April 09, 2009

A Hawk Responds

As many of you know, we here at the blog have a policy whereby when someone is criticized by name, they have the right to post a response. It's one of the ways we keep ourselves honest intellectually. Yesterday, I criticized Thomas Donnelly and Gary Schmitt of AEI for what I saw as a poor op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Donnelly reads the blog (who knew?) and put down his martini and steak* long enough to respond to what I wrote (in italics):

As a regular AM reader, I am flattered to be spotlighted. At the same time, that nature of the post cried out for a response - though this is not intended as a point-by-point twit but an attempt to expand upon points necessarily compressed in a short op-ed as in today's Wall Street Journal.

Two noted hawks over at AEI, meanwhile, are mounting a lusty defense for every weapons system under the sun -- from the F-22 to the FCS -- on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. Donnelly and Schmitt go weapon-by-weapon and explain the advantages offered by each on the battlefield. But c'mon, fellas, no one has ever argued that these weapons systems would not be nice to have. Hell, in an environment with zero scarcity, go ahead and buy as many F-22s as Lockheed Martin wants us to buy. But it makes little sense to buy not one but two new lines of fighter-interceptors.

Neither the F-22 or F-35 is, strictly speaking, a fighter-interceptor--and certainly not the F-35, whose primary mission, as least for the United States, is to provide strikes, close air support and so forth. It will happen to be a good-enough fighter and interceptor for the Marines, Navy and U.S. Allies -- since the allies aren't making any "fifth-generation" aircraft yet and the needs of the Navy and Marine Corps are constrained by their maritime operating environments. More significantly, the F-22 does a lot more than just intercepting, including a variety of electronic combat, a little bit of striking, and, in the future, a lot of forward-controlling of UAVs. Also, to be pedantic, we've already got two "interceptors," the F-15C and various versions of the F-16.

Donnelly and Schmitt never address the fact that this is a BUDGET. And budgets are designed to control spending as much as enable it. If we lived in an environment in which money grew on trees, sure, we should buy all of these weapons systems. All of them have their advantages. But we don't have the money required to buy everything under the sun -- the authors don't discuss the financial crisis, of course -- and so Donnelly and Schmitt further the illusion that national defense should not be bound by fiscal restraint.

An interesting point considering the rest of the government -- that is, the parts not at war -- are spending money like drunken sailors. The purpose of defense spending is to provide U.S. armed forces with adequate strength to carry out the missions given to them by the nation, not to provide constraints on America's strategic ambitions. The current defense program (or, if you prefer, the list of requirements produced by the JCS at the behest of Secretary Gates last November) is not a list of everything under the sun, nor was it fiscally unconstrained.

The undeniable fact is that the United States is wealthy enough to build the military forces it needs. The Obama budget trims Pentagon budgets to less than 3 percent of GDP (while increasing social entitlements and debt service to 22 percent of GDP); the 50-year, Cold War average -- a period of consistent and substantial economic growth -- was more than 6 percent of GDP. And the administration's plans dramatically increase the size of government. So the question is not affordability, but rather what the spending priorities of the government are and should be.

Second, you know what else Donnelly and Schmitt don't mention? How screwed up the acquisitions process is. Note that Secretary Gates did not just cast doubt on the war-fighting capability of the FCS vehciles. He also went out of his way to sharply criticize the contract itself.

"Further, I am troubled by the terms of the current contract, particularly its very unattractive fee structure that gives the government little leverage to promote cost efficiency. Because the vehicle part of the FCS program is currently estimated to cost over $87 billion, I believe we must have more confidence in the program strategy, requirements, and maturity of the technologies before proceeding further."

Acquisition reform has bipartisan support. Donnelly and Schmitt, though, play see-no-evil, hear-no-evil because mentioning that the acquisition process might be flawed harms their argument. Better to pretend all these weapons systems were born of immaculate conception.(Note: The headline of their op-ed was the despicable "Obama and Gates Gut the Military." But I am guessing this headline was written by some twerp of a sub-editor and not by the authors themselves. Donnelly and Schmitt did not write anything so ugly in their op-ed. The flaw in their argument, rather, was what they left unsaid and not what they said.)

