Analytical Cassandra or Something Else?

Posted: July 20, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
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Former OSD analyst Chuck Spinney is posturing himself as a truth teller.  (Begin sarcasm font.  Note: OSD analysts—especially former ones—are held in high regard for their understanding of conditions in “the field” or “at a unit.” Close sarcasm font.)  Like a lot of things in life, Spinney’s article is part hoot, part truth.  Let’s start with some hoot:

…the United States no longer needs to spend a large part of the defense budget to maintain a large forward deployed conventional and nuclear forces to counter the threat posed by the Soviet Union.  With a few minor exceptions, the United States is also fielding the smallest combat-coded force structures since 1950.

At the unexamined level, there seems to be truth in this statement.  At the examined level, the flaws in his case include conveniently ignoring 1) the fact we had a draft in the 1950s and barely paid the military a living wage, 2) the United States now has about twice as many people, 3) defense spending as a percentage of GDP is now about half what it was in the 50s, 4) it isn’t the Soviet Union anymore, but it is still Russia, and finally, 5) the destructive/defensive prowess of U.S. forces was tiny during those Happy Days compared to what it can do today. 

Spinney also chooses to use 1998 as his budget baseline (at least twice) in harping that ‘defense budgets have almost doubled in inflation-adjusted terms since 1998.’  The inconvenient truth, to borrow from the Creator (of the internet) is that 1998 was the low point in a long low period of defense spending commonly called “The Peace Dividend.” 

While the author correctly points out much of the value-lost model inherent in the Congressional-academic-military-industrial complex, he loses track of a fundamental fact: what gets rewarded is what gets done.  By this I mean with new defense acquisition programs (all else remaining equal) the Congress gets reelected, the military gets new weapons systems, industry makes some money, and some jobs are created along the way.  Win-win-win-win, right? 

Well it is until you consider the bill-payer, the American citizen.  While the citizen is indeed likely to get enhanced national security (although that is an impossible-to-measure thing) with new weapons systems, the defense ‘value created’ may be far from commensurate with the monies spent borrowed. 

Still, cost avoidance (that is, avoiding the cost of having to fight a war because of the presence of a robust and capable U.S. military) is of great national benefit, but again, the metrics of avoiding war and the likelihood of having to fight such a war to begin with isn’t likely to be measurable in any meaningful way.  Can such things be quantified?  Yes, but only with many assumptions and caveats; so many as to likely render such analysis useless.

Spinney uses tactical fighter aviation decisions from the early 1990s as his prime example of the failure of the Congressional-academic-military-industrial complex:

No mission area reveals the Pentagon’s behavioral pathologies more clearly than tactical fighter aviation or TACAIR.  As the Cold War was ending in the early 1990s, the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps wanted to embark on a new generation of high-cost, high-complexity fighter/attack aircraft (these became the F-22, F/A-18E/F, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter).

Left unsaid is why the services wanted these new aircraft which were the incorrect assumptions that 1) airpower ‘won’ Gulf War I and that 2) all future conflicts would require stealthy military aviation.  The basic idea was to shed existing airpower capabilities to pay for new systems.  As it turned out, just as you car or home repair bill is often more than expected, TACAIR modernization has (and will continue to) cost more than advertised.  Additionally, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have showed that these types of conflicts don’t require stealthy-type airframes. But will the next war look like the last ones? 

While there are few defense acquisition financial management systems that have shown they can control costs (or even provide accurate as-you-go financial insight), the biggest expense of a new system is still to come, a point Spinney largely (but not completely) ignores.  Operating and maintaining these weapons systems (once they’ve come on line and been provided to the military) is where the real money gets spent, traditionally about 80 percent of the life-cycle cost.  And those O&M monies are even more inauditable than the initial acquisition effort.  Why?  Because insightful spending accountability hasn’t historically hasn’t been an important metric and military outcomes are not sufficiently described in a profit and loss statement. 

When American taxpayers demand more transparency and accountability from Congress, academia, think tanks, the military, industry, and the very large standing army of government bureaucrats, things will change.  Until then—and here’s where Spinney has it 100% right—keep doing what you’re doing, keep getting what you got.

(photo: Wikipedia commons)


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