The Myths of Defense
The pendulum of public concern about national and foreign policy is swinging back after the doldrums of the post-Vietnam era. Heightened worries about diminishing resources, about inflation and unemployment, and about relations between the United States and the Soviet Union have prompted a reassessment of American spending priorities.
Two issues which will be generating public controversy in coming months are the fiscal 1980 defense budget and the imminent SALT II agreements, both of which Congress will be voting on. Unfortunately, much of the public awareness about the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks and the defense budget is based on faulty information and misinterpretation. Seven myths are prevalent in the current debate:
Myth 1: Defense spending is at a relatively low level, particularly since Vietnam.
The Carter Administration has requested a defense authorization for fiscal year 1980 of $135.5 billion. Some contend that military spending has declined because it is a lesser percent of three indices commonly used in government presentations: as a percent of the federal budget, of gross national product and of net public spending.
Yet examining military spending in longer term perspective, namely since World War I, affords a different interpretation. The current budget is higher than any other period of U..S. history excepting World War II, which approached $300 billion yearly (in constant 1978 dollars) and Vietnam which peaked at about $170 billion (in 1978 dollars). It is higher now than during the Korean War and the past fifty years of relative peace. We are on a rising slope of military spending, with official projections of $178 billion by 1984.
Myth 2: The Soviets are outspending us militarily and are therefore superior.
No military policy is formulated in a vacuum; defense spending is partly a function of perceived foreign military threats; in our case, this reads the Soviet Union. It therefore comes as no surprise that budget comparisons between the competing superpowers are made. However, such comparisons are commonly overdrawn and, indeed, may be very misleading.
Official estimates place Soviet military spending at about $160 billion today, anywhere from 25-45% above our own efforts, depending on whether U.S. military retirement costs are included. But this figure betrays the difficult methodology involved in arriving at such a comparison. The Soviets publish a much lower budget figure, generally considered to underestimate their military effort. The U.S. therefore prices the Soviet budget by estimating what it would cost us to field the same army and equipment, but often overlooks disparity in the quality of troops and equipment.
Such pricing problems are compounded by the variability in ruble-dollar exchange rates, leading economists to make estimates varying as much as 50%. Such difficulties give little confidence in Soviet defense budget estimates.
In addition, the U.S. undervalues its own military effort. Including nuclear weapons development, veterans' affairs, and military foreign aid, all of which fall under budgets other than that of the Department of Defense, U.S. military spending estimates may well approach or even surpass those of the Soviets.
Several years ago, Henry Kissinger exclaimed: "In God's name, what is military superiority?" He was pointing out the inadequacy of presuming Soviet "superiority" from budgetary comparisons. Such conclusions overlook not only methodological problems, but also two other important issues: perceived foreign threats and past military spending.
Threats to Soviet security have been, and still remain, much greater than those to U.S. security. The U.S. faces a non-defensible nuclear threat from the Soviets, yet no direct conventional threat by land, sea, or air; we face the Canadians to the north, the Mexicans to the south, and Cuba and the Bahamas to the east. In comparison, the Soviet Union similarly faces a non-defensible nuclear threat from the U.S. as well as from France, Britain, and China. The perceived non-nuclear threats are also considerable: the Germans in the west, having marched through Soviet territory twice in this century, killing 20 million Russians in World War II; the Chinese in the east with the world's largest standing army, most of it amassed along the Sino-Soviet frontier; and several unstable regimes to the south, two on the verge of becoming nuclear powers.
Also, cumulative over time, the U.S. has far outspent the Soviets.
Myth 3: U.S. defense spending represents the minimum necessary to retain adequate defense.
Every year the defense budget is presented to Congress as a "bare bones" program for American defense; Secretary of Defense Harold Brown argued this point last month before several Senate committees. Yet two major issues lead one to wonder if the proposed budget is just the bare minimum. First, with regard to the nuclear deterrent, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara determined that an adequate nuclear deterrent was 200-400 megaton equivalents, enough explosive to destroy about 30% of Soviet population and 70% of industry in a second strike. Today the U.S. deploys over 10,000 strategic nuclear warheads, many times the McNamara deterrent, as well as 20,000 "tactical" nuclear warheads. Thus the nuclear weapons load grows, but the target list is quite finite. Even granting some problems of vulnerability and reliability with strategic systems, as well as the necessity of limited, flexible response options, the need for continued growth in the nuclear arsenal appears quite questionable.
In the area of non-nuclear forces, the U.S. now fields about the same military force as it did in the immediate post-Vietnam period: 2 million soldiers. Some fluctuations are apparent; for example, the number of ships has fallen but the number of army divisions has risen. Yet the continued maintenance of such an enormous fighting force does not appear to reflect doctrinal and technological changes.
Doctrinally, the U.S. officially changed from a "two-and-a-half war strategy" to a "one-and-a-half war strategy" in 1971 when President Nixon began his rapprochement with the Chinese. The older doctrine presented the U.S. with the objective of fighting two-and-a-half wars simultaneously: China to the west, the Soviet Union to the east, and a half war in the Americas, possibly Cuba. Now the China war has been eliminated from doctrine, yet the forces still remain.
