American Empire, American Bankruptcy

By Razib Khan | April 23, 2011 10:30 pm


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Time has a worthwhile piece up, How to Save a Trillion Dollars. One thing the author brings up in relation to our exorbitant military spending is that in certain sectors the lead of the American armed forces technologically is such that we do not to need to significantly upgrade our matériel for a generation to maintain at least a marginal level of superiority. The F-35 is clearly superior to the F-16, but is it worth it to increase the gap between our air superiority and our nearest competitors at $125 million per unit cost? Not only that, but the American military clearly “sets the curve,” so that the more we invest in our own technological superiority, the more our rivals will have to invest so as to “catch up” and keep the gap relatively constant. The reality is that basically developed nations just need to be advanced enough that they can pummel the leaders of select lesser nations, such as Libya or Ivory Coast, and, have a military beefed up enough to be respectable in the eyes of their peers. An “arms race” between developed nations is not necessary for either of these.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics
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  • Darkside

    it’s a shame that we basically have no control of what the DD does. even if we did, the politicians representing people in the military or those who work for defense contractors will never do anything about it. add to that the rest of the crowd who LOVES the military and it’s not going to change soon. i don’t think they even realize that it’s essentially a large make-work program because they’re too busy calling Obama a socialist. there is a small part of cons who want to shrink defense spending so hopefully these three wars will end in the next couple of decades but as long as the Fed keeps buying treasury bonds, though, i suppose it doesn’t matter. F-35s for everyone!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    there is a small part of cons who want to shrink defense spending so hopefully these three wars will end in the next couple of decades but as long as the Fed keeps buying treasury bonds, though, i suppose it doesn’t matter.

    1) there are eventual limits to the powers of the fed.

    2) i’m one of those conservatives fwiw. unfortunately i think the military-industrial complex is going to be retreat only due to our inability to pay for it, not judicious forethought….

  • http://ericpalmer.wordpress.com/ Eric Palmer

    “The F-35 is clearly superior to the F-16, ……”

    With so many problems with the F-35 program including only 4 percent of the flight testing done, there is no evidence to back up the claim that an F-35 is “clearly superior” to the F-16.

  • Roger

    American technological superiority has been taken for granted for too long. It won’t last. Some of the latest Russian and Chinese designs are superior to the F-15. The F-16 has been outclassed by the Su-27 and J-10 for years. Not to mention the problem posed by long-range SAMS like the S-300 and S-400. Or “friendly” designs like the Rafale, Typhoon, and Gripen. As of right now most of our likely adversaries don’t field these systems…but that’s mostly a matter of funding. Eventually they will be exported. The problem with cutting the R&D and procurement budget is that once you fall behind the curve it’s hard to catch up. Aircraft aren’t like troops–you can’t just draft an F-22, throw a uniform on it, and have it at the front in a few months in the event of an emergency. It takes about a decade to bring a new fighter to fruition. So you’d better have those jets on hand when war comes knocking.

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    i think the military-industrial complex is going to be retreat only due to our inability to pay for it, not judicious forethought

    Right – if our polity were to decide now that we really should cut back seriously on our defense expenditures as what we have is overkill, it would send a clear signal to others that they needn’t too aggressively ramp up their militaries, either. But if instead we find ourselves scrambling to reduce our defense spending because we’re flat-out broke and can’t pay our bills, that might send a slightly different signal to others who are less broke that there might be an opportunity to take advantage of our weakness. If you have to cut back, it’s always best to do it before the wolf is at the door while you can do it on your terms.

  • Juan

    The defense budget crunch starting in the 2020s is going to be nasty. There are many unsustainable aspects of our current defense spending that likely will come to a head then.

    1) The Reagan fleet retires. The build-up of the 80s, especially the naval build-up, starts retiring. Hugely important is the retirement of the SSBN fleet — the submarine nuclear deterrent. The projected cost of the replacement, the SSBN(X), is $6-$7 billion per ship. Which is roughly half the annual Navy ship-building budget.

    2) The Navy ship-building budget already is projected to cost more than Congress has been giving it the past two decades, even without the SSBN(X). This is even after the CG(X) (cruiser replacement) was cancelled at the DDG-1000 (destroyer replacement) order was stopped at 3 ships. The Navy’s official planning budget assumes a significant increase going forward — an increase that seems highly unlikely.

