When Dollars and Cents Trump Any Kind of Sense

There it is. Three quarters of a trillion dollars in a single annual military budget. Congress even passed it before the start of the fiscal year, to boot.

Listening to the first episode of "Net Assessment", a podcast by the folks at War on the Rocks, I heard that they were going to dissect an article by Professor Adrian Lewis at Task & Purpose. Having already read the article, I was hoping that the podcasters might have some new insights to share. The article begins with Professor Lewis overhearing some criticism from his colleagues at the University of Kansas towards the military, specifically of the defense budget, and him outlining that these fellow professors are living in a informational "ivory tower", not seeing the huge "benefits" that the military bestows on American society.

Lewis begins by discussing the overall size of the military, stating that "The armed forces are considerably smaller than they were during the Reagan years." While this is factually true, what does it mean for our military? A Marine lieutenant I served with in Iraq informed me about a USMC unofficial rule: "Do more with less", not forgetting to mention that the Marine Corps is routinely the only branch that literally returns money to the National Treasury each year. My point is that the U.S. military has improved its combat skills as its overall size has decreased. Trying to state that our current spending is acceptable because it falls less into the red than a major "WWII" level conflict (in inflation adjusted dollars) is a lazy excuse to demand more military spending. Seeking out wars to fight is America’s go to move of late, whatever the capacity of the "enemy" or the "threat" to the homeland. Perhaps being smaller is a good thing, as America has entirely too many military assets for the actual level of threats in the world.

Military operations have become much more streamlined than they were in the Reagan years. Our ability to sealift troop transports quickly to destinations the world over keep us a definitive step ahead of Russia, a major power that cannot easily move military assets out of their region of influence. But what greater point was Lewis trying to make by pointing out the decrease in army combat divisions since Reagan (16 down to 10) or the specific number of fleet carriers in service (16 down to 11)? Iraq and Afghanistan both saw major vehicle changes mid-war (HMMWVs to MRAPs) an adjustment only made after many troop deaths at the hands of IED strikes. Following the initial invasion, tanks couldn’t move freely in Iraq due to the destruction they would cause to the few still standing Iraqi highways and roads, along with a lack of maneuverability in urban settings. Despite the nature of Iraq changing to an insurgency not being completely unforeseen, military leaders couldn’t have fully seen these needs until the war demonstrated their crucial role.

Does having standing numbers of certain kinds of equipment, especially ones like Abrams tanks (that haven’t been used much in recent years), do anything but let policy wonks brag about how many tanks we have or how much cash we’ve spent? What’s more, looking at our military assets through a numerical lens, believing it makes America stronger or more safe, only encourages leaders to focus on the numbers. Number of troops, number of aircraft, number of Army divisions, number of districts held in Afghanistan; yes, having more troops available for deployments certainly makes it easier on the troops for rotations, but that doesn’t determine that their missions are more worthy or that the blood and treasure they expend in the process is acceptable. Perhaps the issue here isn’t the size of the nation’s military but the oppressive scope of the strategic missions placed before that military. Feel free to ask some veterans of Afghanistan (or Iraq, in the case of the author), a place where the Afghan government we support cannot defend its holdings against the Taliban, no matter how many more troops or bombs or planes the US commits. The year 2011, when the US had 100,000 troops in country, stands as exhibit A in a litany of failures.

"The current force is cheaper than war."

Professor Lewis began this section by discussing widely known history of American military power and sacrifice in World War I, II, and Korea. "South Korea sells Americans Kia and Hyundai automobiles and Samsung cell phones, because of the armed forces of the United States. South Korea would not exist today without the sacrifices of the US Eighth Army." This conclusion strikes me as naive and lacking nuance. Sure, the US Army helped ensure the sovereignty of South Korea – but only at the cost of 30,000+ US lives, and, meanwhile, the ultimate result was a seventy year partition of Korea that still stands at the brink of nuclear war. Is this really the definition of success?

