Dumbing Down the Indefensible Defense Debate

July 29, 2001

Comment: #421

Discussion Thread - Comment #s - 169 & 399


[1] Robert Kagan, "Indefensible Defense Budget," Washington Post, July 20, 2001, Pg. 31.  Excerpts attached.
[2] Robert Kagan, "How China Will Take Taiwan," Washington Post, March 12, 2000. Excerpts attached.

The courtiers in Versailles are enraged by the Bush administration's refusal to throw enough money at the Pentagon to equal at least 3.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) - a number recommended by former Defense Secretaries James Schlesinger and Harold Brown [see Comment #399]. No one has been shouting more loudly or more hysterically or more often than Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the curiously named Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Reference 1 below is the most recent example of Kagan's ranting.

Reduced to its essentials, Kagan concludes we will have to change our foreign policy for two reasons, if we don't increase our defense budget: (1) the current level of 3% of GDP is dangerous to our health because it is the lowest level since Pearl Harbor - and besides, (2) everyone in the Hall of Mirrors, including the Democrats, wants to increase the defense budget.

Kagan cites the Brown-Schesinger proposal as a justification to increase the Bush proposal by at least $50 billion a year. But he does not say that this increase would jack up the defense budget to Reaganesque levels that far exceed the budgets averaged during the Cold War, even if one removes the effects of inflation. [For a graphical comparison of the Brown-Schesinger Proposal to the history of cold-war defense budgets, see here]

Nor does Kagan explain why Reagan-level defense budgets are needed now to support combat forces that are 40% to 50% smaller than those supported by Reagan's budgets. [see here ] Nor does Kagan explain how a Bush defense budget equal to combined total of the next 15 largest defense budgets in the world compares to the situation we faced just prior to Pearl Harbor. Nor does Kagan explain how a US defense budget equaling 3% of GDP can be dangerous, given that it represents a proportional allocation that is 1.5 times as large as the world average of 2%, according to the CIA World Fact Book. [The FY 2003 Budget Request would set US defense spending equal to the next 20 nations, combined.]

Kagan claims to know how much money the Pentagon needs, but he does not say how he can be so knowledgeable, given the widely known fact that the Pentagon's own accountants can not tell the American people what they are spending that money on. [See Comment #169 and here.

But think about where Kagan is going as he bounces from wall to wall down the hall of mirrors: According to his logic (Reference 1), China can not be a threat, because the CIA's World Fact Book 2000 says China spent only 1.2% of its GDP on defense in 1999. Oops!! Kagan has been inundating the print media for years with essays warning us about the imminent threat posed by China. [Reference 2 below is a typical example of this genre - and if this is not enough to convince you, do a search on Internet for "Robert Kagan" AND "China" AND "Threat" and see for yourself.].

On the other hand, Eritrea spent 28.5% and North Korea 33% of GDP on defense in 1997 and 1998, so Kagan's Pearl Harbor analogy leads to the conclusion that these countries must be a clear and present danger to our way of life, particularly if they allied themselves like Germany and Japan did before Pearl Harbor and formed a new axis.

Are we in mortal danger because the New Axis Powers of Eritrea and North Korea would devote 9 to 10 times as much of their economies to defense as the United States? (Probably not, their allocation produces combined defense budgets equaling only 1.5% of our defense budget - but talking about real money clouds the crisp logic of Kagan's rhetoric.)

I asked Dr. Werther to make sense out Kagan's refractory gibberish in a serious, dispassionate essay - something I am singularly ill-equipped to do. What follows is his analysis.

Werther Analysis

Think Before You Spend
by Werther

Robert Kagan's op-ed ("Indefensible Defense Budget," Washington Post, 20 July 2001 - see Reference 1 below) makes such serious charges about the state of America's defenses, the extent of the foreign threat, and the inadequacy of the administration's defense budget that his assertions require point-by-point examination.

Mr. Kagan concludes that the Pentagon request of $329 billion [actually, it is over $340 billion when one includes the defense expenditures in the Department of Energy] is inadequate because it is only 3 percent of GDP, the lowest percentage since Pearl Harbor.

But percentage of GDP is a nonsensical metric for gauging the adequacy of defense expenditures. The United States is neither in a race to keep military spending at some arbitrary percentage of economic product, nor is it competing militarily with the U.S. armed forces of the Reagan era. Military forces and the budgets that fund them are -- or at least should be -- determined by current and projected threats.

