74th Anniversary of V-J Day – A National Defense Retrospective

It’s been 74 years and one week since Imperial Japan threw in the towel and ended the most destructive war in human history. 

Since then, the West has glorified those days. Politicians in the United States love to pontificate about how we’re number 1 – as if international politics and national defense are nothing more than some inconsequential sports game. 

However, platitudes don’t stop adversaries.  Hard power and the brains and will power to use that power properly are what stops adversaries, either through deterrence or through the use of that power to so thoroughly whip that adversary that it is unable to pose a threat to the United States.

Uncle Sam has been falling down a lot on the hard power and will power factors lately. Let’s have a look.  Many people have written full-length books; this is only a blog post, so I won’t be able to cover everything.

The proposed fiscal year (FY) 2019 military budget is $686 billion dollars – which fits the definition of money attributed to Senator Everett Dirksen. What are we getting for all of this?  

Let’s look at gold plated weapons systems: The U.S. Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford, cost $13 billion -- $2.4 billion over budget. An F-35 JSF costs $95 million apiece – staggering, but at least an improvement over the initial cost for the first few aircraft of $297 million apiece.  Why must these cost so much and take so long to bring to the battlefront?

Yes, modern weapons systems are more technologically advanced than older systems.  That’s part of it. There’s also a learning curve in building cutting-edge technology.  There will, inevitably, be mistakes and failures.  But why did it take only four years to bring the mighty USS Iowa from design to deployment and yet it takes modern weapons over a decade to go from design to deployment? Is this difference really caused by working out bugs in high technology, or does it have more to do with lots more red tape, laws and lawyers, frequent design adjustments, and choosing contractors and subcontractors with an eye toward keeping politicians happy rather than rapid production?

It is also time to acknowledge that national security is not just guns, tanks, and warships.  Population growth is a big destabilizing influence in many countries, and that inevitably affects the U.S. or U.S. allies.  One tank’s worth of contraceptives may, in the long run, make the U.S. more secure than an entire armored division.  After all, you don’t have to deter or fight or arrest someone who isn’t born. 

Why isn’t the U.S. doing this? I say it’s a toxic mix of pork-barrel politics and religion. That is, politicians would rather bring a multimillion dollar defense contract that will last several years to their constituents than making contraceptives available to foreigners. After all, those aren’t as flashy and don’t take as long to manufacture.  In addition, many religious people and leaders have a hang-up about contraceptives, because they might (gasp!!) lead to sex between people who aren’t married – as if this never happens in the absence of contraceptives. I ask religious people the following question: if your God hasn’t stopped war and crime and corruption, why do you think your God will object to contraceptives?

One last thing to point out about gold-plated weapons systems: they’re mostly offensive. That is, they are designed to destroy the other side’s warships, tanks, bases, and other infrastructure. However, national defense is also about the home front.  On that, we are failing too. 

Let’s start with infrastructure at home. Everyone, whether regular citizens or government agencies or the big defense contractors depend on regular power, utilities, and telecoms.  A team of hackers, whether nation-state varsity or criminal groups, can wreak the kind of havoc that previously was only possible through sabotage or all-out ground or air attack.  Security breaches, whether in the private sector or in government, are as frequent as traffic collisions in major cities.  Perhaps it’s time for more cybersecurity and less gold plated weapons systems. Helpful hint for policymakers and corporate executives: Better cybersecurity means that the gold-plated weapons systems will be more survivable on the battlefield, because it would be harder to steal the plans of those weapons systems.

Next, specifically military infrastructure.  Bases were closed with great enthusiasm at the end of the Cold War.  In some cases, this may have been justified; for example, a moth-eaten old base with decrepit infrastructure left over from the World Wars may not have been necessary any longer.  However, closing bases with too much enthusiasm means that our eggs will be concentrated in fewer baskets.

Here we come to the conflict of the accountants and the MBAs versus the generals and logisticians.  The accountants and the MBAs think only of cutting costs, especially labor costs – the sort of attitude regularly lampooned by Scott Adams.  These people take healthy infrastructure for granted. They can’t be bothered to give any thought to the need for redundancy, for backup, for resilience. It does not cross their minds that the continental U.S. may be threatened, either by hostile powers or by the forces of nature.  Generals and logisticians, on the contrary, must think in those terms – or lose a battle or a war.  It is, perhaps, time to have more medium-size bases, each with tight security, anti-aircraft and anti-missile point defenses, and plenty of fuel, ammunition, water, food, and other supplies on hand, instead of fewer large, sprawling bases.  Having more bases isn’t for creating employment or allowing politicians to buy votes at public expense.  It’s about resilience.  It’s better to have an asset and not need it than to need it and not have it. Neither nature nor enemies of the United States are forgiving. 

