The Impossibility of Defense Cuts

By James Kwak

Apparently the thing we need to keep ourselves safe is a fast, lightweight ship that can sweep mines, launch helicopters, fight submarines, and perform other assorted duties—but can’t withstand heavy combat. I don’t claim to know if we really need the Littoral Combat Ship to ensure our national security. According to an article in the Times, John McCain—the Republican Party’s last presidential nominees and one of the Navy’s more famous veterans—is critical, although other Republicans and the administration are in favor of it.

I do know that the Littoral Combat Ship is a classic example of why it’s so hard to reduce budget deficits. You have local politicians who want the jobs. You have a large group of representatives who are reflexively pro-military and will vote for anything the Pentagon wants, and even things the Pentagon doesn’t want. (You have Mitt Romney, who bemoans the fact that the Navy has only 285 ships, the fewest since 1917. Would he rather have the Royal Navy of 1812, which had 1,000 ships, or our navy, with eleven aircraft carrier groups—while no other country has more than one?) You have a procurement and development process that stretches on for years so that even when a weapons system turns out to be a dud, it has to be kept alive because it’s too big to fail—there is no other alternative. Both the Center for American Progress and the Project on Governmental Oversight have recommended cutbacks in the Littoral program. Yet there is no practical way to check its momentum.

An even better example is the V-22 Osprey vertical-takeoff plane, which the Times profiled late last year. Even renowned insider Dick Cheney opposed the Osprey when he was secretary of defense, to no avail. Not only CAP and the Project on Governmental Oversight called for Osprey cutbacks, but so did Simpson-Bowles and the arch-conservative (and generally principled) Senator Tom Coburn. In short, just about anyone who cares about the budget wants to cut back on the Osprey. Will it happen? Well, the Paul Ryan budget reverses the automatic defense spending cuts, so we know what he thinks about it. And I’m sure the Osprey has plenty of fans in the administration and the Democratic caucus as well.

In the end, defense spending plays out the same way as Social Security. If you want to reduce government spending, you obviously have to reduce defense spending: it’s basically the second biggest part of the budget after Social Security. But it’s almost impossible to cut any actual defense spending. Apparently politicians don’t realize that a whole is equal to the sum of its parts. Or they do realize it, and they hope that we don’t.

One of our core political problems, as we discuss in White House Burning, is that it pays for politicians to take noisy stands against the whole while protecting (or increasing) each individual part. It seems so easy to get away with it—why would they ever stop?

23 responses to “The Impossibility of Defense Cuts

  1. Mr Kwak has discovered the Military-Industrial Complex!
    I recently learned that Eisenhower, who I am old enough
    to remember, originally thought to call it the Military-Industrial-
    Congressional Complex; maybe this name should be revived.

    But there are still gaps in Mr Kwak’s learning. Does he
    know that Social Security is not part of the Budget? Does
    he know that Social Security pays for itself? Let’s
    please keep Social Security out of considerations about
    what to do about our present Crisis.

    That we have a Crisis is beyond doubt. Yeats had it
    at least half right, for the Worst are indeed Full of
    Passionate Intensity. I don’t know where the Best
    are, but the Educated shouldn’t I think simply shrug
    their shoulders.

    Best wishes,

    Alan McConnell, in Silver Spring MD

  2. But have u seen the V22 fly? So cool! Makes it all worthwhile (except for the lost lives, sorry to say).

  3. edward ericson

    Military spending since at least WWII has worked economically like an impossibly poorly-conceived “economic stimulus.” It’s all about the first-order defense contracting jobs, which pay well and seem stable. The fact that the products made have, in most cases, no productive use (see, for example, the Trident Submarine. If we use it for its intended function human life ceases) but the costs trickle into hundreds of needy local economies. Localities where workers hate “welfare” and those who live off it….

    Can’t cut it? That’s been known.

    Why not we start by calling it what it is: Military Keynesianism*

    *and yeah, Keynes was not for it.

  4. common sense

    is it just me, or is “a way to defend yourself” the last thing you want to cut when you’re facing cashflow issues paying your creditors????

  5. Moses Herzog

    The point Mr. Kwak makes above is a crucial one, and has been made by many others (Rachel Maddow makes this point pretty strongly in her book I “believe”, although to be honest I haven’t read Maddow’s book yet). Innumerable Republicans have been busted on this, and it basically goes back to “earmarks” and “earmarked” bills. The legislator says “no” to any individual bill until he gets his individual “pork barrel” project which goes to his state. He either wants to maintain jobs or add jobs, no matter how useless the jobs are to the overall defense of the country. A lot of times you hear about “Legacy” technologies or “Legacy” defense programs that Senators insist on continuing for their state or their district even though the Senator/legislator knows and is fully aware those defense systems/programs are useless for modern warfare. And they would insist those same defense programs are garbage or “pork” if located in another legislator’s voting district.

