War Stories

Easy, Mark

A key conservative’s wacky plan to increase defense spending.

If the Bush administration takes most of its cues from the right, then it behooves the rest of us to pay attention to the April 22 National Review cover story. The piece, by longtime conservative ideologue and novelist Mark Helprin, says that what the United States really needs for the international challenges ahead is an annual defense budget of $655 billion, a 73 percent increase over what the Pentagon gets now.

Of course, absent a massive tax increase, that kind of military ramp-up would pretty much mean the end of Social Security and Medicare. But that’s not the only reason it’s a bad idea. Here’s another: The military just doesn’t need that much money.

Helprin thinks that the U.S. war against Afghanistan, “despite its brilliant execution,” was “peripheral and on a minor scale,” leaving “untouched” the threat of terrorism sponsored by Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Though he is careful not to say it’s likely that any of these countries will actually attack the United States or U.S. forces, he insists that it’s still possible and claims “the United States does not at present have the military power to do anything” about it. Especially, he adds, if “China or North Korea thought the moment opportune to address longstanding problems in the Pacific.” Hence the need for the massive military budget increase.

But Helprin fallaciously multiplies defense requirements. Military planners address scenarios that are at least minimally likely. (Hewing to that standard is why last year, before Afghanistan, the Pentagon abandoned its longstanding two-wars readiness construct, a move Helprin naturally deplores.) So, yes, preparation for a war waged by China and/or North Korea makes sense, as does preparation for one waged by Iraq. And perhaps we should also gird ourselves against Iran and against Syria. But to think that therefore we must prepare to fight all these wars simultaneously is to mistakenly think that if several events are individually minimally likely, then their joint occurrence is, too. It’s true, of course, that some scenarios can make a second war more likely—–the U.S. focus on Afghanistan might have tempted China to attack Taiwan. But the same scenario can also make a second war less likely—in fact, Afghanistan reduced the threat from potential adversaries such as China and Russia, who also have an interest in the defanging of militant Islam. And if Helprin were right, then why stop with preparations for simultaneous wars with Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria? He notes that those countries have been pressuring the Turks, Kurds, Russians, Jordanians, and most other Arab states, “and even the Europeans” to disapprove of America. So why not also require the United States to marshal assets enabling it to fight all of these theoretical conflicts simultaneously as well?

Helprin makes only a few concrete proposals regarding the extra billions he wants. He suggests that we should double the size of the Navy and resist President Bush’s plan to reduce the number of B-1 bombers by one-third. Enlarging the Navy usually means adding new carrier battle groups, which are hugely expensive to build and operate and are salted with planes and ships and submarines designed to protect … the new carrier battle group, mostly against no-longer-existing Cold War threats, like attacks from nuclear submarines or long-range aircraft. And although the Navy played a key role in the Afghan war by launching airstrikes from carriers while the United States was still negotiating air-basing rights, Air Force planes ended up dropping almost three-quarters of all the bombs, according to Aviation Week & Space Technology. So, a much cheaper way of bulking up the Navy that’s far more relevant to the Afghanistan experience would be to skip the new carrier groups and instead add naval bombers and the airborne tankers they need to fly long missions (making space for them on pre-existing carriers by getting rid of most of their anti-submarine planes). And although the costly B-1 did, for the first time in its 20-year history, actually have a good war, that’s because it was for the first time delivering highly accurate satellite-guided bombs—bombs that perform just as well when delivered by the cheaper, more reliable 40-year-old B-52 or by any number of other more dependable aircraft. So, the most honest moral to draw from Afghanistan about airplanes has nothing to do with the B-1—it’s to start making B-52s again or at least to develop new engines for them.

The National Review cover depicts, in the style of a bond drive poster, two World War II GIs, and Helprin looks to that war for his funding model. He says that once you subtract “purely operational costs of the war” in Afghanistan, the current defense budget amounts to “3.1 percent of the estimated U.S. GDP,” in contrast to the yearly average of 8.5 percent of GDP found from 1940 to 2000. But Helprin is pulling a fast one here: He doesn’t subtract those “purely operational costs of the war” from any of the previous war year military budgets he considers. Presumably, for any of the World War II years, when the budget was almost purely operational, the GDP percentage of Pentagon spending minus operational war costs would approach zero, which would suggest that today’s military budget is actually rather flush.

Besides, calibrating defense spending as a percentage of GDP is a lousy way to track its adequacy. (Dan Koslofsky makes this point very clearly and in considerable detail in a position paper available from his organization, the Council for a Livable World.) GDP is a function of economic health, while defense spending should be a function of the threats we face. Threats can decrease while our economy booms and increase while it sags. If the U.S. economy went into a yearlong slump, would Helprin pen a National Review cover story calling for defense cuts?