Even if Dr. Lewis’ conclusions are correct (at least referring to noble sacrifices by the 8th Army), what does that have to do with our current forces being "cheaper than war" in his estimation? Is he saying it’s better to expend this blood and treasure, because it in and of itself allows all this consumerism to take place? And what possible purpose, other than global garrisoning, would this achieve? It is also interesting that overall debacles of both Vietnam and the Cold War hysteria make no significant appearance in Lewis’ argument, possibly because their means and outcomes don’t contribute to America’s ongoing bipartisan mythology of military invincibility. When the newly christened Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis drinks cobra blood on a visit to Thailand, causing the Marines and veterans whom hold him in almost saint like esteem to swoon, the continuing genesis of American military mythos is abundantly clear. There’s also no mention of the horrors North Korea continues to inflict on its citizens; partly due to the US refusal to allow the Korean War to end and the debilitating sanctions imposed on the North to this day; or that South Korea must contend with 28,000 American troops living in their country. Would any number of jobs created make Americans feel comfortable about 28,000 Russian or Chinese troops living and working in the US? Hardly. But, a brand new command center to the tune of $11 billion (mostly paid for by South Korea), which according to US Forces Korea commander Gen. Vincent Brooks "represents the significant investment in the long-term presence of US forces in Korea," has indeed been built. Factually accurate, of course, but a sustained US military presence and the consequent partition the peninsula is not to the Koreans’ benefit, certainly not in the long term.

The world wars are so far in the past that we can say what we want about them, mythologize them, sanitize them, and no one can tell the difference. Americans even pine for more wars like those – simple, linear, with a purpose. Conversely, "police actions" that destroyed Vietnam, parts of Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, parts of Syria, and Yemen, well, they’re best forgotten. Also, did Professor Lewis not understand that most Americans do consider Afghanistan to still be an ongoing war, albeit one they never see on the nightly news? It’s clear he meant to refer to a larger, more conventional war on the scale of Korea or something similar, but again, how would simply being at war be something good for America? And even if it is, how does saying that our current force is cheaper than war make it out to be a good thing? Yes, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower helped shape the world as we know it now, especially modern Europe, but announcing to the world that it’s "maintained daily in all parts of the world by the armed forces of the United States" belies the idea that they’re needed, maybe even required to be there for this world order to stand. My old man would say that a house that can’t stand after the "builders" leave was never a stable house to begin with. No wonder South Korea paid for 90% of that shiny new headquarters. Personally, I see the Europeans and Asian allies as having far more agency in this question, militarily and historically, but I digress.

"The American people and world enjoy the technologies produced by the Armed Forces."

The Internet, Google, GPS technology: there is certainly a long list of technology that was produced in part or in whole by the US military through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This still raises a question: what does that have to do with today’s military? The F-35 was designed and brought to the factory with not just foreign European allies, but also leading tech companies. American made drones use software from Google’s Project Maven to identify common objects seen in flight. Gun manufacturers foam at the mouth to design the next sidearm or HMMWV descendent, working right with military leaders to create what our forces need. These advanced technologies would not be possible without American tech companies. Could any government operation or organization handled the massive $10 billion CIA contracted JEDI "cloud", now given to Amazon? Indeed, Dr. Lewis’ assertion could easily be inverted in the 21st century – with tech companies assisting the military, and not the other way around.

While there is plenty of history to support Lewis’ assertion in the past, globalization has moved us far beyond it. The top four defense contractors (Raytheon, BAE Systems, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin) are combined doing around $70 billion in government contracts, with only BAE Systems having less than 90% of its income from the US government. Google could buy all four of them without breaking a sweat (just ask Boston Dynamics, valued at $250 billion, purchased last year by Google.). I rest my case.

"Equipment wears out and becomes obsolete."

