10 Reasons to Reform U.S. National Security Policy

By Nathaniel H. Sledge Jr.

The United States is reeling from the credit and real estate bubbles, high annual deficits and the ballooning national debt crisis.

Questions about what government we should have, how much government we can afford and how we should pay for government have come to the fore. It is time to examine spending priorities and seriously question the status quo, which by the size of the debt alone, is shameful and unsustainable.

Among the tragic but liberating days in peoples’ lives are when they realize that the gods they have been worshipping are false. Witness the aristocracy during the French Revolution, the citizens of the Axis powers as the Third Reich imploded, or Soviet apparatchiks as the communist ideal collapsed. Many investors experienced similar anxiety when the dotcom and credit bubbles burst, and the myth of ever-rising asset values was discredited.

Involuntary changes or crises can focus minds and call into question traditional practices and customs. But cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing that only the strongest and most adaptable people and institutions can overcome.

Our national security policymakers are now facing this test of reason and adaptability. The phrase “rude awakening” comes to mind. Will they retrench themselves in the past, or choose the path of liberation and leverage the current financial crises to implement national security more efficiently? Can they reform the military departments to address real threats? Can they be trusted to manage 20 percent of the federal budget? And finally, will they make the investments in cooperation, manpower, materiel and technology to position the United States to defend itself and its allies with flexibility and strength?

Perhaps the answer to these questions can be found by focusing on the drivers of defense policies, procedures, organizations and structures, and the motivations of the actors engaged in national security policy development and execution.

What follows are 10 reasons why the U.S. security enterprise must be reformed to bring foreign policy in line with national values, and to enable improved fiscal health at the federal level.
1) The Fiscal Environment

According to most credible estimates, during the next decade, the United States can expect paltry GDP growth rates that will average between 1 to 2 percent and below, mirroring the fate of Japan during the last 23 years. Japan’s debt-to-GDP ratio is now about 240 percent, with no relief in sight. Economists estimate that at some point in the next 15 years, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social welfare will consume the entire U.S. federal budget, crowding out investments in defense, infrastructure, education and research and development.

The growth of non-discretionary budget items should be curtailed to make room for discretionary spending. Congress, however, is hamstrung by partisan politics and concerns about election outcomes. It has demonstrated that it cannot stem the escalation of entitlements and healthcare costs, sees debt and borrowing as an easy way out, and it is ready to throw defense and infrastructure under the bus.

The U.S. government may not have a choice in this matter. The Federal Reserve could soon run out of tools to safely keep interest rates down. The interest on the national debt will one day exceed the cost of every government program combined. This development will put unrelenting pressure on lawmakers to cut defense, infrastructure, science, research and education.

2) U.S. Foreign Policy

The nation’s foreign policy is simultaneously admirable and abominable. It is admirable because it promotes the spread of liberal democratic values, secures the global commons and has deterred threats to the international economy. But with that comes overreach. The notion that only the United States can keep the world peaceful and operating on liberal democratic values is specious. This ambitious stance invites pushback because it sometimes fosters perceptions that U.S. foreign policy is arrogant, overbearing and occasionally brutish.

The reckless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that we are exceptional all right, but not always in redeeming and virtuous ways. They also call into question whether the United States can be trusted to be a rational global policeman, in particular when it has impulsive decision makers at the top who are isolated in groupthink bubbles and want to prove themselves using other people’s money and the blood and sweat of their sons and daughters.

U.S. interests are often at odds with many regions of the world. Students of history will easily recognize that recent adventures in South and Southwest Asia are what come of unchallenged economic and military hegemony.

No single nation can command and control the world, at least not for long without consequences. Besides being arrogant and unfeasible, this policy perspective overshadows the contributions of willing allies, so they have little incentive to invest in their own defense. Unwilling allies happily get a pass, because the United States does not even ask them to contribute proportionate resources and assets to defend the global commons.

A prominent defense analyst recently remarked that the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and produces 25 percent of the world’s output, but pays more than 40 percent of the world’s defense costs. In common vernacular, the United States is “paying the cost to be the boss.” This kind of asymmetry is no accident. Foreign policy analysts can deride the disproportionate cost of being the world’s policeman, but national leaders and the defense establishment favor this outsized spending on defense relative to the rest of the world. It means jobs, political patronage and profits. It also means the United States gets to dictate the terms of engagement to the world. This isn’t all bad, but it depends on one’s perspective, location and nationality.

