The United States has historically had significant difficulty preparing for the kinds of conflicts it finds itself involved in. For example, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States continued preparing for conventional conflict during the 1990s. The result was a shortfall of necessary equipment and expertise in the early days of the War on Terror, with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld infamously quipping that "You go to war with the army you have."

ADVERTISEMENT

Beyond challenges in adapting its hardware, the military and the intelligence community had difficulty adapting their intellectual talent to deal with emerging threats. The national security community has had to do without imperative language experts because too few had been trained in the multiple, disparate languages of the Middle East and South Asia. But the management of the trade-offs in underfunded intellectual preparedness for conflict and national security policy is difficult. As the United States began to rebalance towards Asia, then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell observed, "We have now built an unbelievable cadre of people that can tell you every aspect about how to do post-conflict reconstruction. ... What I am hoping for and what I believe will be necessary ... is to build a similar cohort of people that are deeply, profoundly knowledgeable about Asia."

The solution may be relatively simple: shift spending from military hardware to developing experts in global and regional history, languages, cultures and religions. Smarter spending is key to U.S. military and intelligence capabilities. And for minimal costs, maximum benefits can be reaped.

Reported costs of the controversial new F-35 vary widely, and its supplier Lockheed Martin has announced that production costs have dropped substantially. Even so, a low-cost estimate of the fighter is about $100 million. For the cost of one or two new fighters, the United States government could provide training for hundreds, if not thousands, of translators/interpreters; regional studies specialists in key areas such as Russia and Central Europe, Africa, South Asia and the Pacific Rim nations; and scholars who understand the intersection of history, politics, economics, psychology and religion on the culture of regions that are tied to U.S. global interests or are likely to become "hot" in the near future. Following the trend toward outsourcing and privatizing, the U.S. government could outsource the training to the nation's colleges and universities, several of which continue to rank among the world's best. To provide but one example, at current costs the government could pay tuition costs for more than 1,100 students to earn an master's degree in Asian Studies, from one of the best graduate programs in the Washington area — for the cost of one F-35.

The F-35 is a good example of the room for resource trade-offs not only because of its costs, but because its capabilities are mismatched to even conventional military threats — to say nothing of its bang-for-the-buck value against non-state actors or terrorist networks. The short range of the platform makes it of limited utility in the expansive Asia Pacific, where the U.S. Air Force is poised to operate 60 percent of its fleet by the end of the decade. The extent of the F-35's stealthiness is also in question compared to aircraft like the F-22 — and at a time when advances in sensors and signals processing are significantly reducing stealth's future outlook. And without the full advantage of its expensive stealth, the F-35 will be forced to rely on close-in maneuvering, where it is comparable and even inferior to other fourth-generation aircraft.

We could prepare for conflict, avoid being caught flatfooted and forced into reactive stances without detailed knowledge of the issues our personnel are likely to face. And that can be accomplished with trade-offs within the budget, allowing the United States to prepare for future war and conflict with a comparatively small receipt.

Gibson is an associate professor of political science at Westminster College in Missouri and a National Security Network (NSN) Fellow. The views expressed here are not necessarily the views of NSN.