Wednesday, February 01, 2006

SOTU: the Real Drain on the Economy

Predictably, Mister Bush made a point of addressing federal entitlement spending on programs like Social Security and Medicaid. While I certainly agree that we must eventually come to grips with entitlements issues, I also believe that focusing on social programs masks a larger fiscal problem: the ludicrous amount of money we spend on our military, which has turned into a social program itself.

In 2006, America will spend $500 billion on the Department of Defense, an amount roughly equal to the defense budgets of the rest of the world combined.

This extravagance might be justified if our armed forces were actually keeping America safe or achieving our goals overseas, but they are not. Our armed forces did not defend us against the 9/11 attacks and are presently bogged down in Iraq by a numerically and technologically inferior band of insurgents. Where's the bang for the buck in that?

We're presently using the F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft to intercept airliners we think might be on a World Trade Center style suicide air attack. The stealthy F-22 is the most expensive air-to-air fighter ever manufactured. I've seen the per copy price stated as high as $180 million, and from my experience with actual versus claimed weapon systems costs, it's probably higher than that. The F-22 was designed to take on the Soviet Air Force in the skies over Europe. That we're now using such a weapon to play tag with airliners is a perfect example of our arms spending overkill.

How Much of What is Enough?

I'm not arguing that America should completely disarm itself. Doing so would be foolish, and for our politicians to allow such a thing to happen would be unforgivably irresponsible. The Quadrennial Defense Review is presently underway. The QDR's express purpose is to determine how much of what kinds of forces we need to deter or defeat current and reasonably predictable emerging security threats. Unfortunately, thanks to what President Dwight Eisenhower referred to as the "unwarranted influence" of the military industrial complex, we don't build a force to match the threats. We invent threats that justify spending money on gear we've already decided we want to buy, a practice encouraged and supported by our civilian service secretaries who are former senior executives of America's largest defense contractors.

If by some miracle we ever seriously commit ourselves to right sizing, manning, and equipping our force, we'll need to reverse engineer our strategic force planning process. We need to focus not on what we think we might need, but on what we can be reasonably certain that we don't need.


For starters, we need to dispel the mistaken notion that Iraq has proven we need a bigger Army and Marine Corps. The only reason we would need a larger land force would be to fight more wars like the one we've created in Iraq, and if Iraq has "proven" anything, it's that we don't need to fight any more wars like it.

There are no absolutes in the art and science of war, but as a general rule, land forces must be designed to fight and decisively defeat other land forces. As we've seen in both of the major Gulf Wars, the United States Army and Marine Corps are mighty darn good at doing that.

Historically, land forces have not been good at defeating insurgencies or stepping into the middle of civil wars. As our experience in Iraq after the fall of Hussein's statue illustrates, our Army and Marine Corps aren't very good at that, which is okay, because they aren't supposed to be. They're plenty big enough to do what they're supposed to be good at.


Naval and air forces are something of a different matter. In today's security environment, they can either operate in support of land forces or as independent entities in a battle for maritime and/or air space. Keep in mind, though, that events at sea or in the skies are only relevant to the extent that they affect events on land. For all practical purposes, no other nation or political entity possesses forces that can prevent America's Navy and Air Force from dominating their respective environments, or prevent them from supporting our forces on the ground. In terms of maritime and aerospace power, we're so far ahead of the world that the rest of the world will never catch up. They aren't even going to try. Why should they? What would be the point of breaking their economies trying to build sea and sky forces that could never compete with ours?

So the question of naval and air power is not how much more of it does America need, but how much of what it has now can it afford to do without?


What potential wars will our conventional sea, air, and land forces need to either deter or fight and win in the next half-century or so? I only see two potential scenarios.

One would be to repel an attempted invasion of Taiwan by Mainland China. That would largely be a problem of interdicting China's air and maritime forces, which our Navy and Air Force are more than three times large enough to handle. The relatively tight battle space in the Formosa Strait presents certain tactical challenges, but turning back an assault from the mainland would be a one-day affair.

The second scenario is a replay of the Korean War in which the North invades the South. That's primarily a land power problem that would require support from sea and air forces. We've been preparing South Korea for that contingency for more than fifty years, and a second Korean War would require far less U.S. involvement than the first one did.

