Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The probability of spending cuts now...

That is to say, not very likely.

With the military operation in Libya in full swing, and a clear end game not in sight, defense spending is being taken off the list of potential budget cuts. The Politico article does a good job of giving some general opinions across the spectrum, and two quotes stood out to me.

Josh Holly, communications director for the Armed Services Committee, is worried about "not being properly positioned to deal with the contingencies that might be on the horizon, whether that be a modernizing military in China or (a military action) in Libya."

The Pentagon is already spending close to $700bn a year, and even halving that figure would allow to the military to 'deal with the contingencies that might be on the horizon.' The right amount of spending depends on what you want to do. A policy of global intervention and treating the Pentagon as a giant jobs program does require a giant budget, but if people realize that fiscal apocalypse is a realistic possibility absent serious consideration being given to defense cuts, then some headway can be made in reducing spending. It's about making serious and rational choices.

We're also treated to the China bogeyman. Given the importance of naval power in the coming decades, the number of carrier strike groups is a good indicator for worldwide military might. The United States maintains 11 of these groups, China is working on its first. The possibility of a security dilemma with China is somewhat a reality, but we don't need to start planning for WWIII just yet considering the huge advantage we already possess.

The next quote is from Sen. Joe Lieberman in his typical hawkish fashion: "Congress should be very careful and cautious about any reductions in defense spending, given the many profound responsibilities shouldered by our military at this time"

The military is shouldering many profound responsibilities at this time, and it's strictly by choice, not necessity. We can't pretend that this mission in Libya is necessary for national security, just as we can't pretend that winning 'the hearts and minds' in Afghanistan is a realistic conclusion. Defense hawks like Lieberman believe in a false dichotomy. Either we garrison the world, intervening wherever we please, and have an unsustainable defense budget, or we completely disengage and become an isolationist nation. Reducing our force commitments and rethinking our global posture while still talking and trading with other nations is the sensible position, and unfortunately it's a position that seems on the fringe in the Beltway.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Costs of the Libyan Conflict

Some sobering reporting on the costs of the Libyan conflict at the National Journal.

In a time when every financial decision should be heavily scrutinized and examined, it's going to be interesting to see how long this level of spending is maintained and if Congress decides to take any action. Do we realize that these levels of military spending are unsustainable and damaging to the economy?

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Note on Libya

I haven't updated this blog in forever, but in light of recent events I felt compelled to start it back up again. I'm going to try and update it a few times a week now, or whenever something happens that's worth discussing.

I just wanted to make a brief observation on some discussions in the mainstream media about the attack on Libya and Congressional war powers in general. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution explicitly authorizes the Congress (and Congress alone) to declare war, otherwise known as the 'War Power Clause.' Since the Korean War, instead of giving a formal declaration, Congress has given various 'authorizations' to the President to do as he sees fit.

The problem here is I think this is a distraction. While no doubt the hypocrisy of Obama declaring an unconstitutional war should be pointed out, the mere discussion of whether or not the United States should get involved is disheartening. Had there been an actual Congressional vote, I have no doubts that a declaration would pass despite the fact the country is already involved in two wars and on the brink of fiscal apocalypse. The desire for intervention is completely ingrained in both major parties. A complete rethink of our foreign policy is necessary, but unlikely to occur anytime soon.

Hasn't the United States learned by now that it is incredibly difficult to remake countries and turn them into liberal democracies? Iraq and Afghanistan are the obvious disasters, but even go back to the 1990's and the interventions in places like Bosnia and Kosovo. Nowadays, one is hanging on by a thread (Bosnia), and other is essential a narco-terrorist state (Kosovo). An important study released showed that in US interventions since WWII, only 3% made a transition to a viable democracy within 10 years. And yet the US still walks into the same traps...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Resurgent Russia?

The New York Times has recently reported Russian Akula-class submarines coming dangerously close to US territorial waters, supposedly operating 200 miles off the coast. The Akula-class is a tactical, attack submarine that does not carry ICBMs, but this is very provocative behavior to say the least.

It's been well known that Russia wants to portray itself as a major player in the international scene, but I've always thought that the extent of the Russian threat really only extended to its old stomping grounds in the former Soviet Union. Whether you are talking about the on again off again gas wars with Ukraine, cyberwarfare with Estonia, or an armed conflict with Georgia, Russia seemed to be the dominant actor in their region. But these latest actions represent a change in policy. With all the talk of pushing the "reset button" and what appeared to be a productive visit between Obama and Medvedev last month, these actions seem very strange. Of course, it could be much ado about nothing, but it's still worth keeping an eye on.

