Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Defense Budget: Good Money After Bad

"Isn't it odd that after a terrorist attack that relied on $2 box-cutters, we are redoubling our pursuit of fantastical weaponry?"

--Robert Scheer

The United States spends as much or more on defense as the rest of the world combined. In 2005, according to the CIA's World Factbook, America spent $518 billion on the military. China, the closest thing we have to a peer competitor, spent a paltry $81.5 billion on defense in that year.

As the Project on Defense Alternatives reports, the net Department of Defense tab for 2008 will be around $647 billion. That doesn't count another $36.4 billion for Homeland Defense and a further $84.4 billion for the Department of Veteran's Affairs.

What are these astronomical expenditures buying us?

The Next Generation

It pains me no end to say this, but at a macro level, it's difficult to see what purpose the United States military serves anymore. No one is capable of invading and occupying us. Our military did not defend us from the 9/11 attacks, and only a diehard neoconservative will argue that our armed forces are winning our wars overseas or accomplishing our national objectives there.

How on earth did the world's sole superpower maneuver itself into such a tight corner?

To a great extent, we've fallen into the paradigm that says we always prepare to fight the last war, and the "last war" we continue to prepare to fight is World War II. If you compare today's U.S. force structure to the one we fought Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini with, you'll find it's not much different. In World War II we had armor, artillery and infantry. Our naval forces consisted of aircraft carriers, surface combatants and submarines. Combat air power featured fighters and bombers. We had airborne and amphibious land assault and special forces. That's pretty much what we have now--only now, all that stuff costs a lot more than it did then. Pound-for-pound Today's stuff is far more capable than yesterday's stuff, but dollar-for-dollar it's much less effective at achieving war aims.

In a 1989 Marine Corps Gazette article titled "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation," William S. Lind and others* noted that:
The peacetime soldier's principal task is to prepare effectively for the next war. In order to do so, he must anticipate what the next war will be like. This is a difficult task that gets continuously more difficult.

In a particularly prescient passage regarding levels of technology, Lind and his associates predicted a condition that we're woefully aware of today:
Even in equipment, terrorism may point toward signs of a change in generations. Typically, an older generation requires much greater resources to achieve a given end than does its successor. Today, the United States is spending $500 million apiece for stealth bombers. A terrorist stealth bomber is a car with a bomb in the trunk--a car that looks like every other car.

The "Fourth Generation" authors didn't get everything quite right. Stealth bombers like the B-2 come off the assembly line at a sticker shock and awe price of $2 billion or more apiece. They also said that "so far," terrorism "has proven largely ineffective."

They were right, though, in saying that:
However, the West no longer dominates the world. A fourth generation may emerge from non-Western cultural traditions, such as Islamic or Asiatic traditions. The fact that some non-Western areas, such as the Islamic world, are not strong in technology may lead them to develop a fourth generation through ideas rather than technology. The genesis of an idea-based fourth generation may be visible in terrorism.

Net-eccentric Warfare

Much of our military/foreign policy woes sprang from the "transformational" military concept known as network-centric warfare (NCW). NCW and its wingman Shock and Awe became the "new theory of war" under Donald Rumsfeld's Office of Transformation, headed by the late Arthur Cebrowski, but in truth, it was nothing more than throwing the latest technology at tactical level applications. It did not address strategic and political aims of war and foreign policy, and hence proved useless in our so-called Global War on Terror.

How much longer we'll pour national treasure into the U.S. Military Industrial complex for the means to fight wars which that complex doesn't equip us to fight remains to be seen.

But I'm guessing it will be much longer than necessary.

Related articles by Jeff Huber:

In an Arms Race with Ourselves

Invasion of the Transformers


*Lind's coauthors were Colonel Keith Nightengale (USA), Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (USA), and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR).


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword.


  1. Remember what Rumsfeld said: Mr Rumsfeld vowed to "get" the leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, while admitting the campaign was a "complicated, long, difficult, messy, dirty job".

    What we need is more and better-trained for asymmetrical-warfare troops, and the commitment to do it right.

    However, politicians and military contractors make WAY MORE money selling whiz-bang weapons. Push-button war. Shock and awe. And so on and so forth.

    Same as the corporate world: "Well, we've laid off as many people as we can, so the remainder will just have to take up the slack. Hey, they will, if they wanna stay employed! We just bought 'em all new computers (if only we could spare $1 to train them to use 'em!)"

  2. Yes, Jeff, WAY MORE money.

  3. In my own experience and cynical view, DoD has seldom delivered a dollar's worth of defense for each taxpayer dollar spent. More often the money's used on "programs" to get the fair-haired boys promoted or to ensure a retirement job w/ a favored contractor. Think it's safe to say that all services engage in this.

  4. Anonymous2:29 AM

    Our beloved USA has an insatiable appetite for war.

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