    3) The Navy is trying to get the cost of the SSBN(X) shunted from the Navy budget to a DoD-wide budget. The logic is the SSBN’s are a national strategic asset. They are the ultimate strategic deterrent, hiding somewhere in the Atlantic and Pacific and doing nothing unless nuclear war breaks out.

    (There are 4 converted SSBNs that replaced their nukes with 154 Tomahawks. One participated in the opening salvo in Libya. They are amazing stealth arsenal ships, but there are no plans to replace them when they retire. They were converted due to arms control treaties.)

    4) Personnel costs are out of control. Like the rest of government. Military pay and benefits (pension, health care) keep rising. We already are seeing serious cuts to modernization and procurement, and even modest R&D cuts, to pay for the ever rising personnel costs. These are projected to keep rising. The inclusion of more female members of the military will accelerate this trend as women live longer and consume more healthcare services than men
    .
    5) China, according to current projections, will likely meet and surpass the US in GDP in the 2020s. This will be a world historical even. The last time the #1 GDP spot changed hands was when the US passed the UK a hundred+ years ago.

    Going forward it’s very important that the US maintain a large qualitative lead over potential opponents, and China in particular. Any quantitative lead the US has over China will be an illusion that could quickly vanish in any mobilization scenario — potential quantity is best measured by GDP, not the current standing army of a country. And just as the US was able to ramp up massively in WW2, China will be able to ramp up massively if they so choose. The goal of maintaining a huge qualitative lead over China is to convince China that it’s not worth it.

    I expect we’ll see lots and lots of demonstrator projects. The key to maintaining a tech lead is to keep the R&D workforce strong. Constantly have them design and build prototypes of next-gen tanks, ships, planes, nukes, etc, etc. Increasingly we won’t have the money to actually procure and deploy them, so our defense manufacturing workforce will whither. But it’s easier, although still difficult, to reconstitute the manufacturing workforce than the R&D workforce. Very few people in the world know how to design a nuclear submarine, or stealth bomber, for example.

    By keeping the R&D workforce strong and constantly designing new cutting edge weapons, you can procure and deploy these weapons in an emergency build-up.

    I personally think we should keep defense spending around the 4% of GDP mark, which is near the bottom of the post-WW2 historical average. And we have to find some way to control personnel costs. Left unchecked they will hollow out the military and turn it into a jobs and pension program with out-dated equipment.

    Of course, strong economic growth will ease many of these problems. Unfortunately, Obama’s hard-left anti-growth policies will continue to damage the country for many years going forward. High energy prices, high taxation, and a hostile regulatory environment are not recipes for strong economic growth.

  • Nathan M

    Agree completely, although I now prefer the term military-industrial-congressional complex. Secretary Gates has admirably tried, with some success, to end costly, unneeded defense programs, like the F-22. But even the most dovish senator or congress-critter becomes a super-hawk on programs with jobs in their district.

    Unfortunately, $1 trillion is practically chump change in the current budget. There’s plenty of savings to be had in the DoD (I’m both an AF and Army veteran), but the real money’s in the so-called non-discretionary spending. And hardly anybody’s willing to give much of that up.

    Few people, beyond libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives, are being realistic about where we need to reduce spending, including defense.

  • Sandgroper

    “Going forward it’s very important that the US maintain a large qualitative lead over potential opponents, and China in particular.” Why? What is it that you are afraid of?

    “The goal of maintaining a huge qualitative lead over China is to convince China that it’s not worth it.” It doesn’t seem to be working.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    American technological superiority has been taken for granted for too long. It won’t last. Some of the latest Russian and Chinese designs are superior to the F-15. The F-16 has been outclassed by the Su-27 and J-10 for years. Not to mention the problem posed by long-range SAMS like the S-300 and S-400. Or “friendly” designs like the Rafale, Typhoon, and Gripen. As of right now most of our likely adversaries don’t field these systems…but that’s mostly a matter of funding. Eventually they will be exported. The problem with cutting the R&D and procurement budget is that once you fall behind the curve it’s hard to catch up. Aircraft aren’t like troops–you can’t just draft an F-22, throw a uniform on it, and have it at the front in a few months in the event of an emergency. It takes about a decade to bring a new fighter to fruition. So you’d better have those jets on hand when war comes knocking.

    ppl have been warning that we might fall behind for decades. might be true, but it hasn’t been yet. the reporter who wrote that story above mentions this issue. the main problem is that it is hard to differentiate genuine analysis for shilling for the military-industrial complex. i guess air-to-air combat though is the best test. i’ll look up these planes you mention.

