Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Military Procurement

Today, we find a member of the Bush Administration who is, at least at first blush, making some pretty good sense. The New York Times reports that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates "issued a clear warning to the military and its industrial partners on Tuesday that expensive, new conventional weapons must prove their value to current conflicts, marked by insurgency and terrorism, if they hope for a place in future budgets."

You probably can't hear it, but that's the hallelujah chorus singing in the background.

The article goes on to say that Gates's pronouncements "are certain to alarm advocates of the newest generations of high-tech and high-cost weapons programs, in particular the Army’s Future Combat Systems and the Air Force’s F-22 advanced warplane. Both have come under the scrutiny of Pentagon budget officers questioning whether either would be required for missions similar to the current operations in Iraq or Afghanistan." Alarmed, and rightfully so. If I were C.E.O. of a high-end defense contractor (or a congressman with one in my district), I'd certainly be making a few phone calls right now. Still, this is a welcome injection of sanity into the perennial debate over the United States' bloated defense budget.

Actually, to be honest, I'm a little bit conflicted about all of this. On the one hand, given the gargantuan government budget defecits that are driving down the American dollar and generally contributing to the erosion of America's global economic good standing, I'm glad to hear that the defense department is beginning to reorient its priorities away from half-trillion dollar boondoggles whose value has yet to be proven in the real world. On the other hand, while Iraq and Afghanistan will almost certainly remain the central focus of the American military over the next three to five years, I'd actually be in favor of reorienting American defense policy (and, concurrently, its global posture) away from such conflicts in the medium-to-long term. Invading countries, conducting large-scale occupation and counterinsurgency operations, and generally continuing to act like we've acted over the last decade is not in the best interest of the United States. Such heavy handed tactics are reminiscent of the nineteenth century, are seldom worth their material and political cost, and given the increasing multipolarity of the international system, will likely be strategically un-feasible before too long anyhow.

I would generally be in favor of tailoring American military capabilities to operate best at the very highest and very lowest levels of power projection (and please understand that I am speaking as a layman, not as a soldier or highly-trained strategic analyst). In other words, I would be in favor of increasing the role of special forces, intelligence, and other flexible mechanisms to quickly and effectively strike at small terrorist groups that operate in numerous corners of the globe (without the burden of changing regimes and building countries from the ground up), as well as maintaining America's technological advantage to ensure our ability to fight major conventional conflicts on the sea and in the air. Large scale, long-term ground operations like we now see in Iraq and Afghanistan should be avoided.

In some senses, this vision would mean that high-end aircraft, new ships, and other expensive military hardware would remain important. I refer back, though, to my earlier praise of Richard Betts's Foreign Affairs piece on American defense expenditures, in which it is argued that we ought to continue aggressively funding research and development of cutting edge defense technologies, without taking on the burden of broadly equipping our military with such hardware until such time as the international situation truly demands it (disconcerting as China's recent military expansion is, we're a long ways away from a showdown with Beijing). As such, we don't need to order hundreds of the latest F-22 fighters. We do want to start designing the plane to replace them.

I suppose I should also mention, cliche though it is at this point, that the pushback from Congress against cuts in many current defense projects will likely be fierce. Here's hoping that Secretary Gates's pragmatism carries through to the next administration, and that enlightened leadership can slowly begin to steer the American military-industrial complex towards a defense posture that is better tailored to the World of the twenty-first century.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Matt,

Through the one frame of analysis I know for thinking about military development, I'm not sure I understand your point correctly.

I usually would oppose:

traditional military on military wars (eg WWII)


counterinsurgency/stabilisation missions/going into a weak or failed state

Maybe this framework is too narrow (very likely so), but it surely doesn't seem to work with your argument since you argue both:

- against the second type of operations

- but nevertheless call for a more flexible military, which i would usually think of as precisely the kind needed for this type of missions...

Could you let me know what it is I'm getting wrong?