An Article of the Modern Survival Guide
You’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, a long-running blog that discusses things we need to know to survive in an increasingly complex world. This article is part of a mini-series I’ve been writing about the national crises that currently face the US.
So far we’ve covered political instability, the failure of the national narrative, inflation, the national debt, the housing crisis, and the medical crisis. In this edition we’re talking about the US military, and in particular its price tag.
Let me be frank: we are currently forced into a position in international politics where the interests of the United States are best served by having a powerful military. That is a statement that could apply to any nation at any time in history, because pacifism is not now and never has been a winning proposition. However, it is especially applicable to the US in the current international system, because much of the world relies on the Pax Americana (although this is changing, mostly to our benefit).
Let me be frank on another point: I am not unpatriotic for calling into question spending on our armed forces. Don’t come at me with that. The military is a tool in international politics. It is a very useful, very powerful tool, but it’s not holy and it shouldn’t be treated as a sacred cow. Every tool should be adapted to fit the problem at hand, with respect to the resources available. The most patriotic thing we can do with the military is to treat it as another policy option that we should evaluate, assess, and adapt as needed to meet the needs of preserving American interests.
No country has ever been best served by allowing its armed services an undue amount of political power or infinite spending. I will die on that hill. We do ok at the former in the US, but we are awful at controlling military spending.
This, then, is the conundrum of the US military and why it rates a slot in a list of national crises: we have to have a military, and to preserve the current world order it’s arguable that we have to have a powerful military. But military spending is nominally about 15%, and in reality more like a quarter of our federal budget, and it is not sustainable. We are literally bankrupting ourselves, in part, on the altar of the US military. If we don’t get that under control we will eventually fall prey to horrific consequences; see the article on the national debt for a more in-depth discussion of that topic.
The remainder of this article will focus on where US military policy is focused, what that means for national policy as a whole, and what we can do to get the military-industrial complex under control. I hope you brought a snack, because this article is going to go into some depth about what the problem is, and how we can address it. Let’s start with a quick dive into our military-industrial complex, in vastly simplified summary.
The Military-Industrial Complex in a Nutshell
Most of us have heard this term, “military-industrial complex.” It sounds very technocrat-y, but it’s a simple enough thing in concept. This refers to the combination of federal agencies, military departments, civilian contractors, R&D groups, and manufacturing companies that collectively represent US military might. Think of it as a series of Venn diagrams, overlapping to form a core labeled “US military capability,” and you’re on the right track.
Every industrial nation has some version of this military-industrial complex; it’s basically just another way of saying “all the stuff that makes a military work,” and a military-industrial complex will reliably pop up anywhere there’s a military, because that’s how bureaucracy works.
What we should always call into question in the US is why our military-industrial complex is so entrenched, so powerful, and whether or not it’s bad for the nation.
In order, then:
- The military-industrial complex is entrenched because following World War II we did not disarm. We did not return to pre-war combat strength. We maintained enough of an army to almost immediately fight in Korea, and then we maintained Cold War-readiness for the next forty years. That’s a long time for institutions to form and devise ways to defend their existence.
- The military-industrial complex is powerful because over the past sixty years the US has dumped trillions upon trillions of dollars into it. Enough money to buy many nations outright has been spent on the US military every year for so long that very few people are currently alive who even remember anything different. That’s more than enough money to buy generations of propaganda, employ millions of people, and sway whole tranches of Congressmen. And it has.
- The military-industrial complex is bad for the nation, not because it exists, not just because it has resulted in untold corruption, but mainly because Americans can’t conceive of it being any different. We are married to this idea that military power = American power, and that American military power = world stability. This concept dominates our nation, and if we want to stay a solvent and sovereign nation it has got. to. stop.
Our Military Crisis is a Crisis of Money and Vision
The military-industrial complex has a vested interest in keeping Americans convinced that we have to have the most powerful military in the world, or else somehow we lose. That was possibly true during parts of the Cold War, although frankly historians will fight about that all day if you let them. It is certainly not true now.
YES, I know that China is looking to take over Taiwan. YES, I know that Ukraine is currently fighting for its life against Russia. And YES, I know that the US military is constantly involved in various operations around the world to put down various terrorist cells and provide covert support to all sorts of nations, groups, and peoples, while also maintaining force readiness to fight a full-scale war.
