Even today, few deny the long arm of US military might.
After all, the US military exhausted the Soviet Union, crushed Saddam Hussein, and drove Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda into hiding.
To what should we attribute these triumphs? Some would say US planning and foresight. Others would mention the hard work and dedication of US soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Still others would point to the application of superior technology. All would be correct to some degree, but each of these explanations disregards the fact that for more than a lifetime, the United States has wildly outspent its military competitors.
For many years, the United States spent more on defense than the next ten big spenders combined. It turns out that’s no longer true, according to Jane’s and PPGF. But whether the current count is seven or nine, we must acknowledge that US dominance was purchased at a high cost.
The High Cost of Big Debts
The first cost is the accumulation of debt. While many will admit to the numbers, few will publicly concede the long-term threat they pose to national and international security. Among the few, Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has for several years consistently declared that “The single biggest threat to national security is the national debt.” While US defense spending is currently declining, these charts illustrate that the US share of global defense spending has remained strong (1) regardless of the irregular ups and downs of external events and (2) largely independent of the debt burden.
The second cost is the accumulation of commitments and expectations. Despite the drawdown of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, senior US policy makers remain staunchly determined to maintain a high level of global engagement. If you doubt it, read the recently published 2015 U.S. National Military Strategy. Among other things, it underscores the US commitment to countering agents of instability, whether “violent extremist organizations (VEOs)” or nation states, the standout examples being Russia and China. Not surprisingly, the strategy has prompted headlines such as “China Angered by New U.S. Military Strategy Report,” “Pentagon Concludes America Not Safe Unless It Conquers the World,” and “Pentagon’s New Military Strategy Calls for Preserving US Dominion of the World.”
Yes, these criticisms arrive from predictable quarters, but in this case the perception is reality, and the reality is that US policy makers continue to pursue a strategy laden with unavoidably expensive commitments — commitments guaranteed to antagonize Russia and China. (All of which stimulates a risky reinforcing feedback loop.) As Patrick Tucker at Defense One quipped, “The United States is preparing for never-ending war abroad.” Despite this, don’t expect to find any references in the published strategy to “debt,” an oversight that ignores Mullen’s warning and validates David Stockman’s statement that “We’re blind to the debt bubble.”
Our Military “Strategy” Amounts to Little More than Big Spending Plans
The third cost — one we rarely discuss — is the dangerous yet unspoken conceit held by a generation of senior US officers and policy makers: the belief that they are innately superior strategists. Just ask the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden! But what if in reality spending was the primary driver and arbiter of these outcomes?
It is suggestive that in cases where the sheer weight of US firepower proved unable to secure a decisive victory (Korea and Vietnam are canonical examples), the United States’s cash-poor but tactically savvy opponents still managed to frustrate and confound front-line US forces. As H. John Poole, a retired Marine colonel, combat veteran, and prolific author, has remarked:
For America’s wartime units, firepower has been and still is the name of the game. This game has some less-than-ideal ramifications. Since WWI, far too many units have not matched up well — tactically — with their Eastern counterparts. As unlikely as this may seem to today’s active-duty community, it is nevertheless well documented. (Global Warrior, 2011, p. xxii)
On this count, “cyberwar” is a prime illustration of another domain in which spending doesn’t guarantee proportional dominance. The recent OPM hack is a painful example, and if practitioners like Richard Stiennon (There Will Be Cyberwar) are correct, more is coming.
As a rule, US policy makers minimize these counterexamples. Commentators like John Poole who point out weaknesses and alternatives tend to be written off by Washington apparatchiks as well-meaning but misguided zealots. And to be fair, from the mainstream perspective Washington’s argument in support of the status quo is actually quite strong — as long as the money continues to flow. For those who discern the uncomfortable truth that the US debt addiction is unsustainable, the picture looks very different. Alternatives to spending-as-strategy exist, but they require policy makers and strategists to rethink their dearly held assumptions of economic and strategic superiority. It requires a unique mind and stout internal mettle to do this, and so far this decade, we have seen little evidence in Washington of this type of insight and character. Let’s hope that the anticipation of crises yet-to-be pushes hitherto overlooked reformers to the front of the national security debate.
I’ll close by restating the problem via analogy: US global superiority in military affairs is actually the superiority of a rich kid who thinks he’s really smart but in reality is merely just rich. When the seemingly endless flow of money slows (as it inevitably will), the mask of cleverness will fall. Everyone who resented the kid will be waiting at the edge of the playground for this day of reckoning, and because no one else will have been so dependent on spending-as-strategy, the erstwhile rich kid will find it tough going.