    But here is the problem with Pres. Obama: First he says “we’re gonna have hope and change”. And what is one of the first things he does out of the starting gate?? Pres. Obama chooses a known TAXCHEAT, because Pres. Obama knows he’s thick as thieves with the boys at Citigroup and NYFRB (and a Robert Rubin crony). Then Pres. Obama says I’m not gonna take “special interest money” which Pres Obama knew was a damned lie from the moment it left his lips, and knew he would never follow through on, and had no intention of following through on.
    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-convention-money-20120406,0,4886623.story

    Then we see Pres. Obama signs in the last couple days the “JOBS act” which is nothing of the kind, and Pres Obama knows it is nothing of the kind, but thinks that we (the electorate) are all so damned dumb that we are going to piss ourselves when we see him signing a law that has “jobs” in the title.

    This is why those persons (including myself, the IDIOT that I was) who were so emotional (I am now ashamed to say I got swept up with emotion) when they saw an intelligent black man walk out on the stage in Chicago are severely disappointed now, and are going to have to drag their feet to the voting booth (I don’t think I’m gonna do it now). Because THIS IS NOT HOPE AND CHANGE.. These are the same bullsh*t lies we’ve been told time and time again. And LIES don’t sound any sweeter coming from a black President, than they do from old white Republican bast*rds. Maybe the lies are even worse, because that black man should know better.

  6. bayardwaterbury

    James, although I am sure that you have read it, I would strongly recoommend to you and your readers that you read “Washington Rules” by Andrew Bacevich. It is the best I have read on how the military industrial complex has continuously and cleverly morphed itself to stay on top of the US agenda ever since WWII. It is an amazing expose, brilliantly written and supported. The MIC is simply a behemoth of epic power that is unlikely to be tamed anytime soon. There have been opportunities in the past, especially since the disasterous adventure in South Vietnam, its massive unpopularity. However, just as example of how the MIC stayed on top after that is how they abandoned the draft quickly to assure that the only “painful” part of their existence was the cost, and we know the story of budgets and public apathy. Certainly, both Iraq and Afghanistan serve to testify to the power of this oligarchy. I have serious doubts that, until our economy totally collapses, nothing can possibly be done to change its overwhelming momentum and tame it.

  7. @Alan, blinding-light truth arrow shot from your quiver wrought from eternity’s experiential truth – best shot ever on BS blog!

  8. The entire gestalt disfavors substantial cuts in military spending.

    This is true since USA won WW 2. Ike saw the peril, and made a special point of hammering it in his Farewell Address in 1961. Things have grown exponentially more entangled since that address.

    When you raison d’etre as a nation is so intimately tied to war and war fighting, what follows is the insatiable lust of more military hardware and software.

    If there isn’t an enemy, then, by geezus, we’ll need to invent one, whether it’s a yellow man in a rice paddy, or some bearded, exotic-looking foreigner who gets fingered for the part.

    In any event, the gig has run its’ course. The US Navy could reduce to 4 carrier battle groups and still be the most formidable sea-going Navy on the seas.

    Anyway, war brings TONS of promotions for the officer corp, with that comes meatier pensions, and chances of swinging into a corporate cushion on the way out.

    And they won’t reduce voluntarily…..I call everyone’s attention to the period after the dissolution of the USSR and the next big thing, which, of course. we all know about.

  9. No, Social Security is nothing like the Defense Department problem. Allan McConnell pointed out some of the differences, but he missed the most important one. The Social Security “problem” could be solved in an instant by removing the earnings cap. Make any assumptions you want and do any math you like. It always comes out the same. No more Social Security problem forever!! That is clearly not the case with Defense spending.

  10. What is the first thing that everyone says about the Middle East?

    “….there’s never going to be peace there…”

    Tada! Perpetual war…throw in *prophecy* and you’re good to go…

    Old enough now to see the pattern – every 15 years, crank up unemployment and go get everybody’s last egg laying chicken – just takes a year or two…but this heist is a whopper, no? I mean 7 trillion?!!! Crazy. There’s seriously no country left! If we had bar codes on the paper bills, we’d see the map light up where that paper is….

