Designing a defense budget

Our own Graeme Wood shared this blog post by Spencer Ackerman on the defense budget. After pointing out that the biggest (and growing) item is combat aircraft, Mr Ackerman calls this “insane”:

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say we don’t use combat aircraft in the wars we’re fighting. You have to come up with a baroque set of Michael Bey-esque geopolitical calculations by which we would use combat aircraft in any conceivable war. The U.S.’s area of combat-aircraft dominance is called Planet Earth. No Air Force is going to challenge ours. No actual U.S. adversary has an air force, and the list of real-potential U.S. adversaries that do starts with Iran and ends with North Korea, neither of which are remotely stupid enough to test us in the air. The most likely scenario for using combat aircraft in a U.S. war is an alien invasion.

He goes on to write:

What is relevant to the wars we fight are (a) remotely-piloted aircraft like drones, (b) surveillance aircraft like drones, © helicopters, and (d) especially airlift, to get our ground troops from Point A to Point B. And as you can see from the chart, we don’t spend nearly on that stuff what we spend on combat aircraft.

While I certainly agree that given America’s counterinsurgencies require a different set of kit than a Cold War military, and I absolutely agree with the general proposition that defense spending is irrational, riven by political-bureaucratic infighting rather than strategic investing (I agreed with nixing the F-22 program), I think calling high spending on aircraft simply “insane” is a little bit short-sighted.

If there is one lesson to draw from both recent and ancient military history, it is the tendency to fight “the last war”. Certainly this was the problem with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were at first basically fought like the first Gulf War. That war, meanwhile, was such a stunning success because the one fighting the last war was Saddam Hussein, entrenching his large cavalry in the desert, expecting a repeat of the Iran-Iraq war instead of the air-dominated, high tech war that the US had been perfecting.

The point is that while the US is fighting counterinsurgencies now, there’s no sure way to tell what wars it will fight tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. My friends who know about this stuff tell me that China’s military spending is geared toward an overwhelming amount of mid-range missile and naval warfare, which is designed to accomplish a fait accompli whereby China has so much overwhelming force in range of Taiwan that the US can no longer defend it. I think letting that happen would suck. (I also think antagonizing China would be very bad, but also that the best way to be friends with everyone in this big bad world is to have the biggest stick in the room.)

I’m not saying the US should orient its military spending toward preventing or matching China’s rise. I’m saying that whatever the big security challenge will be twenty years from now, we don’t know what it will be. Certainly 10 years ago you couldn’t have anticipated the situation we’re in today. In this context, for a country with the scale and power that the US has, with this extent of security engagements, the best way to respond to this radical uncertainty is to hedge against every possibility (after all, especially on a Reihan-edited site, we can’t dismiss an alien invasion completely out of hand), and maintain heads-and-shoulders dominance over every area.

The reason why today the US air force has no rival, not even China or Russia, is because those guys don’t even try to match the Air Force’s capacity, because the Air Force is so far ahead of them. If the strategy becomes “let’s only be slightly bigger than those guys” there’s a good chance those guys will all of a sudden buy a lot of fighter planes and launch a bunch of military satellites.

As far as fighting counter-insurgency wars, Ackerman is right that the US should buy a whole bunch of drones and transport aircraft (a first step would be to get over the astounding protectionism regarding the EADS A400M, which is superior to every alternative). But the US should also invest a lot more in strategic space commands, it should also prepare for the rise of a belligerent China (even as American foreign policy works hard to prevent such belligerence), it should prepare for a collapse of North Korea (for which Haiti is a priceless opportunity for a dress rehearsal, by the way), it should prepare for an alien invasion, it should prepare for (successful) Battle of Mogadishu-style interventions in places like Yemen, it should prepare to pummel Iran. It should prepare for a lot of those things at the same time.

The point isn’t to bring back the F-22. The point isn’t even that spending so much on fighter aircraft is smart — it may very well be dumb.

The point is that it’s not self-evidently “insane” to spend a lot of money on fighter planes for the sole reason that we’re not using them right now.

P.S. I also feel compelled to point out this absolutely extraordinary talk by Thomas Barnett regarding the kind of counterinsurgency strategy the US should support.