Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

11 March 2013

Why Our Pentagon Must Slim Down

Weakness and misdirected strength
The half-truth of civilian “fallout”
Waste wholesale, not retail
Conclusion: dieting and focus


Amidst all the turmoil of our domestic politics, there is one thing on which right-wing and left-wing rank and file all agree. Our Pentagon must slim down.

There’s still some small dissent among the right. People like John McCain and Lindsey Graham still want us to arm ourselves to fight two world wars at once. They never say where those two wars could possibly come from in our Pax Atomica, now two-thirds of a century old.

Only two nations on Earth today could threaten those old kinds of wars: China and Russia. Both are peaceful and devoid of any interest in global conquest. China hasn’t fought a major war beyond its borders since Mao reunified it in 1949. Russia’s sole post-Soviet incursion was in former Soviet Georgia; it disciplined and intimidated that perennial thorn in its side and withdrew in weeks.

The ghosts of history past still haunt us. The Nazi-Imperial Japanese run at global conquest was a disastrous, misguided venture. But it’s been history now for 68 years. It’s extremely unlikely to be repeated. Ditto the Cold War.

So where is the necessity or profit in building an armed force designed to repel these two disastrous mistakes of human history? Preparing to refight the last two wars in a world that is infinitely wiser and more peaceful may be the ultimate waste of money and talent.

Weakness and misdirected strength

But it gets worse, much worse. Not only is our Pentagon preparing to refight the wrong wars. It is both inefficient and ineffective. It is making us weaker, not stronger, through both sloppy procurement and misdirected energy.

I have written before about the utter bloat, stupidity, inefficiency and corruption of our military supply chain. I won’t repeat the analysis here. But it bears notice that the products of that crippled monster are as bizarre as its procurement procedures.

Take a close look at the ten weapons system so helpfully catalogued and pictured by Bloomberg.com recently. You don’t have to be an engineer or weapons designer to understand how ungainly they are. Just look at them. They don’t even look sleek and mean. Your neighborhood traffic-control helicopter, let alone the Dreamliner, is self-evidently better designed. The military monstrosities look like creations of video-game artists, not engineers.

In fact, they look just like what they are: bastard systems designed by committees with too much time and money on their hands. Many have failed repeatedly even in peacetime testing.

War has a way of enforcing efficiency. The prime directive of survival promotes people who are smart, efficient and effective, even if somewhat rough. Generals Patton and MacArthur come to mind. But peacetime does just the opposite; it brings forward bureaucrats, sycophants and political compromisers. You don’t build machines or armies that work well or efficiently with that sort of leadership.

The proof of the pudding, of course, is in the eating. We were attacked on 9/11 by a motley group of extremists led by Osama bin Laden. With all the subtlety and finesse of a West-Texas Sheriff, Dubya declared “Wanted! Dead or Alive!” and mounted an invasion. Ten years later, we had nothing to show for that effort but a costly and bloody nation-building exercise in which we are still engaged today.

In contrast, President Obama got bin Laden and decimated Al Qaeda with ninjas and drones, at a tiny fraction of the cost of our invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Smart matters. Lean and mean matter. Accurate targeting matters.

There are right ways and wrong ways to use force. Intelligent, proportionate and measured force is usually better. We live today in a world where rogue major powers no longer exist, where disputes among major powers are resolved in meetings, not on the battlefield, and where nuclear arsenals are absolute proof against invasion of any major power, including us. So militaries can and must be smaller, cheaper, nimbler and more accurately targeted. The tiny drone, not the world-destroying ICBM or strategic bomber, is the weapon of choice today.

Kill the bad guys, and you don’t have to kill the civilian population. The last century’s “total war” was a gigantic strategic and moral blunder. It almost led us to species self-extinction in October 1962.

Now we are smarter, or should be. We use military means to enforce personal responsibility, as Assad will soon find out. (Why did we and several European nations recognize the Syrian rebels? Now that Assad is no longer the recognized leader of a sovereign state, he’s personally on the target list, as he ought to be.)

