As Adam recently reminded us to beware bad quantitative measures, it’s important to remember that bad qualitative ones are similarly subversive. To stay on the subject of Sino-American rivalry, note David Axe’s post comparing the J-20’s progress to American frustration with its 5th generation fighter programs. While the reader’s first temptation is to fear for American superiority because China appears to be developing new aircraft faster than America, jet-for-jet comparisons and procurement process envy only tell part of the story. Even when Axe notes that China’s stealth programs have their own problems, I think comparing weapons systems that China isn’t likely to field equivalents to in large numbers leads debate down the wrong track.
States with the best hardware or most technically-impressive defense establishments don’t automatically win. Niall Ferguson, in his Pity of War, pointed out that the Central Powers were more fiscally efficient in inflicting casualties. In World War II, the Allied powers were often technically inferior side. Certainly the German R&D programs had some notable advantages over U.S. equivalents in some fields. The Germans led the way in sophisticated tanks, aircraft, small arms, and rocket and jet technology. But ultimately, logistical and geographic advantages bought the Allied coalitions time that initially technically or tactically superior foes could ill afford to waste.
Similarly, while China’s development of 5th generation fighter technology is certainly concerning, it’s not the prime concern in theater. The more concerning issue is that China might be able to muster a large number of platforms and personnel that are good enough to deny a more limited number of qualitatively superior American and allied equivalents. John Stillion and Scott Perdue made this point, most explicitly on a tactical scale, in “Air Combat Past, Present and Future,” noting sortie generation – with scant mention of J-20s, and even with soft-balled estimates of Chinese A2/AD measures against American local infrastructure – could deliver devastating results as American airmen struggled to overcome distance and inferior numbers.
If America suffers a disappointing result in a conventional war in the near future, it will likely not be because the victor fielded, pound-for-pound, better equipment. It would more likely be that the enemy is able to “get there first and with the most,” and maintain that longer than the U.S. is politically willing to muster additional resources from either geographic redistribution or internal economic extraction. None of this to say that technological superiority or fast R&D don’t necessarily matter, but only to note they only matter to the extent they can leverage advantages or mitigate disadvantages in the broader geographical and logistical framework that allows the arms to be brought to bear.
True net assessment is a lost art these days, at least in popular military budget discussions. Let's take this Bloomberg piece, for example. First, the headline: "Obama's 'Paper Tiger' Pentagon Budget Spends Five Times China." I understand and respect that the piece is mostly about rebutting an election year claim that reductions of the defense budget will make the US militarily weak. I have no desire to wade into those muddy waters since they have been well-covered by others. But, as the article title implies, the piece supposedly rebuts the claim by looking at the data:
U.S. spending accounted for 41 percent of global military expenditures in 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. China accounted for 8.2 percent and Russia 4.1 percent, the Stockholm-based policy group said in an April report.
And this is where the problem begins. It means nothing to state that the US outspends China by five times because flat aggregate comparisons of defense spending tells us little about operational and strategic outcomes. Let's start with the strictly material: The US is a global power with global responsibilities. China, on the other hand, regionally concentrates its forces. The US is operating at the periphery whereas China, an power rooted in the hard crust of the Asian landmass, has no such logistical problems. Such a figure also tells us nothing about the correlation of forces in the theater in question, or whether each power has managed to translate spending into usable military resources. Given that there have been a lot of news stories about whether or not the US has been getting value out of its latest aerial platforms and problems associated with aging Cold War-era systems as well as the way that personnel and per-unit major platform costs may be causing a "defense death spiral," such an omission has analytical consequences.
Doctrine and force employment matter too. During the late 70s, Phillip Karber ran a simulation of May 1940 for an overly quantitative theater balance methodology called WEI-WUV and found that it didn't account for French and British defeat. The Allies may have enjoyed quantitative and qualitative platform advantages but did not master the "modern system" of military operations that had evolved out of World War I. The Germans, on the other hand, were farther along in the path towards combined arms mobile warfare even if they had some serious material and doctrinal flaws of their own. Andrew Marshall also reminds us that the socio-bureaucratic set of relationships within a military hierarchy also have an impact on effectiveness.