3) Threat Assumptions

As international security professor Richard Betts points out, the policies and strategies that undergird the current enterprise are no longer necessary or affordable. Senior Defense Department officials say that they have stopped sizing forces for stability operations. We shouldn’t believe this until we see it. The Cold War is over, but we have yet to abandon our desire to maintain a large standing Army in peacetime. At the same time, the Pentagon is reluctant to shift investments to address cyberthreats and terrorism and send the rest back to the Treasury.

Since the Cold War ended, the United States has sent ground forces to conduct counterinsurgencies and stability operations that require large numbers of troops. From a budget standpoint, the formula works. It gives land forces relevance, and allows them to engage in nation building, which requires many ground troops and a long, thick logistics tail. They can always deploy to dysfunctional countries like Haiti, Somalia or Afghanistan, and stay for extended periods, limiting U.S. military options elsewhere in the world. If the conflicts chosen are unnecessary, then the idea of maintaining readiness to respond to real threats around the world becomes mere aspiration. This is the situation now.

Outdated worldviews also have too much influence on U.S. defense posture. During the 2012 presidential election, Republican contender Mitt Romney was ridiculed for saying that Russia posed the number-one national security threat to the United States. This is interesting because the budget priorities of the last 10 years echo his malapropism. The United States is still buying redundant air superiority aircraft, heavy tanks, infantry-fighting vehicles and artillery systems, tactical-wheeled and amphibious-tracked vehicles. These are all big Cold War military systems, which are used to ferry or protect massive military formations.

None of these systems helps address the biggest threat facing the nation — terrorist actions by religious and political extremists. Nor do they address the other critical military threat — the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons.

If a capability exists it will likely be used. Regardless of whether they are the appropriate systems for the threat, the mere presence of legacy systems makes their employment more likely. Perhaps if we stopped pursuing these weapons, there would be trade space for advanced systems, technologies and strategies that are better suited to the current and future threat environments.

4) Force Structure

Excess military manpower can squelch other defense activities. The current force structure — especially the ground force component — is unnecessarily large and unwieldy. In 2000, the marginal cost attributed to each serviceman was about $58,000. Today, it is conservatively estimated at upwards of $150,000. Each fully manned Army division’s average military compensation cost is more than $2 billion per year. Then there are the imputed costs of training and equipping a large active force structure. Together these personnel and operations costs make the maintenance of large standing forces unaffordable. Excess military manpower represents high opportunity costs because it leaves little for the research, development and technology that have the potential to make large forces less necessary. Examples are smart and precision munitions, cyberwarfare, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Other deserving domains are similarly deprived.

Analysts have been sparring since the end of the Vietnam War over how many active divisions the Army needs: 18? 14? It’s not even 10. Because the Army’s ability to deploy brigades is limited and takes weeks or even months, we do not need many active divisions. The military’s quest to reduce initial deployment from 120 days to 60 days is a fantasy. Now that the C-17 air transport program is coming to an end, airlift assets will become even scarcer.

Besides, reserve divisions can take advantage of the inferred deployment delay to prepare for deployment and accomplish their missions in theater when ready. The Pentagon could also keep ready numerous National Guard divisions that can deploy just as rapidly as the reserve divisions. The three active Marine divisions have legitimate expeditionary postures, but a larger portion of each should be put in reserve.

If organic capabilities aren’t enough, then our allies should provide ample resources and assets. European allies have up to 10 divisions that can augment the United States in NATO missions. In Northeast Asia, the South Korean military has 3.9 million men under arms, including about 650,000 active troops. Japan’s new government is rethinking its post-World War II passivity and has promised to build up its military. This move is a double-edged sword but still, U.S. war planners behave as if the sizes of our allies’ militaries don’t matter.

Combat divisions cannot neutralize the primary threats facing the West. If foreign relations are so shaky that we need these divisions — to fight Iran, for instance — then we should look to radically change our foreign policy and diplomacy because they are stirring up trouble we cannot afford. Given the vast manpower of a fully mobilized China, it would be suicidal to engage it in a land war. U.S. land forces would never be adequate.

5) Unaffordable Defense Spending

The benefits of a large and growing defense budget are elusive. The U.S. military has been on a war footing since World War II. It has sunk enormous treasure into national security without much to show for it.

