that, whenever the possibility of using nukes arises they retreat, because “nothing is worth nuclear war.” Our continuing refusal to take missile defense seriously confirms this to China and everybody else.

2) Some countries—Russia especially—have fully integrated nukes in their military plans and regard them as artillery. Our Defense establishment stubbornly refuses to consider: ”What do we do when deterrence fails and the other side actually uses nukes or clearly means to use them? In short, we are still building nukes to be scarecrows, advertised as scarecrows. Because they are not meant to be used, they don’t deter anybody but those who make them. Hence, what does any amount of money buy us?

Missile defense is the clearest case. The current U.S missile defense budget comes to $12.9 billionsome $300 billion over the past forty years. But tiny, semi-starved North Korea has well-nigh built the capacity to overwhelm it. Because this year’s nearly $2 billion increase goes into the very programs that have made this possible, it cannot change our vulnerability. Nor would quadrupling that increase do so.

That is because all such programs remain predicated on some unwise notions about our defenses. First, the official U.S policy since 1972 has been that we must avoid doing anything that adversely affects the capacity of the USSR/Russia, and China, to attack America with ballistic missiles. Hence, its corollary: Such “national missile defense as we may build will be limited to one “site.” Its fire control system will launch interceptors only after they have come into view of the site’s radar. Though the 1972 ABM Treaty is no longer in force, the U.S will not do fire control using any orbital systems that “substitute for” ground based radars. That reliance on surface based radars means that our efforts to defend against missiles not just from Russia and China, but also from North Korea and Iran, suffer under insurmountable inefficiencies.  Hence as well, the U.S will refrain from striking missiles from orbit, especially using systems “based on other physical principles” (read: lasers). In sum the money we have spent and are spending on missile defense is less a solution than a placebo.

It behooves all Americans, but especially those on the right, no longer to pretend that the military and intelligence services are anything other than the bureaucracies they are—to stop reflexively giving them money, and to demand that they actually serve their intended purpose.

About Angelo Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla was a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He was professor of international relations at Boston University and the author of several books including To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).

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13 responses to “Military Dollars, and Sense”

  1. When budgets are passed as “all or nothing” “pass this or the government shuts down and granny dies” then there is little consideration of why money is spent. Today there does not even seem to be an awareness of what is inside the budget just passed. It is only now being read by members of Congress. If we are going to do this insane “budgeting” with no regular order and no departmental appropriations and no hearings, then the only logical recourse is to cut the entire budget in real dollars by about 30% and tell each department to “figure it out”. Trump has done nothing to bring any fiscal sanity to Washington. So, the swamp is just getting bigger.

    • Trump needs Mattis for certain key tasks and unfortunately won’t press him on issues of efficiency. Congressional budgetary oversight and debate have become a joke, because the members’ main goal is to increase Federal spending in their districts and for their donors and other friends.

      • Yep, both parties like the idea of massive annual increases with no requirement to do the hard work of making choices with “limited” funds. Better, unlimited money spread out every year.

  2. Thought provoking essay. The author, whom I respect from other writing of his that I have read, is really opening my eyes here. And I already had two unpleasant thoughts about our military. One, was the corruption of the high officers by the Obama administration. And two, was the ridiculous price inflation of goods produced for the military. So sorry to see this structural rot to our nation’s defenses. Thank you for this important essay.

    • This corruption is no different in nature from the corruption of the American civilian elite in and out of government. They travel in the same circles and bring their attitudes to whatever position they hold.

  3. I agree 100%. Our senior leaders are civil servants – and politically correct and gutless ones at that – in uniform. The services are massively top-heavy and have forgotten basic skills (in the Navy, navigation, seamanship, shiphandling and maintenance), and there is little or no strategic sense.

  4. We are probably incapable of righting the mistakes so clearly described by Mr. Codevilla short of catastrophe. It has simply been too many years making the same mistakes until nobody in power has any knowledge of any other ideas than the ones that have been in force for so long.

  5. Angelo, I’m with you with the stupidity of shutting down the F-22, but the J-20 is equivalent to the F-35? Unless you are party to classified information that we peasants are not, that’s far from the truth.
    And I’m with you regarding missile defense. But defensive weaponry has always taken a back seat to offensive weaponry. ASW is totally neglected, I suppose until some cheapo diesel-electric puts several torpedoes into a defenseless [against subs] fleet carrier.
    You really don’t trust Trump, who already is showing business man smarts about where the money goes, and Mattis, to get this right?

    • Dunno about this. The J-20 almost certainly isn’t as capable as the F-35 but you can make 5 of them for the cost of one F-35. Now add to that the drama which would ensue if an F-35 gets shot down (high) compared to if the same were to happen with a J-20 (almost none or perhaps even none at all).

  6. One of our problems is that we cannot exercise any selectivity about where to commit ourselves. We are committed to some degree pretty much everywhere in the world.

  7. The militia is the people. America does not need the armed services.