The half-truth of civilian “fallout”

But it gets still worse. Apologists for military excess often speak of civilian technological “fallout” from military projects. That is, they tout useful civilian business spinoffs from military research-and-development projects.

For example, the teflon that coats your non-stick frying pan or makes your Gore-Tex ski jacket waterproof was a spinoff of nuclear-weapons research. Its original purpose was keeping corrosive uranium-hexafluoride gas from burning out the stainless steel tubing in uranium-enrichment centrifuges.

Yet this spinoff effect is overblown. Sometimes presumed military necessities don’t aid civilian development. Instead, they distort and pervert it.

So it was with nuclear power. Atomic energy in the peaceful sense grew out of nuclear weapons development, not vice versa. War goals shaped its very design criteria.

We designed our first nuclear power reactors at the height of the Cold War. At that time, we wanted fissionable material suitable for nuclear weapons. We didn’t care then about weapons proliferation. Besides our European allies, the Soviets and we were the only societies capable of building nukes, and the Soviets already had them. And we didn’t worry about meltdowns because we were only beginning to understand the dangers they and nuclear radiation posed to civilian society. (The devastation of Hiroshima was a closely guarded military secret.)

So what did we do? We built all our power stations around the same Uranium-235/plutonium fuel cycle that we used for nuclear weapons. We Yanks were not alone. The whole world did the same thing.

In consequence, our whole species is stuck with an enormously expensive global nuclear-power infrastructure that came right out of weapons design. Into this horrendously expensive cake we baked meltdown risk, radiation risk, and the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons.

There was a path not taken. We experimented with thorium-cycle reactors in the 1950s. But we abandoned them, mostly because we wanted weapons yesterday, and thorium is not good for weapons.

Today, thorium-cycle reactor research promises orders of magnitude less radioactivity (both operational and residual) than todays’s designs, zero meltdown risk, far more scalable power plants, and a thousand-year supply of fuel right here in America. But there’s a big problem. We have invested astronomical sums in uranium-plutonium technology and a vast infrastructure to support it. We simply don’t have the money or the interest to do it all over again a different way. So the path not taken—which could have powered our entire world safely, cleanly, and with no air pollution or global warming—remains a distant dream. There are consequences to building civilian research and development around military objectives, especially enormously expensive ones.

Similar analysis applies to our committee-designed military aircraft. Together with Airbus’ “pregnant frog” A380, Boeing’s “Dreamliner” is the first civilian aircraft of radically new design in decades. It’s now grounded because of a single fire in a critical onboard lithium battery. No one wants to risk a single catastrophic failure of such an expensive aircraft, let alone with potentially massive civilian casualties.

Military manufacturers have no such compunctions, for military pilots and crew have ejection seats and parachutes. No civilian aircraft could survive regulatory review and business competition with the dismal records of failure and disaster of our F-35 fighter or V-22 Osprey. If they had been civilian aircraft, they would have been redesigned or scrapped early in their development process. But with the military mindset “bordering on theology” that former Secdef Gates so brilliantly described, they limped on despite record budgetary overruns and constant complaints from pilots.

For safety and reliability, civilian standards are higher than military ones. Only in a real war, as the loss of expensive aircraft mounted and live pilots had to eject behind enemy lines, would the military begin to correct its dismal record of operational failure of these aircraft and similar committee-designed weapons systems.

It’s kind of funny, isn’t it? So-called GOP “thinkers” insist that government can never boost our economy the same way private industry can. But when it comes to making the connection to the military, they balk. They never even seem to notice the inconsistency.

Military and civilian objectives are different. In the final analysis, the military makes stuff and trains people to kill and destroy. Sadly, those objectives sometimes are necessary, and military projects can create good, paying jobs. But the jobs just don’t have the same economic multiplier effect that civilian jobs do because they don’t build civilian infrastructure. At the end of the day, their value and legacy are limited to war readiness.

