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A Reality-Based Debate?

By Taylor Marvin

US Army soldiers. The Defense Departments 2011 budget includes a 4% cut in active duty Army personnel. Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ashlee Lolkus, Task Force Red Bulls Public Affairs.

US Army soldiers. The Defense Department's 2011 budget includes a 4% cut in active duty Army personnel. Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ashlee Lolkus, Task Force Red Bulls Public Affairs.

The National Review has a provocative older article criticizing Defense Secretary Gates’ proposed military budget. First off, it’s important to remember that President Obama’s military cuts aren’t cuts at all- rather, they only slow the rate of growth of the defense budget. The rest of National Review’s commentary is similarly misleading.

“Killing the Army’s Future Combat Systems program not only deprived the service of a new generation of ground combat vehicles— for the fifth time since the end of the Cold War.”

There’s a good reason for this. Fielding tank armies is enormously expensive. M1 Abrams tanks’ unit cost is over $6 million, and the US maintains about 6,000 in its inventory. Land armor offers much less real utility in the modern world than sea or air power. Tank armies are designed for one thing, total war- invasions of foreign countries, or defending against an enemy armored attack. This type of unlimited warfare is extremely unlikely in the modern world.

M1 Abrams tank.

M1 Abrams tank.

Exactly what armored foe is the National Review worried about? A Russian invasion of Europe is about as likely as an asteroid impact, and even a worst case scenario land war with Iran or North Korea would quickly degrade into light infantry combat in both countries’ rugged terrain and urban centers. The growing insignificance of tank warfare is evident in the Army’s experience in Iraq. Superficially, the Iraqi landscape is perfectly suited to the Army’s preferred method of hard and mobile armored warfare. However, the world’s increasing urbanization means that more and more military combat is urban, a role tanks are unsuited for. Additionally, there’s good reason to doubt the survivability of modern tanks in the heavily contested combat environment armor advocates maintain tanks are necessary for. Modern tanks are powered by gas turbines with easily detectible high thermal emissions. In an age of widely proliferated airpower and advanced AGM weapons this detectability is likely a severe challenge to survivability and overall effectiveness.

Armored land warfare is the most extreme form of human violence- in today’s more peaceful world and era of limited warfare it is increasingly irrelevant. The security challenges of the foreseeable future will be contested in the sea and air, not by the total warfare of massed tank formations. Killing the Future Combat Systems program is a wise allocation of resources. Secretary Gates justified this choice well. “As the prospects for another head-on clash of large mechanized land armies seem less likely,” Gates recently remarked during a speech at West Point, “the Army will be increasingly challenged to justify the number, size and cost of its heavy formations.”

Similarly, the National Review is outraged by Secretary Gates’ plan to reduce the size of the Army and Marine Corp by 47,000 soldiers. Again, this makes sense given a reasonable assessment of the US’s likely future security challenges. After the long horror of Iraq and Afghanistan the United States is unlikely to stumble into another land war.  Maintaining the Army’s light and special warfare skills makes sense in the modern world. A large army with the manpower necessary to occupy entire hostile countries does not.

The National Review is also fearful of the Defense Department’s Navy allocation:

“The shrinking of the Navy to fewer than 280 ships means the smallest fleet since World War I, when it shared the ruling of the world’s waves with the British Royal Navy.”

Measuring naval power by a country’s number of ships is ludicrous. China’s navy fields over 630 combat vessels, compared to the US’s less than 300. But the majority of China’s fleet is outdated and poorly equipped, while US submarines, destroyers, and missile cruisers are the most effective in the world. It’s also worth noting that of the Navy’s future 280 ships, 11 are aircraft carriers- 7 more than Russia, France, the UK and India combined. These numbers also aren’t a very accurate indication of actual operational power; one US supercarrier can carry up to 90 aircraft, compared to 35 on the French Charles de Gaulle and 50 on the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov. Additionally, Gates’ budget funds the construction of 11 new ships, making the assertion that American sea power is in danger of falling behind our distant rivals blatantly untrue. While the National Review’s allusion to the the formerly mighty British Navy is a clever attempt to evoke fears of a similar American decline, it’s also completely irrelevant- even with drastic funding cuts the US Navy will remain the most powerful naval force on the planet.

Similarly, cuts in Air Force acquisitions are unlikely to compromise the security of the United States, the National Review’s protests notwithstanding:

“The “Age of American Air Power” of the 1990s crashed with the 2009 termination of the F-22 Raptor.”

Hint to the National Review: it didn’t. The fighting power of the US Air Force is completely unmatched in the world and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Conservative columnists have recently hyperventilated about new foreign fighter development programs, in the form of Russia’s T-50 and the Chinese J-20. Some perspective is helpful: the J-20 is likely a decade from entering front-line service, and Russia’s post-Soviet record of actually following through with ambitious weapons programs is pretty dreadful. Furthermore, actual effectiveness in air combat is more a product of pilot training, knowledge of the battlespace and effective communications than performance specifications. Even is the Russians and Chinese actually build F-22-beaters, their achievements in the software of air combat lag far behind the US.

The National Review post ends by quoting Rep. McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services committee: “I will not stand idly by and watch the White House gut defense when Americans are deployed in harm’s way.” This is a valid point. But it’s also worth noting that the spending reductions the National Review seems to fear most- cuts in heavy armor, the Navy’s number of ships, and the F-22- have little relevance on a long dirty war against illiterate tribesmen armed with half-century old small arms. Military spending exists for a reason- protecting the US and our interests. If a weapon’s actual impact on preserving that security can’t be easily justified, it has no reason to exist. Unfortunatly, we don’t live in a world of unlimited resources. Until we do, we should prepare for the threats we’re likely to face rather than blindly spending money wherever we can. If the National Review doesn’t realize that it isn’t contributing to the conversation.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Daniel #

    While your articles seems mostly to criticize focus on heavy armor, something which arguably may not need as much money put to it, I contest the notion that “Land armor offers much less real utility in the modern world than sea or air power.”

    Land armor, and land forces, are the only forces that can physically take and hold ground. Air power has never won a war by itself, and no one has ever been bombed into submission. You could possibly argue that Kosovo was won with air power, but keep in mind that the most likely cause of Milosovic’s surrender was the threat of NATO ground invasion.

    The love of light special forces troops is something many laypeople seem to love. One of the most popular proposed solutions to counterinsurgency in security classes I’ve run into in UCSD is “More special forces”. But “high speed” forces are not designed to perform one of the most important jobs of the regular infantry, taking and holding ground. Rumsfeld’s focus on fast, maneuver warfare is often cited as one of the potential promoters of chaos in Iraq, as rapidly moving troops swept through towns without leaving behind anyone to secure the area. The manpower to occupy an entire country, as shown in the successful troop surges, is just as relevant in the modern world as this short-sighted love of “light and special warfare skills”.

    March 5, 2011

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