Defense Cuts and Political Assumptions

Sort the geopolitical assumptions out first.

Arguments over defense-spending requirements are ultimately disputes over the political conditions that will obtain in future military conflicts. Secretary Gates’s new proposal to cut the defense budget is a fresh example of this axiom. The concept is easy to illustrate: if, for example, you don’t think we need more F-22 Raptors, your assumption is almost certainly that we will not, in the foreseeable future, have to fight a war in which there is a serious threat to our fighter-bombers. The F-22’s principal advantage over the F-35 is its better performance against modern anti-air missile systems like the ones being deployed by Russia and China. The anti-air missile threat has for some time eclipsed aerial combat as the main survival concern of modern air forces. In a conflict involving such missile systems, F-22s are likely to survive and complete their missions at a higher rate than F-35s.

Your assumption might be, alternatively, that if we are faced with this kind of conflict, the American public will accept higher combat losses and greater difficulty in waging military campaigns. That too is an assumption about political conditions – but I think relatively few analysts are really considering the issue in those terms. Most of them simply perceive little likelihood that America will have to fight a war against an enemy who makes us wish we had more F-22s.

A key question, then, is how accurate our competing prognostications are. We have lost a sense of that question’s importance, however. During the Cold War, when our political assumptions varied little over time, we became cavalier about the historical reality that nations have frequently been wrong in their predictions of what the conditions would be in the next war. In that regard, the Marine Corps’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), for all the cringe-worthy aspects of its procurement process, makes an interesting prism through which to consider the issue.

Few weapon systems have been as regularly disregarded between the major modern wars as amphibious landing vehicles. Indeed, their periods of ascendancy have more often than not been the result of determined promotion by lone politicians. Some national leaders, like James K. Polk during the Mexican-American War and Winston Churchill in the two world wars, have had the “landing-craft bug” in their brains. Political opponents and defense pundits, lacking that “bug,” have advanced persuasive reasons why forcible amphibious landings are a bad idea to begin with, and represent a combat capability for which no one else foresees the same need in future wars.

But political conditions change. Allied war planners in the 1930s did not prioritize preparing for forcible landings in North Africa, Italy, and France. Indeed, in the military literature of the time, it was even speculated that technology had made the forcible landing obsolete. But by 1942 the necessity of such operations was obvious – and one of Churchill’s most enduring laments throughout the war centered on the Allies’ chronic shortage of landing craft.

It is legitimate to ask how much overlap there needs to be in Army and Marine Corps capabilities for forcible landing. Meanwhile, the politically static assumptions on which Gates has based his defense-cut plan, including the plan to axe the EFV, may not be wrong. But my point is that they are unexamined. The conditions of the “Pax Americana” are already fading; America is preparing for the loss of base access in the Far East and facing the rumblings of a similar challenge in the Middle East, while China, Russia, and half a dozen nations in our own hemisphere are buying new military capabilities as fast as they can. Geopolitical circumstances are changing irrevocably, right this minute, yet there is no hint in Gates’s proposal that this is recognized as a factor affecting our future military needs.

In the 20 years since 1991, U.S. planners have used the vehicle of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), instituted by George H.W. Bush, to systematically lay out the political assumptions underlying our projected defense requirements. For much of this period, the basic strategic concept entailed being able to effectively fight two regional wars near-simultaneously. The concept was easy to ridicule – I did so myself as a staff officer working on QDR input. But it provided a structured framework; it prompted most of the right policy questions; and it reflected America’s basic geopolitical posture: that of being prepared to intervene, and on a particular set of terms.

Obama’s national-security team planned in 2009 to dump the two-wars framework, however. Gates eventually kept it, in modified form, as an organizing tool for the 2010 QDR; but he and other national-security officials made it clear that they considered it confining as a blueprint for how the U.S. would react to crises. They disliked its implication that there are set definitions of military success, that there are triggers for particular kinds of military response, and that whichever such responses have the largest footprints should drive force planning.

What they disliked, in short, was America’s longstanding geopolitical posture.  Our manifest readiness to defend certain interests in certain ways is a fundamental feature of international stability. If it is no longer to be one, all other global conditions will change. The most important security question for America is not whether our post-1945 posture is confining to us as a defense-planning and budgetary factor, but whether it is in our national interest.

The core assumptions about our political and military postures on national interests, alliances, and interventions abroad are approaching a state of untended ambiguity and barely-useful definition – and as they do, we are failing to ask this most necessary of political questions. The longer we fail to ask it, the more certain it is that our unexamined assumptions – about whom we may have to fight, and when, and how – will be in error. Before we make even one more cut to a defense program, we need to air these very basic issues and get them sorted out.