None of that takes away from one simple fact: the world is currently the most peaceful it has ever been. The overwhelmingly vast majority of the conflicts that have arisen in the past twenty years do not involve us. We have allies (many of whom have been sold an awful lot of our weapons), and of the top 10 military budgets in the world, the #1 is us and seven are our allies.¹ And if Ukraine has taught us anything, it’s that lend-lease is sometimes as effective as getting directly involved in a war.²
So the question is, do we really need to be spending almost $800 billion a year?
Some caveats: I am a civilian. I have never been in military service. I do not hold a clearance level that allows me to see the full scope of the threats to this nation. What I do know is that the #1 goal of any institution is to perpetuate its own existence, and that certainly applies to militaries. What I also know is that our current military posture is overstressing both the military’s ability to maintain its force stature and the nation’s ability to pay for it.
Therefore, I would argue that the crisis of the US military is currently a crisis of money and vision.
Money, in the sense that our military is a major factor accelerating our national debt, and has become a sacred cow. That latter point is never a good thing for public money. Call me a commie if you want, but a military that can never be cut is a military that is (a) not responsive to world conditions and (b) starting to exceed the bounds of civilian control.
Vision, in the sense that containing military spending is entirely, 100% dependent on the US vision of our role in the world and our military’s job within that role, not to mention the side effects that come with performing that job (e.g., providing lucrative jobs to the constituents of Congressmen). We cannot decrease US military spending if we don’t adapt our vision of what the military is supposed to be doing.
I’m going to argue each of these points separately. Keep the caveats in mind, come after me in the comments if you think differently.
We Can’t Pay for the US Military Forever
Not at its current rate of spend. There are too many other federal programs that need cash, on which our citizens are profoundly dependent for their day-to-day life. Whether you think those programs are good or bad is immaterial, because they exist and the system is set up to ensure they continue to do so.
You can’t get rid of Social Security without replacing it with something else, because whole generations have bought into it. You can’t get rid of the US healthcare costs (although we could reduce them, as per the last article in this series). If you try to do either of these things without a really good plan, people will definitely die in large numbers, and that’s the kind of thing politicians try to avoid.
We can’t pay for the military and the social programs, not at the current tax rate. These represent the largest dollars spent in the federal budget, and our national debt is continually increasing. The debt ceiling fight is growing increasingly suicidal.³ We are playing economic chicken, and something’s got to give.
That’s half of the problem. The other half is that the US military is worn out.⁴ The War of Terror has cost us enormous sums of treasure and blood, but it also cost us maintenance. The Navy and Air Force, in particular, are having issues keeping things up and running, because that’s what happens after you run near-continuous combat operations for twenty years: things wear out. Expensive things, with long production chains.
As a result, a larger-than-expected portion of the military budget for the next few years is going to be dedicated to replacing broken things. With the current operational tempo, this will continue to be a problem, because at its heart the US military isn’t a defense force. It’s an expeditionary force. It relies on long, complex, vulnerable supply lines stretching around the world to enable it to go anywhere and project power at any point. That long, complex supply chain requires money. Keeping bases open and carrier air groups at sea is insanely expensive. Combat, more so.
We are writing checks that we are not able to cash without going into debt, we’ve been going into debt for my entire lifetime, we’ve been fighting wars for almost my entire lifetime, and this is not a sustainable way to run a nation. The British Empire didn’t fall because it lacked martial prowess, it fell because it couldn’t pay to maintain the security of its colonies for almost precisely the same reasons we are currently experiencing. American doesn’t have colonies, but we’re still trying to run an imperial-style military force and we’re running into the same problem.
The US Military Vision in Bankrupting Us
I use Britain as an example, because without immediate changes the fate of the British Empire is going to be the fate of America: rapid degradation followed by a nation emerging as a shadow of its former self.⁵
The British Empire failed because it was trying to maintain military control over the whole world, and it bankrupted itself doing so (admittedly, WWII helped). The American military machine is bankrupting us for the exact same reason (admittedly, the War on Terror helped). The lesson is stark and simple: we should not, and ought not, to expect to constantly project war-winning power to the far ends of the earth as standard-issue national policy.
This is a significant break from Cold War doctrine, which has been informing US military policy for three generations: the idea that we should be able to fight two wars, or at least a war and a half, at all times.⁶ That was an important idea in an era when the prevailing political doctrine was that America was the bulwark against communist oppression, and moreover when we had a huge, dangerous, imperialist opponent.
