A slew of progressive groups made headlines this week by asking all 2020 Democratic candidates to endorse a $200 billion cut to the approximately $700 billion FY2019 defense budget. The Associated Press reported:
“Hundreds of billions of dollars annually should be shifted away from the Pentagon and to pressing needs from education to averting catastrophic climate change,” said Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog nonprofit Public Citizen.
MoveOn.org, Indivisible, and Democracy for America signed on, as well.
The statement is true. But it is also untethered from any military strategy that could accommodate a $200 billion cut — a 30% cut. Slashing the defense budget is necessary, in its own right and to finance a progressive fiscal agenda. But without a plan, progressives are flailing, asking for an end to a decades-old military strategy without proposing a new one. A new one is possible and practical, as I explore below. They need to offer this or another plan along with their demands both to be taken seriously, and to be serious.
Current Military Strategy
For progressives to understand where they want to go, they need to understand where we are.
The U.S. military is ubiquitous, incomparably powerful, and unbelievably expensive. It has 11 aircraft carriers; its nearest peer, China, has 2. It has hundreds of bases in dozens of countries and on every continent but Antarctica; China has one. It wastes tens of billions of dollars annually — if not more — and has failed to account for trillions of dollars in spending. It enters contracts with war profiteers like TransDigm, which has ripped off the Pentagon for outrageous sums. It is a bloated and graft-ridden tool of aggression that in the past 20 years has been responsible for far more civilian deaths and toppled regimes than any other force in the world. And it costs about $700 billion a year.
These are relatively familiar topics to all observers. Less so is the strategy that motivates the Pentagon’s decisions and to which Congress has acquiesced despite all evidence that the Pentagon isn’t to be trusted. This requires a dive into the weeds.
One lens through which to understand U.S. military strategy is the concept of “Air Sea Battle,” an element of military doctrine that was explicit dogma until 2015, when top brass subsumed it into a less explicit but substantially similar strategy. The idea, according to Admiral James Foggo, was to “go into an area, [and when] someone throws up jammers, somebody throws out mines, somebody throws out submarines as a threat to your surface ships … you know right away what to do about it.”
Air Sea Battle was a response to the development of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities among U.S. near-peer competitors — China and Russia. The weapons, weapons systems, and platforms associated with an A2/AD strategy are meant to (1) deny an adversary access to a conflict zone by impeding its freedom of movement in adjacent areas and (2) prevent an adversary from operating freely and effectively in a conflict zone. A2/AD resources tend to be stealthy and/or inexpensive: anti-ship missiles, anti-air missiles, small guided-missile ships, submarines, and swarms of last-generation fighter aircraft equipped to attack advanced U.S. planes and ships. These are tools of asymmetrical warfare, not in terms of counter-insurgency operations, but in terms of great power conventional warfare. The geographic advantage China enjoys in a Taiwan fight, for example, poses a serious A2/AD challenge to the U.S. military, which relies on the projection of naval and air power into the area to defend Taiwan and deter Beijing’s aggression. An aircraft carrier on its way to Taiwan would face an impressive barrage of Chinese missiles. One hit could be enough to knock it out and kill thousands of sailors. One Chinese submarine slipping past the protective net of a carrier’s support ships and planes is one too many.
The Pentagon has been planning with a “third offset” strategy to anticipate China’s asymmetrical advantages. The Pentagon has rolled out unmanned drone ships designed for anti-submarine warfare, among many additions to its arsenal of autonomous systems, and it is pursuing the intelligentization (to borrow a Chinese term) of the military: the use of deep learning, artificial intelligence, and other cutting edge technological capabilities to amplify conventional warfare capabilities. But essentially U.S. strategy has not changed. Any conflict with Beijing would involve forward deployed U.S. ground and air forces at bases in U.S. territories and Japan, and the big guns of expeditionary naval forces, such as the carrier groups that would swoop in to bolster a response to a Chinese attack and try to gain sea and air superiority.
Consider the following from the Trump Administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy:
The surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win one. Doing so requires a competitive approach to force development and a consistent, multiyear investment to restore warfighting readiness and field a lethal force. The size of our force matters. The Nation must field sufficient, capable forces to defeat enemies and achieve sustainable outcomes that protect the American people and our vital interests.
Military doctrine and this strategic view together reveal how the status quo conceives of U.S. military strategy: it is to dominate the sea and air anywhere in the world, on command, to win wars, and to prevent them by the sheer fact that the military bestrides the globe. From this reasoning it follows that no competitor — not China, not Russia — would dare to incur the costs the U.S. military would impose on any aggression.
Nevermind whether this strategy blatantly creates a destabilizing security dilemma for the adversaries the Department of Defense names elsewhere in its report. Onto fiscal issues.
The Cost of Expeditionary Living
This strategy is insanely expensive. I’m going to focus on the Navy as a case study, and as the most important element of U.S. force projection.
Take aircraft carriers. The ongoing construction of just two Gerald Ford-class aircraft carriers will cost $24 billion, and many more are on the way if the Navy replaces older carriers that reach their lifespan. All existing carriers cost about $1 billion per year to maintain; the cost of the five or so supporting ships in a carrier strike group (of which there are 11) compound the cost.
