Examine the influence of the 'sacred trinity' on U.S. military spending — now

Sitting before Congress — and a dozen stalwarts of opposing political ideologies — is the opportunity to question the economic and moral wisdom of what author Andrew Bacevich calls the Washington rules — a “sacred trinity: an abiding conviction that the minimum essentials of international peace and order require the United States to maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism.”

These Washington rules — America shall protect and, more importantly, project American values because they are derived from American exceptionalism — require great military expense born by you and me, the taxpayers. That expense now faces a congressionally mandated deficit reduction process.

Come the day before Thanksgiving, Nov. 23, six Democrats and six Republicans must identify at least $1.5 trillion in cuts in federal spending over the next decade. If they do, then Congress must vote yea or nay by Dec. 23. If they do not, the Budget Control Act triggers automatic cuts totaling $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction, slashing, among others, military spending. (Note that some folks are trying to detrigger the trigger.)

The so-called super committee, formally known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, exists because Congress demonstrated neither the political will nor moral courage to tackle deficit reduction in a rational, non-confrontational, non-ideological way. None of its members has the stomach to cut military spending; the political cost would be, they think, unbearably high.

Advocates of cutting military spending would become, in a word, electoral collateral damage, labeled as isolationist and unpatriotic foes opposing American security.

Instead of examining the debatable merit of America’s global military presence balanced against its high cost, the joint select committee is decidedly silent in the face of so many voices demanding defense spending not only remain untouched but also have earlier cuts restored.

Already, chieftains of the military and the intellectual and corporate enterprises the military budget supports have, akin to Chicken Little, argued these cuts would devastate the armed forces.

Do the right thing,” said Leon Panetta, defense secretary: Look elsewhere to cut spending. Rep. Buck McKeon, Republican of California, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, who heads the Senate counterpart, wrote the cuts “will compound deep reductions Congress has already imposed and critically compromise national security.” The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, in a joint effort with the American Enterprise Institute and Foreign Policy Initiative, posted a report titled “Defending Defense: Warning: Hollow Force Ahead!”

House Speaker John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, argued the Pentagon budget was cut more than enough in the debt accord reached this past summer by President Barack Obama and Republican leaders. “I would argue that they’ve taken more than their fair share of the hits,” Boehner said.

That accord calls for cuts of $350 billion in projected spending over 10 years, although Pentagon planners believe it will be $450 billion. The joint select committee’s cuts will be in addition to those assumed in the summer debt accord.

What does America spend on its military?

Given the claims of devastation to America’s military if further cuts are triggered, how has defense spending fared in the past decade? What’s the materiel condition of America’s military?

Obviously, many answers from many sources — all with different ideological or financial motivations — confront that question. Let’s look at one: A report by the Stimson Center, a nonprofit research group in Washington, provides a detailed compilation of procurement spending by the armed forces over the past decade.

Begin with overall defense spending from fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2010: That’s about $6.4 trillion in visible spending, including war funding. (Visible is applicable here. In 2008, USA Today reported that black, or secret, military spending had “increased by nearly 48% since 9/11 — from $18.2 billion in fiscal 2002 to $26.9 billion this year [2008] — according to figures compiled by the non-partisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.”)

The Stimson report, written by center co-director Russell Rumbaugh, focuses on visible procurement spending — what the military bought, what it paid for it, and the consequences of procurement spending patterns by each service branch. In sum, taxpayers’ money bought at least $1 trillion worth of military materiel from fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2010. And that’s with two wars (and assorted dustups) driving American foreign policy and military planning.

Rumbaugh’s executive summary concludes that modernization of the American military — a principal goal of procurement over the past decade — was accomplished:

• Procurement funding grew dramatically — from $62.6B in FY01 to $135.8B in FY10.
• Supplemental war funding significantly enhanced the resources available for procurement, making up 22 percent of all procurement funding.
• Most procurement programs already have been almost completely funded.
• The Army had its next-generation acquisition programs cancelled, but that freed resources — enhanced by significant supplemental war funding — to expand and upgrade its primary combat vehicles and supporting capabilities, giving it a fully modernized force.
• The Air Force modernized its force by fielding the next-generation systems of the F-22 and C-17, and also introduced an entirely new capability — unmanned aircraft. The Air Force bought fewer fighters than it projected because it made a conscious choice to pursue high-end and expensive next-generation systems.
• The Navy achieved the modernized force it projected at the start of the decade, and relied on the dramatic expansion of procurement funding to achieve that force.

Reading the details of military procurement is fascinating, especially the spending decisions made by some branches that favored advanced technological capabilities against amounts of materiel sought. For example, the Air Force bought the F-22, the most advanced air-to-air fighter in the world. But that extraordinary capability is expensive — so the Air Force bought only 260 fighters over the past decade. It had bought 2,063 fighters from 1981 to 1990 — and even those F-15s and F-16s have demonstrated they can defeat any other nation’s combat aircraft.

Here are the report’s summaries of each branch’s procurement spending and its impacts.

