The Mission And The Men

The Rational Middle is published by a defense hawk. I am an amateur student of military history, and a believer in robust military spending. I am stating this upfront because the rest of this article is a reality check. This is for the Tea Parties, Conservatives, and Moderate Democrats who are (reasonably) pressing for fiscal discipline. Mathematically, you just can’t talk about the deficit without addressing defense spending. Of course, you can’t do it without talking about tax increases either, but I wrote on that subject here.

In the fiscal year 2009, as directed by George W. Bush’s final budget, the United States spent $538.1 billion on discretionary domestic spending. That number is, as a friend would say, a lot of cheddar. During that same budget, our democracy spent $655.8 billion on defense. That is $117.7 billion more cheddar. I would vigorously argue that much of that spending (or at least what was purchased) was and remains necessary. I would also argue, as many have, that much of the spending cut be cut without the loss of programs…if only we could be more efficient. Some people think that the savings lie in stopping the “generous pay raises and benefits” lavished by Congress on the troops. Some people also, in my humble opinion, need to be taken out and and shot at for a while before deciding what level of pay is “generous”.

The article I cited made the point that folks in the military now make higher wages than their civilian counterparts; the author doesn’t describe, of course, what civilian jobs require the sacrifices that military posts do, but the author doesn’t care about that. He, like so many other authors and legislators, are trying to lay the groundwork for defense spending cuts that are personnel related and not programmatic. You see friends, this too, is all about political branding. If you try to cut an exotic weapons system with a limited application that might never materialize, you can be attacked as “soft on defense” or, “giving in to the terrorists” or even, “anti-troops”.

Folks who try to give decent pay raises, fair and complete support to spouses and families, or even fair differential pay so that a deployment doesn’t force a family into bankruptcy, are harder to attack politically. This argument then, needs a setup, so “news” organizations are starting to run articles in advance of the defense budget debate to soften up the public. Defense Secretary Gates is out talking about the areas that need to be addressed; out of control appropriations spending and a mid-20th Century bureaucratic structure in the Pentagon. Those issues seem to be sacred cows, and they are defended by folks from every corner of our nation. But why?

The way in which the United States arms itself is an atrocious mix of professional soldiers doing their jobs, members of Congress keeping their jobs, and ex-soldiers given jobs (as lobbyists). More than 30 years ago, when the U.S.A.F. high command decided that the B-1 program was no longer necessary, the political side of the military-industrial complex swung into action. Congress screamed, commercials were cut, and Ronald Reagan used the move as a foundation for his campaign for President. I wrote at length about the matter here, but the end result was billions spent on a program that is a duplicate of other, equally capable platforms. The true impact of the B-1, were the jobs that Congress could point to in districts that participated in the building of these machines.

And that is the reason why it is so hard to cut programs, even when they are not necessary. It is really hard to blame some members of Congress. If you represent Downey, California or Wichita, Kansas or Everett, Washington, the idea of canceling a program that might cost layoffs in your district is crazy. If, like me, you have a deep love of machines like the B-1 or F-22, their cancellation is painful. But jobs and sexy airplanes are not good reasons to spend money on the military. Federal dollars spent on transportation or energy projects will yield far higher returns on investment than the trickle down from defense spending. We spend money on defense so that we can ensure the safety of our nation and our friends around the world.

In Secretary Gates’ speech, he made an interesting point;

  • “Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners?” he asked. “Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?”

We need to make sure that our military can confront, if it has to, the emerging strategic threats around the world. The ability to engage will lesson the need for the engagement. Until humans set aside their deeply tribal instincts, that need will remain. We need to ensure that our military can engage small tactical elements (like, terrorists hiding in caves or Mexican drug gangs…yeah, I am serious). We don’t need four dozen admirals and generals with their staffs in Europe to do either. The Pentagon itself is a symbol of old style corporate hierarchy; many of today’s firms are riding themselves of their large, centralized headquarters. Maybe we need to do the same…the Pentagon might make an interesting museum.

During the campaign and throughout his career, Senator McCain has advocated for the reform of defense procurement. He has repeatedly stated that savings could be made without compromising our nation’s readiness. He is not alone in these beliefs, but the system is aligned against the idea of reform. Political branding means that there is little chance for a first term President of either party to address the issue. The reason is simple, the President may propose a budget based on the Pentagon’s requests, but Senators and Members of the House add appropriations at the request of lobbyists. Any President then must choose to accept it all, or veto the defense bill.

Cuts need to be made, but make them in bureaucratic fat and the sexy toys that admirals and generals just can’t live without. The members of our Armed Forces should make more than any counterpart (should one be found) in the civilian world.

The Rational Middle is listening…