In 2007, the Pentagon’s budget will exceed the combined military spending of every other country in the world. In round numbers, according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s own Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), published this past February, the American military will spend more than $440 billion next year, supplemented with another $120 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It would be more reassuring, then, if the Pentagon’s four-year plan for how its strategic priorities and force structure align with its budget made for less schizophrenic reading.
On the one hand, as the QDR lucidly explains, the threats confronting U.S. forces today are asymmetric: catastrophic attacks by small groups, insurgencies by enemies of U.S. allies, and so on. This argues for the “transformation” of America’s military, away from industrial-era U.S. forces that depend on “big platform” weapons systems such as aircraft carriers and tank regiments, which took half a year to mass in the field for operations like the Gulf War [in 1991]. Instead, the QDR counsels that the new military should be networked, lean, and nimble, using special operations and robotics for rapid global response.
On the other hand, the 92-page document calls for $84 billion of weapons spending – mostly for items like the F-22 and F-35 fighters, DD(X) and LCS warships, and the CVN-21, the Navy’s next-generation supercarrier, which will start construction in 2007 and be bigger than today’s Nimitz-class carriers. Thus, despite a 15 percent increase in Special Forces and investments in new systems such as drone aircraft, overall, the Pentagon continues to embrace military gigantism.
Yet what if the Pentagon’s big platforms weren’t merely the wrong weapon systems to fight present and future wars, but actually likely to bring defeat? John Arquilla, one of the military intellectuals who created and promoted the concept of “transformation” for the U.S. military, believes that may be the case. Arquilla teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, and is a RAND consultant and a Pentagon advisor. His publications include Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy, In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age and the forthcoming The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror./>
Technology Review: During 1976-1990 – when Reagan pushed the U.S.S.R. into an arms spending race that helped to trigger its downfall – budget authorization for U.S. defense averaged $337 billion annually and outlays averaged $316 billion. Today’s military spending is outpacing that. Besides being economically unsustainable, why do you think it’s wrong to let the Pentagon maintain the industrial-era “big platform” policy alongside the new tech?
John Arquilla: It’s an interesting question as to whether we spent the Soviets into oblivion or ourselves into senselessness. What Reagan was really trying to do with all the military spending was to create a fence between conventional and nuclear war. Every year NATO exercises ended with the American commander calling for the use of tactical nuclear weapons, which appalled Reagan. So he said, “What do you need in order not to do that?” The military said, “Tens of billions more dollars every year.” Reagan said, “Fine, whatever it takes.” Consequently, the military got used to an enormous baseline for spending, enabling it to forego hard choices about what our technology strategy should be.
More broadly, our military today oversees spending of about a billion and a quarter dollars every day. Most of that is misspent. Over this past quarter-century, we’ve reinforced an old industrial-policy military with hardware that makes increasingly less sense, spending most on things that provide the least return. The principal argument for that is: “We have to keep the big, old-style military because we might fight a big, old-style war one day.” But in the future the bigger you are, the harder you’re going to fall to ever-more accurate weapons. Creating a mass army to deal with an old-style mass army is simply to put hundreds of thousands of our troops in harm’s way needlessly.