Yesterday, the New York Times featured an article comparing the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to those of previous major U.S. conflicts. Titled “A Trillion Can Be Cheap,” the piece explains that the wars since September 11, 2001, with their combined $1 trillion price tag, are the second most expensive American military endeavors in U.S. history; the first is World War II, which cost $4 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars.
The story then goes on to make a number of critical points that put those figures in greater perspective. The most important of these illustrates the burden of the wars on the economy, by calculating the costs of the conflicts as a percentage of GDP. Whereas at the peak of spending, the costs of World War II amounted to nearly 36% of GDP, the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have at their highest point only ever represented 1.2% GDP—less than World War I, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. (The graphics associated with the story illustrate this well).
Other factors that have driven up the costs of the current conflicts, the article notes, include the extent of the advanced technology employed on the battlefield today, as well as the expense of fielding and maintaining an all-volunteer force. As Gary Schmitt noted recently in related testimony, the wars in Vietnam or Korea would have been far more costly had they been fought with professional, volunteer forces instead of conscripts.
There’s no denying that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been expensive endeavors—a fact of which Americans will be increasingly reminded as calls grow in Congress to limit defense spending. But it’s important to consider the costs of the conflicts in historical context, keeping in mind their relatively minimal impact on the economy as compared to wars of the last century. It’s equally important not to overstate the potential for dramatic savings to accrue as the conflicts eventually wind down, as some analysts have recently suggested. What that argument fails to consider is the steep cost of resetting a force that has been badly strained over years of continuous combat. Even when we have finished fighting the wars, we will still be paying for them.
(DoD photo by Cmdr. Erik Etz, U.S. Navy/Released)
Looks like I spoke too soon. According to a joint statement issued by Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and his South Korean counterpart, the upcoming “exercise will be a multi-day combined naval and air exercise set to commence July the 25th in the seas east of the peninsula. A range of forces will participate, including the USS George Washington, naval ship Dokdo and F-22 Raptors.”
The good news: robust exercises involving 8,000 personnel and a U.S. carrier strike group, designed to send a clear message of deterrence to North Korea.
The bad news: no exercises—let alone a carrier exercise—in the Yellow Sea where the Cheonan sinking occurred, sending a clear message of weakness to the Chinese.
China complained about U.S.-ROK plans to hold an exercise in international waters in the Yellow Sea and, simply put, the United States backed down. The joint statement did promise that “this is the first of a series of ROK-U.S. combined naval exercises that will occur in both the East and West Seas,” which is good news. But if I were a betting man, I would say that any future exercises in the Yellow Sea will be significantly smaller than this first one and will not involve an aircraft carrier.
Were the upcoming exercises—our most immediate military response to the Cheonan sinking—to take place in the Yellow Sea in spite of Chinese objections, they would have incentivized Beijing to alter its behavior. Instead, the United States has altered its own behavior in the hopes that China will act more cooperatively in the future. It is folly to think that this will be effective.
This decision evidences not only a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the administration of how to deal with the North Korean problem, as I discussed here yesterday, but also a fundamental misunderstanding of how to shape Chinese behavior. China respects power and preys on weakness. Right now, Beijing smells blood in the water.
(Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Charles Oki/released)
In a speech today at AEI, Representative Paul Ryan took some initial steps to mollify those conservatives concerned that his renowned “Roadmap for America’s Future” would allow the defense budget to wither. In the question-and-answer session, AEI’s Marc Thiessen pressed Rep. Ryan about his commitment to a strong national defense. Here’s how he responded:
I believe in … the coalition of the Republican Party, in a strong national defense party. There’s lots of waste that can be saved. And those savings should go to fulfilling the mission of the Pentagon. But believe me, I’ve sat in lots of hearings, I’ve read lots of GAO reports. If you give any agency that much money there’s going to be waste. There’s a procurement problem, there’s an operations and maintenance problem, I could go on and on about ways in which we can save money—not to hollow out our defenses, not to reduce the fulfillment of our missions, but to make them better and more secure. But we should make sure we take that scalpel to the Pentagon as well. Because I would argue there is a lot of waste to be gotten. But let’s not do so at the expense of our fundamental, primary function of our federal government, which is to secure our national defense. So I believe in a big cap, and I believe in a firewall, so you can’t take money from defense to plow it into all this domestic spending, but under that cap let’s make sure that we can get savings so that we can do more with less—or, what do they say these days? Do more with not as much, I think, is the way Secretary Gates says it.