It is worth noting that GDP in fiscal year 1941 was only one tenth in constant dollars what it is today. The extraordinary productivity of the American economy means that, over time, the United States can provide for defense with a smaller proportion of its national wealth, just as rising prosperity means the average American pays an ever-smaller percentage of his personal income for food. The substitution of technology for manpower in the U.S. military will accentuate this trend: over time, technology is cheaper than manpower.

It must also be said that military spending as a percentage of GDP is a fraction with a numerator and a denominator. If one desires a larger percentage, one can achieve it by increasing the numerator. But one can get the same result by decreasing the denominator. A recession would accomplish this end, showing what a thoroughly flawed metric Mr. Kagan employs.

In truth, the administration's defense request is a 10 percent increase over the previous year, the largest annual increase since 1981. The request is almost exactly the constant-dollar average for defense budgets during the cold war years of 1950-1989, when the United States fought the Korean and Vietnam wars, in addition to deterring the 200 divisions of the Warsaw Pact.

U.S. military spending cannot be judged in a vacuum, or in relation to irrelevant metrics like GDP. It should be benchmarked to the capabilities of plausible threats. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, U.S. military spending as a percentage of world military spending has actually risen from 27 percent in 1989 to 34 percent now. The United States now spends at least 3 times as much on defense as China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Cuba, Libya, and Sudan combined. [emphasis added]

Mr. Kagan relies heavily on the Pentagon's Congressional testimony to make his case. He cites anguished admissions by defense officials that the recently submitted DOD budget amendment of $18 billion barely "keeps us treading water." It is unconscionable, in Mr. Kagan's view, that the White House cut the Pentagon's original budget amendment request in half.

But even at that "inadequate" level, $18 billion would be a significant addition to the defense budget. It is more than twice Russia's entire annual defense budget, according to the prestigious Jane's Information Group. That comparison bears repeating: we are not saying the Pentagon's total request is more than twice Russia's military spending; we are observing that the budget amendment alone, only one-eighteenth of DOD's initial request, is more than twice Russia's military spending.

DOD officials publicly asserting that their budgets are inadequate is hardly news in the spending culture of Washington, and Congressional hearings are typically the kabuki theater in which indigent pleaders, be they the Joint Chiefs or the Appalachian Regional Commission, play their scripted roles. It is also true that if one sets one's requirements high enough, the spending to sustain them tends toward the infinite. For example, defense reporter Elaine Grossman recently chronicled one of the Navy's contributions to Secretary Rumsfeld's review: the sea service said that in order to perform its mission at minimal risk, it required 34 aircraft carriers rather than the 11 it has currently. To his credit, Secretary Rumsfeld has rejected such wolf-crying; as is evident from Mr. Kagan's piece, Washington's think-tank Clausewitzes are unlikely to forgive him.

Does that mean all is well with the U.S. military? Hardly. First, the Clinton administration squandered an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity by failing to reform, restructure, and recapitalize the military establishment. Its legacy was merely a downsized cold war military burdened by increased overhead.

Second, waste and inefficiency do not merely plague DOD; they cavort and run rampant. The Defense Inspector General and the General Accounting Office have underlined the need for improvement in DOD management in several areas described as "high-risk vulnerabilities." These areas - the same ones identified by the IG and GAO year after year - include the following:

Acquisition - The Department buys some $150 billion worth of goods and services annually, yet these purchase actions suffer from "numerous outmoded or inefficient systems and processes that have not yet been improved or replaced," according to the IG. In one audit, the IG found the Pentagon paid $75.60 each for 187 setscrews, a 13,163-percent increase over the previous price of 57 cents each. Does Mr. Kagan, on behalf of the taxpayers, think this is no big deal?

Financial Management - The Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 requires extensive audits of DOD's annual financial statements. But DOD has yet to produce a verifiable statement. The IG notes that audit results for DOD's last financial statement - which included $7.6 trillion (yes, that's trillion with a "t") in accounting adjustments, of which $2.3 trillion were unsupported by reliable documentation - "were no better than for previous years."

Infrastructure - The Pentagon retains an excess of bases, facilities, and headquarters (including headquarters personnel of high rank) at the same time that combat units are stretched thin. DOD has also retained an outdated system to manage supplies. In 1999, Congress appropriated $1.1 billion in emergency spare parts, but GAO found that only 8 percent of that money could be verified as having gone for spares. The IG has commented that reforming this supply system "may be the most difficult logistics challenge in the world."