    Seven billion people – ENDLESS slave labor supply – no need for worrying about labor costs ever again, either.

    Some religionists were arguing about how evil the Urantia Book is because it sez that God made no place such as Hell. Hell is a monkey brain’s creative imaginative thinking and we certainly have turned Spaceship Earth into hell. But that’s not as *evil* as a book that says that there is no *hell*. Get it? Creating hell is not as evil as saying that God never created such a thing as hell…moral high ground is the *authority* of the hell makers…

    More misery for others = More $$$$ for ME ME ME!

  11. Stefan Stackhouse

    Defense cuts are not impossible. Indeed, they are necessary. However, it is not just pointless, but downright dangerous, to talk about defense cuts without first talking seriously about cuts in our overseas commitments. What we would need just to defend the US (or North America, really) is one thing. What we are needing to be the world’s policeman is something else.

    I would say that at a minimum, we really need to be proceeding with all deliberate speed toward winding up our commitments on the Afro-Eurasian mainland and disengaging. It is our commitments in the Middle East and Central Asia, Europe, and S. Korea that require us to have such a huge Army. Absent these, the US could shift to a maritime grand strategy, relying mostly upon our Navy and Air Force for defense, maintaining only a few air mobile Army and/or Marine divisions. If we maintain any overseas alliances at all, it should be only with island nations that are defensible with this sort of force structure.

    If we were to achieve this sort of disengagement, then I am guessing that we could probably cut our Army by about 2/3, our Air Force by about 1/2, and our Navy/Marines by about 1/3, for an overall reduction in defense spending of about 1/2. We should not go beyond that until the dust has settled and we can properly evaluate whether further reductions are really feasible.

    This proposed grand strategy and force structure is actually returning the US to the thinking that prevailed prior to the Korean War. The conventional wisdom was that we should never get ourselves in a ground war in Asia, and the only reason we stayed in Europe was because we had to go in there twice before and were afraid that the Soviets would make it number three unless we deterred them.

    What this does mean, though, is that we in the US will have to content ourselves to watch things happen on the other side of the world that may not be to our liking. Most of the other nations of the world seem to manage this just fine, so maybe we could as well.

  12. In Canada the Conservative federal government is committed to 65 F-35 purchases. Lunacy indeed. The government will be defeated on this issue alone in 2015. Taxpayer remembers. As you know the price per plane rises by a factor of x3 from the original price.

  13. bayardwaterbury

    @ Stefan Thanks for a very thoughtful post, and one with which I substantially agree. I have, in the past few weeks, read Andrew Bacevich’s book “Washington Rules” as well as Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “Strategic Vision”, both of which are centered around America’s core military commitment strategies and our international threats, security interests, and the power and agenda of the MIC. Both books are amazing in their depth of analysis and recognition of the historic forces and the track of history. I, too, believe that we could easily reorganize our approach to “national security” and our strategy of appropriate approach to our place in the future of the global community to make us a better, safer, more prosperous nation with far better relations around the world. Beginning with the end of the Cold War, more than 20 years ago at the demise of the USSR in 1991, we have had an opportunity to do this. Sadly, those who want to continue our present MIC status as it has been post WWII, are always able to manufacture the necessary support for their contrivances to maintain political power. Before anything truly constructive can happen, their grip must be broken. The conversation has started, and we must continue to help it gain the necessary momentum, which will take much time and effort.

  14. It’s all part of the enslavement of the average citizen. Instead of capitalizing our future, we are consuming it in activities that are a total waste of resources. Instead of Ospreys and Littoral Combat Ships we could have solar panels, and windmills, roads and schools. But We the People are poorer, while the powers that be take their profit off the Military Industrial Complex, and are richer than ever.

    And when you are poor enough, you lose your rights. We have already lost rights with the 2012 NDAA , with its indefinite detention clause, and are the poorer for it. The division of rule of law into two segments, one for the wealthy, and one for the rest of us, is happening, has happened on Wall Street and banking. And the wealthy who profit from the government’s squandering are the same ones who loan the government money, and will present the bill for the government’s debt, a debt accrued because they themselves manipulated the the government into cutting the taxes on the wealthy, their own taxes.

    The final irony is that, by failing to invest in our economic future, our war machine becomes a hollow shell, the Ospreys and LCS’s so much scrap without a strong economy to support them.

    And unable to project force, we will be unable to maintain our empire.