Rep. Ryan is wise to acknowledge that national defense is the primary function of government, and it’s very encouraging to hear him use terms like “firewall” and “big cap.” But the prospect of “doing more with not as much” is still an alarming one, given the extent of the United States’ defense commitments today. What’s more, the Congressman may be surprised at just how little savings he finds, relatively speaking, to take from DOD’s tail and give to its tooth.
Apropos of Rep. Ryan’s remarks is the recent testimony of AEI’s Gary Schmitt, delivered yesterday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs. In his remarks, Schmitt neatly picks apart the arguments about skyrocketing defense budgets and cost-savings measures put forward in a recent report from Rep. Barney Frank and Rep. Ron Paul’s Sustainable Defense Task Force. Schmitt puts the United States’ current levels of defense spending in historical context:
Now, there is no question that we, as a nation, spend a lot on defense. It is often noted, for example, that measured in FY 2010 dollars, the current Pentagon budget is the highest since World War II, eclipsing the previous high at the height of the Korean War (1952). However, note that the financial burden on the nation was far more significant then; defense spending as percentage of GDP was 14%, while today—with spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan included—the percent of the nation’s wealth going to the Pentagon stands at 4.9%. Moreover, imagine what the Korean War might have cost if it had been waged by an all-volunteer force rather than relying on the more than 1.5 million draftees. The fact is, when it comes to waging wars and providing for the national defense, the burden on the country’s economy is substantially below what historically has been the average for the past 60 years.
In addition, although the core defense budget—the total Pentagon budget, minus the appropriated supplementals to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan—grew by $228 billion over a decade starting in FY 2001, that increase reflects only a moderate increase in the defense burden to the nation. In 2001, the percentage of GDP that went to defense was 3% (a post-WWII low); in 2010, it was just shy of 3.6%. And, indeed, that growth is on the order of just 4% real (CPI adjusted) growth per year. This is hardly, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked in his May speech at the Eisenhower Library, a “gusher” of spending sent the Pentagon’s way. In fact, if one factors in defense-related inflation—a figure that typically outpaces the CPI—then the so-called gusher for defense spending is more like a trickle than not.
Again, I am not arguing that the United States does not spend substantial amounts for defense; we do. However, suggesting that an increase of $228 billion over ten years is exorbitant is not, to my mind, accurate. Or, if it is, how should we compare that figure with the nearly $800 billion spent to stimulate (it was hoped) the economy?
Later on, Schmitt highlights the dangers ahead for the United States and its allies should it pursue a grand strategy of “restraint,” as advocated in the report. The full testimony is well worth a read.
The Defense Science Board (DSB) has a reputation for producing analytically insightful and thought-provoking studies of complex defense issues. Unfortunately, many of them go unpublicized. A recently-released study on nuclear matters, however, is worthy of attention.
The final report of the DSB Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Effects National Enterprise, produced jointly with the DOD Threat Reduction Advisory Committee, contains some striking observations about the nation’s ability to prevent and protect Americans against nuclear attack, and to carry out necessary functions in a nuclear environment. As DSB Chairman Paul Kaminski stated in his transmittal letter accompanying the report, the country’s expertise in nuclear matters and ability to operate in a nuclear environment have eroded to the point where “the Department of Defense and the nation are not as well prepared as it should be to deter, defend, and mitigate an attack.”