  • vnv

    Since “air superiority” specifically is mentioned, perhaps this matters (assuming I have it correct…). My understanding was that it was the F-15 / F-22 that were intended to be the air superiority fighters and the F-16 / F-35 were intended to be multipurpose planes. (I.e. “being able to take anything else up there and who cares about other capabilities” is the design intention of the F-15 and F-22. “Being pretty good at many different things” is the aim of the F-16 and F-35.)

    Of course, perhaps everyone is already fully aware of this and I add nothing…

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    It is interesting to note that despite the fact that the F-22 was specifically designed for the mission of taking out enemy air defenses in the early stage of a conflict, that it was not used for that mission, or any other, in Libya.

    Indeed, heavy use was made of both the A-10 and B1-B bomber, both of which are en route to being phased out of the Air Force in favor of the F-35 and B-2. Even the 1950s era B-52 received heavy use in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

    @ Juan. The U.S. Navy is so immensely more huge and capable than any plausible opponent in the world that it isn’t even funny.

    But, military personnel compensation isn’t exactly extravagent given the skill sets involved — large shares of NCOs and Officers are being swallowed up by the private sector upon completion of terms of service for much higher pay in the employ of private contractors and the Air Force pretty much trains the entire commercial aviation fleet at public expense. The shortfalls in the U.S. military (repeatedly over the past decade plus) have been almost exclusively in boots on the ground, with Army combat troops particularly strapped, not high tech resources. But for a near total exhaustion of Army Reserve and Army National Guard resources, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could not have been fought and during those conflicts we had no one that we could deploy anywhere else. Despite fighting multiple wars, it is almost business as peacetime usual for the Navy and Air Force. We underspend on personnel and overspead on tech. Officers in particular are far underpaid compared to private sector managers who lead similar sized enterprises. A General in charge of a military division makes about what the general manager of a single McDonald’s franchsie does. The most elite special forces soldier makes less than entry level associate attorney or accountant in a big firm or a fresh out of residency pediatrician (high five figures). The average active duty military personnel base salary is about $36,000 per year, which even with fringe benefits and veteran’s benefits isn’t actually generous at a time when soldiers face a genuine risk of being killed in the line of duty while three active wars are going on. Despite fighting three wars at once, the active duty military force remains at post-Cold War levels that are a third below their Cold War, post-Vietnam levels.

  • Chris T

    Constant dollars is a terrible way to make the argument that a program is receiving too much funding. It’s similar to using the total size of a subsidy/tax break to argue that renewables are underfunded, never mind that FFs utterly dwarf renewables as a share of energy production. Both are a misuse of numbers to make an ideological point.

    A far more relevant figure would be defense spending as a proportion of GDP. If you compare that number, you’ll find that defense makes up a much smaller proportion now than it did in the 1960s even though we spend more in absolute dollars.

    I’m surprised you’re supporting this bad of an argument, Razib. (I do agree DD spending is higher than it needs to be, but this is not the way to do it.)

  • Chris T

    Furthermore, this graph has the interest owed on the entire United States Federal debt attributed entirely to defense spending. The budget is not done in a way that one can separate out deficits like that.

    Whoever made that graph is appears to be an anti-military ideologue.

    http://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/ir/ir_expense.htm

  • Chris T

    I see the Y axis is defense spending per capita (something not made clear on the graph). This is better, but still a misleading depiction. The important factor is not defense spending relative to population, but relative to the total economic base. The United States had 1.67 times more people in 2010 versus , but 4.4 times the economic output. If military expenditures (for just the DOD) remained constant as a share of GDP, the expenditures per capita would be $4900 rather than the $2100 it actually was in 2010.

    The inappropriate inclusion of interest does make me question the rest of the numbers they show.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    dude, its fine to criticize the plot, but you really sound like an auditor or something. weird :-)

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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