What really matters
Defense spending doesn’t equate to national security
BY GENE MYERS
Much of what I am about to discuss here may be unpopular with many in the defense community. But there comes a time when one reaches an intellectual critical mass, when silence is more harmful than professional risk and when, in this case, issues from different disciplines — national security, economics, education, politics — gel into an overheated mass that demands release.
I am a retired Air Force officer and longtime government contractor — often less than affectionately referred to as a “Beltway bandit.” As such, I am familiar with the intricacies of national-level political governance but can claim no more expertise in the subject than the average concerned citizen with a reasonably good education. But that’s the point: As a concerned citizen, I have every bit the same right to comment on the decisions our leaders must make as the politicians and pundits do — and I intend to step out of my expected role as a conservative champion of “defense rights” to do so.
Unlike many people with backgrounds similar to mine, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the U.S. defense budget cannot be exempt from the cuts that are now so necessary to national well-being. Although I agree with my colleagues that national security is the most vital task of the federal government, I also submit that there is far more involved in providing that security than soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, ships, planes and tanks. Let me make the point even more bluntly: Blind adherence to the mantra of defense establishment supremacy in national budgetary policy will not provide future security.
Yes, I am very aware that we are still immersed in a war in Afghanistan and a large support operation in Iraq, as well as increasingly threatened by surging Chinese military capabilities and a paranoid and belligerent North Korea. Then there is Iran. And the new uncertainties raised by events in Tunisia and Egypt. But the nation has allowed itself to get into such lamentable economic, educational and political condition that we have no choice but to urgently address many problems, probably simultaneously. The future of our nation’s general well-being and security demands it.
If those in uniform are not well enough educated to accomplish the increasingly complex technical tasks asked of them; if our industry is no longer capable of producing the tools needed for defense in a technology-dependent environment at an affordable cost; if the national budget is so unbalanced that our credit goes into the sewer and confidence is lost in the U.S.’s ability to effectively manage its affairs; if our political leaders are more concerned with keeping their jobs than doing their jobs; then national security will surely suffer, and no one need fire a shot.
THE POLITICS OF CYNICISM
How did we get to the point where we elect our representatives based on who is the most, or least, cynical? Vitriol and fear have replaced debate and respect for an intelligent electorate. We now often vote for the lesser of two evils. I realize that, in many ways, I’m preaching to the choir; more experienced and learned people than I have lamented the same issues, especially lately. NBC special correspondent Tom Brokaw observed in a Jan. 24 Time magazine article that “most of the country believes” the political dialogue has gone “critical mass.” The nation’s “political class across the spectrum … spend an awful lot of time finding ways to attack each other that have very little to do with the common welfare of the country.”
True enough. But let me throw another log on the fire. How do we think international respect for this nation and its form of government is affected by such shameful public displays, and what effect does that have on our security? The U.S. portrays itself to the world as the champion of freedom and democratic rule backed by moral strength and military might to be used when necessary. I would suggest that publicly displayed contempt for our highest ideals of open civil debate and government of and for the people by our elected leaders will not win many allies. I suspect it is not surprising that I see a cynical, untrusting political cadre playing a major role in perpetrating the other deficiencies outlined here, from failing education to industrial incapacity and pending bankruptcy. Many observers see a glimmer of bipartisan light in the aftermath of the bloody Tucson attack. We must hope that to be the case because, without bipartisan and truly enlightened legislative action, the nation will continue our precipitous decline. Make no mistake, the United States of America is in decline.
Security is a complex thing. Economics is no longer a choice between guns or butter. In the defense arena, long gone are the days when a new soldier could receive a few weeks’ training, be issued a rifle and sent out to do the nation’s business. The modern soldier must deal with increasingly complex weapons, communications and data systems. An education system that produces one of the lowest national literacy and science ratings in the developed world cannot long maintain a high-tech military. The notion that, since we have a population pool of around 310 million to fill the ranks and we still attract some of the brightest minds from overseas, we will always have sufficient talent for our needs is bankrupt and downright dangerous. The truth is that as each generation has produced lower education expectations, there will be a time, and it will be soon, when we cannot meet the demands of both the public and private sectors. And those who think we can continue to lure the brightest prodigies of rapidly advancing nations such as India, South Korea and others to a “brighter future” in a declining American industrial and technological market are dead wrong, especially as U.S. companies move overseas. There is no choice but to buttress a failing American education system, and that will cost money and require the expenditure of political capital that seems increasingly hard to come by. Further discouraging news: The Pentagon says that today — not in some distant scenario of doom, but today — “75 percent of those aged 17 to 24 don’t even qualify to take [the basic military entrance] test because they are physically unfit, have a criminal record or didn’t graduate high school.” And even worse, “23 percent of recent high school graduates [who do take the test] don’t get the minimum score … to join any branch of the military.” That’s not just disturbing; it’s embarrassing.
