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Budget Battles
Putin Panic Triggers Pentagon Spending Spree

The 1980s are calling, and they want their military budget back. Reuters reports that top U.S. military brass are increasingly worried about the threat from Russia and are seeking to prioritize countermeasures in the next defense budget:

“Russia is the No. 1 threat to the United States. We have a number of threats that we’re dealing with, but Russia could be, because of the nuclear aspect, an existential threat to the United States,” Air Force Secretary Deborah James told Reuters in an interview at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum.

James, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson and Pentagon chief arms buyer Frank Kendall, all voiced growing concern about Russia’s increasingly aggressive behavior in interviews late on Saturday. […]

None of the officials gave details about how the concerns would affect the fiscal 2018 budget request, but defense officials have pointed to the need to focus on areas such as cyber security, space, nuclear capabilities and missile defense, where Russia has developed new capabilities in recent years.

As Reuters notes, the 2018 budget request is likely due for a substantial revision once Donald Trump takes office. And despite much handwringing about Trump’s unconventional stance toward Russia, early signs suggest that Trump will seek to beef up defense spending vis-a-vis Russia to engage with Putin from a position of strength.

Most significantly, in his choice of General James “Mad Dog” Mattis as Secretary of Defense, Trump is empowering a major Russia hawk. At a speech last year, for instance, Mattis expressed concern over Russia’s provocative saber rattling, claiming that Putin’s goal is “to break NATO apart” and that Russia’s moves in Ukraine were “much more severe” than commonly realized. If confirmed, Mattis is sure to bring these long-held views of the Russian threat into budget deliberations at the Pentagon.

Even as Putin’s provocations drive an impending spending spree, however, it is worth remembering that Russia’s own military technology is hardly awe-inspiring. On Monday, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the beleaguered Admiral Kuznetsov, had another mishap as a fighter jet returning from a Syria raid failed to catch the carrier’s faulty arresting cable and crashed into the Mediterranean. This was the second such crash in less than a month.

We have written in the past about the Russian rustbuckets that have carried out Putin’s mission in Syria, but the lesson bears repeating: Russia’s dominance in that conflict and others is less a matter of superior capabilities than shrewd opportunism. It is true that Russia has been more aggressive of late—with its missile deployments to Kaliningrad, brazen bombings in Syria, and insidious cyber attacks—and the Defense Department is certainly justified in taking such threats into account as it determines spending priorities. Yet Russia’s newfound assertiveness on the world stage is largely the result of the political space it has been given to operate there. If a Trump administration hopes to minimize the Russian threat, it will need to come up with a smart strategy, not just a ballooning budget.

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  • Andrew Allison

    The military ALWAYS wants more money. As the article points out the treat is more imaginary than real (opportunistic). Meanwhile, how many admirals and generals do we need. If Mattis took a meat ax to the overhead, he’d have all the money he needs.

    • Fat_Man

      He would have to meat ax several overly ambitious and overly expensive technology platforms, such as the F35 and the Zumwalt destroyers.

      • Andrew Allison

        Those too!

      • f1b0nacc1

        Absolutely correct, though I would hardly accept the characterization of the Zumwalt as ‘overly ambitious’….quite the opposite as a matter of fact. Other than its rather interesting 155mm gun, the rest of the ship is characterized by being rather timid and underbuilt, with no area anti-aircraft defense, no significant long-range sensor capacity, and no viable anti-missile loadout. Even its much-vaunted stealth capability is pretty much negated by its limited missile loadout, which forces it to ‘break’ stealth whenever using its only viable weapon (the gun).

  • Beauceron

    The US military industrial complex always needs an enemy to feed their voracious appetite for funds.
    I don’t feel threatened by Russia at all– wouldn’t want to go to a soccer match against them, mind, but on a national threat level, not at all.

  • Frank Natoli

    Dear author: the budget for national defense, you know, “provide for the common defense”, actually mentioned in the Constitution, is presently 15% of the budget. Perspective would have you write about the other 85%. But you have no perspective, do you?

    • Jim__L

      Be nice. They’re taking baby steps, here.

