Bloated Budgets and the ‘Less is More’ Mentality
With two oceans protecting us from hostile actors, and a military able to project itself globally, why must we spend more on our defense than the next several nations combined?
In the aftermath of Vietnam, the US military underwent several major transitions, including the abolishment of the draft and a shifting focus from the large division formations prevalent since WWII toward a smaller, more agile (to use the general officer parlance) force capable of moderate self-sustainment and rapid deployment.
The US military has had a very different upbringing than those of our European partner nations. Since 1865 there has not been a major military conflict inside our own borders. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans have provided our country a defense-in-depth that has allowed us to forgo direct internal defense via fortifications and readily available local combat units, instead focusing on force projection and high-cost/high-payoff weapon systems.
The US military’s cognitive dissonance of focusing on fighting the next ‘big’ war against a near-peer nuclear armed opponent (China & Russia), while still having to execute and win against the current conflict of the day (Iraq, Afghanistan) has created strategic and doctrinal issues that have been giving American civilian and military leaders headaches for generations.
How much time should be spent on learning about rear-area operations, honing air-to-air dogfighting abilities, or conducting brigade and regimental-level combat missions vs the very specific regional skill sets required by occupying troops in ambiguously defined areas of operations like those we’ve faced in the Middle East?
Unfortunately, this state of affairs has also provided an incredible multibillion-dollar windfall to defense contractors and industrial weapons manufacturers, who have capitalized on the reluctance of our political leaders to send more troops into combat, instead relying on fewer, more lethal (read expensive) platforms.
As we’ve written about several times before, the post-Vietnam shift to the all-volunteer force has placed a premium on the lives of America’s citizen-soldiers. In theory this is a good thing, keeping our soldiers out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, rather than ramping down our country’s involvement in unnecessary conflicts, the shift toward a platform-centric mindset has only encouraged our participation in what are perceived as easy wars, employing small SF teams, long-range ordnance delivery, drones, and other media friendly options that won’t result in 18 year old kids coming home in body bags.
This mentality has also facilitated the growth of unkillable weapons systems which may or may not actually be proved in combat, as developers continually pressure congressional and military leaders about the need to stay ahead in the competitive global arms race.
Lockheed’s F-35 project is a favorite whipping boy for those who oppose the unrestricted growth of the military industrial complex. And for good reason. To-date it is one of the most expensive weapons programs in human history.
It’s created using parts and components from almost every state in the Union, employing hundreds of thousands of Americans. With that much political muscle behind its design, it’s not hard to see why such a program was allowed to go ahead despite being massively over budget and behind schedule. The result is a Swiss-army knife of an aircraft designed to perform all USAF missions, replacing the purpose-built fighters and ground attack planes of today. The result is a platform that does a little bit of everything, but none of it particularly well.
The Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), better known by sailors as the “Little Crappy Ships”, are another egregious example of flawed defense spending priorities. They were pitched as highly modular ships with a shallow draft, minimal crew (less boots on the ground), and the ability to swap out mission equipment packages, allowing them to operate in myriad roles (very similar to the F-35 program). The first ship was commissioned in 2008. Almost immediately, technical, and operational issues began to arise. As the budget continued to grow, and problems continued to be identified, the Navy began to cut back its overall ordering requirements. Not an easy thing to do when you still need ships to cover global deployments, and each platform takes several years to complete. In December 2016 the Government Accountability Office released a statement criticizing the LCS program’s inability to meet the Navy’s requirement for ships to operate at least 30 days underway without a critical failure of one or more subsystems.
To date the Navy has already decommissioned 3 of the 23 LCS built, with plans to do the same to another 9 in the coming years. To say that the program has been a failure would be a catastrophic understatement.
This is not a call for a return to the draft, or for more emphasis to be placed on larger formations of volunteer troops. Instead, it is a recognition that, in getting away from a large standing army of deployable personnel, we have overcorrected and created a situation where money is no object, and any politician who is criticized for the latest billion-dollar-blunder can hide behind the argument that they’re “supporting the troops” by placing technology ahead of personnel in the field. While the sad reality is those systems, whether they are drones flying out of a region base or tomahawks shot from a destroyer off a hostile coast, are still potential flashpoints that have the potential to suck our nation into yet another catastrophic, and ultimately futile, war.
The US government already spends approximately 3% of the national budget on payouts and other ancillary costs for our wounded and disabled veterans.
While our support for those who have sacrificed on behalf of our nation is unmatched across the globe, that doesn’t mean our leaders should be given carte blanche to employ our forces haphazardly around the world. Unfortunately, our dominance in technology, ship building, and airpower has made it very politically attractive to support military operations where we have minimal stake.
Our list of global commitments is long. Whether it’s 50,000 personnel in South Korea to check the impulses of Kim Jong Un, or a few dozen deployed to Djibouti in support of hunter-killer drone strikes in the Horn of Africa, each new deployment is a potential flashpoint that could very quickly result in escalation and overt combat, this time fought by our overworked and much-reduced volunteer forces.
The American people (and by extension our Congressional leaders) have grown complacent with perpetual war. As long as we’re not presented with images of 18-year olds coming home in body bags, we don’t blink at a $1.6 trillion defense budget. And the politicians continue to spend, and continue to place our forces, reduced footprints aside, into positions where they are exposed as potential triggers for a hostile actor.
Our country must be protected. But at what cost? With two major oceans protecting us from hostile state actors, and a military able to project itself globally, why must we spend more on our defense than the next several nations combined? How many educational programs, domestic priorities, or infrastructure projects go unfunded each year so we can spend billions more on 5th and 6th generation weapons systems? All under the guise of protecting the troops, which we’ve shown to be complete nonsense. And woe befall the politician who speaks out against any increase in this spending, lest they be painted as someone who is soft on defense or unpatriotic.
It’s time for the madness to end. We need to reevaluate and affirm that our nation is not responsible for policing the world. Invest in the things that matter. American greatness achieved by military might is a hollow accolade indeed, and one we need to stop striving for.
Stop our needless wars.
Sponsored by Concerned Veterans for America.