Folks, communism is dead. Russia is exhausting itself fighting a vastly “inferior” opponent. NATO is now stronger than ever. Japan and South Korea are major military powers. Our list of allies stretches right around the world. It’s time to scale things back a bit.
We cannot maintain the current operational tempo. Our budget won’t allow it, and we need time to repair and rearm anyway. We cannot afford to try to project power over the world while we repair and rearm, because that means we’re effectively paying for two militaries: the one we’ve got and the one we’re having to build to replace it. Something has to give.
This is the military conundrum. No rational person is ever going to argue that the US doesn’t need a military, or that our military shouldn’t be powerful. Pacifism doesn’t work; it just means you have to surrender to the person who waves a bread knife in your direction in a threatening way.
We’re the #1 economy on the planet; we have interests around the world, both economic and otherwise. There are legitimate bad actors out there. We cannot turtle up on the US mainland and pretend that everything will be ok. But we also can’t police the world indefinitely. The Pax Americana was always a paper tiger, and it’s crumbling.
Is There a Solution?
Of course there is a solution to this problem: raise taxes until we can pay for everything, restoring all the taxes that allowed us to escape crippling national debt in the 1950s. But we’re not going to do that, so let’s move swiftly on to plans B and C: adjusting the US military vision and undertaking the most dangerous game, which is reform.
The current US military vision doesn’t work. We didn’t stop terrorism with the War on Terror. We desperately do not need to be fighting China, nor do they need to be fighting us. Russia is no longer a significant threat, and Iran has its own problems and doesn’t want to fight us anyway. We have enemies, yes, but none at the moment who seem hell-bent on actually attacking the United States, at least not with a conventional army; most of them are content to come at us from the sides, so to speak.
This is not to say that we don’t need a military. We do. We’re not going to roll back the Pax Americana overnight, nor should we if we want the outcome to be favorable. We have to keep researching new military tech, and keep investing in modernization, because to do otherwise is laughably foolish.⁷ But what we arguably do not need is the military in its current state.
Our military’s current problem, as we have outlined, is that it’s overworking itself to death. We can’t maintain the current tempo of “peacetime” operations, and so… we shouldn’t. It’s time we accepted that.
The fix I would propose to the military vision is to pare back our deployments to cost-sustainable levels. That means we don’t routinely send carrier fleets around the world, and we pull the majority of our troops who are currently overseas back to home bases. We focus efforts on cost-efficient, proportional responses to threats, while training close to the US homeland, not on the other side of the earth.
We use the downtime to rearm and retrain. We can’t afford to rearm the whole military while maintaining operations, so we shouldn’t do that. We should cut operations and focus on rebuilding. That doesn’t mean that we suspend every deployment and every patrol; there are plenty of situations where we will have to maintain garrisons and patrol routes to meet our alliance obligations or keeping shipping lanes open. But it’s past time that we rely on local allies to help, especially in Europe. Any base that isn’t responding to an immediate need should be closed, any operation that isn’t responding to a gross threat to national interests should be stopped. Pull everything non-essential back, and spend the next few years getting the military back into shape.
At the same time, we should engage in a time-honored and effective method of maintaining order: bribery. It’s interesting to note, for example, that the majority of ISIS recruits didn’t show up for religion. They showed up for a paycheck. If the cost of countering that type of recruitment is cheaper simply to pay young men not to join ISIS than it is to deploy combat elements to fight ISIS, we just pay people. Remember, the great benefit that every asymmetric fighter has when fighting the US is that they can pay people according to their own standard of living, while we have to import our standard of living everywhere we go.
Will this result in a loss of hard-power options for the next several years, or possibly decades? Yes. Yes it will. But folks, those options exist to stabilize the United States of America. If the bill from maintaining them is more destabilizing than the threats we’re fighting, as it currently is, then we’ve lost sight of the objective. Hard power is only an option if you have someone you don’t mind using it on, and we simply don’t. We aren’t supposed to be an empire — at least not in the conventional sense. We have fewer and fewer reasons to act like one.
Meanwhile, it’s past time that we really buckled down to military reform. Let’s start with what that word means, and what it doesn’t mean. “Reform” in this context means that we take a hard look at the almost $800 billion we spend annually, and find out where it’s being wasted, overspent, or malapportioned.