I'm glad the the directly ad hominem nature of this comment was aimed at the
Journal; as a former journalist I have more sympathy for the plight of headline writers but I'm happy to dodge the vitriol. More seriously, any long-term view of the defense acquisition process and various attempts to reform it ought to instill a deep skepticism about unintended consequences. My personal view would be that the single biggest factor in program cost problems is budgetary turbulence and the constant rewriting of contracts and requirements, combined with the inherently difficult engineering challenges of inventing cutting-edge systems. All of these procurement and reform complaints were raised about the current generation of U.S. systems, the ones whose lives we are about to extend another decade and which have performed so flexibly and well in a variety of conflicts since they were first fielded. The questions of the FCS require a more detailed response (and for that reason I am about to travel to Fort Bliss, Texas and talk to the soldiers who are evaluating it and inventing new tactics, techniques and procedures, including those for irregular warfare); the value of FCS should be an empirical question based on hard facts, rather than the cartoonish conversations about the origins of the program.

One more thing: I have not discussed other sections of the budget on this blog -- and for good reason; this blog covers defense issues -- but Donnelly and Schmitt as well as some of the readers are asking why defense gets cut but all other spending gets expanded. It's a fair question. I think there are a lot of arguments for why this is the case. Here are three:

1. The problems with weapons acquisition are serious long-term problems that simply must be addressed regardless of what's going on in the economy.

No one is in favor of a less-efficient procurement system. But the measure of success is whether soldiers are getting what they need.

2. Secretary Gates has been expressing his displeasure for quite some time that the weapons in the acquisition pipeline were not reflecting the needs and lessons of counterinsurgency and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates mentioned this again on Monday. So if the weapons in the pipeline did reflect the wars we are fighting, perhaps they would not have been cut.

This emphasis on IW is welcome. But it did not motivate the secretary to continue to expand the Army or the Marine Corps - which in my judgment is the most pressing need. Instead, the Army is forced to bear the full costs of its expansion in its baseline budget, and is one of the big reasons why the FCS cuts had to be made.

3. If you were to ask an Obama Treasury official why we're in this economic mess, one answer you might get is the rising costs of health care facing both individuals and businesses. So it makes sense to increase government spending on health care -- or to provide universal health care -- if that means reducing the costs of health care for businesses and individuals.

Only the Obama Administration believes that more health care for more Americans will cost less. It may cut the "unit cost" -- as it would if we were buying more F-22s -- but the cost to the nation and the treasury will go up. And because this administration favors a set of budget priorities so favoring social welfare, and because the national debt is skyrocketing, the ability of the United States to play the same role in the world will be diminished. We are becoming -- and this is not a laugh line -- more like France, if our budgets express our national priorities. I would hope to have a serious debate about this choice rather than falling into it.

It's not all looking bad for the president on the op-ed page of the Journal, though. The staff editorial, for example, had high praise for his Iraq policies.

The Journal, and my AEI colleagues and fellow neo-con warmongers, are happy that the president is not mindlessly fulfilling his campaign promsies in Iraq, and has made what I hope is a lasting commitment to Afghanistan. Our prospects for victory will be much improved, and the stress on soldiers and Marines much lessened, if U.S. armed forces are large enough to handle these missions. And the prospects for future peace similarly enhanced if they have the range of capabilities suitable for defending our interests in a very dangerous world.

Thomas Donnelly
Resident Fellow in Foreign & Defense Policy Studies
American Enterprise Institute

I hear those crazy war-mongerers -- or, to use George Galloway's phrase, "war-mongering war-mongererers" -- over at AEI have a good lunchroom, so Donnelly, you owe me lunch for the pain in the fourth point of contact formatting this response was. You hear me, Donnelly?

*I just assume this is what neo-conservatives eat. Which doesn't sound like a bad meal, actually. Is this what they serve at AEI?