You hear it routinely during congressional events involving defense issues, when a defense secretary wants to protect his budget (or his legacy), and when candidate Barack Obama or his operatives defend the administration’s national security record: The American armed forces are “the best in the world.” It has become such an unremarkable bit of conventional wisdom that the comment is usually prologue to some other point the speaker wants to make.
Many think that because the United States spends multiples of any conceivable opponent or even combinations of them, has the largest modern navy and air force, and can operate all over the world, there is no conceivable enemy or enemies that can take on America successfully. The history of warfare is full of this kind of arrogance before the fall; it has occurred from the beginnings of recorded warfare until today. Consider Xerxes and Darius against Greece in antiquity, the British in America in 1775, the Russians before their war with Japan in 1904, and the United States in 1964 facing Vietnam.
History has recorded these and numerous other conflicts when the “wrong” side won the war, and there are still more examples from campaigns and individual battles. If spending or the size and breadth of forces were the sole determinants of success, the British and French would have won in 1940, the Russians would have repelled the Germans in 1941, the British would have won in Malaysia in 1942, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would not have been the disasters they are.
When I have suggested that America’s military might not be “the best,” the inevitable question is, “Against whom? Name an opponent who can beat us.” History is not kind to those who are so sure they know the future, and in today’s vapid culture the confident prediction of supremacy is articulated in the absence of anything beyond a superficial bean count of forces and hardware — sometimes not even that.
There are far more subtle and supremely powerful forces at play in deciding who wins in warfare than the stuff that occupies the hollow defense debates in the American political spectrum. As a nation, Americans mostly ignore those deciding elements. As American strategist John Boyd explained cogently, material elements come in a poor third in deciding which side wins in conflict — after moral and mental factors.
Instead, in the debate that today dominates the American political-military system on both sides of the political spectrum, two main props sustain the “we are the best” advocates. The first is America’s spectacular performance on the battlefield when, even after the post-Cold War budget reductions of George H.W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s administrations, U.S. armed forces “used Saddam Hussein as a speed bump” in 2003. The second, they say, is America’s vastly superior military technology, which, while expensive, gives the country the essential winning edge that no one can match.
The example of America’s victory over Saddam is particularly inapt. Iraq’s armed forces were a speed bump: Their leadership was hopelessly politicized and grossly incompetent, and their uniformed combat personnel were demoralized and unwilling to fight even before the first bombs were dropped. They were assessed as literally the worst in the world by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and as some have noted, the performance of the U.S. military leadership — even at the field-command level — in that war was an embarrassment.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. forces often showed real guts and skill at the tactical level, but the heroism of soldiers and Marines notwithstanding, it should be remembered that they have fought enemies with no air force or navy and not much infantry equipment beyond home-built road mines, AK-47 rifles, and rocket-propelled grenades.
We also heard a lot of bombast after the first war with Iraq, Operation Desert Storm in 1991; then, the technologists declared a “revolution in military affairs.” The Government Accountability Office (GAO) spent two years looking at that: The air campaign should more accurately be characterized as bombing a tethered goat led by a military jackass, and even then, the air campaign did not live up to the hype. The high-cost “silver bullet” of the war, the F-117 stealth light bomber, badly underperformed its puffery. For example, in contrast to claims that “alone and unafraid” it destroyed Saddam’s air defense system in the first hours of the first night, the F-117s actually had help from 167 non-stealthy aircraft and were confirmed by the Defense Intelligence Agency’s bomb-damage assessments to have effectively destroyed only two of the 15 air defense targets assigned to them that first night. Overall, the GAO found that effectiveness did not correlate with cost and that on many dimensions the ultralow-cost A-10 close-combat attack aircraft was the top performer.
Nothing is changed today; the bluster is as frequent and hollow. Typical examples are unmanned drones, such as the MQ-9 Reaper and the Air Force’s F-22 fighter.
The real-world performance of the MQ-9 Reaper is actually rather pathetic. With a tiny payload of an extremely limited selection of weapons and very poor ability to find targets to which it is not precisely shepherded, the Reaper is incapable of defending itself, and it is several times more expensive than manned aircraft that are more effective, such as the A-10. Also, it crashes so routinely that the Air Force appears to not even report all “mishaps” on the appropriate website. Yet, such drones are slavishly characterized as a revolution in warfare, yet again, and technologists are talking proudly about future nuclear bombers that are “optionally manned.”
The F-22 fighter is described by the Air Force as an “exponential leap in warfighting capabilities.” A review of the data shows the F-22 to be more expensive and less impressive than the hype would have you believe. For one thing, the cost for each F-22 is not the $143 million the Air Force asserts but rather a whopping $412 million, according to the GAO. The plane was supposed to be less expensive to operate than the F-15C; instead, it is 50 percent more. For another, its radar-evading “stealth” capability is significantly limited, as we know from two F-117 “stealth” casualties in the 1999 Kosovo air war, and its ability to detect, identify, and engage enemy aircraft at very long range with radar-controlled missiles relies on a technology that has repeatedly failed in combat. Finally, the F-22 compares roughly in close-in air combat to early versions of the F-15 and F-16. This June, that unexceptional agility was on display when German pilots flew Eurofighter Typhoons successfully against F-22s in mock dogfights.
