US armed forces: what we want, or what we can afford?

The Economist makes a good point:

America’s unthinking reverence for its fighters is forestalling a badly needed reappraisal of how it organises its forces, and to what end. The fact is, America’s foreign-policy doctrines envisage a degree of global dominance, based on military might, which its volunteer force is now too small to enforce. And to increase the force sufficiently, on current trends, appears unaffordable or impossible. “This force cannot carry out that foreign policy,” concludes Andrew Bacevich, a historian and former army officer, who happens also to be a Gold Star father.

This constitutes a looming crisis, which could logically end in one of two ways. Either America will have to reintroduce conscription. Or it must curtail its military ambitions. Neither outcome is palatable to American policymakers, however, so the problem is seldom discussed. Maintaining the happy delusion that America’s forces are ideal and irreproachable makes that easier. But reality cannot be deferred indefinitely.

There’s more at the link.  Recommended reading.

Commenting on the Economist article, CDR Salamander writes:

We need to finish up the wars we have. Give our friends enough notice to get their defenses in place, as we need to come home.

. . .

We are a maritime, air, and space power. That is our competitive advantage. We were not designed to sustain, nor do we need, a large standing Army. We need to demobilize and shift to a largely balanced towards National Guard and Reserved land forces. If our rich friends are under threat from ground forces, then they should reflect that in their military investments. We can argument them from the sea, air, and space – and if needed, begin to mobilize land forces.

Our military spending could, and should, be 30% less than it is right now if we really believe that we should be a mercantile republic. If as a nation we decide that we are a global empire in style and action – then keep doing what we are doing.

We aren’t. We shouldn’t.

Does anyone really think the path we are on is that desirable or sustainable? Ignore the domestic spending challenge – that isn’t “our” wheelhouse. Do you want to be a citizen of a republic blessed with relatively good neighbors and large oceans – or an empire that desires and is expected to bleed blood and gold to protect people who won’t protect themselves, or to rule people who have no desire to be ruled?

Must we always be searching for dragons to slay, both real, imagined, or of our own creation?

Again, more at the link.

From one point of view, I tend to agree with both perspectives.  The reason for larger-than-domestically-needed armed forces has always been jingoistic, to a greater or lesser extent.

  • To the French revolutionaries, it was “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!” – and they were going to make good and sure you got them, whether you wanted them or not.
  • To the British, forming their Empire, it was imperialism and the “white man’s burden“.  They proudly boasted that “The sun never sets on the British Empire!” (to which their detractors replied that this was because God would never trust an Englishman in the dark).
  • To the USA, it was at first “manifest destiny“, and later (after the Spanish-American War) straightforward imperialism.  After World War II, during and after the Cold War, it was a deliberate effort to compete with the Soviet Union for spheres of influence.
  • For the Soviet Union under communism, it was an attempt to spread communism worldwide and oppose imperialism and capitalism.
  • To Germany it was “lebensraum” and, under the Nazis, Aryan racial superiority.
  • To Imperial Japan it was “Fukoku kyōhei“.
  • To modern China, it’s an attempt to demonstrate that the nation is now a superpower to rival the USA, and can no longer be constrained by the interests and influence of, or pressure from, other nations.  The memory of the “unequal treaties” and systematic abuse by colonial powers still rankles.  Militarization and expansionism are public repudiations of these evils.

At the moment, the USA is still deployed worldwide in an anti-communist, anti-terrorist posture, and expending vast sums on supporting, arming and aiding allies (who may be more or less reliable as such).  As CDR Salamander observes, we could save at least a third of our military budget by stopping that.  However, there’s the counter-argument that “nature abhors a vacuum“.  In the geopolitical sense, this postulates that if one power withdraws its presence from a country or region, another power will inevitably and necessarily step in to take its place (most Western observers see China in this light today).  My question is, does that matter?  Is it really that important any more?  Some would say it is, some that it isn’t.  I don’t know.  I can only ask the question.

Whatever the answer, I think the Economist and CDR Salamander deserve our attention.  Given the demands on our limited national resources, and our immense national debt, should we be making the latter even worse by spending more on defense than we can afford?



  1. There's a lot of money in global empire, and a lot of people who want that money. I think this explains 99% of George Soros. I don't think he's so much of a progressive as he is a businessman.

  2. The Air Force and Navy waste gobs of money. (The US Navy couldn't hunt pirates armed with rifles and RPGs, fer cryin out loud. Let's not pretend that the F35 is money well spent.) The Army does too, but you at least get something measurable. You'd get more if the politicians stopped interfering. (This includes politicians with stars on their shoulders, of course.)

    The problem is that we are fighting brush wars, but need to be ready to fight WWIII. Brush wars don't need a ships armed with missiles or high performance jets or heavy bombers. Brush wars don't need heavy mechanized, tank-centric units. But WWIII does.

    We have ignored the simple fact that we need two separate militaries. One trained and equipped to fight and win decades-long brush wars. And one armed and trained to fight WWIII. These are different (but overlapping) skills, requiring different (but overlapping) weapons and equipment. Mostly they need different organizations and mindsets, and the will and wisdom to use them sparingly and appropriately.