The Korean conflict ended in stalemate. Vietnam goes in the loss column. We weren’t prepared in Lebanon so we left with our tails between our legs. Grenada was a severely botched fish barrel shoot. The 1989 incursion into Panama was perhaps the bloodiest drug bust of all time. The Somalia incursion ended in disaster. We dithered in the Balkans and eventually relied on air power. In the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s ground forces were mostly dispatched with air power and the enemy escaped to fight another day.

After being stung by bees on 9/11, we decided to attack hornet’s nests in Iraq and Afghanistan, with tragic results. After spending more than $3 trillion and incurring over 6,000 deaths, 45,000 wounded, and untold hundreds of thousands of noncombatant deaths, the long-term stability of these countries is not better assured. Should the American people take pride in this record?

The defense budget is already in the sights of spending cutters. It has doubled since 2001, and not simply because of war costs, but also because of base budget expenditures that are tied to an overly large force structure, attendant rising military compensation and outsized increases in procurement costs.

The compensation for service and casualties has saddled the United States with multi-decade financial obligations. Budget increases also enabled counterinsurgency and nation building abroad, but this was effectively digging holes and then filling them. In procurement, we bought yesterday’s favorite but obsolete systems that have little connection to military strategy.

At home, money flowed like a deluge into national security infrastructure that produced more redundant agencies and commands, and created jobs where market economies were weak and political support strong. These budget windfalls have blinded policymakers to their duty to use resources in a disciplined manner, and to the concomitant waste, fraud and abuse that usually accompany profligate government spending. It is unclear whether all this activity and expenditure made America any safer than would have a radically different and more affordable strategy better aimed at the nation’s threats.

6) Political Influence

Defense expenditures are driven primarily by socio-economic and political concerns. Jobs are the primary motivation in decisions about base realignments and closures, depot work-share policies, plant locations, test ranges, multiple and disparate intelligence fusion centers, research-and-development labs and military compensation.

The economic influence of defense spending is significant because the military budget is sop for nearly two-thirds of the federal government workforce. That is more than 1.15 million civilians who are part of the national security apparatus. To simply say that this is disproportionate is a gross understatement. When the supplemental army of defense contractors is considered, the word extreme comes to mind.

The geographical distribution of defense spending tells a political story. During BRAC (base realignment and closure) rounds, there has been a trend of moving military bases from the colder, more liberal, less defense-oriented North to the more conservative, more martial and traditionally less economically robust South. This policy has followed the migration of the American people, but it has distorted economic competition between regions and states.

With military compensation soaring in the last 12 years, communities that are defense-dependent have thrived relative to those lacking links to the military. We may never know whether BRAC initiatives have saved any money. Perhaps over a 20-year threshold we might see some savings. Who will credibly conduct the forensic accounting?

7) Military as Political Power

Policymakers are reluctant to cut military spending because it represents enormous power and influence. Defense spending is addictive because it allows the president and lawmakers to exercise power in ways they cannot on the domestic front. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on a recent Sunday talk show that the United States must leave 68,000 troops in Afghanistan until the fall of 2014 as an insurance policy against the Taliban and al-Qaida. What will be materially different between now and late 2014? The slogan “Bring the troops home” falls on deaf ears with kindred policymakers. Their raison d’etre is projecting American power, regardless of the consequences.

8) Bureaucratic Infighting

The perennial resource wars among the military services and defense agencies are self-inflicted wounds of rigidity and sclerosis. The Army wants its 27 to 30 percent of the budget pie regardless of its relevance in the threat environment. Budget stability is one thing, but fixed allocations of treasure are subsidies. Talk about entitlements. Consider the idea of establishing a carve-out of 4 percent of GDP for national security, as presidential candidate Romney suggested. This proposal is effectively a call for corporate, class and regional welfare. How about a truly threat-based strategy and a defense budget grounded in realpolitik instead?

9) Waste and Duplication

The defense budget funds many activities that have little or nothing to do with national security. In 2012, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., commissioned a study titled, “The Department of Everything,” the purpose of which was to expose areas of waste and duplication in the defense budget. The study looked at five areas: Non-military research, education, alternative energy, grocery stores and overhead. He discovered much that is disturbing about Pentagon spending habits. The government appeared to be maintaining a society separate and distinct from mainstream America. Coburn’s study concluded that as much as $67.9 billion could be saved in 10 years of cuts in the targeted areas. The study’s results are startling because, if they are even necessary, many programs should be funded by other departments. Some activities, such as maintaining Defense Department schools in the United States, are not even the province of the federal government. More startling are the opportunity costs — that is, the materiel the services could procure and the technology they could develop if waste from frivolous programs were eliminated.

