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Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Panel of Defense Lobbyists and Revolving Door Doyens Calls for More Defense Spending

(Animated illustration: CJ Ostrosky/POGO)

It is nearly impossible to imagine anyone within the national security space was surprised that a panel of defense experts with decades of uniform and civilian government service between them, many with deep ties to the defense industry, wrote a report saying the United States needs to spend more on defense. And it’s doubtful that many people outside the Beltway were surprised by this either.

Defense budgets are already hovering near record levels and, even prior to the report’s release, many in Congress were discussing pushing spending levels even higher.

So, in a stunningly unsurprising development, the National Defense Strategy Commission released a report, “Providing for the Common Defense,” on November 13, 2018, concluding that the United States is on the brink of losing its military-technological advantage over Russia and China, a trend that can only be reversed with a massive infusion of money. The report stands on the shaky premise that great powers can fight conventional wars and that such (theoretically impossible) conflicts can be won primarily through superior technology. Appropriately enough, the release of this report coincided with the anything-but-unexpected news that the Pentagon failed its first-ever audit.

Defense budgets are already hovering near record levels and, even prior to the report’s release, many in Congress were discussing pushing spending levels even higher. Department of Defense contracts topped $321 billion in 2017, an increase of more than $20 billion over the year before.

Conspicuously absent from the Commission’s report—which, if Congress follows its recommendations, would almost certainly result in even more of a windfall for defense contractors—is any mention of the many ties the majority of the Commission members have to the defense industry. In addition to their previous government service, these Commission members have the following industry ties:  

They all declined to comment for this article.

The Commission members attempt to make the case that the United States is in the midst of a twenty-first–century arms race reminiscent of the Cold War, with the roles reversed. The idea behind the Reagan military buildup of the 1980s was to bait the Soviets into spending more of their increasingly scant resources to keep up with American military technology, with the ultimate goal of bankrupting the Soviet Union. The Commission’s report claims that the United States is now on the losing end—and that our potential adversaries have a considerable head start. They are preparing to overtake the United States, argues the Commission, while only spending a fraction on their military forces. To follow the Commission’s logic: we would have to spend ourselves into even deeper deficits just to keep pace.

The Commission conveniently inflated the threat posed by peer adversaries—this, of course, helps justify the most lucrative defense contracts. They warn of “the proliferation of advanced technology,” including ballistic and cruise missiles, precision-strike assets, and advanced air defenses, where, “in some cases, we are behind, or falling behind.” While the report does reference terrorism and the sort of conflicts against low-tech adversaries the United States is most likely to continue facing, the overwhelming majority of the report focuses on the kind of conventional conflict that, for all intents and purposes, is not even theoretically possible. Many scholars have written about the impossibility of two nuclear powers fighting a conventional war. Some military leaders arrived at the same conclusion after mock battles last year showed belligerents repeatedly resorting to nuclear weapons when the situation turned against them.

The Commission writes, “As the old adage goes, ‘Quantity has a quality all its own,’” saying the United States must grow its military force to meet all of its global commitments. There is an old Yankee saying, “You can’t get there from here,” which is perhaps more appropriate for the situation. Unfortunately for the commissioners, to say nothing of the taxpayers and troops, history shows that the more we spend on the military, the smaller and more fragile the force actually becomes. Free-flowing defense budgets encourage the Pentagon and defense contractors to indulge their worst instincts. They pursue overly complex weapons programs that end up costing a fortune beyond their originally promised price tags while simultaneously failing to come close to delivering on the lavish promised capabilities used to sell them. As the costs rise, Congress usually offsets the tightening budget by slashing production numbers. That’s how the B-2 bomber program dropped from a planned fleet of 132 to 21 and the F-22 fighter fleet shrank from the originally planned 648 to 187. Simply put, unless the Pentagon stops attempting to purchase the wunderweapon version for each program, the force will continue to shrink due to budget and political realities.

Were the report’s premise accurate, there should be mass firings in the upper ranks of the military and the civilian defense establishment. And, were it accurate, generations of military and civilian leaders have squandered unfathomable sums of money to no purpose, since our rivals have apparently been able to nibble away at our military edge while spending but a fraction to do so. Defense spending figures vary widely depending on the source and calculation method. But even by the most generous standards, U.S. military spending is more than twice that of Russia and China combined. In 2018, the United States spent $639 billion on defense while China spent $174.5 billion and Russia spent approximately $61 billion.

These figures lay bare the logical fallacy at the core of the Commission’s report. If Russia and China have steadily gained a military advantage over the United States while spending far less, then the problem facing our military is something other than spending levels. Yet the Commission’s key recommendation is to “increase the base defense budget at an average rate of three to five percent above inflation” for at least the next five years.

The Commission conveniently inflated the threat posed by peer adversaries—this, of course, helps justify the most lucrative defense contracts.

Raising taxes, cutting other programs, or borrowing more to pay for such an increase are unlikely to be very popular with voters. In true Washington fashion, our elected leaders attempted to dodge responsibility for this sticky problem by appointing a blue-ribbon panel of experts whose most salient qualification is that they do not have to face the voters. The report provides a convenient political alibi for those who cast a vote in favor of increased defense spending. When facing the voters, they can say they didn’t want to raise taxes or cut funding for other government programs but, brandishing a copy of the report, can say they had no choice because the national defense required more money. This was almost certainly why Congress commissioned this study with a provision in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Better still, the Commission essentially engages in political blackmail by writing: “Although the resulting tradeoffs will certainly be difficult, anything short of these steps will represent an implicit decision not to provide America with the defense it deserves.”

The military does face readiness and operational challenges. Most can be traced back to decision-makers who operated within precisely the same mindset as the members of the National Defense Strategy Commission. Crafting defense policy around an impossible set of circumstances involving nuclear-armed adversaries and unrealistic weapons development programs created the current state of affairs. Doubling down on that strategy—exactly the course of action this report recommends—will accomplish little more than wasting a truly inconceivable amount of money to build a smaller military that, even if it did work as advertised, would be ill-suited for the kind of wars we are likely to keep fighting.

The Commission’s co-chairs touted the members’ broad consensus on the report’s findings. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, the two chairs found most of the Senators broadly agreeing with their findings. But, as General George S. Patton once said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” The next time Congress wants to avoid doing its own dirty work, it should at least look for experts who don’t think exactly like all that came before them.