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The Great Defense Spending Distraction

The Great Defense Spending Distraction

There’s nothing like a good round of international conflict to bring the folks who want to spend more on defense out of the closet. The last few weeks, even months, do not disappoint. A commitment to "spend more" or "spend something" is almost as good as doing something. NATO is in high dudgeon this week, meeting about Vladimir Putin’s intrusion into Ukraine (when are folks going to call it the invasion it really is?). And the allies have a side order of the Islamic State (IS) and Syria on the table as well.

Typically, defense budgets have become the avatar that stands in for action. In Wales the call for spending more on defense is not going "gentle into that good night," (to misuse the words of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas). For months, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has been singing from the "burden-sharing" hymnal, joining virtually all of his predecessors since the 1970s in calling for the European allies to spend more on defense. The outgoing NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has joined the call.

This week, the members of NATO are very likely to trot out, once again, the meaningless joint commitment first made in the 1970s to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, a level only achieved today by the United States, Britain, Greece (who really only care about the Turks), and that superlative NATO Baltic ally, Estonia. Germany itself comes in at 1.3 percent; even France is below the line.

Making more defense money the symbolic substitute for policy is not a weakness of NATO alone. The call for "more" in response to world events has become a hardy staple of U.S. domestic arguments over the budget. The ubiquitous, Obama-bashing, non-appropriations (meaning they aren’t really responsible for money decisions anyway) talking head, Sen. John McCain, seized the IS and Ukraine moment to continue his decades-long tour on the Sunday talk shows (who never seem to tire of him) calling for more U.S. defense spending and relief for DoD from the constraints of the Budget Control Act and the dreaded "sequester" monster.

Even the administration has not resisted the temptation to throw money at crises. In June President Barack Obama made a point of calling for $5 billion more in (80 percent) defense spending (20 percent belongs to State, after some political infighting in the administration) to fund counterterrorism partnership activities (still undefined) with other countries. As I noted when he made this pledge, the money seemed to substitute for the absence of any details about the strategy or the programs these funds would support. He pledged even more security assistance funds to the African Summit in August, with minimal program details.

Throwing money at a problem is a tried-and-true Washington response to crisis. When the crisis is domestic, conservatives come up on the net and the air is filled with cries of "big government." The Obama administration’s request for nearly $4 billion to deal with the immigration crisis of this past summer is still languishing in the Republican House.

But when the call is for homeland security (over $600 billion spent since the Department was created) or, especially for DoD and the military, throwing money is the favorite political gesture. The defenders of defense will spare no dollar in vocalizing their commitment to our security. In the early part of this century, after 9/11 and with troops in Iraq, Congress not only voted every dollar requested for special war spending bills, it asked no serious question as it doubled non-war defense spending, as well. More money was the answer.

Now we are again being told that the Europeans should spend more and the United States should unshackle the defense budget from any discipline as a way of saying we are serious about the challenges we face.

Truth time: it has never been about the money. It’s about the policy and the capabilities, stupid.

What is at issue in Europe is capability. If the Europeans ever actually reached the 2 percent defense spending threshold across the Alliance, they would still produce an excess of the kind of defense capability that is not needed (heavy ground combat units or very small air forces) that do not work together well), and militaries that duplicate, rather than complement each other. 

They spend enough to create up-to-date, deployable forces, but the ones too many of them build are nationally based and static. And they do not build them to a common, trans-European, integrated plan. There is a significant Italian ground force, an even larger German one, a very large French one, and a small, but agile, British one. But there is not much in the way of a European force that eliminates the duplication among these national forces and is designed in an integrated way to deploy rapidly inside or outside the European theater.

It is taking the Europeans too long to buy adequate European air lift for the French to deploy forces to Africa and the aircraft they are buying (the A400M) will likely need refueling (little European capability exists) to deploy forces out of the European region. Europe struggles to put a modern, cross-country, drone capability together.

Europe has made progress on operating jointly, as the more static European deployment in the Balkans shows. France, with U.S. support (lift, intelligence, drones, refueling) has done well in North and West Africa. But spending more is not what the Europeans need to do, as the Center for a New American Security pointed out this week. And insistently demanding that they do it misses the point. What’s missing is a common, integrated European defense policy, defense industry, and military capability. The European Union has not met this goal, though it was set out in the 1990s, and the Europeans have not done much better in the NATO context.

The same critique applies to the United States. Americans outspend every other country in the world on defense. They put up 70 percent of the Alliance’s total defense spending.  They even have a special little fiscal kitty — called the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds — that has allowed DoD to escape "sequester" and the BCA with minimal damage for the past three years.

Properly coordinated with the allies, the United States could fund every cent of the current anti-IS air operation, and even a more extensive one including IS in Syria (the wisdom of doing so is another question) within existing budgetary resources, including the OCO funding.

But, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, conflict is the last refuge of a budgetary scoundrel. Rather than make tough choices, provide budget discipline, focus on the enormous budgetary overhang created by a large bureaucracy and a legion of contractors providing services to DoD,  it’s just easier to ask for more. Rather than build the European capacity the United States and its NATO allies think they need, it is easier to bang the drum of "burden-sharing." The conflicts in the Ukraine and the Middle East are being used to avoid the hard work of discipline and efficiency in defense planning on both continents.