10) The American People

The public has given politicians space to reduce defense spending. They’ve done so by reelecting a president who is dubious of foreign entangelments and expressing themselves in surveys since the election. People have signaled their preference for a robust, if not efficient and affordable, social safety net. There may be a constitutional mandate to secure the nation, but the American people now know they pay excessively for defense.

But bubble thinking persists. Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy secretary of defense, lamented during a panel discussion Jan. 7 that it is easy in times of fiscal stress to call for defense cuts. But he failed to address whether it is necessary to cut defense spending on the merits.

The listed reasons aren’t conclusive. Of course, there are other important reasons to sink less treasure into national security. Lack of auditable financial accounting and gross mismanagement of procurement programs top the alibi list.

Procurement and contracting have been misguided and inefficient for decades. Leaders talk, but because it is not their own money, there’s no serious effort to solve the problem. No one has been held accountable for the exorbitant costs or mismanagement of major defense acquisition programs.

The double doors of the American Temple of Janus have been open since World War II. Maintaining a massive military apparatus or committing large numbers of troops to protracted land wars are part and parcel of the same problem: an inappropriately interventionist and overly militaristic foreign policy stance.

Global dominance is a Walter Mittyan fantasy, and, therefore, a fool’s errand. But global engagement is necessary and it works. It is reflexive threats of use or actual use of the military option that is causing more problems than it solves. But short-term gains will lead to long-term pain. Disproportionately high military spending and excess manpower make the employment of troops more likely. So as long as the funding flows and senior leaders seek justification for it, the threatening posture and protracted conflicts will continue.

The national security enterprise is a tool for policing and preserving the global commons, assuring and influencing allies, and deterring and defeating enemies. But like other tools such as the venerable hammer, it can be used improperly in violent spasms, which completely disconnect it from its intended benign usage.

It will be difficult to reform the national security apparatus. Self-interest is a major barrier. When the government is the spender the tendency is amplified because there’s little accountability.

Much policy is enacted in the name of jobs and security. Americans must reject any arguments made on these bases. The sentiments these imperatives arouse tend to produce wasteful and unconstitutional policies. How about shifting to policies that reflect our values and principles, or just doing what is right within the U.S. Constitution? Or better yet, how about embracing the organizing principle, “Do no harm?”

As for jobs, it is clear that politicians seek these above all else. National security complements this rationale because it brings high-paying jobs. But where does the money come from? No one seems to care that there are other things against which this massive human capital and treasure can be applied. Massive defense expenditures don’t necessarily keep us safe, but they allow us to feel superior, meddle abroad and create jobs at home. What could be better? Well for starters, how about not borrowing money to engage in these policies? We should also tend to our own business and live within our means.

Let’s put the prescription in stark metaphorical terms: The United States should not borrow one dime or put in harm’s way any soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine to ensure that Afghan children can attend school.

So what else should be done about our defense spending? Well, we can begin by dedicating ourselves to the organizing principle that the martial option should rarely be used. Another critical step is to change the U.S. foreign policy perspective. The United States should not become isolationist, but it should become less warlike and stay fully engaged with the world diplomatically and economically. It should bring its national security strategy in line with the new perspective. If troops are stationed at home, they should be deployable in reasonable time to affect strategic outcomes. It is fine to station troops overseas. Our ground-based assets should be expeditionary forces. This is preferred to large bases in the United States, which are driven by domestic political and economic calculus. But we should not station large formations of ground troops in hotspots, where they become lightning rods for every grievance against the United States.

Changing senior leaders should help usher in innovation and effective reforms. But new blood, meaning turnover at the top, would provide only a brief respite from the madness and incompetence. Once in office, senior officials become seduced by and addicted to the power and influence they think they have over world affairs and the lives of millions of people. This seems to happen to every president of the United States and secretary of defense.

We can only hope that former enlisted grunt and senator, Chuck Hagel, the new defense secretary, will bring the perspective of someone who knows first-hand the tragedy and futility of war.

Failing reformation of our interventionist foreign policies and installment of enlightened and courageous leaders, the only strategy that has any hope of succeeding is to “starve the beast” and shift resources to more productive and redeeming enterprises.

Nathaniel H. Sledge Jr., PhD, is a retired U.S. Army colonel.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy, War Planning

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