Arquilla maintains that even Reagan’s massive conventional military buildup should be understood in terms of his desire to prevent any future conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces from escalating into a thermonuclear exchange. Because NATO war games in Europe during the 1970s had regularly ended with the American commander calling for use of tactical nuclear weapons to fend off numerically superior Soviet conventional forces, Reagan asked the Pentagon what was necessary to avoid that contingency. The military responded, predictably, that it would need tens of billions more dollars for more troops and technology. Reagan was willing to foot the bill, and – according to Arquilla – the ensuing buildup also served to implement Marshall’s 1981 proposal that U.S. military funding be increased to a level that would be punishingly difficult for the U.S.S.R. to match.
The strategy worked. But as a result, Arquilla insists, the Pentagon learned to regard massive defense budgets as its due. The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation estimates that the U.S. military will spend more than $550 billion in fiscal year 2007, plus an additional $50 billion Pentagon request to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s a larger budget than many from the Cold War years and more than the combined military spending of every other country in the world.
Unfortunately, Arquilla argues, the U.S. military’s beloved “big platform” systems have few practical applications against the enemy America now faces: a global terrorist insurgency. The transformation programs pushed by Marshall, Rumsfeld, Arquilla, and others are proceeding: investments in special forces, drone aircraft, and the like will increase by 15 percent in 2007, and networked, downsized, and nimble units have been assembled. But the Pentagon remains generally disposed to military gigantism. Most of the $84 billion in weapons spending called for in the Department of Defense budget is being misdirected, Arquilla believes, to items like the F-22 and F-35 fighters, advanced warships for surface combat and coastal warfare, 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 – already the largest warships ever built.
In addition, Arquilla says, maintaining a mass army to deal with other old-style mass armies will increasingly and needlessly put hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women in harm’s way, as smart, precision-targeted weapons like cruise missiles become progressively cheaper and more accessible to other governments or groups.
Even a war against an increasingly militaristic China would not necessarily involve armies of millions or fleets of expensive warships, Arquilla argues; the Chinese themselves, rather than building aircraft carrier battle groups, are developing technologies like maneuverable sea-going mines, supersonic antiship missiles, and supercavitation torpedoes, which move at hundreds of knots by pushing a friction-reducing bubble of air before them. In a world of ever more-accurate weapons, the Pentagon’s continuing allegiance to its giant platforms and systems is increasingly likely to be the downfall of U.S. forces in battle, Arquilla insists.
Some of the surgical military measures Arquilla advocates would offend conventional wisdom. In The Reagan Imprint, he laments that Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, blocked the initiation of a “war on terror” that the president had approved in a still-classified 1984 document, National Security Decision Directive No. 138. The directive apparently authorized secret CIA and FBI paramilitary squads, alongside military units like the navy’s SEALs and the army’s special forces, to undertake preëmptive and retaliatory sabotage and targeted killings.
Unlovely as some of this may seem, Arquilla’s strategic stance has several virtues. First, it’s preferable to the traditional Pentagon methods to which the U.S. may resort in the case of a “long war” against Islamic fundamentalists. Second, whether or not defense gigantism is a recipe for military disaster, today’s level of spending on big-platform systems is simply economically unsustainable: government budgets are about to feel enormous new pressures as baby boomers retire and Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security spending balloons. Third, Arquilla’s propositions offer a route to reducing the American military’s visibility around the world.
In a world where technology is placing ever greater destructive power in the hands of ever smaller groups, the possibility of megaterrorism has emerged. In such a world, John Arquilla is unashamed to point out, keeping a lower profile might be a sensible U.S. military strategy.
The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror
By John Arquilla
Ivan R. Dee, 2006, $26.00
Mark Williams is a contributing writer at Technology Review.