Other stuff could happen, of course. We might need to come to the direct defense of Israel, for example, but the Israeli's have a pretty good track record of defending themselves. (Albeit, with considerable financial assistance from us. But financial assistance and direct military assistance are very different things.)

Somebody like Iran might decide to have another go at invading a free and independent Iraq--if such a thing as a free and independent Iraq ever exists--but having watched America's "best trained, best equipped, best funded" force muddle its way through a rag tag insurgency, what country would want to repeat the experience?

Something or other is likely to go down in Africa and the Balkans, but we've already put troops in those regions and gotten nothing out of the experience but burned fingers. Why would we want to do it again?

The Russians aren't going to do anything overly aggressive. For all the fear and loathing they've caused the western world over the past few centuries, they've never been worth a fiddler's flatulence at projecting military power beyond their own borders. Their air force is grounded for lack of proper maintenance, their navy is rusting at the pier or gathering crust at the bottom of the ocean, and its army is burning in Chechnya.

So how much military does America need?

My back-of-the-envelope calculation says we could cut spending on our conventional military forces in half and nobody would notice the difference except for the politicians who'd have to explain to their constituents where all those defense industry jobs went to, and how they let their states and districts become so economically dependent on the military industrial complex.


  1. Good post, Jeff. Did you see the recent poll about the number of people who would support a military action in Iran if diplomatic measures fail? How nuts is that?

  2. Pretty nuts. All my experience and education tells me there are very finite limits on what military action can actually accomplish.

    Foreign policy wise, it's wonderful to have all our land, air, and sea power available, but you can't bomb, shell, or invade the world into doing what you want it to.

  3. I agree. And even if you could, it wouldn't be the right thing to do. I don't like the idea of "I have the biggest stick, so do what I want."

  4. "My way or the highway" is not diplomacy, agreed.

    I have to wonder how that Iran poll was worded, and who was asking the question?

    As someone said about our defense spending, we've become a military machine "trolling the planet in search of an enemy."

  5. Barndog8:29 PM

    Welcome back, Cmdr.

    I concurr - great detail on this post. Reminds me of the last peacetime accident my old helo squadron had - on the mexican border chasing pot runners. Killed both Pilot & CP in a AH-1T Cobra.

    I always wondered what in the flying fuck a Cobra would do to a few Mexicans running a few LBs of shitty dope across the southern border. Sure wasn't worth the 2 Marine Officer's lives - let alone the T model Cobra replacement.

    About the same as using the F-22 to chase 737's around the dammed airspace. I can understand the need for advanced avionics and such, but for christ sakes...

    These people are batshit. Utterly fucking batshit insane.

    Semper Fidelis

  6. "Batshit." Yeah, that's a good term for it.

  7. Anonymous11:32 PM

    Unfortunately, for all the bitching about the F-22's cost (which are admittedly astronomical), the analysis is severely flawed.

    You don't design advanced weapons systems after the fact because these days, a complex system like the Raptor takes decades to develop. So we stop making the F-22. Let's say China invades Taiwan, and the latest generation stealthy Sukoi's the Chinese have been buying from the Russian are the match of our F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s. What are you going to do? Start a crash program and hope that you can develop a superiority fighter in less than 5 years?

    Things like the F-22 are designed in ANTICIPATION of future threats, because the days of being able to churn out an entirely new weapons platform in 1 or 2 years ended in WWII.

    And if you should be worried if you really cared about long-term strategic defense. The U.S. participates in war games with a number of other countries. Just a year or two ago, the U.S. team got totally schooled by Indian air force pilots flying F-16s. Thai F-16 pilots similarly have schooled Marine pilots on a number of occasions and the latest Russian jets should be cause to worry, because they are far superior to the previous generation of jets and anyone with enough cash can buy them.

    Don't think China isn't buying a large quantities of Russian technology and adding their own modifications.

    The name of the game is not taking a breather because there doesn't seem to be any danger of losing - we know what happened to the hare on that one.

    Rather, it would be more constructive to find a way to develop systems like the F-22 that isn't so hugely expensive. But in terms of alternatives, there is no alternative to the F-22.

