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The Art of Snore

Can't we get some better defense ideas for $1.75 billion a day?


Forget about the Pentagon as potential victim in the stylized Kabuki drama of fiscal cliff negotiations. In an era of exceptional partisan bitterness that all too often forecloses thoughtful political discourse, it is the very lack of divergent views and spirited debate about defense that endangers American national security. In the absence of a clash of ideas about military affairs, the massive Pentagon budget, holding steady in recent years at a cost of $1.75 billion per day (some $630 billion-plus, annually), will continue to be regularly, routinely passed by huge bipartisan majorities in Congress. For example, only 11 senators voted against the latest allocation for Fiscal 2013.

This failure to debate means that the U.S. military will remain largely on autopilot, continuing to invest heavily in systems that are most traditional — and most comfortable. Like a slightly improved new super aircraft carrier, the Ford class, or yet another generation of jet fighter planes, like the F-35. This despite the diminishing returns and growing vulnerability of carriers, and the total lack of need for a new jet, given that only one American fighter plane has been shot down by an enemy fighter in the last 40 years.

Aside from reflecting our doubling down on an aging technology, the Ford is the poster child for runaway cost overruns, going nearly a billion dollars over budget in 2012 alone. Sen. John McCain has called out the Ford fiasco as "a national disgrace." As for the F-35, it lives in a budgetary world of its own. Acquisition of about 2,400 of these aircraft is slated to cost taxpayers $400 billion — and their operation and maintenance will run an additional $600 billion. A cool trillion, at a time when American air superiority is hardly under threat — and at a time when the economy cannot bear the cost.

There are many other problematic systems out there, almost all of the major ones plagued by significant cost overruns. A 2009 Government Accountability Office audit of the 96 largest defense acquisition programs reflected overspending totaling about $300 billion — 40 percent above contract prices, in aggregate — an amount that is roughly equal to the entire defense budget submitted by President Bill Clinton in his last year in office.

Since 9/11, total American defense spending has more than doubled. This despite the fact that our declared enemy, the al Qaeda network, could line up every single jihadi they have — including from its affiliates in Iraq, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen — and still not be able to amass enough manpower to fill out the ranks of even one of our Army divisions. More than a trillion dollars were spent in Iraq; now our forces are gone and al Qaeda is on the march there once again. Nearly as much has been spent in Afghanistan, with equally mixed results.

And when it comes to thinking through the needs of bigger wars, the vast majority of our spending remains focused on relatively old weapons systems — while others are leapfrogging ahead. For example, the Chinese navy is not emphasizing aircraft carriers; instead, it is focusing on making supersonic anti-ship missiles, brilliant seagoing mines smart enough to position themselves right under the keels of our big vessels, and torpedoes that create a bubble of air in front — to reduce resistance — so they can close in on their targets at very high speeds. As matters stand, we are spending more and more, and getting less and less in return.

How has this come to pass? For years, congressional earmarks were pointed to as the principal culprit, as individual members took care of their own bailiwicks with juicy boondoggles. But earmarks never accounted for more than a percent or two of the total budget. Nor is it at all clear that Congress is foisting unwanted systems more generally on the Pentagon. The fact of the matter is that the military is in the catbird seat; whatever it asks for will be approved. Conservatives apply much less scrutiny to the defense budget than they do to other functions of government, while liberals fear looking soft on defense.  

Another effort to explain runaway defense spending focuses on the control exerted by a handful of large defense contractors. This, too, is largely illusory. The companies that specialize in manufacturing military weapons, transport, and information systems will research, develop, and fabricate whatever the military says it needs. These companies have a long track record of doing just this. If there is a problem, it is not because they compel the military to accept costly, increasingly ineffective systems. The problem is that these companies are too responsive to what is requested; they need instead to be more proactive in suggesting the adoption of innovations.

The point is that the military itself has to be more open to moving in new directions. For this is a time when Congress and industry are pliant, and there are no immediate, or even near-term threats of great magnitude out there in the world. If ever there were an opportunity to be creative, to cast off old, expensive systems and move to smaller, smarter, nimbler and more networked ways of operating, this is it.

What would real change look like? A military made of a lot of little things, not a few large things. For example, this sort of "scaling down" could, in the land forces, take the form of moving from today’s relatively few brigade combat teams (each with about 4,000 soldiers) to hundreds of battalion-sized (under a 1,000) "units of action." Or more than a thousand company-level units (roughly 250 in each).   

The basis for such a shift is the edge that our forces enjoy in networking — so neatly demonstrated over a decade ago when just eleven Special Forces A-teams (about 200 sets of boots on the ground), working with an outnumbered force of friendly locals, drove the Taliban from power. Their ability to pass information swiftly, to access close air support, in effect to "swarm" the enemy by striking at many points simultaneously provides a model of how our military might operate against a range of foes, irregular or conventional. For all the "surging" of troops into Afghanistan in the years since, little has been achieved — and our endgame strategy is increasingly about "going small," the way we started out there.

This sort of organizational redesign would greatly increase flexibility in the field, the ability to give more time to soldiers to rest and retool — and would still comprise a force that could easily "scale up," if necessary, to confront a large opposing force. On a deeper level, such an innovation might even lead to thinking about sharply reducing active-duty forces, while greatly enhancing Guard and Reserve capacity. This would help to bring down the Pentagon’s $250 billion personnel cost — some 40 percent of the total budget.   

So right now it’s crucially important to get past the fiscal cliff mindset — which is driven simply by numbers — and begin to focus on three questions that really matter: What should our armed forces look like? Which old systems should be scrapped and which new ones developed? And how will the services operate in peace, crisis, and war?          

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