Finally, let's go to the most important factor: the human. WJ Rue at Gunpowder and Lead explains:
Let’s assume that the U.S. and Russia spend the same amount of money on their respective militaries. Let’s further assume that the U.S. allocates a sizeable portion of its resources to training – we’ll say the average fighter pilot gets roughly 150 hours per year in the cockpit. Russia, meanwhile, elects to spend its resources on slightly more capable jets, but its pilots only get 20 hours per year flight time, and they ran out of money before they could build a simulator. If we assume that similar circumstances exist throughout the Russian armed forces, who has the more capable military? The well-trained one or the one with the expensive equipment that the troops don’t know how to use effectively?
Is it too much to expect this in a short piece ostensibly about US budget debates and election politics? Probably. But defense budget debates are also never served well by using total military spending as a good metric of comparison of military power. As Rue argues, military power has aspects that are easy to quantify and other facets that are difficult to express on a balance sheet. Hence, the utility of net assessment.
The New York Times generated a handy budget calculator that allowed its readers to trim dollars off the budget of the Department of Defense. As my colleague Travis Sharp noted, the cuts they collectively voted on reveal some really interesting things about what a reasonably informed public -- the kind of people who participate in online defense budget surveys, for example -- thinks about defense policy.
1. John Mearsheimer and Bob Kaplan may believe in the stopping power of water, but the public isn't so convinced. It has little idea what the U.S. Navy (SEAL teams aside) does in terms of national security. The public is more ready to stop building ships than it is to stop buying aircraft or to cut ground forces. Here the public is at odds with the majority of defense policy analysts I know.
2. Half of the public is in favor of removing one leg -- nuclear weapons on bombers -- from the nuclear triad.
3. The public wants to close bases overseas -- even though, as Travis noted in an email, these bases can save money by reducing the cost of getting soldiers in and out of theater.
4. The public might not fully understand how much of the defense budget is eaten up by personnel costs. The public was very reluctant to cap the pay of service personnel and wanted to keep TriCare -- though it was open to a raise in TriCare premiums.
I think we in the defense analysis community have to do a better job explaining some things to the public, such as why, in the event of a major war, you can recruit and train new infantry battalions quicker than you can design and build ships, and also how much of the budget is eaten up by personnel costs. If you are a member of the Congress, meanwhile, I think you will find that you have more support to cut the defense budget than you might have previously thought. It will be up to you, though, to explain to your constituents why some cuts are smarter than others and why some "obvious" cuts are not as smart on second glance as they are at first.
Yesterday's announcement that the Department of Defense will form a "Strategic Choices Group" to identify priorities and risks ahead of $450 billion in potential cuts to the budget is the latest example of the worthlessness of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). A strategic document would necessarily identify risks and priorities, but since the QDR does neither, the Department of Defense has to establish an entirely new working group to do just that.
Here's a question to which I do not know the answer: how many tax dollars do the Department of Defense and its subordinate departments spend on the QDR? (Searching through the 2006 and 2010 QDRs, I could not find a figure.) Because if you're looking to trim costs, you can probably start there.*
*Yes, I know the QDR is mandated by the Congress. But if the end result does not yield a document the department can use to set spending priorities, perhaps the services can spend less time on it.
(For more on the QDR and other poor "strategy" documents, read Gulliver on Ink Spots.)
My hat is off to my colleagues Nora Bensahel and Travis Sharp as well as my Ranger Buddy Dave Barno for their latest report. I reviewed earlier drafts of this report and was impressed by its rigor and potential utility within the public debate. The final draft is really, really solid and incorporates a lot of the debates we had both internal to CNAS and also within the broader defense policy community. So read the report, and register for the event on Friday.
We at CNAS, by the way, are going to have a big size-of-the-defense-budget hole to fill when Travis leaves us for <ahem> Princeton </ahem> next year.
Uh, no. In his column today, Joe Nocera writes:
You know what they say: Never negotiate with terrorists. It only encourages them.
These last few months, much of the country has watched in horror as the Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people.
Terrorism is defined by Bard O'Neill as "the threat of physical coercion, primarily against noncombatants, especially civilians, to create fear in order to achieve various political objectives." That's a pretty solid definition, and though the Tea Party has certainly relied on other forms of coercion to get its way, in effect threatening to destroy the global financial system, it has never resorted to force or the threat of force. Calling Tea Partiers terrorists is, at the very least, incorrect. Using the term "jihad," meanwhile, is even more fraught with peril. I often suggest people go consult the Encyclopedia of Islam entry for the word before using it themselves. Nocera, meanwhile, is just using it to score cheap rhetorical points.