Technologically, the Vietnam and Mideast wars have shown large and expensive equipment such as aircraft carriers, fighter aircraft, and tanks to be increasingly vulnerable to highly accurate, deadly, and cost-effective precision-guided munitions. Yet the defense budget still shows a greater commitment to these weapons: for example, although Assistant Defense Secretary William Perry portrays "smart" weapons as the most important revolution in military hardware since radar, the budget includes a request for a fourteenth, multi-billion-dollar aircraft carrier.
If these points were seriously addressed, today's defense budget could be reduced far beyond its projected 4-5 per cent real rise this year.
Myth 4: The Warsaw Pact is now dominant over NATO forces.
Much of this year's requested rise in defense spending is based on a perceived imbalance in NATO-Warsaw Pact forces, in favor of the latter. Thus we hear of the required "3% NATO increase" in the budget, although the increase is greater than 3% and seems intended more for strategic and naval forces than for NATO troops.
But incremental buildups have occurred on both sides of the central European front, although both NATO and the Pact voice sincere interest in the ongoing Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction talks. The situation is not imbalanced, as some would have us believe; neither side could attack, however improbable that might be, with any significant hope of success. Allegations of a Pact "48-hour blitzkrieg" attack, such as those suggested last year by Senators Nunn and Bartlett, have little basis in fact: indeed, recent war-gaming has reportedly indicated that after an outbreak of war the front in Central Europe would likely stabilize east of Vistula rather than west of the Rhine.
Myth 5: The present level of defense spending must be maintained to avoid worsening unemployment.
Every congressman finds it difficult to support defense reductions--or any other cutbacks for that mwtter--when they involve jobs in his constituency. There is increasing recognition, however, of several issues which question the apparently positive employment impact of defense spending. Although it does create jobs, defense spending, because it is so capital-intensive, affords fewer jobs than non-defense spending. Thus, $1 billion, estimated to create 75,000 positions in defense industries, would create over 180,000 jobs in the education sector, for example.
Myth 6: SALT will legitimize Soviet nuclear superiority.
The pending agreements from the SALT talks, ongoing now for a decade, will limit for the first time all strategic nuclear delivery vehicles--ICBM and SLBM launchers, heavy bombers, and long-range air-to-surface ballistic missiles--to 2400, eventually to 2250. The U.S. currently possesses about 2100 such systems, the Soviets about 2500; it will thus require the Soviets to reduce by about 250 missile launchers.
SALT II also gets aggregate sublimits on multiple warhead or MIRVed systems, thus seeking to cap the rising number of warheads on both sides. The U.S. currently fields about 10,000, the Soviets 5000; under SALT II these numbers might rise to 12,000 and 7500 respectively, still extraordinary nuclear power.
SALT thereby sets equal limits on quantitative expansion of the nuclear arms race. It allows both the Soviets and Americans to be on an equal numerical basis, albeit with some very different nuclear systems. It does not in any sense allow either side any important measure of superiority.
Myth 7: SALT will limit defense spending and the nuclear arms race.
SALT fails to limit the qualitative nuclear arms race. It allows both the Soviets and Americans to continue to modernize and replace their current weapons with more powerful ones. Therefore SALT partially funnels strategic competition from quantitative to qualitative grounds. SALT will allow both sides to deploy on new land-based system such as the MX ICBM in the U.S.; it will also allow those systems to be mobile, although the U.S. wrote in the 1972 SALT I agreements that mobile systems would violate the spirit of the negotiations.
By allowing improving accuracies and yields in ICBMs, SALT does not solve the long-term problem of vulnerability of land-based systems. This is a goal for SALT III. It also will not limit military spending and may very well increase it. The U.S., in not atypical fashion of "negotiating through strength," is deploying the new Trident submarine; the projected ten Tridents will cost the taxpayer about $20 billion. Additional systems, under consideration as "bargaining chips" to obtain Senate ratification of SALT, are the MX ICBM at $30-50 billion, and several thousand air-launched cruise missiles at $30 billion.
SALT should be supported; it is a positive, albeit small, second step towards regulating an increasingly dangerous and costly nuclear weapons competition. But it is far from the answer to the dreams of arms controllers; and if it encourages the U.S. to spend $100 billion-plus on new strategic systems, it has not served its function and will not be worth further support.
These seven myths point up a number of paradoxes in U.S. military policy. This country has experienced over 30 years of relative peacetime, yet spends more today on preparation for war than during any past era except for the World War II and Vietnam years. We negotiate strategic arms limitations, yet deploy newer, potentially destabilizing nuclear weapons. We negotiate arms limitations in Europe, yet build up U.S. forces in NATO. We state that new precision-guided, highly accurate technologies are "revolutionizing" the battlefield, yet request funding for increasingly vulnerable, cost-ineffective weapon platforms such as aircraft carriers. And the federal government voices concern over inflation, yet expands spending in a sector which is one of the most inflationary. In short, military spending and force deployments are increasingly in conflict with stated federal policy objectives and military strategies.
In an era of rising needs in many sectors--energy, environment, health, education, urban planning--and apparently diminishing resources to meet those needs, every citizen should ask what we do really need for defense.
Paul Walker is a research fellow at the Center for Science and International Affairs of the Kennedy School of Government, and co-author of The Price of Defense [Times Books, 1979].