Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Rethinking Post-Coronavirus Threats

Countering the Pentagon push for going viral on major wars and their high-tech hardware

Defense Secretary Mark Esper looks on as President Trump talks about beefed-up anti-narcotics efforts amid the coronavirus pandemic April 1. (Photo: Joyce N. Boghosian / The White House)

For the past couple of weeks, every morning has been September 12, 2001. That was the day we all woke up to the smoldering pile that had been the World Trade Center. We were all reeling in shock. How did this happen? we kept asking. How will it end? I’ll leave that second question to the hard-working public health experts. But that first query is an ideal one for the Military Industrial Circus as you, we, the nation, and the world battle the coronavirus.

Think of 9/11 as strike one, and the current pandemic as strike two. We survived 9/11, and most of us will survive the coronavirus. But we may not be as lucky with that third pitch.

In an increasingly globalized 21st century world, the U.S. government has focused nearly all of its might on the 20th century threat posed by enemy states. It has left those defending against Mother Nature’s wrath, whether it be climate change or disease, as after-the-fact backwaters. The concern is we could end up repeating what we did following 9/11: After ignoring the growing threat until it exploded in our face, we spent too much money and launched too many wars, public and private, in its wake. It’s already happening. As the coronavirus outbreak has grown, the key step taken has been simply to throw money at the problem rather than considering a wholesale review of U.S. national security priorities.

We fought, and are still fighting, those post-9/11 wars with supersonic jets and aircraft carriers ill-suited for the assignment, as well as bulking up for future wars. After all, if all you have is a hammer, Abraham Maslow famously said, everything looks like a nail. But it’s even worse at the Pentagon, where screws are now coming loose around the globe, and a hammer is ill-suited for the task.

We traded the War Department for the Department of Defense following World War II. It’s time to retool today’s reality to fit the rhetorical change we made 70 years ago. The coronavirus challenge is to recalibrate the nation’s defense. And that’s in the literal sense of the word, not synonymous with military.

I first asked in the March 25 issue of The Bunker (subscribe here) if we were allocating resources properly for today’s threats.

Several days earlier, the Pentagon had announced it would be spending nearly $400 million for “tactical missiles (Lot 20 AIM-9X, Block II and Block II plus), captive air training missiles, plus all up round tactical missiles, captive test missiles, special air training missiles, advanced optical target detectors, Block II and II plus guidance units (live battery), captive air training missile guidance units (inert battery), Block I and II propulsion steering sections, electronic units, multiple purpose training missiles, tail caps, maintenance, sectionalization kits, containers and spares.”

Meanwhile, Americans are surely dying for lack of $1 face masks that are now going for $6.

I don’t mean to pick on the Pentagon’s missiles, but the contrast between its robust missile buy and the naked cupboard that is the nation’s public health stockpile is, well, sickening. And, in a flipside to the normal military mindset, the U.S. flat-footedness highlights a vulnerability that future foes might exploit, even short of a shooting war.

“Sure, we’ll always have war,” I acknowledged. “But as we have learned to our chagrin, you can’t spend your way to victory. If we’re going to play to a draw, can’t we do it more cheaply, and divert some of those savings into different kinds of threats?”

It turns out there’s a growing chorus wondering the same thing. And they ain’t so-called liberal wusses.

Many Americans “will look at the biggest single discretionary spending line in the government’s budget and conclude that the country has gotten the very idea of security fundamentally wrong,” retired three-star Army General David Barno and military scholar Nora Bensahel opined over at War on the Rocks on March 31. “We in the national security community must ready ourselves for this new era, where economic recovery and preparing for domestic threats like pandemics will be far greater concerns for most Americans than threats from foreign adversaries.”

The coronavirus challenge is to recalibrate the nation’s defense. And that’s in the literal sense of the word, not synonymous with military.

Conservative columnist Max Boot got down to specifics in a March 31 column in the Washington Post. “It never made any sense, as Trump’s 2021 budget had initially proposed, to increase spending on nuclear weapons by $7 billion while cutting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funding by $1.2 billion,” he wrote. “Or to create an unnecessary Space Force out of the U.S. Air Force while eliminating the vitally important directorate of global health by folding it into another office within the National Security Council.”

This refrain had been growing even before the pandemic hit. “National strategy involves assessing all of the major challenges facing the United States, providing the resources needed to address them, and setting priorities among competing demands,” the Sustainable Defense Task Force, issued by the nonprofit Center for International Policy, reported last June. “Many of these challenges—from climate change to economic inequality to epidemics of disease—are not military in nature.”

This isn’t to suggest that there’s an incipient revolution brewing against the military-industrial-congressional complex. But it is a call to begin thinking hard about how it, and the nation, are allocating their defense dollars.

The U.S. military has long had a Pavlovian reaction of waging major league wars against other states but blithely minimizing other threats. Top officials will deny it, but follow the money. Right now, the Pentagon is apparently trying to kill the Minerva Research Institute, a $20 million outfit created by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2008 to harness the social sciences to enhance U.S. national security with tools “beyond guns and steel.” Last year, the Defense Department eliminated its $7 million in annual spending for the JASONS, an outside group of physicists and other scientists seeking solutions for vexing national security challenges (the tab is now being picked up by the nuclear-bomb-builders over at the Department of Energy). And the Pentagon has repeatedly tried to shutter, or at least shrink, the Army’s peacekeeping outfit, which costs taxpayers about $3 million annually. All told, their annual budgets equal the cost of a set of F-35 floor mats, a jet that represents a $1.4 trillion investment for a marginal improvement in waging unlikely wars (and fewer than one of every three F-35s we’re now flying is even ready for war).

In hindsight, the Cold War’s end did not lead the U.S. government to recalibrate its military needs; in fact, we are spending more now on defense than we did then. If our elected presidents and lawmakers won’t acknowledge and act on the need for a fundamental shift in the real defense needs of the 21st century, perhaps this unfolding act of God will.

This change will have to come from the bottom up. Our leaders are often too timid to lead, especially in the minefield of national defense, where too often criticism of shiny new military hardware is portrayed as un-American wimpiness.

We are overdue for a clear-eyed threat assessment, as they like to say at the Defense Department. Any such honest “net assessment” (another favorite Pentagon buzz phrase) will tilt away from those AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles in favor of cheap face masks and whatever else it takes to defend Americans against the threats most likely to do them harm.

We need to learn from our mistakes. Think of 9/11 as strike one and the current pandemic as strike two. Both came out of the blue to most Americans, and not from threats posed by China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia that we’ve heard about ad infinitum. We survived 9/11, and most of us will survive the coronavirus. But we may not be as lucky with that third pitch.