This is an understandable part of any military’s budgeting process: replacing worn out or obsolete equipment. But who decides what’s worn out or what’s obsolete? I flew in a C-130 leaving Baghdad for Kuwait that was made in 1967. This was 2007. That’s one replaced vehicle I would have definitely supported. However, as I mentioned earlier, America doesn’t start a war with the best gear. They start the war with the gear available at the beginning of the war, regardless of how likely that kind of conflict might become. Russia’s T014 Armata main battle tank is believed to be the first produced "next generation" tank, with Russia stating they’d have twenty three hundred of them by 2020. However, their "test batch" of 100 tanks won’t be ready until 2020, with many on the NATO side questioning exactly how many of these next gen tanks could actually be fielded by Russia in significant numbers. So let’s not overestimate the capacity or, more importantly, the intent of the Russian Bear.

Coming back to that journey on the 1967, vintage, C-130, Professor Lewis points out several glaring problems with the lack of modernization in our current armaments. Trident subs with more than 30 years of service; B-52s built for Korea and used in Vietnam; ICBM computer systems that are over 30 years old and in need of replacement. All true, but this raises a different set of vital questions: On which systems should we really spend the billions needed to modernize and on how many of those systems? Does the US continue to make M1 Abrams tanks, even a polished modernized version, without accounting for how often they will be used in their full capacity, forgetting that most foreign tanks will be handled by American air power? Does the US conduct a complete overhaul of its ICBM systems, knowing that even the most minuscule use of nuclear wars will change our planet irrevocably or that we could conceivably reduce our nuclear arsenal without sacrificing our ability to strike? No nation can afford to collect military hardware in the manner a young boy might collect action figures, simply for the coolness and the bragging rights. Real strategy requires far more maturity.

"The defense industries employ tens of thousands of Americans."

It’s true that defense contractors employ thousands of Americans. This only begs they question: must the US maintain a large military simply to employ these people? Would they not find different jobs if defense contractors made fewer bombs, planes, rifles, etc. – perhaps in renewable energy or other vital peaceable fields? Certainly, it’s worth mentioning how some communities are deeply tied into the contracting and therefore to the jobs created by the defense industry, but a global market can make short work of that problem.

It’s also worth mentioning that American industries really producing American-made goods are few and far between these days – with one exception, equipment designed to cause mass death by their use. The US is the largest arms dealer in the world – does that really comport with American "values?" Should we continue making so many instruments of war, believing that arming the world is a noble venture, while our non-defense manufacturing lingers near death, with its death murmur being the lining of shareholders’ pockets, while impoverishing workers?

"Sea lanes through which the world’s oil supply flows are maintained by the US Navy."

Aside from the occasional Somali pirate crew, exactly what is the US Navy protecting the sea lanes from? It’s certainly not climate change, as the US military is the worst polluter in the world, with the Navy sharing an especially gross section of that environmental destruction, and the commander-in-chief convinced the whole thing is a "Chinese hoax." But back to the point, when was the last time that American naval power was truly challenged? Yes, the Chinese are doing what they want in the South China Sea and yes, the US must challenge the Chinese to ensure free passage through those sea lanes are maintained, but what form should that challenge take?

Recently, the USS Wasp made headlines for two reasons: first, their port call to Hong Kong was canceled, due to ongoing disputes between China and the US over President Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods. Next, the vessel conducted live fire exercises in the South China Sea, which CNN described as "firing on inflatable targets with mounted machine guns and sniper rifles." I’m not a sailor, but this sounds decidedly like maneuvers simulating pirate crews or very small vessels, not exactly demonstrative of full borne American naval power. Even with its aging and (relatively) shrinking fleet, the US Navy still dominates on the high seas, pirate inflatables aside. Any major increases or upgrades should be mission based on the most plausible challenge or predicted mission statement.

"The peoples of Germany and Japan, Canada and Mexico, and numerous other countries have outsourced their security to the United States, allowing them to compete in industry, science, art, and other fields of human endeavor."

