Holding the Government Accountable

New Year’s Irresolution: Peering into 2018

The latest pablum and portents from the Pentagon’s must-read list
A U.S. airman keeps a wary eye peeled for attackers from his guard post in Afghanistan. (DoD photo)

Not sure how you spent your holidays—happily, I hope—but I spent a fair amount of mine poring through a stocking full of reports about the state of our national defense. First there was President Trump’s initial National Security Strategy, which basically said that the $700 billion we’re spending each year on the U.S. military isn’t enough. Then I zipped through a new study from the Rand Corp. that said all it would take is another $30 billion or so annually to get the U.S. military on the right track. After those bodice-rippers, I cozied up with the State Department’s latest World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfer report, which shows the U.S. is increasingly the Amazon.com for world’s weapons buyers, and has some amazing facts you won’t find elsewhere.

Here (start breathing through your scuba gear now!) at the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight’s Center for Defense Information, it’s our goal to push for a “significantly” cheaper, but smarter, U.S. military. And as a new year dawns—as well as the first full calendar year of a new administration—it’s a good time to see where we’re headed. Frankly, it’s important to stop flying blind. We have been on automatic pilot since the end of the Cold War with nothing but record levels of defense spending and only military draws, at best, to show for it. One thing has remained pretty constant, in fact, since World War II: the U.S. military—in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq—has failed to win, at a cost of trillions of dollars and nearly 100,000 American lives.

Is this what national defense is supposed to be buying?

Defense spending, of course, is like a telescope, with its size dependent on which end you’re looking into. It has represented a shrinking share of the national economy and the federal budget for decades. Pentagon plutocrats insist that it’s being short-changed and that more money is needed. Pentagon paupers, on the other hand, note that U.S. is now spending more annually than it did during an average Cold War’s year, when we were eyeballing the Soviet Union with nuclear notions in our noggins.

So, will anything change in 2018? Don’t bet on it, based on the evidence so far. In Trump’s Dec. 18 release of his National Security Strategy, he pretty much lumped his predecessors together with foreign foes. The 55-page text contained the usual platitudes puréed by the U.S. national-security establishment (“peace through strength” appears eight times). But the president’s remarks accompanying its release were jarring, coming from the commander-in-chief.

Even though many in the national-security community had been privately complaining for years of the Obama administration’s kid-glove approach in handling foreign affairs, it was startling to hear Trump lash out at his predecessors as “they” rather than “we”—as in Americans. “Our leaders engaged in nation-building abroad, while they failed to build up and replenish our nation at home,” Trump said. “They undercut and shortchanged our men and women in uniform with inadequate resources, unstable funding, and unclear missions.”

Thankfully, the actual document itself was considerably more measured. “The National Security Strategy is a stunning repudiation of Trump, and Trump's speech was a stunning repudiation of the National Security Strategy,” global strategist Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution noted in the Atlantic.

But, Trump went on, things will be different from here on out. “We are once again investing in our defense—almost $700 billion, a record, this coming year,” he said. “We are demanding extraordinary strength, which will hopefully lead to long and extraordinary peace.” (Psst—Mr. President: if money were the key to victory, we would have prevailed in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq).

The Rand study pulled a 180 on Trump, pointing out that more money doesn’t guarantee more winning. “Assessments in this report will show that U.S. forces could, under plausible assumptions, lose the next war they are called upon to fight, despite the United States outspending China on military forces by a ratio of 2.7:1 and Russia by 6:1,” noted the report, published on the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s title was right out of the let’s-be-afraid playbook: “U.S. Military Capabilities and Forces for a Dangerous World.” You’d hardly know that the U.S. military is the envy of the world, unparalleled in its reach and power.

But to win tomorrow, the U.S. military needs new investment priorities—detecting enemy forces, destroying enemy air defenses, more protection against enemy missiles (leading an outsider to wonder: just what has the Pentagon been up to all these years?)—at the top of Rand’s list. Shifting spending to pay for them while maintaining the U.S. military’s current size, the research outfit says, can only happen “by increasing defense spending by $20 billion to $40 billion per year on a sustained basis.” Well, we give Rand credit for noting there isn’t a linear relationship between military spending and military success.

