Why it’s smart to slash the US defense budget

The Pentagon is seen on Thursday, November 4, 2021 in Arlington, Va.
Greg Nash
An aerial view of the Pentagon, as seen in a November 2021 file photo.

The only winner so far in Russia’s war against Ukraine is the U.S. Department of Defense and the beltway oligarchy that feeds it. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamic and Northrop Grumman have seen their stocks rise sharply since the invasion started. On Capitol Hill, the war has become a rallying cry to increase U.S. defense spending. Forty Republicans from the Senate and House Armed Services Committees urged President Biden to include a 5 percent increase above inflation for defense in his proposed 2023 budget. Even some Democrats are pushing for more spending, despite Biden already boosting the Pentagon’s budget by nearly $30 billion in 2023. 

Yet, the defense budget — a whopping $773 billion — is larger than Saudi Arabia’s GDP. That’s more discretionary funding than the rest of the interagency combined, and accounts for 11 percent of all federal spending. The U.S. spends more on its military than the next 11 biggest militaries combined, including Russia and China, and has for years.

Why does everyone assume more money equates to more security? Gargantuan defense budgets did not win American wars in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, where we struggled against luddites fighting in flip-flops, with AK-47s and pickup trucks. It’s the definition of insanity to think more money now will help against nuclear powers with hegemonic ambitions. 

Rather than throw money at the problem, let’s try solving it. We have a strategic IQ problem — the same one Russian President Vladimir Putin has.

Putin’s invasion failed because he used an antiquated form of warfare called “conventional war.” World War II is a supreme example of this style of fighting. Armed conflict is purely state-on-state, where brute force and battlefield victory alone determine nations’ fates. Firepower is king, making industrial-strength militaries imperative. Think of big battles such as D-Day, Kursk and Midway, and how they paved the road for allied victory. In this way of war, there is no problem firepower cannot solve. Honor nominally matters, as do the laws of war, and citizens are expected to serve their country in uniform with patriotic zeal. It’s why we say, “Thank you for your service” to veterans in airports.

There is just one problem: No one fights “conventionally” anymore. Until recently, the last conventional wars took place in the 1980s, and the last one in Europe involved Adolf Hitler. Ironically, there is nothing more unconventional today than a “conventional war.” The Uppsala Conflict Data Program, a gold-plated data set in social sciences, shows interstate and extrastate wars (read: conventional wars) since 1946 have declined to near zero, yet violence has not waned. Armed conflict has increased since the Cold War, and the number of conflict deaths in 2015 surpassed any in the post-Cold War period. Conventional warfare is neither timeless nor universal, but has a beginning, middle and end: Napoleon, the Crimean War, and World War II, respectively.

Conventional warfare went extinct because it no longer delivers victory. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. won every battle but lost the war. In 2003, it defeated Iraq in battle and “mission accomplished” became a punchline. Putin made the same mistake in Ukraine, assuming a big military fighting “conventionally” would crush the Ukrainians within days. So did many American military experts. But the Russian Blitzkrieg did not cow Ukrainians into submission, and the tank-on-tank battles imagined by traditionalists have not occurred. There is no better symbol for Russia’s strategic failure than the 40-mile column of Russian tanks stuck on the road to Kyiv. 

Frustrated, Putin has abandoned conventional warfare and gone full ogre. His new commander, Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, is notorious for cruelty such as flattening cities and massacring civilians, as seen in Grozny, Aleppo and Bucha. For him, war crimes are not a problem but a tactic.

Meanwhile, the plucky Ukrainians are winning by using unconventional warfare strategies and guerilla tactics. The humble Javelin missile costs $174,000 and has thwarted, with Ukrainian courage, a billion-dollar-a-day Russian conventional force. While Russia is rolling armor, Ukraine is mobilizing memes and social media to win the world’s support. In an information age, some of the best weapons do not fire bullets — something conventional warriors, perhaps, cannot comprehend.

This is a cautionary tale for Americans who blindly want to increase defense spending as the solution. Like Putin, U.S. national security circles are largely stuck in the past with a conventional warfare mindset. Budgets are moral documents because they do not lie. Examining which weapons the Congress and Pentagon buy reveals the kind of war they expect to fight. Every year, the top acquisitions are the same: fighter jets, warships and tactical vehicles such as tanks. 

These are conventional warfare weapons for a post-conventional warfare age, and ludicrously expensive. The Ford-class aircraft carrier costs $13 billion a ship, more than Ukraine’s defense budget. The F-35 fighter plane program cost $1.7 trillion, more than Russia’s GDP. They are obsolete war junk. Predictably, they played no meaningful role in two decades of wars and did not deter Russian or Chinese aggression. Yet the U.S. is buying more, and pitching allies to do the same. They all make the same mistake as Putin: imagining future wars as conventional and won by “large-scale combat operations” (Pentagonese for big battle), such as tank-on-tank combat in eastern Poland or a Battle of Midway in the Taiwan Straits fought by Ford-class carriers, F-35s and drones

Battlefield victory no longer wins wars, so let’s stop wasting trillions of dollars on it.

It’s time to slash the U.S. defense budget. The money blown on weapon systems designed to fight last century’s wars is staggering, as are the opportunity costs. Cutting the defense budget will improve U.S. national security. First, the money saved could be redistributed among the interagency more evenly, where it’s needed. Firepower alone does not win war, and we need to invest in our non-kinetic capabilities such as coercive diplomacy, cash reserves for economic warfare, and technologies that counter foreign disinformation campaigns. Giving half the budget to defense risks militarizing foreign policy. Alternatively, take the Pentagon Dividend and reinvest elsewhere for domestic needs. 

Second, slashing the Department of Defense’s budget will make it hungry and innovative. Scrapping expensive conventional war weapons is the start. We don’t need to cut troops, but we should reorganize them to fight unconventionally. Some get it, such as retired Adm. Jim Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO. So does Gen. David Berger, Marine Commandant. He stripped the tanks and helicopters out of the Corps, and is reconfiguring it into smaller, nimbler units. Conventional warriors are freaking out, but rigid strategic culture is the enemy of progress. 

Warfare has changed since the glory days of 1945. Going forward, we need improved strategic education focused on critical thinking, so our strategists can understand the changing character of war before we fall victim to it, as the French did with their Maginot Line. Otherwise, we spend trillions of dollars preparing to fight the only type of war we will not face in the future — conventional war — leaving us dangerously vulnerable.

Sean McFate is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a professor at Georgetown University. He is the author of five books, including “The New Rules of War: How America Can Win — Against Russia, China, and Other Threats.” He served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Follow him on Twitter @seanmcfate.

Tags Biden conventional warfare Defense spending Pentagon budget Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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