Because the F-22 is so expensive to fly and difficult to maintain, its pilots get too few hours in the air to train — half of what fighter pilots got in previous decades. Worse, a controversy has raged over how safe the F-22 is to its own pilots. Powerful toxins populate the areas where the F-22 derives its oxygen for the pilot, and despite an Air Force explanation that “contamination” has nothing to do with the physiological problems pilots have experienced, some observers are deeply skeptical that the Air Force is taking the proper care to protect F-22 pilots. Already two pilots have been killed in accidents in which those toxins are very possibly at play. Even though pilot skill is a dominating factor in air combat, the U.S. Air Force provides few in-air training hours and requires pilots to fly aircraft that are not free of potential poisons. These are not the signs of a first-rate military organization.
That it is people, not hardware, that provide the winning edge in warfare was clearly expressed at the end of the first Iraq war when the U.S. commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, stated that had the two sides switched equipment, the United States still would have won its lopsided victory. There are many veterans of other wars who agree. Indeed, Napoleon said it succinctly 200 years ago: “The moral is to the physical as three to one.”
Just as those F-22 pilots had difficulties against some highly skilled Typhoon aircrew, the United States can expect to encounter smart, skillful enemies in the future. The country has been surprised by opponents it had assumed were inferior — for example in the Vietnam War — and by crude but highly effective technology it failed to anticipate, such as handmade road mines (decorously called improvised explosive devices) in Iraq and Afghanistan. The “we are the best in the world” foolishness is prologue to wars of choice making America pay dearly, just as the country discovered immediately after the arrogantly predicted “cakewalk” against Iraq — a prediction that contemplated no “after.”
Both sides of the American political spectrum persistently cheapen this debate.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke for the right when he attacked Obama for “deep and arbitrary” cuts in the defense budget (cuts that actually were neither deep nor arbitrary) at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) on Oct. 8. He also alleged that Obama is responsible for reducing the size of the U.S. Navy to a post-World War II low and for putting the Air Force “out of business.” To fix all this, Romney will do things like spend more money and put the F-22 back into production. He ignores that Obama is spending on defense at a rate well above any other post-World War II president, and Romney doesn’t mention that Obama inherited a U.S. Navy and an Air Force from George W. Bush that were already at post-World War II lows. Most significantly, Romney is oblivious to the fact that the shrinkage has been occurring as the non-war parts of the defense budget increased by a trillion dollars from 2001 to 2010.
Romney’s proposal to put the very disappointing F-22 back into production is a classic example of “solving” the problem by making it worse: At many times the price of the F-15 it replaces, the F-22 can only be bought in such small numbers — at greatly increased total cost — that the overall inventory shrinks and ages as the Pentagon is forced to retire as few ancient F-15s as possible. The disingenuousness of Romney’s cheap shot on defense spending is exceeded only by the ignorance of his solution and silly pander to ill-informed conventional wisdom.
In his VMI speech, Romney also made a seemingly conscious attempt to walk his previously expressed adventurism into the closest; some hostile rhetorical flourishes aside, he sounded a lot like Obama. It remains entirely unclear, however, whether Romney is merely Etch-A-Sketching away the neoconservative premise that, with U.S. armed forces being the best in the world, the United States can and should use them in still more adventures, such as Iran. He may be asking for even more future trouble than does Obama.
Many on the left do not exactly distinguish themselves in the overall debate. While they are typically far more accurate in characterizing what increases or decreases have or have not occurred in the defense budget, most Democrats persist in the notion that Obama has husbanded a U.S. military that remains the best in the world. The shrinkage is OK because the newer — even if preposterously expensive — equipment is more capable, both individually and collectively. It has all the hallmarks of a political argument of convenience, and it ignores as much evidence as the right does when it asserts that the amount of money spent measures the health of overall U.S. forces.
Were Romney running for reelection to a second term, he too would be crowing the “best in the world” rhetoric, and it would be in the face of still further shrinkage and aging despite the heaps of extra money he would strain to pile on to America’s less-bang-for-more-bucks defenses.
The empty rhetoric that U.S. armed forces are the best masks serious problems that have been festering for decades. Obama tolerates the problems; candidate Romney would make them even worse. All of it will continue until leaders emerge who understand that more money has meant more decay, and less money can mean the start of reform.
Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, which recently moved to the Project on Government Oversight. For 31 years he worked on national security issues for U.S. senators from both political parties and for the Government Accountability Office.