I have a lot of trouble saying anything good about the Tea Party. The Tea Party -- and the obstructionism and rigid adherence to orthodoxy it represents -- has done more to undermine U.S. economic, diplomatic and military power than al-Qaeda.* That is no exaggeration. But using words like "terrorists" and "jihad" to describe the Tea Party helps no one. They further poison the American discourse, and they also make life really difficult on people like me who spend a lot of time parsing terms like "terrorism" and "jihad" in the face of others who throw those terms around carelessly.
Joe Nocera should continue to criticize the Tea Party, but he should apologize for the language in his op-ed today.
Earlier this morning, I approvingly linked to Nocera's op-ed on my Twitter account. And indeed, I largely agree with everything in the op-ed aside from the language in the introductory and concluding paragraphs. But I should have stated more clearly, from the beginning, that Nocera's clumsy use of such loaded language was at best unhelpful and at worst as irresponsible as the language so often used by Nocera's antagonists.
*I actually did back-of-the-envelope calculations based on the amount the United States will pay over a 10-year period if our debt is downgraded (about $1 trillion), the number of projected cuts to our national defense budget ($700+ million), etc. And I cannot estimate the degree to which the international system -- to include the markets -- now has a lack of faith in the ability of the United States to govern itself. Or the degree to which economic growth will now slow because we are cutting discretionary spending but not making the long-term structural changes (cutting entitlements, raising revenues) necessary for long-term fiscal health. I mean, if you think that we can cut short-term public expenditures and it's not going to have an effect on the private sector, I sell bottles of snake oil that might interest you. But don't just take my word -- take the word of the guy who helps run PIMCO. More on the market fall-out here. More here.
As I said yesterday, the deal that passed through the House of Representatives last night stinks. Both parties continued to embrace this fiction arguing discretionary spending is that which ails our budget, and so programs for the poor as well as defense spending went to the chopping block while taxes remain at ridiculously low levels and entitlement programs remain untouched. Our collective refusal to realize we need to trim our entitlements is maddening, as is our collective refusal to raise taxes -- ever -- on even the wealthiest Americans, who can and in many cases are willing to pay more. (Count me among those willing to pay more, by the way, in the name of fiscal sanity, even if I am not in the top 2%.)
I thus have a degree of sympathy for the defense hawks in the House of Representatives, including my friends serving on and working in the House Armed Services Committee. Some representatives on the HASC voted "no" last night, which in my mind was an incredibly irresponsible thing to do that late in the game, but overall, the HASC gets high marks for both its commitment to transparency, for which it has been justly lauded, and its commitment to rebuilding our ground forces after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while at the same time funding the Dept. of Defense to prepare for future security challenges.
Most of us defense analysts, though, can agree that whatever happened last night and in the budget negotiations, cuts to the defense budget were inevitable and even make sense. As we draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's a perfectly reasonable thing to wonder why we have as many ground troops as we do, and it's also a perfectly reasonable thing to wonder why retirement benefits in the military outpace those in the private sector or why health care premiums are so low for servicemen while they continue to rise for everyone else. So I have no problems with intelligent cuts to the defense budget, though I do have problems with blind swipes of the ax to the defense budget, and I worry we're going to see more of the latter than the former.
Here's the thing, though: if defense hawks want to prevent other law-makers from gutting the defense budget in a clumsy way, they should play offense instead of defense. The path of least resistance now will be to fight some valiant rear-guard action protecting this or that weapons system, but the smarter play will be to convince other law-makers and the public at large that it makes more sense to re-invest in our nation's exhausted military for the next few years than to continue to fund entitlement schemes that we are going to need to eventually cut anyway. And it might even make sense for someone to suggest we all pay an extra $20 "thank you tax" to our nation's Army and Marine Corps this year to replace some of the equipment those soldiers and Marines have used in Iraq and Afghanistan while most of the rest of us have sat on the couch eating Cheetos and worrying about the NFL lock-out. I think most Americans would be down with that -- if they were assured this extra $20 would go to our exhausted Army and Marine Corps.
