Having participated in numerous debates about defense spending, one argument constantly used for protecting current outlays is that "the country needs enough power to counter future unforeseen threats." This argument is defective, as it is based on lazy thinking. It fails to use available information, fails to define our mission, and fails to match our resources with our needs. It encourages the worst aspects of defense spending that we universally condemn.
First, how valid is any argument that lacks a firm foundation? People posit the existence of unknowable forces that could surprise the country, having hardly examined the vast surfeit of information on the actual threats that do affect the country and our capabilities for countering them. The National Intelligence Council’s latest analysis of upcoming challenges, Global Trends 2025, as well as other exercises, have examined threats as diverse as economic globalization, demographics, climate change, as well as evolving local and global power dynamics. Much ink has also been spilled writing about issues as transnational as cyber security and as atomized as terrorism. Given this surfeit, there is no excuse for neglecting to conceive future scenarios.
Failure to think hard about the threats we face also leaves unaddressed important questions about how we act abroad to achieve our goals. The decision to send in diplomats or soldiers depends on the mission, the extent to which threats are military or non-military in nature. Both options come with costs and benefits. Diplomats can bring actors together to tackle common problems, but may lack the resources to signal intent properly. Soldiers send clear signals of intent, but are of limited use, expensive to maintain, and occasionally harm relations if they cause problems with the domestic populace. The number of bases abroad, regardless of the truth of their number or size, can also contribute to negative impressions of American intent. Lazy thinking propounding open-ended missions consequently often results in using the wrong tool for the task, with debilitating consequences for our safety at home and influence abroad.
Moreover, this unwillingness to examine reality also affects defense spending because citizens and politicians fail to set boundaries constraining project creep in defense programs. Project creep occurs when the number of tasks a product or service is supposed to execute is expanded after a project is initiated, resulting in explosive increases in costs and delays as changes made in latter stages require costly rework of subcomponents and additional manpower. Without the limits created by empirical analysis, planners add spurious features to a project to tackle ambiguous problems with little regard to its initial budget baseline.
If you think this isn’t a problem today, ask yourself: When was the last time you’ve ever heard of a DOD project that was completed on-time and under budget? You haven’t. The service’s record of spending is one of outright waste, one which is so constant that even the most outrageous incidents – like with the F-35 fighter – are quickly forgotten. Without hard thought about what the military needs to do in the future, no one will make the difficult choices needed to discipline spending, and the waste we see today will continue.
Defending current defense outlays on the basis of unknown threats is consequently a bankrupt position that willfully sacrifices hard-won information and analyses that we currently possess while enabling destructive policies and spending. While sustained, investigatory thinking into our current national security situation is difficult, it is vitally necessary to the republic that citizens carry out this duty. If we don’t undertake this task and pressure our politicians to do the same, then the republic will continue to throw away money and influence it can scarce afford to lose.
Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force