Take what hawks want for the U.S. Navy: an increase in the number of ships it fields from 280 to 355. According to the Congressional Budget Office, “The cost to build, crew, and operate a 355-ship fleet achieved by new construction would average $103 billion (in 2017 dollars) per year through 2047.”
What if the Navy only maintains a fleet of its current size? “It would cost an average of $91 billion annually through 2047.”
What if the Navy shrinks to 230 ships? “ In total, that alternative would cost an average of $82 billion per year over the next 30 years.”
The difference between expanding the Navy and letting it shrink is about $500 billion over three decades.
Now it’s important to consider China in discerning why hawks are so interested in bolstering the U.S. Navy. No other country poses such an A2/AD threat; no other country is churning out submarines and guided missile destroyers and jet fighters at such a rate; no other country but the United States has such potential to project force globally. And China has been the primary antagonist in territorial disputes with U.S. treaty allies in the East China Sea and South China Sea, and it constantly threatens Taiwan with violent reunification — a contingency that, under U.S. law, might provoke a lawful U.S. military response, depending on a given administration’s interpretation of the Taiwan Relations Act. The Navy would lead the fight in all these contingencies, and it’s losing its numerical — if not qualitative — edge over the People’s Liberation Army as its ships age and it replaces few of them. For a strategy predicated on the ability to penetrate China’s defenses and dominate sea and air, the proliferation of Chinese sea and air-superiority platforms like those mentioned above, while the U.S. Navy might decline in size, is a major threat. Hiking defense spending makes sense, if you’re wedded to that strategy.
A $500 Billion Strategy
If progressives want to shave $200 billion off $700 billion in defense spending, they need a new military strategy. The financial cost of the current strategy is simply too great to withstand those cuts, and the alternative to that strategy can’t be “no strategy.” It can’t be “let’s spend that money on the Green New Deal” without a coherent alternative to the Air Sea Battle-inspired expeditionary force posture.
There is an obvious solution, and it happens to be a better military strategy. I’m going to describe it via East Asia, but it applies to Eastern Europe, and I return to the Middle East and global conflict.
Scrap our aircraft carriers as they expire, and cancel our orders for new ones. Scrap the F-35. Scrap research and development for the next air superiority and strike aircraft. Scrap ICBM modernization. Save all those hundreds of billions of dollars that would be sunk into development, acquisition, and maintenance of expeditionary and nuclear forces.
Stick to submarines. They are an asymmetric threat to the surface ships that China is churning out daily. (We’re already building a new class of submarines that can be scaled up.) Stick to short-range anti-missile batteries to protect ground infrastructure from China’s large stockpile of ballistic missiles. Stick to land-based anti-air and anti-ship missile batteries. They can be road-mobile (i.e. difficult to target) and they don’t need sitting-duck runways to take off and face a Chinese attack. And they’re cheap! One Patriot missile system costs less than $3 million (though their (in)effectiveness suggests they would need to be bought in large numbers before they achieve operational usefulness). That’s astoundingly cheaper than what we’re building and maintaining as the core of our current force. And, crucially for a progressive foreign policy, these are resources that, taken together, don’t form an effective offensive force. They are tools of a defensive posture and a military policy of restraint and non-interventionism.
Those submarines and anti-missile, air, and ship weapons would create an A2/AD bubble in East Asia that mirrors China’s. It creates the same problem for Beijing that the United States would face in trying to wage an offensive war against Beijing, or intervene in a Chinese war with Taiwan. It’s almost too obvious: to deter an offensive war and protect American allies and partners in East Asia, do what we fear and have spent so much money to overcome with China. Put Beijing in the position we’re in now: having to push their military budget to absurd heights to field what they need for an attack. There’s no invasion of Taiwan if Japan’s main islands, the Ryukyu Islands, and Taiwan itself are bristling with survivable anti-ship missiles and if the Western Pacific is full of U.S. submarines.
(Whether the United States should fight a Taiwan war deserves its own discussion. I have my doubts. Whether the United States should impose itself on the inhabitants of the Ryukyu Islands is less of a question — no, violating Okinawan sovereignty is reprehensible. Regardless, this strategy would be a winner, even if U.S. forces are stationed away from the population centers their bases have plagued for so long.)
And to top it off, a couple thoughts:
Close bases and end the wars we are waging from them. End the War in Afghanistan — that’ll save about $50 billion a year. End U.S. intervention in Iraq and Syria. That’ll save about $20 billion. End U.S. special operations around the Middle East and North Africa that cost unknown but certainly large amounts of money.
End military aid to Israel. That’ll save about $3 billion a year. End military aid to Egypt. That’ll save more than a billion. These things add up, and they’re part of a military strategy of restraint and non-interventionism.
These are all pieces of a unified military strategy. Its objectives are to stabilize regions, maintain defensible alliances, and adopt a morally and financially tenable U.S. military posture by shifting from an offensive and unsustainable posture to defensive and sustainable one. It’s actionable: Democrats in the House can write the House NDAA and other defense appropriations bills to these ends, if they care to. Implementing all this will take a long fight, but it’s what the Left should fight for.
Some bold and right-minded folks are agitating for slashing defense spending drastically. If they do so with alternative policies and strategies in mind, they could precipitate a long-needed revision of U.S. military strategy.