  15. The Osprey is a case where the universe of jobs that can’t be done just as well by conventional helicopters or short takeoff and landing (without the vertical part) conventional fixed wing aircraft, at a much lower cost, has been grossly overestimated. There is a niche for it, but it is a very small niche. It also turns out to be less good than anticipated for the mission of evacuating people from urban environments one area where it might have been expected to have category killing dominance, because it can be too big and kick up too intense winds. It has been fueled by Marine ideological support for a mission (amphibious assault) that plays a much larger role in its self-conception than in its actual duties.

    The LCS is a much better program, although like all major defense programs, it is over budget, behind schedule, and has had hickups in implementation. The U.S. Navy has a gross excess in large surface combatants, relative to any plausible naval opponent, and is not particularly well suited to supplementing ground forces either. Also, if a real hot war against near peers breaks out, we will learn the hard way what our allies have almost all concluded; that big surface combatants are very vulnerable to submarines and advanced missiles and military aircraft. But, the huge U.S. surface combatant fleet is still ill equipped to deal with many modern military duties where surface combatants do make sense: minesweeping (critical, for example, to deal with threats in the Persian Gulf and around North Korea). The 10,000 ton destroyers are gross overkill for going after pirates while being to slow to catch fast speedboats, and the fleet is highly inefficient at dealing with missions like imposing, for example, a weapons blockade on a belligerant, because you need lots of cheap ships to do that well. The LCS also has about a third of the crew of frigates of comparable size in previous generations of ships, is not unduly technologically ambitious, and allows for a shift in military capabilities in the fleet in a matter of days or weeks with new modules, rather than requiring the building of entirely new ships as missions shift. It is also a much more sensible alternative to supporting Marines on beaches (one of its missions) than the 14,000 ton, almost as expensive as an aircraft carrier DD-1000 Zumwalt.

    Everything has marginal utility, and ships are no exception. Our navy is simultaneously too large and has gaps in capabilities. We have vast numbers of destroyers and aircraft carriers, and virtually nothing that isn’t soon to be scrapped in the class of ships that the LCS fills. There are legitimate reasons to criticize it, but this program is an example of internal resistance to and reform of old fashioned defense procurement efforts, not an exemplar of them.

  16. And the peanut crowd hears from the war machine again, and frowns.

  17. Yup, Junior will hack Mommy to death in her sleep as revenge for throwing his game-boy in the garbage…

  18. @Alan – “…Yeats had it at least half right, for the Worst are indeed Full of
    Passionate Intensity….”

    But they are NIHILISTS and that’s not sane. They need to be placed in an institution other than *government*….

  19. “I don’t claim to know if we really need the Littoral Combat Ship to ensure our national security.”

    It’s not needed.

    With two great oceans between us and any potential adversary of consequence, it’s not needed. Nor is most of the DoD. Unless, of course, your definition of national security requires action to adress “instability” whereever in the world our great & glorious leaders deem it is ocurring.

  20. Hi, Annie, Thanks for your complimentary references!
    If you, or any other participant here, feels like getting
    out from behind your computer and doing some
    effective work in the real world, check out
    http://www.waifllc.org
    This will be especially valuable if you live in the
    Washington, D.C. area. This site not only tells
    of useful and effective work, but points to my
    gmail address.

    I may not answer for several days, since I’m leaving
    for YURP tomorrow and will be away for three weeks.

    Alan McConnell, in Silver Spring MD

  21. @Alan, I do get out from in front the computer on a regular basis. Every time I do – astronomy star parties, ceramic studio, continuing education courses, swing dance parties, yoga, hiking, and basic socializing with BFFs, I make it a point to announce that I am running for the office of the President of the United States. So far, 2 people said that they need to think about it, everyone else took less than a NYC minute to think about it and then they said, “You got my vote”. :-)

    Heck, I also encourage everyone who gave me their vote to do the same thing (run for the office) and enter their own name under “write in” – if their state gives them that choice….? You’d think a FEDERAL level election would have the same rules across state…

    I never shoot down in politics….and We the People will be much better off without a Big Giant Head speaking for 5 DELUSIONAL billionaires doing *god’s work*:

    More misery for others = More $$$$ for ME ME ME!

  22. I know two things, both told me by a defense academic
    The reason we toasted Saddam’s soviet tanks in Iraq I: our tanks can shoot a shell a mile further.
    Case closed

    There are a number of shoulder fired missles that can bring down an aircraft or tank. Except for one, all require that you stand up and maintain visual contact with your target.
    One device allows you to duck back down in your foxhole, and guide the missle via video

    Guess which one is the overwhelming choice of combat soldiers everywheres