Because if you want to fix the debt, you're going to have to eventually raise taxes and cut entitlements anyway. You might as well do so now in the name of national security rather than wait until the next crisis. The burden that falls on defense hawks is to convince other Americans that it makes sense today (paradoxically, considering we're winding down our involvement in two wars) to re-invest in the defense budget rather than continue to live in this blissful happy land where you can have both low taxes and cushy entitlements.
Now, I understand some of you want us to have a smaller defense budget so politicians will not be so tempted to use our military power in places like Iraq and Libya. I understand that. But I do not think that trying to shackle policy-makers by having a smaller military makes a lot of sense, even if smart people sometimes argue that. My brief experience in the U.S. military taught me that policy-makers, most of whom have no military experience, will usually throw the military into stupid situations (see: Iraq) whether or not it's prepared and that "clever" means* designed to shackle policy-makers from doing stupid things don't ultimately work. So all things being equal, I would rather have a capable, effective military ready to respond to whatever damn fool idea some president from Texas (LBJ, George W., ... Perry?) gets into his head. What constitutes a "capable, effective military" is then another discussion, and a fun one to have as we think about the military after Iraq and Afghanistan.
*Clever but ultimately misguided means include the way the service chiefs gamed the system after Vietnam and stuck a bunch of essential capabilities in the reserves, making a call-up of the reserves necessary in the event of war. Andrew Bacevich and others have correctly noted this was an attempt by the service chiefs to limit the options of their political masters, which really isn't cricket. Or Huntington, for that matter.
Because Republicans refuse to raise taxes (ever) and Democrats refuse to cut entitlements (ever), the big loser in yesterday's deficit reduction deal is defense spending. As Ezra Klein explains,
...[The] real hit comes in stage two: if the second round of deficit reduction isn’t signed into law, the “trigger” that will make automatic spending cuts absolutely savages defense spending.
Let’s stop there and talk about the trigger, as it’s arguably the most important part of the deal. In his remarks on Friday, President Obama said he would support a trigger if it was done in “a smart and balanced way.” The implication was that it had to include tax increases as well as spending cuts, as a trigger with just spending cuts wouldn’t force Republicans to negotiate in good faith. The trigger in this deal does not include tax increases.
What it includes instead are massive cuts to the defense budget. If Congress doesn’t pass a second round of deficit reduction, the trigger cuts $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Fully half of that comes from defense spending. And note that I didn’t say “security spending.” The Pentagon takes the full hit if the trigger goes off.
The other half of the trigger comes from domestic spending. But Social Security, Medicaid and a few other programs for the poor are exempted. So the trigger is effectively treating defense spending like it comprises more than half of all federal spending. If it goes off, the cuts to that sector will be tremendous -- particularly given that they will come on top of the initial round of cuts. Whether you think the trigger will work depends on whether you think the GOP would permit that level of cuts to defense.
On the one hand, I am among those who think you can really cut a lot of money from the Dept. of Defense budget over the next 10 years by trimming personnel costs -- paring down the force structure of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps after Afghanistan, raising TriCare premiums and adjusting retirement and pension programs. On the other hand, I can't help but shake this sinking feeling that the United States became Europe a little bit yesterday, and not in the good our-espresso-is-now-better way. Democrats and moderate Republicans have decided they would rather keep expensive entitlements than rebuild our military after two exhausting ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and turn our focus to the security challenges of East Asia. And conservative Republicans claim to value the military and believe in more robust defense spending, but they refuse to raise taxes to pay for the advanced military capabilities they want.
So we're left with defense spending that will almost certainly decline precipitously over the next decade, and those of us who work as defense analysts will remain usefully employed, ever scrambling to explain to policy-makers how they need to match their ambitions to their available resources, and how if they reduce their available resources, they will need to adjust the scale of their ambitions as well.
As a younger voter, I continue to be alternately depressed and angered by the selfishness of the generation older than me. Just a few decades ago, the United States was the largest creditor nation. We are now the world's largest debtor nation. The older generation continues to draw more from entitlement programs than they ever contributed and also refuses to raise taxes, meaning the burden for both perpetually doing more with less and paying for entitlement programs we ourselves will never enjoy falls to my generation and the one below me. It's just incredibly frustrating. But hey, it's a democracy, and if that older generation of voters wants a United States that is less ambitious but fatter and happier, okay.