When the U.S. itself is threatened, it is not enough to look to the military.  The people must also be involved. This can range from encouraging basic household preparedness to community training to armed, trained home defense forces.  Traditionally, military and disaster planners tend, with some justification, to regard the public they have to assist as fairly useless. Many people are physically unfit, not always through any fault of their own, and many people seem not to have thought about preparedness at all.  However, Reginald Bretnor pointed out in his essay “Fear and Survival” (available in There Will Be War, Volume IX) that if the United States had a citizen-soldier program equivalent to that of Switzerland, it would be possible to mobilize twenty million armed, trained personnel – more than the twelve million which were the peak of the U.S. armed forces during World War II.  As Bretnor pointed out, this would make the United States much more resilient against attacks or natural disasters.  The common experience of training and the empowering effect of learning how to handle trouble might help to reduce some of the present-day political and racial anger.

Why hasn’t this happened? First, again, there is the addiction to gold-plated weapons systems and foreign adventures. Second, there is a good deal of distrust of the idea of the citizen-soldier.  The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects the right to keep and bear arms, is, to put it mildly, frowned upon by many. For some, the right to bear arms is bad because of the various mass shootings that have occurred; for some in government, the right to bear arms is bad because it makes it harder to control the citizenry.  While the U.S. political system is predicated on distrust of government – hence checks and balances and federalism – a lack of trust between government and people makes it harder for the U.S. to be ready for trouble at home.  When the 2018 National Defense Strategy Summary states that the U.S. homeland is no longer a sanctuary, then it’s time to prepare and mobilize the population.  Invaders or rioters will be stopped by guns, not by candlelight vigils.

National defense is also about financial strength. It’s hard to be strong when you’re the world’s biggest debtor. Weapons, logistics, personnel, infrastructure, energy – all of this costs a lot of money.  In World War II, the U.S. was the world’s biggest creditor.  That happy state of affairs continued for a while afterwards, mainly because the U.S. industrial base remained intact while that of other countries had been devastated.  That is no longer true. Not only do other countries, including hostile ones such as China, have their own industrial bases, it is also easier to outsource work that was once done in the U.S. to other countries.  All of this makes the U.S. economy weaker.  There has been talk recently of the U.S. buying Greenland from Denmark, but how will the U.S. afford this with a $22 trillion national debt? Maybe this is why the U.S. Treasury Department has been talking about issuing 100 year bonds – just like Argentina, that other paragon of fiscal discipline.

The United States can only be strong as long as the U.S. dollar remains the de facto world currency – and doing that requires a strong economy.  Free advice for policymakers: Prosperity comes from cheap energy and freedom, not from financial gimmicks such as quantitative easing.  Freedom to set up businesses, small and large, and energy to power them, and selling physical products, not just services, are the key to prosperity.  “Woe unto the nation that does not weave what it wears, nor plant what it eats, nor press the wine that it drinks,” warned Kahlil Gibran.  If other countries stop needing the U.S. so much, and stop buying so much U.S. debt, then interest rates will go up and that $22 trillion national debt will suddenly weigh a lot more on the U.S. economy.  This is beginning to happen:  Russia, China, and the European Union are making various efforts to set up their own financial links and their own deals so as not to have to go through the U.S. financial infrastructure.  The private sector is also charging ahead with new ways to create and transfer money that will leave legacy banks and plodding government bureaucracies in the dust.  Economic and military strength are closely linked. Lose too much of one, and pretty soon the other will be lost too. That’s why Admiral Michael Mullen, when he was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that the national debt was one of the biggest threats to U.S. national security.  It’s disappointing but not surprising that many members of Congress noisily claim to revere the military but didn’t bother taking the national security advice of a senior military officer. 

Lastly, in World War II there was more national unity.  To be sure, it wasn’t perfect (Jim Crow). There was more trust in government; that started to go down during the 1960s and has not come back up.  More importantly, people trusted each other more.  These days, political polarization, fueled in large part by social media, have made any kind of unity difficult to achieve. People move to be among those who share their political beliefs, which makes national political bargaining much more difficult.  Kahlil Gibran again: “Woe unto the nation in which each tribe regards itself as a nation.”  None of these problems can be solved by more military spending. 

So, how to clean all this up?  Sadly, the political paralysis caused by the current racial and political anger may make it impossible to clean up the defense procurement process, or to mobilize and prepare the population, or to really think outside the box by promoting more use of contraceptives in high-fertility countries. Nor will there be other outside the box thinking, such as not being so eager to get involved in the disputations of other countries, or in creating more trust between citizens and government – and saving money and manpower for real trouble – by ending the drug war.  The only solutions I can offer are for individuals to lobby for the solutions I outlined here, and to be prepared for trouble.