The United States Army

At the start of the decade, the Army planned on devoting its procurement funding to the next-generation systems it intended to field. When these programs were cancelled because they were underdeveloped and already unaffordable, the Army instead spent the increased procurement funding it received on modernizing its existing forces. Programs that were originally slated to received only limited funding instead received significant funding, especially from the $124B in unexpected supplemental war funding, resulting in nearly the Army’s entire inventory being modernized. Its combat vehicle fleet has been expanded and upgraded with state of the art technology, including digital situational awareness and communications suites. It also expanded the fielding of its supporting vehicles and small arms. Whatever its future needs and plans, the Army today is better positioned with modern equipment than any other army, due largely to its procurement investments. In the past decade, the Army almost unintentionally acquired a fully modernized force. [emphasis added]

The United States Air Force

In contrast to the Army, the Air Force consciously pursued the procurement of expensive, next-generation aircraft. Having made that choice, the Air Force today has already fielded its next-generation systems in two of its primary areas: fighters and airlift. For fighters, that choice has meant the Air Force has less than it projected despite the dramatic increases in procurement funding it received. But the Air Force offset some of that smaller quantity by buying unmanned aircraft in significant numbers. Here, too, the Air Force chose to pursue the next-generation system. The Air Force chose to use the past decade’s procurement funding to modernize its forces and field those next-generation systems. [emphasis added]

The United States Navy

Like the other services, the Navy ended the decade with a modernized force. Unlike the other services, it did so largely by achieving its original plan. Although it expanded its modernization plan when procurement funding began increasing, it also reduced that expansion when its new plans became unaffordable. The Navy relied on the increased procurement funding of the last decade to execute its plan; nevertheless, today it has a force that has achieved the capabilities it projected it would need. The Marine Corps had a mix of modernization; fielding one high-end, next-generation system but also capitalizing on supplemental war funding to upgrade its vehicle fleets.

Rumbaugh’s analysis concludes that the American military remains the most advanced — and modernized — in the world. He recognizes that what to buy and how much to buy for America’s armed forces remain a source of contentious debate. His report does not address that issue. Rather, he focuses on what has been accomplished through procurement:

At the start of the second decade of the 21st century, US military capabilities and technology are the most advanced in the world. Although much of the US military strength is rooted in the professionalism and dedication of the people in the services, they are also outfitted with the best equipment in existence. The Army has higher quality and more modern tanks, fighting vehicles, supply trucks, small arms, helicopters, and support equipment than it had at the start of the decade. The Air Force has better fighter, airlift, and unmanned aircraft. And the Navy and Marines have better ships, aircraft, and support equipment. Even as the debate of what we should buy rightfully continues, we should not dismiss what we have already bought. [emphasis added]

The Stimson report provides astonishing detail about what each service branch bought, right down to the Army’s 228,377 M249 squad automatic weapons and M240 medium machine gun (more than 1.5 times the intended buy); the Air Force’s 352 Predator and Reaper drone aircraft; the Navy’s two aircraft carriers ($16.8 billion), 10 attack submarines ($28 billion), and 18 destroyers ($28.9 billion); and the Marines’ 155 V-22 Osprey vertical takeoff and landing aircraft ($14 billion). The taxpayers bought a helluva lot of top-notch stuff for the American military in the past decade. The study has other tidbits as well, such as this: The Army has spent at least $1 billion a year since 1996 on canceled weapons systems.

Cui bono?

Given its findings, the Stimson report should inaugurate a discussion about the appropriate level of American military spending — and the incentives driving it — over the next decade. But such discussion is unlikely.

First, as Bacevich argues, the Washington rules about American power are deeply embedded in the national consciousness. The public accepts the status quo, in part because it believes it does not need to question the projection of military power by the United States or the reasons proferred for it.

Second, an intricate network of intertwined ideological, economic, military, and political institutions populated by elites would collapse if the Washington rules were publicly discussed and ultimately discarded. Writes Bacevich:

Who benefits from the Washington rules? The answer to that question helps explain why the national security consensus exists.

The answer, needless to say, is that Washington itself benefits. The Washington rules deliver profit, power, and privilege to a long list of beneficiaries: elected and appointed officials, corporate executives and corporate lobbyists, admirals and generals, functionaries staffing the national security apparatus, media personalities, and policy intellectuals from universities and research organizations.

Each year the Pentagon expends hundreds of billions of dollars to raise and support U.S. military forces. This money lubricates American politics, filling campaign coffers and providing a source of largesse — jobs and contracts — for distribution to constituents. It provides lucrative “second careers” for retired U.S. military officers hired by weapons manufacturers or by consulting firms appropriately known as “Beltway Bandits.” It funds the activities of think tanks that relentlessly advocate for policies to fend off challenges to established conventions. “Military-industrial complex” no longer suffices to describe the congeries of interests profiting from and committed to preserving the national security status quo.

An overpowering narrative

The Washington rules as articulated by Bacevich have no single author. Rather, the narrative has been constructed by many architects since World War II. America’s self-assumed image of its exceptional place in the world fostered a mythical but militaristic ethos of global power projection. That ethos — the rest of the world should mirror the American enterprise of democracy and its definition of freedom — has survived revision and revolution in military technology and tactics, strategic planning, sensibilities in the officers corps, political leadership, voter attitudes, and narrative management.