Alarm bells should be ringing. The nation is more than $14 trillion in debt and a great deal of that debt is held by a nation that may not be our friendly neighborhood banker. Bottom line: This must be fixed. So-called financial experts say it’s not the problem that many of us think. We can just grow our economy out of debt. I’m no financial wizard, but with unemployment approaching 10 percent and many financial institutions and companies afraid to invest in our economy, I don’t see much beyond a fickle stock market to give us solace. Employers have found that in some, or even many, cases people can be replaced by technology more cheaply than providing paychecks. On the face of it, that’s not encouraging for growing jobs. It gets worse. Remembering the earlier discussion of educational failings, how long could it be before we cannot provide the workers and soldiers trained to keep this spiraling technological demand fed with qualified specialists Industry and defense will face the same problem. Competition between them may become fierce, pushing the huge defense personnel costs even higher. As for the security apparatus itself, for a while now, those of us who participate in the public defense debates have mostly agreed that our security is as much dependent on a robust diplomatic and financial aid structure as boots-on-the-ground military presence, and even Defense Secretary Robert Gates has offered funds from defense coffers to improve State Department funding. There just isn’t enough money to go around.
It seems to be a rare major defense contract that is completed on cost and on time. Deciding who is responsible here is not easy. To start with, competition among defense system contractors has been all but eliminated by mergers and takeovers. The captains of the few remaining major defense companies point to the government (mainly the services and Congress) as the reason for spiraling costs and tardy production as requirements repeatedly change, production runs are extended and political pork is served across the country. On the other hand, government representatives maintain that since there is so little competition, companies aren’t as careful as they should be in their bids, or maybe are more ardently serving their financial interests. In such instances, they would have the government between the classic rock and a hard place: Pay increasing costs and tolerate broken schedules or don’t get the products. I suspect that if one could actually determine ground truth here, it would surely be some combination of both positions. As a result, defense and congressional leaders must often accept less than ideal defense programs at staggering costs, but I strongly believe they also share the blame. The defense dollars that are available are buying less security, and we face the very real possibility, and I would suggest necessity, of major funding cuts.
Then there is the need to repair our disintegrating national infrastructure. Our roads are dilapidated, many bridges are dangerously weakened by age and our electrical grid is out of date and increasingly inefficient. By itself, this is a budget-busting task.
I realize that what I have said here is not news to many readers, but awareness is not remedy. Our defense challenges are indeed daunting. Dan Blumenthal and Michael Mazza at the American Enterprise Institute recently commented on the obvious challenge posed by China’s potent armaments program, noting that “a serious U.S. response is not on the horizon. Instead we are hollowing out our air, naval and Marine forces at a time when we should be reinforcing and modernizing them, so as to reassure allies that we will maintain the capability to deter Chinese aggression and defeat Chinese forces should they attack.”
I do not challenge or doubt either the good intentions or accuracy of their remarks. But our defenses are likely to remain hollow unless we muster the bipartisan political wherewithal to seriously address all components of our nation’s security.
The more pressing issue is: Do we continue heavy defense spending in the face of so many other challenges that already are hobbling the nation’s ability to defend itself?
As a nation, I fear we are racing to mediocrity — or worse. We face massive problems that, if not ignored, have surely been inadequately addressed. We most often want to tackle our problems in isolation, dealing with them one at a time. But defense, as an element of national security, is not a different concern than our national debt, industrial strength, educational shortcomings or acrimonious political environment. All the elements are not just mutually supporting, they are synergistic. We must address them that way. For at least the near term, that may require continuing the defense cuts already begun by Gates — a worrisome prospect in the current international environment, but due to our own mistakes, probably necessary.