J.E. Dyer blogs at Hot Air’s Green Room and Commentary’s “contentions.”  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.

20 thoughts on “Defense Cuts and Political Assumptions”

  1. Ambiguity has its uses. Some of our supposed allies could do with a little ambiguity about whether we will necessarily maintain and be willing to use the forces to pull their chestnuts out of the fire, blow on them ’til their nice and cool, and then peel them.

    And, I hate, hate, hate, to slight the Marine Corps; but the top priorities have to be investment in those elements with the longest procurement cycle times in a no holds barred emergency situation.

    How likely is it that we will work our way through a crisis leading into a war requiring an opposed amphib landing larger than North Africa and then get to the point of actually doing that landing over a period of less than a couple of years? I know we’re sclerotic now, in peacetime; but we probably don’t deserve to survive if we can’t expeditiously produce already designed landing craft in numbers within a couple of years in a true emergency.

  2. I would have been disappointed had OC not weighed in on the Slash-and-Surrender fest merrily sweeping through Washington with truly admirable vigour. One is hard pressed to fully apprehend or try to describe the enthusiasm with which many conservative Republicans are joining the party (I don’t even make reference to the more delusional full spectrum Libertarian positions on this issue).

    And its worth noting that there seems to be, among many, no comprehension of the economic costs (let alone other security and considerations) of a reduced and impoverished U.S. military strategic posture.

    In any event, Happy New Year, OC!

    P.S. The Sooners seem to be the dead on favorites for pre-season #1 with just about everyone coming back and the (unsurprising) exodus in Tuscaloosa. (Stanford might have been a very real contender next year had Harbaugh come back – and they play Oregon at home). An Oklahoma-Stanford matchup in the Fiesta would have been very interesting and needless to say much more so than the actual games that took place there and in Miami.

    1. cavalier — I agree, OU-Stanford would have made for a much better Fiesta Bowl. OU would also have been a better match for Stanford than VA Tech. The teams aren’t scheduled for a regular-season meet through at least 2015, which is too bad. I do note that Oklahoma will get its fill of Notre Dame in the next several seasons. For some reason, the Irish have signed up for a lot of Sooner punishment.

  3. Typically shortsided, but what can one expect from an administration whose leader
    has said in the past that ‘armies and navies have not been decisive historically’ fine
    the Al Khalifah’s don’t want us to operate from Manama, fine, let them go, would the
    other emirates like Oman have gotten anywhere, without the services of the likes of
    the late James Critchfield, of the CIA, who was hired for one reason or another,

  4. While I have little (read: zero) sympathy for the USMC for their latest toy, perhaps they should should learn to drop in like Army Airborne. Just a thought.
    Having said that, the draconian drop in troop levels is far more important to me than whether or not the USMC gets their snappy new landing craft or their version of the F-35 – which should have been severely limited in the first place IMHO.
    Castrating the AF and its F-22s signals that while American fighter pilots are the best in the world, there will no longer be a force anywhere that can challenge them in the skies – they hope.
    What I find most disturbing is the reduction in Combat Arms troops.
    BTW – Whatever happened to those EIGHTY THOUSAND Special Forces Troops that Mz. Hillary demanded? They just grow on trees ya know – and Leftists love planting trees. Good Lord, our leaders are so clueless.
    IF one has a policy of destroying the enemy no matter the collateral damage, that’s fine with me (in fact preferred), BUT if America is going to continue the deadly (to U.S. forces) ROEs, then why sacrifice “boots on the ground”? As a former air mobile “11 bullet-stopper”, I find that not only objectionable from a military standpoint, but also from a moral point of view.
    Either defecate or vacate the latrine, ØbaGates and take your chief squid (Adm. Mullen) who wants gays to serve openly in the Navy, with you. The NAVY can have ’em.
    Gates has been a disaster – I’ve said and written it for years. The castration continues.


  5. A couple of not quite random thoughts:

    The general consensus that landing capability would not be necessary also worked for us in WWII. When Hitler wanted to invade England, he found that he lacked the air and naval resources to make that achievable. Since countries tend to react to what others do, if we had been more concerned about our forcible landing abilites, would that have affected Germany’s assessment of its needs?

    Does anyone else find it ironic that the Obama Administration will spend billions of stimulus funds on internal domestic projects of dubious value in order to create “Jobs!” but has no appetite for spending additional money on military procurements and personnel? Does military spending not create jobs, too?

    1. Obama and the Democratic House steered “stimulus” toward the creation and preservation of federal, state and local government jobs of the sort that people who vote Democrat dominate.

      Military members and the people who work for defense industries tend more to vote Republican, hence Obama has no interest in them.

