Saturday, March 11, 2017

Defense Spending 101, Part 1: Don't Get Distracted By the Wrong Numbers

In both my time as General Counsel of the Army and General Counsel of the Air Force, I participated in the development of the defense budget.  I learned quite a bit about how the Department of Defense looks at the job of developing a budget, and the "trade space" it uses to make trade-offs in coming up with a budget.

As a result of this experience, I have become dismayed at the public debate on military spending.  To be blunt, I find most of the discussion of the appropriate size of the budget insipid and ill-informed--on both sides of the issue.  I thought, therefore, that I should devote a few posts to discussing my views about how we should look at the debate on military spending,  At the end of these posts, I hope that the dialogue among my readers will be more informed, and more focused on the real tradeoffs at issue.  I suspect that the liberals among us will still want a smaller defense budge, and the conservatives will still want larger budgets, but at least the discussion will be more informed.  By way of disclosure, by the way, on this topic, I tend to side with the conservatives.

In today's post I will discuss  two ways of looking at the budget--one generally used by liberals, and the other used by conservatives--that I find particularly misleading and ill-informed.  They are both make for great Bumper Stickers, but they really don't illuminate the real issues.

First, in virtually every discussion on the defense budget, I hear some variant of the argument that  "the United States spends more on defense than half the world combined."  The chart above is used repeatedly in these debates.  While true, this argument is grossly misleading about the capabilities of our potential adversaries.  Take China, for example.  China relies on a very poorly paid, largely conscripted force.  In comparison, the United States relies on a well paid professional military.  If you simply adjust for the difference in compensation, China moves from the fifth largest military spender to the second.  This is true of the cost of the factory workers who build China's weapon systems as well.  So unless you want to pay our military and defense contractor employees near poverty wages, a simple comparison of  the China defense budget to that of the United States does not come close to a true apples-to-apples comparison of the value (in terms of military capacity) of the two countries military spending.  This is also true, by the way, of most of the militaries we care about--including Russia and Iran.

In addition, while the U.S. military has  a global focus, with vital national interests in Europe and the Middle East, and not just Asia, China has a singular focus on Asia.  Thus, even if it has less military capability, it can focus all of its military might on one region, while we need a military that can fight anywhere in the world.

To be clear, there is a legitimate debate about whether we should remain a global power, and that debate will drive decisions on the military budget, but a mindless comparison of military budgets really doesn't illuminate the real debate.

While I hear liberals focused on defense spending by other countries, I hear many conservatives focused on an equally insipid number: how large our military was in previous times in our history.  President Trump, for example, has complained the number of ships in our Navy is at the lowest point  since World War I.  Again, while true, arguments like this really miss the point.  Simply put, the size of our military force is really not a good measure of military effectiveness.  Compare a modern  Cruiser to a World War II Battleship.  A modern Cruiser has global surveillance capabilities that can spot targets over one thousand miles away and kill them with powerful missiles.  In contrast, a World War II Battleship did not really know whether the enemy lurked a hundred miles of way, and it could not destroy the enemy that far away in any event.  The capabilities of a modern fighter such as the F-22 or F-18 is also far more impressive than the fighters of the past.  Indeed, this is true of every weapon in our arsenal--they know more, see more, have much larger range, have a much larger lethality, and can fire at far great speeds.  Simply put, numbers alone really don't matter--it is military capability that matters.

As I will discuss in future posts, the better way to look at the defense budget is to determine our vital national interests, determine the capabilities of those that threaten those interests, and then determine the appropriate force structure necessary to defeat, if necessary, these potential enemies.  In my view, it is this detailed analysis that should be used to determine the size of our defense budget.  This is not a mere math exercise.  To the contrary, there are judgment  calls that need to be made at every point in the analysis.  Moreover, there can be vigorous debates on each of these points in the analysis.  But we should not short-circuit the debate with an insipid reliance on the size of other defense budgets or the size of our military compared to other times in our history.

Next we turn to the first part of the analysis--determining the vital national interests.  View the next post of this series  here.

Defense Spending 101, Part 2: Determining Our National Interests
Defense Spending 101, Part 3: Evaluating the Threat
Defense Spending 101, Part 4: Sizing the Force to Meet the Threat

No comments:

Post a Comment