These actions, combined with the failed test of the Bulava SLBM, prove that the Russian military is drastically searching for relevance in an ever-changing 21st Century battlefield. With their economy crippled due to the low price of oil, Russia will have no choice but to scale back their military, much against Medvedev and Putin's wishes. Russia learned this lesson the hard way back in the 80's, and they will not willingly repeat the same mistakes. In the next few years, Russia will have to look for ways to achieve military advantages in the face of regressing defense budgets. How they balance that equilibrium will help to determine the security environment of the former Soviet Union as well as give us insight as to how well US-Russian relations will be in the Obama administration.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Middle Eastern Defense Umbrella

Sec. of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States would consider setting up a "defense umbrella" in the Middle East to thwart any potential attack emanating from Iran. The supposition is that the Obama administration needs to prove to Iran that it has the willingness to respond militarily. It seems that all the recent turmoil in Iran has somewhat shifted policy towards Iran.

Extended deterrence is an idea that has been a part of US strategy for decades dating back to the Cold War. The US continues to provide a nuclear umbrella to Japan and South Korea, and under NATO protocol in western Europe. But would this be a wise idea in the Middle East? Is a nuclear umbrella even needed?

The threat from Iran has, predictably, been overstated by many in the foreign policy establishment. A nuclear Iran would be balanced by Israel, whose military and economy are far superior to anything Tehran has to offer. Additionally, countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are all hostile to the rise of Iran, so why does the United States need to set up a nuclear umbrella? All of those countries mentioned have far greater interests in Iran than the US does. Deterrence works. Why are we to think that deterrence in the Middle East will be any different than it was between the US and Russia, India and Pakistan, and elsewhere?

The desire of Iran to acquire WMD was completely predictable. The Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld wrote that after the US invasion of Iraq, Iran would be foolish not to pursue a nuclear weapons program. Not only are there US troops in Iraq, but there are bases scattered throughout Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and other places in the region. Iran can be contained without an official "defense umbrella" being created.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Biden Supports Georgia in NATO

In a visit to Georgia, VP Joe Biden gave a speech at the parliament in Tblisi where he reiterated US support for Georgia joining NATO. The US has long supported NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, and the issue became even more of a hot topic issue after the events of last summer. After the South Ossetian War, it puzzles me as to why this is even still being considered as a wise strategic move.

What value do Georgia and Ukraine give to the United States? I suppose there is the argument that having NATO on Russia's doorstep will ensure Russian oil gets pumped uninterrupted into Europe, but this is a weak reason to rush these countries into a security alliance. In the case of Ukraine, most of the country do not even wish to join the alliance, so we should not force a security agreement on the country if they do not want it.

Now on to Georgia. I think it's a very persuasive argument that Georgia is exactly the kind of ally the United States should try to avoid. We already know that the country's leadership is willing to act in an irrational manner, as indicated by the attempt to recapture Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And if Saakashvili were to do something rash again and provoke another conflict with Russia, should the United States openly risk war with a large (and admittedly) weakened giant? The sane answer would be no, and I think the American people would be very hesitant to go to war in a place where our security interests are weaker than they were in Iraq.

The future of NATO should be very subdued; we've seen it come under criticism for being ineffectual in Afghanistan, so I think very serious questions need to be asked with regards to its future as an organization. Do we need an organization to check Russian power in Europe? Not anymore, that need died with the Berlin Wall. The United States would undoubtedly be safer if it pulled back from NATO, and there was no longer an obligation to rush into war to protect non existent strategic interests.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Good News on the F-22

Today the Senate finally voted on the Defense Authorization Bill amendment which would eliminate the $1.75 bn set aside for more F-22s. In a 58-40 vote, the Senate made the sensible decision to halt production on the F-22 after intense lobbying from President Obama, Sec. Gates, and Vice President Biden. Ever since campaign season, both Obama and McCain have been fairly consistent in challenging the defense establishment over unnecessary programs, but this is a victory in a small battle in the midst of a much larger war.

Still too many expensive and unnecessary weapons programs remain. And the ones that are being looked at for the future (Joint Strike Fighter), are not necessarily the best equipment financially and strategically. The entrenched special interests still have significant clout when it comes to the defense budget, and we saw this in action over the fight for the F-22. Laws like the Levin-McCain Act are a good first step, but I'm not quite convinced they go far enough.

Until the iron triangle of Congress, defense contractors, and the Pentagon focuses on making the necessary difficult choices that every other branch of government has to make, the same problems will likely persist. We will continue to hear the same arguments that these weapons programs are integral to securing our nation, and thousands of jobs are going to be lost. It's the nature of the beast.