This is a fact – but its not necessarily a good thing! The militaries of those nations are certainly smaller than they would be without the presence and forward posture of the American military, especially considering the history of WWII and the Cold War. Germany and Japan both have large American troop contingents and do many joint exercises with NATO nations and other allies, but what mission purpose do they truly serve? Aside from being a swell deployment jumping off point for American forces deploying to Afghanistan, Iraq, along with other Gulf and African nations (our largest drone base, attacking targets throughout the region, sits at Ramstein AFB in Germany), our bases in Germany, Italy, and Japan all maintain US troop levels for what were Cold War era threats and missions. Whether talking about Russian forces or Taliban forces, neither of these areas of the world can be linked to any clear threats to the American homeland. Indeed, for once President Trump may be onto something: asking wealthy European and Asian allies to ante up for their own existential defense.

It’s also worth noting that as more efficient and environmentally friendly energy sources are used, the need for tankers to carry the world’s oil supply and the US Navy’s protection of it will become a thing of the past. With the understanding that climate change must be confronted as the global ongoing existential threat that it is and that decades of work will be needed simply to start the reversal of global warming, can the military truly afford to spend billions on old and specifically inefficient technology that produces a monstrous amount of pollution? How many ways could this $717 billion dollars have been spent on military technology that fights global warming rather than enable it or at the bare minimum uses less resources in its operation? I can’t see politicians like Senator Tim Kaine or Congressman Mac Thornberry, both stalwart allies of the military and their funding, demanding that the Pentagon contribute a significant portion of its resources to help build new levees in New Orleans to help with sea rise or the high level dredging operations that will be required to protect New York City from its own flooding catastrophe, much less cease some US military operations abroad with the understanding of how much they contribute to global warming, but that would be the needed commitment to even make a dent in the US military’s carbon footprint.

But I will tell you what I can see: a repeat of the Truman Committee. Former Senator and 34th President of the US Harry Truman was the chairman of a committee officially known as the "Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program." Colloquially known as the Truman Committee, it investigated fraud, waste, and abuse within the US Armed Forces from 1941 until 1948. "…the committee heard from 1,798 witnesses during 432 public hearings. It published nearly two thousand pages of documents and saved perhaps $15 billion and thousands of lives by exposing faulty airplane and munitions production." In listening to an episode of Political Fallout Shelter, hosted by Leo Shane at Military Times, he expressed his sadness in the passing of Senator John McCain, noting that at times there was no fiercer critic of military fraud, waste, and abuse than John McCain. And with McCain gone, who will become the critic that the U.S. military desperately needs? And more than that, who will demand that US military leaders begin the process of judicious review in what missions are essential to protecting the American homeland? Terrorism, for all the grandstanding our politicians do to fight its "causes", is a drop in the bucket with regard to presenting an actual danger to Americans, compared to the perils of climate change.

But I fear we’re destined to continue down this road for a bit longer. I find myself in disbelief that Professor Lewis would find such a problem with criticism on the recently passed military budget. Is it really worth holding it against one’s colleagues that today’s military budget is three quarters of a trillion dollars and they wish to say something about it? Does that make them less American? I would follow President Truman’s example and say there is no more noble cause than to be a critic of one’s military and the costs that society and indeed the world bears from their existence. The US military isn’t a good deal for the American people, a people who only tacitly acknowledge its existence and rely mainly on a "warrior class" to do its war bidding, a people who can’t fathom the destruction our armed forces have wrought in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, and mostly recently against the people in Yemen. The people of Yemen aren’t confused. They see American labels from bomb debris, dropped by the Saudi air force. They know we are responsible and I admit, this brief list is not a complete list of the countries we’ve harmed. Maybe we should quit while we’re ahead or more correctly, so incredibly far behind.

Chris "Henri" Henrikson is a US Army Iraq combat veteran from Portland, OR. He deployed in support of Operation Noble Eagle at the Pentagon following 9/11 and served two tours in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A former MP team leader, Chris also served two years as a US Army CID drug investigator. Now a journalist, writer, and podcaster, you can find his blog and website at www.fortressonahill.com, where he and co-host Danny Sjursen host Fortress On A Hill Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @Rorak11GGD. Email him at henri@fortressonahill.com.