The Defense Department’s $691 billion budget request for fiscal 2012 continues to underwrite the narrative of American power projection as global arbiter and definer of proper “international order.” In one breath, the DoD budget overview pins the American mission on its presumed historical mandate and “successful Cold War strategy,” granting it a central role in the maintenance of global order. From the DoD overview:

America’s national security strategy calls for comprehensive global engagement aimed at underpinning a just and sustainable international order. This strategic approach has its roots in the central role the United States played in the years following World War II – creating an architecture of international institutions, organizations, and standards establishing certain rights and responsibilities for all nations. This international architecture was a critical enabler of America’s successful Cold War strategy against an ideological adversary, and it remains central to the maintenance of international order today.

But in the next paragraph, the DoD pays lip service to the “norms and values of the international community.”

America’s ability to lead stems from the timeless resolve to support liberty, freedom, and open access to markets and ideas. The United States can only lead when others trust it to carry forward their best interests, to listen to their concerns, and to conduct itself in line with the norms and values of the international community.

Is the magnitude of American military power lodged overseas “in line with the norms and values of the international community”? Bacevich details what “comprehensive global engagement” actually means. According to Bacevich in his book “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War“:

The United States currently has approximately 300,000 troops stationed abroad, again more than the rest of the world combined (a total that does not include another 90,000 sailors and marines who are at sea); as of 2008, according to the Department of Defense, these troops occupied or used some 761 “sites” in 39 foreign countries, although this tally neglected to include many dozens of bases in Iraq or Afghanistan; no other country comes even remotely close to replicated this “empire of bases” — or to matching the access that the Pentagon has negotiated to airfields and seaports around the world.

Make that 762 “sites” in other countries if President Obama’s promise to place 250 marines in Australia (eventually increasing to 2,500 personnel) represents a new site for power projection. It appears the tiresome wars in the Mideast are giving way to shouldering aside a presumed Chinese threat to traditional trade routes with good, old-fashioned saber rattling.

Global military spending in 2010 hit $1665 billion; the United States accounted for $636 billion, or nearly 40 percent of the global total. Is this level of military spending “in line with the norms and values of the international community”?

This post does not argue for specific levels of American military spending. Nor does it argue the joint select committee ought to dramatically reduce military spending. It calls for, instead, far more introspection about the American global mission by far more Americans. It asks for plain talk about the Washington rules articulated by Bacevich. It suggests academics do far more research on American exceptionalism and its connection to American global power projection. It asks that America’s civilian elected leaders — yep, those folks on the Hill with the dismal approval rating — reconsider how taxpayers’ dollars are spent at a time when 30 million Americans want jobs, and now.

Reconsider how best to project American values. If Americans believe that they can outcompete anyone, then they should demand that American foreign policy be based on the projection of economic power. Frankly, China has our number. America is addicted to its low-cost wares. The money we pay to China for cheap electronic goods has helped the most populous nation on Earth increase its military spending and begin to annoy its neighbors around the South China Sea.

A dialogue over the Washington rules and their hold on maintaining high levels of military spending will not happen. When a member of the Senate, the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” threatens to quit the joint select committee if it argues for cuts in military spending, a desperately needed deliberation ends, let alone begins. That’s what Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, did. And Lindsay Graham, Republican of South Carolina, backed him up:

This pisses me off beyond belief that our party would subject the Department of Defense not just to more cuts, but to the end of the finest force ever created in the history of the world. This budget deal is a philosophical shift that I will have no part of.

The United States is continually at war. We need to consider why — and the discussion cannot begin and end solely with fears of terrorism. Being continually at war reflects who we are. That’s how the world reacts to us — as a nation at war.

If our elected leaders follow the refusal of Kyl and Graham to even discuss how and why we spend so much of our money on our military, we’ll never reach a national consensus on what relationships America ought to have with the other nearly 200 nations on the planet.
• • •

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes … known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. … No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

— James Madison, Political Observations, 1795

3 replies »

  1. Well said, Denny, well said.

    I’ve argued before that the Cold War military structure still burdening us was never necessary. There is no evidence that Stalin had the plans and aims we ascribed to him, but there is evidence that the US military over-stated the Soviet threat to keep military spending at WWII levels for as long as possible. The shining example being Kennedy’s famous “missile gap,” which was actually well in favor of the US. A fine secondary example would be LeMay (iirc) saying rather publicly that he’d have to scare the hell out of the American people. Funny, that was the trick used to double the DoD budget over the last decade.

    The discussion the US is not having revolves around deciding out actual strategy and tactical engagement with the wider world. The statements you quoted are all we have, and there’s no substance there. I’d think there’s a good reason for that.

    Joshua Foust put out a good starting point for the discussion we need to be having. Obviously, nobody’s listening to talk like that. And that’s how waning empires collapse rather than draw down in a way that allows the nation they represent to survive. The history of America’s collapse has already been written; not one of our leaders has the courage to change it.