One of the longest-standing and most intractable American policy debates revolves around our massive military budget.
Efforts to cut the military budget, enormous though it is, encounter genuine anxieties about endangering national security, as well as more parochial concerns from lawmakers representing districts with economies heavily dependent upon military bases or contractors. Those concerns may explain why U.S. military spending in 2017 was over 30% higher in real terms than it was in 2000. The United States will spend $716 billion in 2019, and annually spends more than twice what Russia, China, Iran and North Korea spend collectively.
The problem with our incredibly costly approach to national defense is a lot like our other retrograde policies: it equips us to fight the last war and leaves us unprepared for the kinds of attacks that are becoming much more common.
In May 2017, a cyberattack called WannaCry infected hundreds of thousands of computers across 150 countries. Among the victims: FedEx, the French carmaker Renault, the Russian Interior Ministry and Britain’s National Health Service. The effect on the health service was particularly devastating: ambulances were diverted, patient records were inaccessible, surgical procedures were canceled, telephone calls could not be received.
In the midst of all of this, Marcus Hutchins, then a 22-year-old British security researcher, stumbled upona “kill switch” in the WannaCry code — and slammed the brakes on a global crisis. “The kill switch is why the U.S. hasn’t been touched so far,” one expert told The Times then.
WannaCry is a type of malware that locks down a computer and forcibly encrypts its data until a ransom is paid. As the incident in 2017 highlighted, the security status of computer systems around the world is (in the Times’ estimation) “dismal”– and cyberwarfare is accelerating. After all, it’s so much easier –and cheaper–to wage a cyber attack than to deliver warheads via missiles.
The Pentagon does recognize the threat, but inertia and an increasingly erratic Commander-in-Chief combine to impede the imperative changes.
Just last week, Trump overruled the Acting Secretary of Defense, the Navy Secretary and the Chief of Naval Operations by reversing a February decision to retire a 21-year-old nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. That decision will cost the Navy more than $20 billion over the next two decades, most of it money the service had planned to spend on advanced technologies, especially cyber defense.
While neither guided bomb nor armored vehicle, a gray oblong water pump sticking out from the brush along a remote dirt road is intended to be just as clear a sign of the United States’ efforts to stop the spread of the Islamic State….
If all goes to plan, water from the pump will help impoverished farmers establish trust in the government, and, in turn, seek to undermine the militants’ influence.
The soldiers involved in the effort to defeat ISIS insurgents in the Philippines wear civilian clothes and are part of the military’s counterinsurgency strategy for winning over local populations.
The massive amounts America spends on the military are supporting bases and troops that are increasingly irrelevant and ill-suited to the conduct of modern-day defense. Even the Pentagon admits that base capacity exceeds need by at least 20%.
A case can be made that this enormous military capacity creates an insidious incentive to substitute military intervention for the exercise of diplomacy and soft power (as the Japanese proverb warns, when the tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.) Be that as it may, armies are ill-suited for counterterrorism–and terrorism, not state-sponsored military attack, is increasingly the real threat we face.
The bad news is that we are ill-prepared to combat it.
The good news is that, if we ever get an administration capable of figuring it out, defending the country against the threats we actually face will become much, much less expensive.