There has long been a school of thought among defense experts and military historians that tight defense budgets produce improved strategic thought and better military-technical innovation. Advocates of this view point to the interval between the two world wars, the so-called “Inter War period,” when cash-starved militaries invented most of the operational and strategic concepts and many of the weapons systems with which World War Two was fought. In particular, there is a great affection among those who make this argument for the Weimar-era German military, the Reichswehr, which, albeit constrained in terms both of budgets and size (being limited to 100,000 men by the Versailles Treaty), invented the Blitzkrieg. One could equally well point to Great Britain’s investments in the technologies and command and control system that enabled it to win the Battle of Britain or the U.S. Navy/Marine Corps conceptualization of most of the elements of the campaign that won the war in the Pacific.
It is one thing to laud the ability of relatively poor and small peacetime militaries to innovate. It is quite another to assert that there is some inherent relationship between penury and strategic, operational or technical brilliance. Yet, this is what some experts and politicians have done. In fact, they have gone a step farther and either applauded the $1 trillion reduction in the U.S. defense spending or proposed even deeper cuts as a means of promoting new thinking and innovation. This is a basic error that is taught to every would-be philosophy major in Logic 101: the post hoc, ergo proctor hoc (after this, therefore because of this) fallacy. Because there was so much innovation in a prior period of resource scarcity, the argument goes, it follows that imposing resource constraints on the U.S. military will result in a strategic renaissance.
The Inter-War period was marked by as many failures of strategic thought and innovation as brilliant successes. We can counter pose German brilliance against pervasive Italian military and strategic incompetence. There was the near worldwide failure to appreciate the limits of strategic air bombardment based, in part, on the mistaken belief that the bomber would always get through. How about Britain’s failure to develop a Fleet Air Arm appropriate for a sea power or to prepare adequately to conduct anti-submarine warfare? The German General Staff created the perfect combined arms team to win relatively short wars of limited distance but failed to invest in the capabilities needed to prevail in a protracted conflict of continental scale. There is a tendency to focus on the initial successes of the Panzer divisions and JU-87 dive bombers while forgetting that the rest of the German Army relied on horse-drawn wagons and the Luftwaffe never fielded a long-range bomber.
In addition, the scarcity equals innovation argument ignores the enormous strategic innovations and technological leaps achieved by the U.S. military over the last six decades, a time of unprecedented resource availability. In the 1950s and 1960s, when defense spending averaged over 10 percent of GDP, the U.S. “invented” deterrence theory, the hydrogen bomb, the intercontinental ballistic missile, nuclear submarines and military satellites. The so-called Reagan build up during which defense spending rose by almost a third to 6 percent of GDP witnessed the creation of the All-Volunteer Force, precision weapons, the first stealth aircraft and the Strategic Defense Initiative. While much of the increase in defense spending over the past decade went to pay war costs, there were amazing strides in such areas as special operations and counterinsurgency warfare, unmanned air and ground systems, electronic warfare and even soldier clothing and equipment.
Maybe money cannot buy happiness; but poverty certainly doesn’t result in newfound strategic insights. Is there any reason to believe as we downsize the military that the residual personnel pool will be any smarter or better educated than the large group from which they were drawn? Choices become harder when there is less money, this is true. But this does not mean that decision makers will be any better at making them. Anybody remember that infamous piece of Cold War hardware, the Sergeant York? This was a mobile, radar-guided air defense gun system best known for shooting out a latrine fan mistaking it to be the whirling blades of a helicopter.
The reality is that money matters. The U.S. has found the post-Cold War force structure to be extremely useful not only for deterring major conflicts but in providing global stability and allowing National Command Authority to respond to a wide range of crises and humanitarian disasters. The cost of this force, including long-term modernization, requires about 4 percent of GDP. On its present trajectory, defense spending will decline to below 3 percent of GDP. At this level, the U.S. will have to cut force structure so deeply it will cease to be a global power. No amount of innovative thinking will offset this lack of capabilities in the event of a major conflict.
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