      Unfortunately much of politics is a joust over division of the spoils.

      1. It may also be – almost certainly is – the case that Obama genuinely believes that public sector worker contribute much more to the well being of the country and are generally involved in morally superior activity than members of the military. I don’t mean to say that he does not, at some level, have considerable appreciation for the work and respect for people who serve the military but probably believes that in the long term various threats can be greatly reduced though better “understanding”, the need for military activity and devotion of resources to such will be significantly reduced, and that the money invested in such is poorly spent. The capacity of civil servants to improve the lives of the genuine population, by contrast, is almost endless and deserving of long as well as short term investment.

        In short I believe that Obama is every bit as sincerely “idealistic” and naive as his is intensely cynical.

        1. Obama believes ~ “The capacity of civil servants to improve the lives of the genuine population, by contrast, is almost endless and deserving of long as well as short term investment.”

          I can see where he would have learned that from all the good he did for the people of the south side of Chicago when he was a community organizer. I haven’t been back to Chicago recently; but I’m sure the neighborhood he organized neighborhood is now a paradise.

          You give him too much credit for good intention, in my opinion. And anyway, invincible ignorance of the law (of the real world) is no excuse.

          1. I am certainly not excusing POTUS’ actions or ideology merely offering a supposition and a possible explanation. Neither am I denying that he is a very tough, pragmatic politician who understands very well that taxpayer (or, as he thinks of it the government’s or the “nation’s) money that goes to public sector unions will be recycled back into his and other Democrats campaigns* where they can continue to work arduously for the benefit of “ALL THE PEOPLE” by reining in the predations of the materialistic malefactors of great wealth (you know, people who play golf and stuff) by cleaning up the environment, bringing peace to the world and redistributing income so that we can have “fairness”.

            Again, I am not making excuses, and perhaps I am being naive, but I cannot imagine that he would be pursing the policies he is if he realized how horribly damaging they are to tens of millions of people if he did not believe that over at least the medium and certainly in the long term (I mean what’s a little miscalculation in in the implementation of Healthcare between fellow citizens, here and there. The odd loss of employer coverage here, the odd exemption for a well connected union there) many many more people will be better of and things will be, well, “fairer”.

            Also, I don’t think its ignorance, per say. Although POTUS himself is given to displays of astonishing ignorance with rather surprising frequency, I, and I’ sure you as well, know many highly intelligent, remarkably accomplished, successful and very knowledgeable people who hold much the same views.

            * Nor is it merely the unions. Other favored constituancies, districts, states, are rewarded, while those who vote against him short changed. It is indeed a very conventional distribution of the spoils much like that which occurred when Lancaster or York found themselves on top during the War of the Roses and redistributed Earldoms and other such bubbles to their supporters.

        2. Or it might be that the Obama administration continues to fund the DoD and that the Obama administration believes that a strategy of talking reasonably while having that big stick is something that serves the nation well and makes it easier enlist allies as well as blunt the arguments of our enemies.

          1. Because I always go as far out my way as I need to to try to be fair to our POTUS (as indeed I do above, much to Sully’s scorn) I am perfectly willing to concede that his diplomatic posture is neither constantly clueless nor invariably supine. As for carrying a big stick, in so far as the metaphor correlates to something recognizable in the real world one need to look no further than OC’s present post. To the extent, however, that a ceremonial sword which its owner it constantly blunting can be characterized as a “Big Stick”. the term(s) may indeed be apposite in this case.

            In sum we have a situation in which we have not been more (or more appropriately) distrusted by our allies nor more despised by our enemies since the days of Jimmy Carter.

            1. Being fair about the motivations of the kind of people who have the kind of overwhelming lust for power and dissembling ability it takes to become POTUS is almost always a mistake.

              The kind of people who become POTUS are capable of seemlessly continuing a joking dinner table conversation after whispering a “make it so” to a military aide who interrupted with a request for permission to do an air strike.

      2. “Military members and the people who work for defense industries tend more to vote Republican, hence Obama has no interest in them. ”

        That’s a little bit oversimplified, ain’t it?

        I’m not even sure of the accuracy of people work in defense vote Republican.

        1. I thought I hedged those statements pretty well.

          Are you seriously proposing that the average teachers union member or Education Department employee is less likely to be a committed Democrat than the average serviceman or Boeing employee?

            1. That explains it. You’re living in the past when it was still possible for a Democrat office holder to be a patriotic American all the time rather than for show during politically trying times such as in the couple of weeks after 9/11, as Joe Lieberman learned.

              1. yup. that’s it. I’m still stuck in that time before people realized that all the other guys in the country were deliberately out to destroy America.

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