The Mystery of US Defense Spending

A pessimistic new 89-page report by the National Defense Strategy Commission on US defense capability, released last week and quoted in dark language on the pages of the nation’s press, questions whether the US military has lost its ability to take on potential enemies, who are said to be gaining fast in military capability. It recommends raising spending levels to meet what is clearly thought a crisis.

That raises more questions than it answers. The main one is: what have they done with all the money they already had?

There seems to be some cognitive disconnect here. The United States famously spends more on national defense than the next seven nations combined – China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, United Kingdom, and Japan – and it wants to spend a lot more, and this is nothing new. While the chart below illustrates 2016 defense spending in US dollar terms, historically the US has devoted a larger share of its economy to defense than any of its key allies, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation in 2016. It has spent more annually than the next seven nations for more than a decade. Defense spending accounts for 15 percent of all federal spending and roughly half of discretionary spending.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, US absolute expenditures, in US dollars, were US$718 billion for the most recent recorded year. That is expected to rise as President Donald Trump excoriates former President Barack Obama for alleged cutbacks, saying he will “never forgive him for what he did to our military.”

China, the next biggest spender, spent just US$166 billion, although that figure is usually considered suspect, with perhaps that much again being spent off the official books. But even so, that would bring China’s total to US$332 billion, less than half the US’s expenditures.

Somebody, either in the Congress or the government, needs to take a new and careful look at the implications of this. Is the Trump administration – like several administrations before it – cruising down the same highway that Detroit’s automakers cruised down until free trade allowed the import of Japanese and other cars that forced them out of their obsolescence? They appear to want more and bigger weapons at a time when the country’s adversaries are shifting to newer, more effective and cheaper ones.

The US, according to the commission, has to be prepared to fight five potential adversaries – China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and the odd freelance jihadi. But the report says, it has cut its military forces to the lowest point since the end of WWII. “Simply put,” it observes, “the United States needs a larger force than it has today if it is to meet the objectives of the strategy.”

While the defense strategy “represents a constructive first step in responding to this crisis,” according to the Times, the report found, “it does not adequately explain how we should get there.”

Before someone explains to the Times “how we should get there,” however, maybe somebody should answer “how we got here.”

We got there by being in continuous war for the past half century or more. According to Freakanomics, the US has been in defensive or aggressive wars for 222 of the 239 years of its existence, and almost continuous combat of various kinds almost since World War II. This is a burlesque of mission creep. Like the Roman Empire, which stretched its borders halfway through England before it exhausted itself and collapsed inward, the US for more than a decade has been the subject of worry over imperial overstretch by historians Paul Kennedy, Niall Ferguson, Linda Bilmes, Andrew Bacevich and many others – as Bacevich said, a danger that the US military will simply drop from exhaustion.

Or maybe they will drop from inefficiency engendered by a historic lack of rigorous budget controls on the part of the US Congress. There are never-ending stories about US$1,200 coffee cups, US$450 wrenches, US$380 flat washers and other astoundingly expensive gear.

These are not just minor items that grifting contractors have stuck the military with.

Today we have a story that the USS Gerald Ford, the most expensive aircraft carrier ever built at US$13 billion, was delivered without the elevators necessary to lift bombs from below decks to fit them onto planes. The vessel is being refitted at a cost of US$131 million because the navy got out over its skis, ordering a technologically advanced magnetic lift system that didn’t work instead of elevator systems that have been lifting stuff onto the deck since 1915.

Four of these Ford-class carriers are in the works at a total cost of US$58 billion. The US has either 10 or 19 carriers, depending on how you count. In addition to those behemoths, the Navy says it needs 355 vessels to accomplish its goals. They now have 286. The US Air Force has 250 squadrons but believe they need 312. The F35A, its frontline plane, will cost US$85 million per copy in 2019, up from US$75 million adjusted for inflation. It intends to buy nearly 2500 of these craft at a cost of US$323 billion.

The army says it needs 500,000 troops on duty against its current level of only 476,000.

But despite all that hardware, according to the report, the US has no capability to deter an opportunistic adversary who might like to take advantage at a time when the military is involved in another regional conflict, and it doesn’t cover combat losses. It is worth pointing out that as budget time nears, a long list of "distinguished commissions" sounds the alarm and begs for more money. Does that sound familiar?

“In some cases, we are behind, or falling behind, in critical technologies,” according to the 12-member commission the report said. “U.S. competitors are making enormous investments in hypersonic delivery vehicles, artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies.”

The Russians and Chinese, among others, have been inspecting the US military for several decades and building numerous brand new or upgraded weapons systems, including ballistic missiles that could cripple or devastate one or more of those US$13 billion carriers. Cruise missiles cost US$1.5 million. US planners will keep those carriers a long way from harm’s way, as the US Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones put it.

Gavin Greenwood, a Hong Kong-based Senior Asia Analyst with A2 Global Risk, does believe the commission is ignoring some American strengths.

The US armed forces, at all levels and in all services, now have a cadre of personnel who have active service experience starting from Gulf War 1 and stretching to this morning who are masters at logistics and experience, both of which they have put to use during all those years of war.

“China, apart from a few senior officers who saw service in the brief but disastrous 1979 border war with Vietnam, has no such depth in command and control experience,” Greenwood writes. “Estonia, which sent a small number of troops to Afghanistan under ISAF command, has, as a result, gained more combat experience than the PLA this century.”

Russia has gained far more experience in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria for example, “but often through the use of ‘auxiliaries’ rather than main force elements operating at up to battalion – and on occasion brigade – level.”

By contrast, all ranks of the US military and its primary allies, notably the UK, France, have learned and relearned the lessons at of functioning in high-intensity operations; stressful and dependent on highly trained and motivated personnel.

By contrast China’s military personnel have only carried out training while Russia continues to rely heavily on conscription to bulk out its military, and appears to have learned few lessons about discipline in the years after its disastrous exodus from Afghanistan, having been thwarted at every turn.

The other US advantage is logistics, Greenwood says – the key to all successful military operations.

“The movement of huge quantities of material over the past few decades to support operations in the Middle East and West Asia, admittedly in the absence of protracted attempts by insurgent forces to interdict the supply chain, requires a high level of planning skills and experience. These can be duplicated in ‘peacetime’ armies such as the PLA, but this is unlikely to match those of the US and its allies operating under the stress of combat conditions and zero-tolerance expectations of superiors.”

Those may be indeed valuable attributes. But they come at a cost that seems unjustifiable. On its website, the Commission argues “that America confronts a grave crisis of national security and national defense, as US military advantages erode and the strategic landscape becomes steadily more threatening. If the United States does not show greater urgency and seriousness in responding to this crisis and does not take decisive steps to rebuild its military advantages now, the damage to American security and influence could be devastating.”

But maybe there is another solution, one that hasn’t occurred to the US’s last several presidents, and that is to look at other ways of accomplishing its mission than finding new ways to kill people.