Friday, December 26, 2008

Air war and the military budget

Anthony Cordesman and Hans Ulrich Kaeser look at the prospects for the military budget for air power in a working paper for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), America's Self-Destroying Airpower: Becoming Your Own Peer Threat 12/16/08.

The somewhat puzzling title refers to the fact that, to put it briefly, the fight between different services and even priorities within those services is intensifying beyond what it is even in the fat years. Because while Dick Cheney's and George Bush's "global war on terror" opened the spigot for all kinds of military projects and equipment, whether they were related to combating anti-American terrorism or not.

Cordesman and Kaeser seem to have a heavy preference for large-scale spending on "strategic" air power. You know, to defend us against the Soviet Union, the 20th anniversary of whose demise will be here before we know it.

But they've put their finger on a real problem here, even if that wasn't the aspect of the problem they intended to highlight. The "military-industrial complex" isn't a conspiracy - it's way too big to be a conspiracy - but it does exist. And it operates powerfully to encourage threat inflation, expansive definitions of American security and lots and lots and lots of spending on expensive weapons systems. And it has threat effect even without the ill will of people like Dick Cheney. And we can't really afford to pretend people like Dick Cheney don't exist.

The military budget needs to be "right-sized" (to borrow a corporate term for cutting back) based on a coherent strategy for the post-Cold War world. Unless this gets plenty of public and Congressional scrutiny and public pressure of various kinds to do just that, the result is likely to be a compromise that winds up increasing the size of the armed forces, building up a counterinsurgency component (which will look an awful lot like a small variation on conventional warfare if anyone looks closely) and still promotes a conventional military capacity to stop the Soviet Red Army from overrunning Europe.

Cordesman and Kaeser give us a glimpse of the jockeying going on here:

The current focus on the counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Secretary Gate's [sic] emphasis on irregular warfare and increased intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (IS&R) capability, either requires major trade-offs within current aircraft and other procurement programs or major increases in the size of the entire defense budget and future year defense program.

Secretary Gates has issued a new "strategy" that emphasizes irregular warfare, and has given the improvement of IS&R capabilities high priority to meet current warfighting needs and serve immediate mission requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, like his predecessor's QDRs, and the strategy of each of the military services, his "strategy" is not yet a strategy at all. It is still a mix of concepts and doctrines which is not defined in a clearly delineated force plan, in a modernization and procurement plan, in any form of program budget and cost analysis, or in any measures of time and effectiveness.

The debate over seeking the most advanced systems possible to deter and defeat any peer threat versus giving priority to irregular warfare and IS&R has not been resolved, and is certain to be revived when a new Administration takes office. The Russian invasion of Georgia alone virtually ensures this, but inter and intra-service infighting alone would have ensured it in any case. [my emphasis]
The US currently spends something around half the military budgets of the whole world. It's too much. And Congress shouldn't be setting military budgets based on some notion that you can't spend too much on security. Spending too much can cause an avoidable arms race. And, yes, even though no politician right now seems to want to say such a thing out loud, having unnecessary capabilities creates a temptation to use them.

There has been some recognition of that in the debate over fighting terrorism. The temptation to look at terrorism as a military problem with primarily military solutions has prompted much use of the metaphor, "When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

Do we want to set our national security strategy around a mission of fighting counterinsurgency wars like in Iraq and Afghanistan? If we decide to do that, it should be in full knowledge of what that means. And a lot of it isn't pretty.

And there is and should be a trade-off between counterinsurgency preparedness and the kind of conventional-warfare emphasis that the military has had since the Vietnam War. Is it anyway anyhow in American interests to incorporate Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and be prepared to go to war against the Russians to do so? If it is, that might indicate that we need to be training our troops for long partisan warfare with people speaking Ukrainian, Georgian and Russian. And maybe invading countries when we feel like it in the Middle East and South Asia will have to be left to some other lucky world power.

But these decisions should be made by generals, military contractors and lobbyists, and nerds from Washington think-tanks funded by the defense industry or rightwing warmongers.

Noah Shachtman of the Danger Zone blog was writing back in June about how Obama and his team seemed to appreciate Bob Gates' ability to bring at least some rationality to the runaway Predator State approach practiced by Rummy and his cronies at the Defense Department (Barack's Defense Secretary: Bob Gates? 06/30/08). He's also been blogging about Gates' resistance to Air Force spending proposals and strategy perspectives: Ten More Reasons for the Air Force Purge 06/06/08; Air Force Purge Stemmed From Future War Fights 06/23/08; Pentagon Budget War About to Go From Cold to Hot? 12/10/08. (Cordesman and Kaeser don't seem to look favorably on that aspect of Gates' position on the budget battles.)

Shachtman also sums up the current dilemma much more succinctly than I could have in Jets vs. Grunts in Pentagon Spending Showdown 12/22/08:

Since the start of the century, America has been pouring money into fighting a pair of counterinsurgencies -- while spending countless billions to get ready for a potential face-off with China or Russia. But that was before we were broke. Now, it's decision time. ...

But which of these scenarios should be America's main focus? For the last eight years, America hasn't really had to make a choice between gearing up for a showdown with China and training for the next Iraq. Pentagon spending went up so high, so fast that the Defense Department could afford to pay for both. But in an era of economic collapse and trillion-dollar bailouts, that's no longer possible. So what percentage of our defense budget are we willing to devote to arming against Russia? How much are we ready to spend to get ready for Afghanistan II? What are the risks of under-investing in that scenario? Or spending too much? In other words: Where do our long-term national interests lie, really? Get those questions straight, and the choices about individual weapons systems will get a whole lot clearer. [my emphasis]
I have big worries about Gates staying on as Obama's Secretary of Defense. But part of his reason may well be that Obama and his team understand that some serious choices in defense have to be made. And the magic mirages of air power zealots add up to huge expenses that never quite deliver the promised results.

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