Russia learned that lesson after the Cold War. In its Soviet guise, it once had a world-class military-industrial complex. Now, after two decades, it is still scrambling to create a viable and competitive civilian economy. We are just waking up to similar lessons now, as we begin to ken how much money we have wasted with little or no lasting economic payback.

Waste wholesale, not retail

The final argument for slimming the Pentagon is large-scale waste. Here I don’t mean “retail” waste, i.e., thousand-dollar toilets or hundred-dollar bolts. I mean wholesale waste: the economic waste of spending money on machines that add nothing to our domestic economy because they are used only in training or abroad, because they self destruct in normal use (missiles, bombs and bullets), or because they enjoy no civilian economic multiplier.

Again, expensive manned aircraft are illustrative. Civilian aircraft are a vital part of our nation’s economic infrastructure. They transport business people who make our private economy go. They carry expensive cargo that can’t wait for slower delivery, making modern “just in time” inventory systems work. They ferry tourists who spread money around and bring knowledge of global cultures back home. They transport the diplomats and commercial and technical liaisons who make war less likely and global cooperation more efficient.

In a nation as large geographically as ours, civilian aircraft are as essential a part of our national infrastructure as our roads, railroads, telephone lines, cellphone towers and the Internet. Every dollar spent on them brings multiple dollars to our civilian economy.

Military aircraft do none of these things. In peacetime, fighters and bombers spend all their time in hangars or on training missions, burning good fuel for no other purpose than military readiness. In wartime, they do their jobs, but at a much higher risk of sudden destruction than any civilian aircraft. They add nothing to our civilian economic infrastructure besides training pilots and mechanics, who often must be retrained to handle civilian aircraft and procedures.

The difference is simple. Civilian aircraft are investments in hope. Military aircraft are investments in fear. Over the nearly seven decades since the end of World War II, our investments in fear have grown wholly out of proportion to any seriously impending threat, let alone our hopeful investment in useful economic infrastructure. It’s time to mend the balance.

Conclusion: dieting and focus

Fixing our bloated, corrupt and inefficient Pentagon is a lot like fixing our problem of national obesity. There are innumerable ways to go on a diet. If you’ve ever known anyone who’s wanted to lose weight, you probably know several by name.

You can argue interminably about which diet is better. But you won’t lose weight and start getting lean and mean until you stop arguing and start eating less.

And so we have the Sequester. Are across-the-board cuts ideal? Not hardly. But they are a start—a real start after six decades of Cold-War excess, extended yet another decade by the national paranoia after 9/11.

We desperately need to cut the excess and refocus on real twenty-first century threats. Of course it’s better if you do the cutting with a scalpel, rather than a meataxe. But finesse can come later.

You’ve got to start somewhere. That’s why Wall Street and the stock market have shrugged off the Sequester. They would hardly have done that if the wolf—or the dragon or bear—were really at our door. But the only wolf on our horizon is a creation of our fevered imagination. The D.C. area and its Beltway Bandits will survive, perhaps with a more empathetic understanding of what the rest of us have gone through these past six years.

Now that he’s confirmed, it will be Chuck Hagel’s responsibility to clean up the mess at the Pentagon and rationalize and extend the cuts. He’s not the world’s most impressive orator, and his hearing testimony was uninspired. But he is an impressively independent thinker in a city full of lemmings. He’s got the right party credentials, and he comes from a reliably red state. If anyone can do the job, he can.

Yet Hagel has to keep his eye on the ball. He can’t afford to fall into Rumsfeld’s trap. Rumsfeld began his (second) Pentagon career killing the Crusader Cannon—a massive, absurdly heavy weapons system straight out of action comics, with a name not well suited for peace with the Islamic world. Killing it was a good start.

Then Rumsfeld tried to play soldier, earning infamy as the worst or second-worst Secdef in US history. Hagel has to do better. He has to let soldiers be soldiers, stopping them only when they want to invade and occupy two foreign countries just to kill or disable a few hundred terrorists. If he can do that and keep his mind on the Pentagon’s diet and twenty-first century focus, he may save our economy and our military readiness, too. Godspeed.



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