“It turns out the U.S. is the top weapons supplier to the least-democratic countries.”

Finally, the U.S. also is doing its best to share its high-cost, low-payoff war-fighting ways with the rest of the planet. Let’s face it: the U.S. has a split personality when it comes to weaponry. It has long pushed arms-control pacts and nonproliferation treaties to keep a cap on the nuclear genie, while its Second Amendment embraces a “don’t tread on me” ethos when it comes to individual gun ownership. The government embraces that latter approach when it comes to selling U.S.-made weaponry overseas.

Such salesmanship didn’t begin with Trump. The U.S. has been the world’s biggest arms seller since 1990, and the global weapons trade is now at its highest level since the Cold War’s end, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported last year. U.S. overseas arms sales reached $42 billion during the last fiscal year (ending Sept. 30), a 24% increase over the $34 billion sold in the prior 12 months.

“This positive sales trend isn't surprising as the United States is the global provider of choice for Security Cooperation,” Army Lieut. Gen. Charles Hooper, chief of the weapons-selling Defense Security Cooperation Agency, said shortly after Thanksgiving. “We deliver not only the most effective defense systems to our partners, but we also ensure a ‘Total Package’ approach that includes the provision of training, maintenance, and sustainment, to support full spectrum capability for our partners.” (Can someone at the Pentagon please call a halt to this Trump-like Random Capitalization That Makes No Sense?)

The State Department’s latest congressionally-mandated World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers report (tasty acronym: WMEAT), strives to come up with apples-to-apples measurements for the fruit-cocktail arms bazaar. Between 2005 and 2015, it concluded that the world increased its spending on military forces (excluding inflation) by about a third, from roughly $1.6 trillion to $2.2 trillion annually. Highlighting the growing role played by high-tech weaponry, the cost per troop over the same decade jumped by about 40%. International arms sales jumped by 66% over the decade. In fact, American weapons exports cut the the nation’s trade deficit by about 20%, the State Department’s calculations show.

Chart: Global share of major arms exports by the 10 largest exporters, 2012-16
(Source: SIPRI.org)

But the U.S. needs to be aware of its buyers. “It turns out the U.S. is the top weapons supplier to the least-democratic countries,” says Micah Zenko, a national-security analyst at Chatham House, after reviewing the data.

But all geopolitics is local, according to William Hartung, an arms-sale scholar at the Center for International Policy. “Sales of F-15s to Qatar and F-18s to Kuwait help extend their production lines at Boeing plants in the St. Louis area; sales of M-1 tanks to Saudi Arabia help keep General Dynamics lines in Ohio and Michigan up and running; and sales of F-16s to any number of countries keep the Lockheed Martin F-16 line open,” he says. “The U.S. dominates the global arms trade, and arms exports have a significant domestic political impact.”

It’s hard to believe, but the U.S. may become an even more ardent arms peddler. “The Trump administration is nearing completion of a new `Buy American’ plan that calls for U.S. military attachés and diplomats to help drum up billions of dollars more in business overseas for the U.S. weapons industry,” the Reuters newswire reported Jan. 8. “The initiative, which will encompass everything from fighter jets and drones to warships and artillery, is expected to be launched as early as February.”

For those not sated by all this holiday reading, there’s more on the way: the Pentagon will unveil its National Defense Strategy Jan. 19, followed by its nuclear-posture and ballistic-missile-defense reviews in February. No surprises there, either: they’re expected to call for new and smarter (and possibly more) nuclear weapons, as well as shields to defend against them.

All this offers plenty of grist as we launch our second year of this weekly Military Industrial Circus column. We look forward to reporting on the fits and starts of the U.S. military as it struggles to gain its footing in the 21st Century, and appreciate you coming along for the ride.