The advocacy of spending for its own sake founders on the assumption that DOD is already operating at optimum efficiency, and that identified problems will be solved by more funding. In addition, there is simple gold-plated waste. The Pentagon's current public relations campaign for more money uses an anecdote of an F-15 taxiing over a rusted runway grate at Langley AFB, falling in, and sustaining $185,000 damage to the plane. The message is that defense infrastructure has gone to pot, with the insinuation that a miserly Congress and indifferent public are to blame. But how high was repair of that grate on the Air Force priority list compared to the renovation of generals' quarters? Or, for that matter, the multi-billion dollar make-over of the Pentagon?

Likewise, where do the deteriorated ammunition bunkers at Aviano AFB, Italy, stand in relation to the priority of spending $40,000 to move a bathroom wall one foot at the commandant's residence at the Air Force Academy? And all those non-mission capable combat aircraft lacking spare parts: where are they in the pecking order versus the purchase of Gulfstream jet transports for defense VIPs? Finally, how important are Navy spares compared to financing day trips for civilian big-shots like those chaperoned by ex-Commander Waddle?

If the Pentagon could be cured of its woes by just infusing money, the task would be simple. Unfortunately, DOD's problems are deeply rooted in its culture and are exacerbated by a cold war mind set. Those who would encourage its delusions with visions of unlimited funds do a disservice to the national interest.

Werther is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.

Werther is right - Kagan's delusions do a disservice to soldiers and taxpayers. Readers interested in understanding (1) why the Pentagon's problems are really a self-inflicted wound and (2) how we might raise the defense debate to a level that will yield more effective military can download the introduction and the last chapter of Spirit Blood and Treasure (edited by Major Donald Vandergriff) from the following two links:

  • Introduction: "Why its time at adapt to changing conditions" - http://www.chetrichards.com/modern_business_strategy/vandergriff/sbt_intro.htm

  • Last Chapter: "How to Exit the Defense Death Spiral"

For those interested in transforming the military, starting with the personnel system, Spirit Blood and Treasure can be ordered from the hotlinks beneath its logo at here.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

Indefensible Defense Budget
By Robert Kagan
Washington Post, July 20, 2001, Pg. 31



 Bush's proposed defense budget of $329 billion puts defense spending at 3 percent. As Republicans liked to point out during the Clinton years, it hasn't been that low since Pearl Harbor.


Jimmy Carter's defense secretary, Harold Brown, and former defense secretary James Schlesinger have argued in these pages for an increase of at least $50 billion a year, and former Clinton Pentagon officials agree. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines say they need $32 billion this year just to keep planes flying, tanks rolling and troops training. Never mind buying new weapons systems to replace those that are now a quarter-century old. As one Pentagon official put it, President Bush's $18 billion is barely enough "to keep us treading water." With $9 billion set aside for military housing, health and pay increases, Bush's budget gives Rumsfeld too little to repair the military's readiness problems, much less to modernize and "transform" it to fight the wars of the future.


Remember when Republicans were more trustworthy on defense and national security than Democrats? This Bush presidency may change all that. After years of berating Clinton, Republicans are suddenly mute -- what defense budget crisis? -- while Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz are hung out to dry.

The writer, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Post.

Reference #2

How China Will Take Taiwan
Robert Kagan,
Washington Post, March 12, 2000



According to Mark A. Stokes, a massive, coordinated air strike employing hundreds of short-range ballistic missiles could cripple Taiwan's air defenses and early warning systems, destroy its command, control and communications centers and demolish Taiwan's eight primary airfields, thereby neutralizing the Taiwanese air force as well as its naval ports. Beijing's own military analysts write that China could achieve air superiority over a paralyzed Taiwan within 45 minutes, suffering few casualties. It could then force the Taiwanese to sue for peace on Beijing's terms.


What then? In the absence of diplomatic or political solutions, the only way to avert a future Chinese attack on Taiwan is to deter it right now, and that may require some tough decisions. The Taiwanese are begging the Clinton administration to sell them four guided missile destroyers equipped with the Aegis radar system, which would give Taiwan early warning of an attack and significantly improve its ability to knock out incoming missiles. So far the administration has opposed the sale on the grounds that it would offend Beijing.

The United States also needs to convince Chinese leaders that Washington will not just twiddle its thumbs when an attack begins. Right now, the U.S. military conducts no exercises with Taiwan, engages in no joint planning and cannot even communicate with the Taiwanese military in a crisis. This preposterous legacy of America's normalization of relations with China more than two decades ago has become a positive invitation to war. But the Clinton administration opposes remedying the problem, because that too would offend Beijing.

In its classic form, the psychology of appeasement convinces peace-loving peoples that any effort to deter a future conflict is too provocative and therefore too dangerous. The appeasing nation comes to believe that defenselessness and lack of preparation for a conflict is not only safer but a sign of maturity. And then the war starts.