One reason progressives, historically, have found themselves on the losing side of defense budget debates is that, on the whole, progressives don’t spend enough time in engaging in strategy debates, focusing instead of programatic debates and/or macro budget debates. But for all the talk that defense spending is driven by domestic politics and the military-industrial complex, the reality is that substantive strategy decisions have a very profound impact as well.
I am not trying to suggest that the process is some sort of rational, objective analysis uncorrupted by greed and pork. It isn’t. But if you want to understand the defense budget, I think it is important to see it as a series of largely autonomous dynamics that interact periodically, but nevertheless significantly.
Strategic assessments of China are a good example of this, and there was a fascinating piece in the Washington Post yesterday about “Air Sea Battle,” and its implications for both U.S.-China relations and defense spending.
The article tracks the emergence of the following syllogism: China is a rising power and behaving aggressively towards its neighbors, particularly in the South China Sea. Responsible defense planning requires us to consider worst case scenarios, such as those which might require us to project power into the Western Pacific. Projecting power will require the capacity to defeat Chinese anti-access capabilities. The best way to do so is to develop and maintain systems capable of penetrating Chinese defenses, and neutralizing their anti-access systems, particularly new, modern anti-ship missiles.
But this argument is reinforced by a deterrence argument, namely, even you don’t believe a war with China is a plausible scenario, the best way to prevent it from occurring is by convincing the Chinese that they could not win this sort of conflict, and therefore we might not only deter them from aggressive actions in the South China Sea or against Taiwan, but we might also be able to divert them from the path of building anti-access capabilities in the first place.
It is these sorts of arguments that drive/drove acquisition of fifth generation fighters (F22 and F35); of expensive land-attack destroyers (DDG-1000); of new basing and forward deployment arrangements; and so on.
In the progressive community, we often dismiss these types of discussions are irrelevant. We tend to focus sequentially on either specific weapons program or debates about defense budget toplines. But in doing so, we ignore the dynamics that flow from strategy. I know this seems a little abstract… so let me give a concrete example:
In April 2009, Defense Secretary Gates made a decision to cap F22 purchases at 187. Progressives rejoiced, and immediately mobilized to support Gates’ decision. F22 was a big, expensive program, and a bit of a poster child in progressive circles for an overpriced, unneccessary purchase. So far so good. But what was the strategic context of Gates’ decision? He wasn’t just saying the F22 isn’t worth it. He was saying, more F22s aren’t worth it in a era of grinding land wars and occupations.
As I tried to explain at the time, and no one listened, siding with Gates wasn’t just about killing the F22, it was also about prioritizing counter-insurgency. The F22 decision was not stand-alone, in short. Supporting it involving buying into (as a matter of practice if not of conviction) the idea that U.S. military power ought to be geared toward occupation and reconstuction of places like Iraq and Afghanistan rather than planning for high-tech war against China.
So, when Congress voted to support Gates and stop F22 production in July 2009, progressives all over the place popped open champagne. And then four months later, when Obama ordered yet another increase in troops for Afghanistan, bringing the total number of American forces to around 100,000, and committing us to several years of war at $100 billion a year in costs and thousands of lives… well, there was a lot of gnashing of teeth, and a new commitment to end the war in Afghanistan. But, of course, we’d lost the strategy debate in early/mid-2009, although we were so busy celebrating our victory over the evil military-industrial complex in the F22 case that we didn’t notice the price.
Anyway, back to the article. There were clearly a lot of people with long knives contributing to it, and if you read it, it seems like just a weird story. A lot of people will take away that there are some crackpots in the Pentagon and think tank world pitching a wild scenario. The article even mentions Andrew Krepinevich’s salary in a way that makes him seem like a pure mercenrary. And the Pentagon’s head of the Office Net Assessment, Andrew Marshall, is noted to be 91, in a way that is designed to make him seem vaguely senile.
But here is the reality. Krepenivich (who is actually a thoughtful and careful analyst, even if he is wrong in this case) and Marshall are both tremendously well respected in the strategy community. Air Sea Battle and the China focus (embraced by Obama with his pivot to Asia), is an important factor in driving defense programs and budgets. Once the strategy is in place, all decisions on programs will need to be justified in terms of the strategy — which is why the Marines and Army are fighting it so hard.
Right now, it all seems abstract. I mean, who cares? We’re going to see either a flatline or a decrease in defense spending as a matter of general austerity. And most progressives I know are more interested in gaming out ways to see sequestration go through. And yet, sequestration is a temporary blip, with no strategic consequences. Debates like Air Sea are going to shape what we actually buy and how we actually conduct ourselves for years to come. Indeed, if the Asia pivot and Air Sea become dominant, that will create the intellectual foundation for arguing a need to increase spending. Why? Because as a matter of rigorous analysis, that strategy cannot be implemented without more resources. If we ignore the strategy debate now, then we’ll be fighting future battles over defense budget toplines at a fundamental disadvantage because while strategy is not the be all and end it, it does matter.