Make no mistake — with that amount of cash, we are wasting money somewhere. Someone is being bribed. Someone else is overcharging. Some of it is being diverted to inefficient places because “that’s the way it’s always been done.” A lot of it is going to places that it wouldn’t need to go if we didn’t demand a world-wide deployment constantly. And a lot more is being wasted through inefficiency by distributing it all over the nation, because one of the main functions of the military is actually just ensuring that people in Congressional districts have jobs. And folks, all of that needs a hard look.
“Reform” does NOT mean that we abandon our technological superiority. It does NOT mean that we remove the capacity to fight a near-peer nation. These two things are absolutely essential, by all accounts, and cannot be compromised without compromising our national security.
That’s my idea, anyway. I can hear people screaming already, that we can’t do it, the military is too important, we can’t just leave things in the world, we can just cut social programs instead (spoiler: we can’t), etc. I’m not gong to pretent there aren’t other points of view, some of them even valid.
Here’s my only counterargument, and it’s frankly the only one that matters: I get that we want to be strong everywhere, but that is not now and has never been the way war works. Wars are won by bringing power to a point, which we will be increasingly unable to do if we don’t get some actual peacetime pretty soon, because our equipment is falling apart. And while this proposal would result in a temporary weakening of our world-wide presence, the alternative is that sooner or later we go bankrupt. Which, arguably, weakens our world-wide presence permanently. Great Britain and the Soviet Union are great modern examples of the fates of nations that crumbled in the face of overwhelming military costs, and that will be us if we don’t do something.
Is it going to be hard, and unpopular, and dangerous? Yes. I can’t imagine any politician winning an election on this premise, which is one reason why I strongly suspect our nation will not last another fifty years as a superpower. Our military-industrial complex is dead against any kind of spending cut, ever. But if we want to stay relevant, and not just be the most recent fallen empire in the history books, it MUST be done.
Happy Memorial Day, everyone. Remember, we are a nation of the sword, and always have been. It’s up to us to keep that sword sharp and, most importantly, pointing in the right direction. Sometimes that direction must be into its scabbard.
¹Which isn’t to say that military spending is the only measure of an army’s power, but it’s a pretty good start. https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/military-spending-by-country
²This was one of the most cost-effective investments in US military history. As of the time of this writing, America has given about $75 billion to Ukraine to support its war resisting Russia, which has resulted in the almost complete obliteration of the Russian army and air force as a threat to NATO or any developed power. That’s an incredible return on investment, especially if you look at how much the Iraq and Afghanistan wars cost.
³Anytime you have politicians seriously talking about defaulting on the national debt, you know that the national debt is really large. You also know that politicians might be willing to embrace economic suicide rather than raise taxes, which is its own distinct problem with US politics.
⁴https://www.gao.gov/military-readiness is just one of several freely available studies that look at this problem in some detail.
⁵I’m not defending the actions of the British Empire in terms of colonialism, either; the financial situation is simply a good analogy.
⁶Conservative think tanks like the Heritage Society are still pushing this idea, as it happens: https://www.heritage.org/defense/commentary/us-military-forces-cannot-fight-2-fronts
⁷Let’s talk about this a bit, because there are a lot of people who would argue with this concept as well: the reason you have to keep a strong military, especially for a nation like ours, is that the US is a trade nation. Almost every nation is in the globalized world, and normally that’s a good thing, but what it means is that your interests don’t stop at your borders. Keeping pirates and kleptocratic nations from interfering with that trade is a large part of why the US military exists at all.
Here’s the next bit: you do not go into any conflict with the military you want. You go into conflicts with the military you have. That military had better be good enough to win from the start, because rebuilding a military from the ground up (as we did during WWII, for example) is not feasible for a modern conflict. It’s just too expensive to do in a couple of years. If we suffered the type of military disaster that Russia is currently experiencing, it would be the end of practical US military power for decades (as, in all likelihood, it will be for Russia).
Pacifism is not an option. Human history is clear on that. Therefore, to be prepared for a future conflict we should be prepared to win that conflict, or at last buy enough time for our industrial capacity to come into play. This is exactly why the US had the stated goal during the Cold War of being able to fight on two fronts at once, and why technological superiority is so incredibly important. Don’t let video games or bar talk fool you, quality wins over quantity every time.
Therefore we need a powerful military. The only rational discussion is HOW powerful.