From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
The budget deal, which would finance federal agencies until the end of September, would slash funds for these Department of Education programs by 40 percent, or $50-million, reducing their allocation to $76-million.
"A cut of that magnitude to such small programs really has a huge impact," says Miriam A. Kazanjian, a consultant with the Coalition for International Education. "It would be devastating."
In particular, she says the teaching of "critical" foreign languages, like Arabic and Farsi, and studies of various regions of the world would suffer, hurting America's national security and competitiveness in the global economy. ...
Ms. Kazanjian says she was surprised that the Title VI and Fulbright-Hays programs were the focus for such deep cuts. The programs, some of which began 50 years ago to counter research gains made by the Soviet Union, received increases in federal dollars after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the government wanted more graduates with fluency in Afghan languages like Pashto.
The budget deal "rolls these programs back to 2001 levels," she says.
Much like the International Affairs budget, which includes funding for the Dept. of State and USAID, funds that support the study of critical languages should be understood as part of our national security expenditures. I myself was the recipient of a 2007 fellowship that allowed me to spend a summer in Morocco in an advanced Arabic program* that helped get my Arabic up to the level I needed to pore through newspaper archives in Beirut while researching a dissertation on Hizballah. And I would happily pay a little more in taxes to keep these programs going.
But hey, it's probably safe to cut funding for these languages. It's hard to see Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan or anywhere in the Arabic-speaking world causing issues in terms of U.S. national security interests anytime soon.
*Some of my classmates in this program are not currently doing anything remotely related to U.S. national security, I should add. I should also add, though, that some of my classmates in this program are now doing really important work in the U.S. government in jobs related to the Arabic-speaking world.
Yesterday, 165 House Republicans voted to completely de-fund USAID as part of austerity measures designed to address the U.S. budget crisis. They suggested a lot of other cuts, but you can guess what they did not suggest cutting: the budget of the Department of Defense. They suggested we zero out the budget for USAID but not make any changes to the amount we are currently spending within the Department of Defense.
The FY2011 Department of Defense budget request was $548.9 billion dollars for the base budget, which does not include the $159.3 billion dollars set aside for "overseas contingency operations" such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just to give you a little perspective, the International Affairs budget we set aside for foreign and security assistance programs totaled, according to Gordon Adams and Cindy Williams, $500 billion in the three decades between FY1977 and FY2007 -- $50 billion less than the base budget for the Department of Defense for one year of operations!
But that incredible disparity is not what folks need to know about USAID. The question that last factoid should prompt in the heads of at least 165 people in Washington, DC is, "Wait a minute, why is discussion of the USAID budget included in the authoritative book on the national security budget?"
The answer is that Adams and Williams understand what every U.S. military officer and defense official from the youngest second lieutenant at Fort Benning to Bob Gates understands: the money we spend through USAID is part of our national security budget. Some money, such as the money we spent through both the defense and aid budgets in Haiti last year, we spend for mostly altruistic purposes. But the two biggest recipients of U.S. international aid through USAID are Afghanistan and Pakistan. We can have a separate debate about whether or not this money is being well spent, but we cannot have a debate as to why it is being spent: it is quite obviously being spent to advance what are seen to be the national security interests of the United States.
USAID, as an organization, no doubt wastes a lot of money. But so too, to put it mildly, does the Department of Defense. I have no doubt, in fact, that the amount of money USAID wastes in any given year amounts to a small fraction of the amount of money the Department of Defense loses through cost overruns for the F-35 alone.
The bottom line here is that the biggest defender of the USAID budget will be Bob Gates -- and any U.S. military officer who has ever served with someone from the Office of Transition Initiatives in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Sec. Gates will argue, supported by veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, that while USAID has problems, the money we spend through it is just as related to U.S. national security interests as the money we wasted on the Crusader or the money we spend to put an 18-year old through basic training. To not understand that is embarassing because it means you're an elected policy-maker and still uneducated about the wars we've been fighting for almost 10 years now.
You want to spend less money on aid and development in Afghanistan? Fine, I agree with you. But get of USAID? Now you're just being ignorant.