The Task Force co-chairs did not mince words in describing the nation’s nuclear unpreparedness:
…U.S. attention and capabilities to counter nuclear weapons have been atrophying for many years. Intelligence assets are focused elsewhere. Military and civilian leaders in DOD are poorly educated on military operations in nuclear environments, and have little understanding of nuclear weapons and the issues surrounding their use against our nation. U.S. counters (outside of missile defense) have received little attention in over two decades, especially defensive measures to ensure continued operations in radiation environments. Technical expertise and infrastructure have decayed significantly. Investments in nuclear survivability have declined.
The task force believes that this state of affairs—the atrophy in attention to, understanding of, and investment in nuclear survivability—is dangerous and needs to be reversed.
Of course, this is not the first time the DSB has raised a red flag over the sorry state of the country’s nuclear enterprise. Nor is the DSB alone in its warnings. In light of the continuing spread of nuclear weapons technologies and capabilities, the anemic state of the U.S. nuclear weapons industry has potentially severe implications for American security. As the DSB report notes, “Regional proliferation risks are growing, accompanied by nation state policy and doctrine that acknowledge limited nuclear use as a legitimate war fighting option.”
Perhaps unintentionally, the task force report highlights a logical disconnect in one of the fundamental premises of the Obama Administration’s nuclear policy. The Nuclear Posture Review argued that “the growth of unrivaled U.S. conventional military capabilities” allows the United States to accomplish its deterrence objectives “at significantly lower nuclear force levels and with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons.” Yet the DSB Task Force notes, “perhaps most important is the fact that U.S. superiority in its conventional forces makes nuclear weapons attractive to potential adversaries who could never compete against such a robust arsenal of systems.”
In other words, what allows us to reduce our nuclear weaponry is precisely what encourages others to acquire them or to increase their reliance on them. The implications of this for U.S. deterrence and nonproliferation objectives are significant. But they have not been thoroughly examined in the context of the ratification debate over the nuclear force levels mandated by the New START treaty.
On Friday, I argued here that upcoming combined U.S.-ROK naval exercises in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan will not only send an important message to North Korea, but will send a message to China as well. Upon further reflection, I believe that the latter message is the more important of the two.
While the United States intends the exercise to “send a clear message of deterrence” to the DPRK, it is difficult to see how we can expect to deter North Korea without causing it real pain. Joshua Staunton, over at The New Ledger, makes the point clearly:
There is no joint naval exercise that can disguise the fact that the conventional military and diplomatic deterrence of North Korea, on which the peace of the region has depended for six decades, is collapsing. If there is to be deterrence against the next North Korean attack, there must be a strong response to the last one, and if the response will not include the use of military force, it must be a non-military response that is strong and swift enough to deter the next provocation. We haven’t seen anything of that kind yet, and unless we do very soon, we may find ourselves living in interesting times.
Unfortunately, Staunton is correct in arguing that we have done little to disabuse Kim Jong-Il of the notion that his nuclear bomb makes him undeterrable.
This is why the message that the joint exercises convey to Beijing is at least as important as the message they convey to Pyongyang. China, thanks to its relatively robust economic relationship with North Korea and its status as the North’s most important treaty ally, has more sway over the Hermit Kingdom than any other country. In order to effect a change in Pyongyang’s behavior, Beijing could, for example, threaten to cut off economic ties; to terminate the 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, which requires China to “immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal” should the DPRK come under attack; to facilitate the flow of refugees through China to South Korea; or to deny support to Kim Jong-Il’s chosen successor.
For China to take any such action, however, it would need to be convinced that North Korea’s bad behavior is seriously detrimental to Chinese interests. China’s leaders are not happy that the Cheonan sinking is leading to a potentially tighter U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral defense relationship and to a surge of U.S. military resources to waters on China’s periphery for naval and air exercises. Additional reactions to the Cheonan attack should be calibrated to send a message to Beijing; for example, the imposition of sanctions targeting Chinese companies that do business with North Korea.