    And that brings us back to – what do we think we're doing? If we're going to have a war with Islam, then let's have a war. If not, then quit playing around and leave them alone to kill each other. Who really cares which warlord comes out on top of which sad little hill?

  3. If we're going to fight brush wars (which I can see we might need to do here and there), a foreign legion like France has might be desirable. With the exception of submarines and aircraft, our Navy has limited offensive firepower against a near-peer enemy navy, and limited ASW capability. We're paying for a lot more than we're getting, That's for sire.

  4. "that "nature abhors a vacuum". In the geopolitical sense,"

    Is that any reason to reintroduce slavery (of a form) in the U.S. against US citizens? Conscription is slavery. Not unreasonable in the face of direct threat to the Union, quite unreasonable to play out the fantasies of Ivy League Foreign Relations majors.

    Milton Friedman's argument against the draft in the 1970s

  5. All right, I'll play:

    Tell me where we should pull out of.
    And what we'll replace that with.
    I'll wait.

    I'll even spot you that we should decamp from the endless wars in SWAsia entirely, and ASAP.
    (The "You break it, you bought it" nonsense from Colon Powell (no, that wasn't a typo) was crapola from Day One. We should have bombed both countries to rubble, slaughtered everything that lifted a hand in opposition, along with their goats, knocked over the walls, and salted the fields, and then walked away, with the firm promise that if they lifted a hand in the future, our response would be arriving in the form of the White Light Of Knowledge last birthed over southern Japan circa 1945. We'd have been out in 6 months, not 16 years.)

    Then what?
    Which divisions become reserve divisions?
    What countries do we pull out of overseas?

    Show your work.

    Mind the ledge.

    Bear in mind we currently have the smallest armed forces since 1939.
    And that worked out so well for the nation, didn't it?

    We won't even get into multi-billion$$ boondoggles like the F-35 Thunderjug, and the Little Crappy Ships, or that the Navy has more commissioned admirals than commissioned ships.

    We mothballed most of a world-beating SSN fleet that would have made any sea war against us a five-minute attempt, in return for…what?

  6. Just a note–the military costs, depending on what you count, somewhere between $600-800 billion.

    Tax receipts this year are probably going to be upwards of $4 trillion.

    There is a lot of waste in the military, particularly in bureaucracy–Sal has railed many, many times over the years regarding the Navy keeping more Admiral billets than warships, and the other branches do much of the same.

    But, it pales in comparison to the lies of "lockboxes" and such that form the foundation of our greatest (by far!) expenditures, which the federal government technically is not even authorized to spend money upon without an Amendment superseding the 10th.

    If you want to cut Army end strength–not just brass billets and other fluff that need reducing in all branches–would you please begin by stating which of our remaining 10 divisions need to be eliminated, and why?

  7. The elephant in the room that no one speaks of, though Trump came close recently, is that the US is the de facto defense force for every country in the NATO countries partnership. Their immense savings from not having to field a credible military force is the only way they can (allmost) sustain their massive social programs. And the strain on those programs will expand exponentially as more and more refugees seek sanctuary in the western european nations.
    Just asking member nations to pay their agreed share of NATO funding sent them into a panic recently. Telling them their NATO protection is going away would in all likelihood topple governments.

  8. If the argument is we need to rethink our grand strategy and shift funding, OK, but that does not necessarily mean we will be spending less on defense. If the argument is we need to look again at force structure, OK. If the argument is we spend so much on the military we can no longer afford it, that is BS. Take a look over time in constant year dollars how much we have spent on the military versus spending overall. You will see it was not the military, a constitutional requirement, which caused the deficit. Since 1988 or so we have been decreasing the size of the military. Also, one of my jobs in my former career was to track readiness reporting. Our ability to meet our wartime commitments with what we have has gone down the tubes so much so that every few years DoD would tell us not to "report the red", i.e., don't tell us what your problems are 'cause Congress does not want to hear it.

    The military is not the problem. And saying we can just pack up and leave and defund the Army is a fantasy, and a dangerous one at that.

  9. "Do you want to be a citizen of a republic blessed with relatively good neighbors and large oceans"

    His ignorance in not recognizing (or his dishonesty in saying anyway) that we don't have broad oceans in the days of planes and missiles and open borders makes his arguments MUCH less persuasive.

  10. Our bases in Germany are mainly there as "life support" for a large segment of the German population. Every time we talk of closing more bases the German government goes nuts, not because they're scared of the Russians or anyone else. They don't want to lose the money we pour into the country. The same can probably be said for England and other NATO countries.

    The NAVY and Air Force haven't been planning for a future war for decades now. The generals now plan for their lucrative retirement, working for the same companies that are building F-35's we don't need and ships that spend more time in dry dock than at sea. Replacing the A-10 with an itty bitty prop plane? PLUHHHLEASE!

    Sadly, the Marines and Army are NOT exempt from this same "I'm gonna cash in when I retire" mentality.

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