Defense Budget Debate: SAME OLD GAME, JUST NEW PLAYERS

The national security issues for 2011 are already starting to form in the last week of Congressional debate, media coverage and real events.

Among the first security issues of the year is the release of information about China’s military capabilities and the recent release of the U.S. defense budget request, which is not coincidental . Each year, when key decisions are made about the coming annual DOD budget, we see media reports about China’s new potential and physical military ambitions and weapons programs. They arise from statements by U.S. military commanders, anonymous Pentagon sources and conservative think tank pundits. The intent is to create a “boogieman,” to depict the Chinese as nine feet tall and America as a “Lilliputian.”

I remember this same bizarre scenario took place during the Cold War. At that time, I had a bit of responsibility from time to time looking at these issues and especially the bureaucratic warfare between the military establishment and the intelligence community analysts who had to provide assessments about how far the Soviets were ahead of America and who in reality were behind us. The inter-agency fights were often fierce with billions of dollars at stake along with  real command over new resources, programs and especially planes and ships – whether needed or not.  There was the prospect of a nice rich job in the defense industry if your program won out.

Today, the kabuki is not much different but the reality of today’s security challenges is dramatically different in substantive ways. In the Cold War and the present more ambiguous security environment, our major nation-state “enemies” were and are in fact a lot weaker than depicted by the war hawks. The Soviet Union, which was an area of my interest especially in the early to mid ‘80s, was clearly a weakened entity at so many different levels. When I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), there were long lines for the little food available.  The infrastructure was decaying. The system was just beginning to see reform under “perestroika” since Gorbachev had recognized long ago the inherent weakness of the economy and society at large. Yet, year in and year out the Defense Department wanted more money.

In the 21st century, America’s enemies are amorphous groups of terrorists not easily dealt with by bombers, jet fighters, tanks, or even large missiles. The U.S. defense budget is larger than the next 10 nations of the world – including our allies – and none pose the kind of threat we saw in the 1960s or 70s. China has a fraction of the nuclear weapons America possesses.  Russia, despite its sometimes antagonistic stance, is but a shadow of its former exaggerated “great power” image.

Yes, China is building an aircraft carrier or perhaps two. They are improving their still limited strategic global capability and they do need watching. But China does not threaten our basic strategic national interests, nor will they for a long time.

What they can do is force us to build unneeded capability and bankrupt us in the process.  China can weaken our real strategic and global interests by directing us away from the real challenges to our society and our long-term strength which is based on our industrial and technological base, and above all our need for a first class education system for our people. For every dollar spent on useless weapons America is not educating a bright child who can provide the innovation and insight that our nation needs to still be “first in class” among the nations in place of some 20 nations many with even less wealth.

The Chinese are putting their money into education, investing in advanced industries like renewable energy, nano-technology, etc. While the U.S. spends billions on planes that will never see a real “dogfight,” or obsolete ships that cruise on and on without a real mission, China is investing abroad for strategic materials that will keep their industries thriving, while we divest in our advanced industries and the people who should be running them.

The country needs a debate about where our resources should go. It should not be for tax cuts for the rich, or for unneeded weapons. It should not be to give incentives for companies to invest abroad rather than at home, and it should not be for tax deductions so companies can anonymously pour money into elections for representatives that will pay them off with rich contracts and subsidies which the public will never find out about.

National security, as this blog’s name implies, requires a broader and deeper understanding and new approaches before it is too late to retool, reinvigorate, and renew our society rather than try to catch demons of our fantasies that are fed up to us by those who care not a wit for our society’s well- being.

Comments are coming on other illusions impacting our national security debate this year.

Harry C. Blaney III

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