We have sought China’s willful cooperation on North Korea for years now, and with little success. It may be time to coerce that cooperation.
At Tuesday’s international conference in Kabul, Afghan president Hamid Karzai presented his government’s roadmap for accelerating development, assuming responsibility for security, reducing corruption, and ensuring good governance in Afghanistan. The strategy is designed to culminate by 2014, at which point Afghan forces are expected to be leading security operations throughout the country. The timeline was affirmed by the conference participants, with some qualifications that it should be subject to the conditions on the ground and the capability of Afghan forces at the time.
The Kabul Conference follows a January meeting of international donors in London, as well as a high-profile visit by President Karzai to Washington, both of which revolved around repeated commitments—financial and otherwise—on the part of the United States and the international community in support of long-term partnership with Afghanistan. At Tuesday’s conference, donors received some sense of how the Afghan government proposes to put their support to use between now and 2014: creating 300,000 jobs through agricultural programs and improving Afghanistan’s rail infrastructure, among other initiatives. They were also pressed by Afghan officials to allow greater Afghan discretion in disbursing aid funds and prioritizing programs.
The event was, in effect, a test of the Karzai government’s ability to demonstrate accountability and communicate convincingly that Afghanistan is on a trajectory toward sovereignty. That was no small task: Afghanistan’s central government remains by all accounts feeble and unreliable, NATO casualties are rapidly mounting, and political support for the conflict continues to dwindle among European troop-contributing states. It’s expected, however, that the 2014 deadline, and the anticipation of a steady drawdown of forces until then, will provide some relief for European anxieties.
The 60-plus international conference participants would be wise to approach the proposals presented Tuesday with the understanding that their work in Afghanistan is far from complete, regardless of the deadline. Given their stake in the country’s reconstruction and development thus far, it will be critical for them to scrutinize closely Karzai’s strategy for the Afghanistan’s future, and identify those areas—good-governance and anti-corruption initiatives, for example—in which they can reasonably apply a degree of leverage, as afforded by their vast aid pledges, to ensure effectiveness.
With the proper coordination, the conference participants can also begin to develop a framework for addressing some of the looming questions about Afghanistan’s longer-term development—like the Kabul government’s ability to manage the country’s potential mineral wealth—which will demand sustained international guidance in the years ahead.
Not surprisingly, the conference also saw some manifestations of the simmering regional tensions about the issue of Taliban reconciliation and reintegration. Since the London conference in January, where the issue was raised, India has been seeking to ensure that Pakistan does not exert undue influence in any negotiation process that may take place between elements of the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. Delhi has at the same time sought to develop an accord with Iran and Russia as to the shape of things in Afghanistan following NATO’s withdrawal. On Tuesday, India’s foreign minister voiced his government’s support for Karzai’s reintegration efforts, but stressed that they must be “fully Afghan-led and Afghan owned.” The continuing regional competition for influence in Afghanistan stands to have as dramatic an effect on the country’s future stability and prosperity as any efforts on the part of the U.S. and its European allies.
For the United States, the Kabul Conference presents an opportunity to pause and take stock of its civilian strategy in Afghanistan. For too long now, U.S. efforts in the country have been stymied by the lack of a serious economic and governance strategy to complement the military’s counterinsurgency campaign. With a dynamic new commander now on the ground, however, and a civilian country team newly motivated by President Obama’s recent calls for improved “unity of effort,” the time has come for the United States to recommit to its civilian goals in Afghanistan and develop a comprehensive roadmap of its own for the critical four years ahead.
(Credit: State Department Photo/Public Domain)
It’s getting toward August, the time when Congress dreams of recess and an escape from both the political and geographical swamp that is our Nation’s Capital. Since 2007 (or since 1992, depending on when you start the clock), it’s also been the time when defense appropriators decide whether to defy the executive branch to purchase more C-17 transport aircraft. Here’s hoping they make this obviously correct decision quickly and firmly, approving the $1.3 billion amendment that would pay for five further C-17s.