    (Thought experiment: in a recent wargame, a single F-22 "shot" down 8 opposing F-15s before the F-15s even had a chance to engage. Now it can be argued that $200 million for an F-22 is expensive - until you add the cost of buying 8 F-15s.)

    Even a new lost-cost system will take at least a decade to develop and by that time, our F-15s will be like 30-40 years old. So unless your defense philosophy is rooted in the idea that your hardware should only be the equivalent to what else is out there, this arguments laid out in this post are fatally flawed. Appealing perhaps, but flawed.

  8. Anyone notices that for Alito's first vote on the court he went against all the conservatives and voted to grant a stay of execution in a death penalty case. A missouri case where the defendant said the death penalty was racist, no less.

  9. Anonymous11:38 PM

    For a specific argument why your argument is flawed, see this post at

    The Chinese have their home-built J-10 (supposedly developed with substantial Israeli help, which is a subject for another day) and the Su-27:

    By the end of this decade, the Chinese air force will have deployed at least 720 new generation fighter aircraft that are comparable in general performance to the fighter aircraft such as F-15C, F-16C/D, and F/A-18C/D currently deployed by Western air forces.

    It strikes me that you get ready for the worst case scenario, not the best.

  10. Anonymous:

    Taking your points in more or less reverse order:

    I question the 720 number. I'd be quite suprised to find they could train 720 pilots to fly them, and even if they could train them, they'd be roughly as good as Russian fighter pilots, which isn't too good.

    The J-10 is a strike fighter, not a "state of the art" air to air fighter.

    I'm guessing the war game in which an F-22 shot down 8 F-15s was a simulation. I'm quite familiar with Air Force simulations/tests. They come out the way they're supposed to.

    No alternative to the F-22? Have you heard of the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35?) I'm very much aware of how long it takes to design and field a weapon system like a fighter jet. Why do you and others assume the Chinese can do all this faster?

    I'd need more info on the Indian war game. What were the US pilots flying? Who were they? At the time they got "schooled," were the US pilots flying older fighter category profiles? (Do you know what that means?) What were the Marines flying against the Thais? What profiles were they flying?

    I'm sorry, but you haven't stated anything that changes my mind about the validity of my conclusions. Your arguments sound like the ones the services and contractors make. Scary sounding until you pull a few strings and discover there's not much behind them.

  11. William Bollinger8:25 AM

    As a member of that military industrial complex through having a defense industry job, let me be the first to say "I'm willing to work somewhere else!". I would also point out that history repeats itself, though.

    Our country has a long history of concluding a war, then deciding military spending isn't as important afterwards. We allow our forces to dwindle, our training to lose importance, and our equipment to become obsolete, then end up scrambling to catch up in the next conflict. Lots of lives are unnecessarily lost at first because of this. I'm sure you can think of a couple examples, Jeff.

    I'm not calling for spending at the current levels to continue, but lets not cut so deep that we repeat the mistakes of the past either.

    On Alito's vote, that could just as easily be a tactic to make that vote for Stevens replacement easier to sell. I'll be more willing to look at Alito's voting record critically when it's slightly higher than one.

  12. One other thing. Operationally, if we don't stop an invasion of Taiwan as it's crossing the strait, we deserve to lose. The proper way to fight that battle is to interdict, not to expel the invaders.

  13. Scott,

    Yes, the prime example of what you're describing happened after WWII. However, I'll argue that today's situation is quite a bit different. The WWII force was built specifically to fight that war, it wasn't built to last. We now have a standing professional force which, in theory at least, is actually better prepared and equipped in peacetime.

    There was also quite a bit of bad thinking after WWII about what future wars would look like. Many thought nukes would make conventional forces obsolete, and of course they turned out to be wrong.

    As to the spending, your background probably gives you a pretty good idea what kinds of shenanigans go on in the acquisition biz. Know how much the USS Ronald Reagan cost the taxpayers? I've heard rumors it was about twice what the government is telling the taxpayers.

    As to history repeating itself, I'm of Mark Twain's opinion. It really just rhymes. Today may "sound like" yesterday, but it's not an identical day.

    Getting back to your point about what happens after a war. The other example of what you're talking about is Vietnam, a prolongued war conceived and run badly; it was the war itself that wore down the military, not the decision to downsize afterwards (military malaise).