If ever there were a case study proving the Founders’ wisdom in vesting the legislature with the Constitutional responsibility for providing for the nation’s defense, the C-17 story is it. The first attempt to terminate the program was made by the first Bush Administration, and by now a generation of soldiers and airmen owes a great debt to the supposed penchant of congressional committee “barons” for “pork barrel waste.”
For the C-17 is simply a superb aircraft, matching large lift, long range, and short landing capabilities in a way that has made the many diverse missions since its introduction—from peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Haiti relief operations—not only easier, but possible; the plane is truly a “Globemaster.” The program has also been extraordinarily well-managed and trouble-free (certainly by defense procurement standards). And the C-17 is a proven export winner; just recently, the Indian air force agreed to buy 10 of the transports.
The C-17 is also a replacement for the old, 1960s-era C-5 Galaxy transport. While there is life left in the C-5B, it is increasingly expensive to operate, needs further upgrades and life-extension work, and is much less versatile than the C-17. In a time of scarce defense resources, converting the Air Force’s remaining C-5 airlift units (part of the Air National Guard) should be a no-brainer. The Pentagon has already agreed to retire 22 of the remaining 59 C-5s, and replacing the last 37 with perhaps two dozen C-17s would save money and force structure while improving airlift capability. Nor does it make any sense as a matter of defense industrial policy to spend money to upgrade an older plane, no longer in production, while letting an efficient and mature production line come to an end—with no replacement in sight. If the C-17 line is closed and the company does not win the Air Force’s tanker-replacement work, Boeing will have little reason to remain in the military aircraft business.
Ideally, of course, the Air Force could afford both planes. The American appetite for airlift, not only by the U.S. military but on the part of other U.S. government agencies as they lurch toward a more “expeditionary” future, is far from filled. Yet every few years the Air Force undertakes a new “mobility requirements” study that concludes that no additional airlift capability is needed. These studies have no credibility whatsoever—none—and serve only to justify other service needs at the expense of airlift’s many customers. This week at a congressional hearing, Air Force Maj. Gen. Susan Desjardins, like every Air Mobility Command predecessor of the last 20 years, parroted the line that “we don’t need any more C-17s.” Again, those deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere might see it differently.
One complicating factor in this year’s saga is Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ oft-reiterated threat to recommend a veto of the defense bill if C-17 funding is added. This is should be an empty threat—you would think that, in a troubled economy, ending a program that employs 30,000 people who produce a most desirable and exportable product would be the height of folly—but Gates’ willingness and ability to do the administration’s dirty work when it comes to cutting military spending should not be gainsaid. Indeed, as in the case of the F-22 Raptor or the Army’s Future Combat Systems, Congress has meekly rolled over whenever the secretary has barked. And Sen. John McCain, as always stalwart in war but myopic when it comes to defense, trotted out his Eisenhower-era “military-industrial complex” talking points; the good senator cannot seem to think beyond his “waste, fraud and abuse” mantra.
The House defense appropriators have a chance to do the right thing this week. When it comes to the C-17 program, these often-petty barons have been resoundingly noble in defying roundheaded and puritanical dictation from the Pentagon and the executive branch. This is a case where the “needs of the warfighter” have repeatedly proven the need for additional airlift.
(Photo: flickr/US_Air_Force/U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo)
The U.S. Department of the Treasury has placed Yemen-based radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki on its list of terrorism supporters under Executive Order 13224 for his support of acts of terrorism and for his role in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Treasury designated other top AQAP leaders—Nasser al Wahayshi, Said al Shihri, and Qasim al Raymi—on January 19, 2010, the same day the State Department added AQAP to the Foreign Terrorist Organization list. The July 16 press release announcing Awlaki’s designation as a “key leader” of AQAP justified the decision to freeze his assets by noting that he has “pledged an oath of loyalty to AQAP emir, Nasir al Wahishi” and helps set the “strategic direction for AQAP.” According to the statement, Awlaki has also recruited individuals to join AQAP, facilitated terrorist training camps in Yemen, and helped focus AQAP on targeting U.S. interests. Treasury’s designation of Awlaki is a positive step towards disrupting AQAP’s network, given that Awlaki’s role in AQAP has become increasingly operational, especially in recruiting and connecting with westerners.
The statement also confirmed reports of Awlaki’s involvement in the planning for the Christmas Day attack. He had recruited Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, connected him with AQAP in Yemen, and ordered Abdulmutallab to detonate an explosive device over U.S. territory. Indeed, it was Awlaki’s role in the attack that appears to have been what motivated the U.S. government to target the cleric and place him on Treasury’s list of terrorism supporters.
But the Christmas Day attack was not Awlaki’s first connection to a plot. The FBI investigated him for terrorist activities as early as June 1999. As Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey noted in last week’s press release, “Anwar al-Aulaqi has proven that he is extraordinarily dangerous, committed to carrying out deadly attacks on American and others worldwide. He has involved himself in every aspect of the supply chain of terrorism – fundraising for terrorist groups, recruiting and training operatives, and planning and ordering attacks on innocents.” In fact, Awlaki had connections with 9/11, may have helped the Virginia 11, and encouraged U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s attack on soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. His radical message has inspired at least four other major terrorist attacks or plots: the London 7/7 bombings, the Toronto 18, the Fort Dix plot and the May 2010 Times Square Bombing.
The White House has announced that President Obama “applauded Yemen’s determination to address the terrorist threat” posed by Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in a phone call to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Thursday. An AQAP operative nearly killed 300 people in the skies of Michigan on Christmas Day, generating increased pressure from the U.S. government on the Yemenis to combat the al Qaeda franchise. Saleh has never been much of a friend to the U.S., and his government has shown tremendous leniency—and in some cases outright support—for al Qaeda over the past decade, meaning that the standard for earning America’s praise on counterterrorism efforts should be relatively high.
For starters, Saleh of Yemen – once known in the Middle East as “Little Saddam” – opposed the U.S. liberation of Kuwait in 1991 when Yemen held a seat on the UN Security Council. In the immediate aftermath of al Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole in a Yemeni port in 2000, not only did some Yemeni officials try to hinder the FBI’s investigation and convince agents that the explosion was caused by a malfunction in the vessel’s operating system, but Saleh went as far as to ask the U.S. to help pay for damage in the port that the U.S. allegedly caused. Additionally, Saleh oversees a security apparatus that acquiesced to, and likely facilitated, two prison breaks of al Qaeda terrorists – one in April 2003 in which 10 escaped and one in February 2006 in which 23 escaped. Saleh even went as far as to appoint a man the U.S. considers a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, Abdul Majid al Zindani, to a presidential delegation in 2005.
The Yemeni government certainly has increased its cooperation with the U.S. government in fighting al Qaeda over the past year, perhaps due to the $67 million in military aid that Sana’a received from Washington last year and the $150 million it is receiving this year. But the Yemeni government has failed to have any significant impact on AQAP’s strength. The entire leadership of AQAP, including its leader, deputy leader, spiritual leaders, and military commanders, remains intact. Anwar al Awlaki, the English-speaking cleric sheltered by AQAP who has ties to nearly every terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, continues to operate in Yemen with relative impunity and likely had a role in the recent release of the group’s first English-language magazine. Furthermore, the government of Yemen still has not made any arrests in connection with the Christmas Day attack. The government of Yemen has, however, demonstrated a willingness to engage in negotiations with al Qaeda, as pointed out by Robert Worth in a recent New York Times piece.
Such lackluster results on the part of the Yemeni government to combat AQAP call into question the Obama administration’s criteria for evaluating a foreign government’s counterterrorism efforts.
Chris Harnisch is a research analyst for AEI’s Critical Threats Project.