    My biggest concern with our Iraq adventure is that the Army will never recover from it. The air and naval forces should come out of this okay.

    Last comment: if you give the services everything they ask for, they'll ask for everything.

    Thanks much for stopping by and posting. Come back soon.


  14. Barndog8:42 AM

    As usual - On time, on target Commander.

    Those sights are dialed in pretty good, eh?

    Semper Fidelis

  15. Barndog,

    Thanks again for stopping by. While I'm doing all this typing...

    I really only covered the need for conventional forces here, and I stand by the two scenerio theory--China and Korea. The Chinese problem is an interdiction operation. I've seen many so called experts describe a war with China as an expulsion from Taiwan or a US invasion of the mainland itself, which is really, really inaccurate.

    The business of theater and interecontinental ballistic missiles with WMD tips is a different matter. Can we really build a missile defense system that actually works? I don't know, but I think our own arsenal makes for a better deterrence than an iffy defense system would.

  16. William: You may be right re: Alito, but I think he's probably voting honestly in this case. It was a good decision. One thing the history of the Supreme Court tells us is that, once on the court, Justices have a tendency to be independent. I fully expect Alito will be quite conservative as a Justice, but I don't think he's likely to vote out of a sense of politics. He'll lean toward constructionism, and that's a valid judicial philosophy (though certainly not the only one, thankfully).

  17. Scott,

    I'm trying to catch up on this story, and trying not to project too much about Alito's judicial philosophy based on one case that I'm not at all familiar with.

    Question for you. What was the original jurisdiction in this case? I'm guessing it was a state matter. How does something like this get into federal jurisdiction? Is it a matter of the attorney presenting an argument that the state law or the state judicial process somehow violated his client's constitutional rights?

  18. To Anonymous,

    Please don't get the impression that I was trying to chase you off. I welcome reasonably responsible and documented counter arguments to the positions I take here, and yours was pretty darn good in that sense.

    In this particular case, I happen to question a lot of your supporting information, and also think that I know a bit more about the subject than you do. That certainly doesn't mean I know all things about military and foreign policy affairs. Nobody does. But on this subject, I still think my position is the correct one.

  19. Jeff:

    That's right. The attorney was arguing that the Missouri death penalty system violated the Constitution. That raises a federal question and can get the case into federal court.

    I suspect at the end of it all, the convicted man will lose and be executed. The federal court in Missouri granted a stay to hear arguments on the Constitutional issue. The State appealed to SCOTUS to have the stay lifted, and SCOTUS said no, we're leaving it in place. That's my understanding of what happened, though I haven't read the actual decisions in this case.

  20. Anonymous9:32 AM

    If you still can't be convinced of the wisdom of the F-22 program, then for the sake of intellectual honest, I urge you to read the following:

    Basically, the problem is not that the F-15 can stand toe-to-toe with any fighter except the F-22 today. The problem is that the latest generation of cheap anti-air missiles virtually guarantee shoot-downs of fighters like the F-15.

    The U.S. had total air superiority in Iraq and Afghanistan because neither country had an air force to speak of. But that's aside the point - the threat is from the new generation of missiles, which the Russian and Chinese are building in large numbers.

    So you can continue to spend tens of billions maintaining fleets of F-15s, which will all get shot down when the U.S. meets an enemy that has managed to acquire them, cheaply, from the Russians or actually buy the only fighter jet that is able to survive against these missiles, the only reason being its inherent stealth capabilities.

    The French thought pouring billions into their Maginot line made them impregnable against the assault of any army....from WWI. Germany's new Panzer divisions showed how quickly the tank made the Maginot line into a symbol of blind and short-sighted hubris.

    It may seem like the F-22 is an expensive boodoggle, but I'd ask every critic to fly a $100 million F-15E against a $1 million new generation air-to-air missile and and then say if the F-15 is still a wise investment.

    It would be very foolish to assume that the next enemy the U.S. fights won't have those missiles.

  21. I'm sorry to tell you, but that article is a rehash of the standard USAF propaganda on the F-22. In other words, it's bunk.

    I'll be posting more about this later, but let me mention now that I was involved in the Australian debate over whether to buy the F-22 or the Burke class missile destroyers for their air defense system. The F-22 just doesn't make sense.