      • Frank Natoli

        I’m trying to educate they who are willfully ignorant. Doesn’t that count as “nice”?
        Here’s a link to the 1950 budget, five years after the end of WW2:
        http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/year1950_0.html
        Note that total spending was $44.8 billion, and defense was $24.2 of that, or 54%.
        It IS the Constitutional role of the federal government to “provide for the common defense”.
        It is NOT the Constitutional role of the federal government to provide all individual necessities…which take the lion’s share of the 85% of the present budget.

  • Fat_Man

    China also needs a response from the US Military. In particular the fleet needs to be bulked up and its anti-missile, and anti-submarine capabilities need to be upgraded.

    • Jim__L

      So what do you think of the doctrine that surface fleets are irrelevant in a Great Power war?

      My own take: For the Great Game, very useful. For a Great War, not so much.)

      • Fat_Man

        I don’t know about doctrine. I do know that Obama has sacrificed much of the ability of the Navy to maintain an operational tempo.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Unasked, I will intrude….

        Nonsense. This is the same (discredited) argument that subs/aircraft/missiles will sweep all before them that we have heard consistently for the last 100 years, and it never seems to pan out. Can surface fleets dominate without the support of other arms? Of course not, but there is little reason to believe that any of these wonder weapons are likely to be all-conquering either. The Soviets pretended that subs were the be-all and end-all, for instance, until they could afford to build a surface fleet, then suddenly they decided that perhaps those ‘obsolete’ surface vessels were indeed the answer. The same could be said for the Chinese, who have suddenly discovered that surface ships (their excellent destroyers, for instance) have a utility that they pretended wasn’t the case in the past. And lets never forget how small torpedo boats made battleships obsolete in the early 20th century. Oh wait….

        • Frank Natoli

          The ultimate and final use of force is boots on the ground. No division or corps or army is going to ensconce itself on a defended area courtesy of United Airlines. They’re going to get there by sea. Everything else follows from that.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I couldn’t agree with you more. I am sure you are familiar with Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” and his comments on that very subject….

          • Andrew Allison

            Oh, happy day [grin] Boots on the ground are more-or-less irrelevant in this day and (nuclear) age. How have/would/could boots on the ground resolve Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iran, South China Sea, et al? Why expose a naval task force to attack when a tactical nuclear device would do the job? I understand the risks, but from Vietnam on we’ve sacrificed far, far too many men and women to an outdated doctrine of restraint. In other words, in the words of DecDef nominee Mattis: “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f–k with me, I’ll kill you all.”

          • f1b0nacc1

            Nukes are just the latest iteration of the Air Arm dreaming of a war without soldiers. Nukes are wonderful for absolute destruction, but this in fact is part of the problem. You can only kill with them, which means that you are unable to selectively destroy and leave anything for occupation or conquest. This means that nukes give your opposition little reason to surrender if war is forced upon them, and no reason at all if they began it.

            If your only interest is simply to destroy your target, I absolutely endorse your point, but that is rarely (if ever) the point of war. War is the process by which one state bends another to its will, and that has only been accomplished up until now by the presence of boots ont he ground. Germany and Japan were bombed to dust (remember, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the most destructive bombing raids of the war, so nukes do not represent anything unique here), but it was not until boots on the ground were in place that these wars ended. Certainly, one might quibble int he case of Japan, but we know from the post-war revelations of Japanese worthies who were in a place to know that the bombing in and of itself was not sufficient, and that the fall of Okinawa as well as the destruction of much of the Japanese Army in China was an essential factor in their decision to surrender.

            Throughout the 20th century, the dream of making ground forces obsolete through the use of bombardment (conventional and otherwise) was the holy grail of the air arms of various countries, and at no time was it ever realized. Even in the 21st century with the widespread availability of precision weapons, this dream has remained out of reach. Boots on the ground (or rather the lack of sufficient ones) were clearly part of the problem in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the fact that the Chinese are not only putting airstrips, but garrisons on their artificial islands suggests that they understand this as well.

            I am surprised that you mention Mattis, a great believer in boots on the ground, like all Marines.

          • Andrew Allison

            Just how have boots on the ground worked for us since Korea?

          • f1b0nacc1

            Your example of the Chinese garrisons makes my point. If boots on the ground didn’t matter, the Chinese garrisons (which you correctly point out are there to prevent invasion, or at least there to prevent the rightful owners from taking the territory back) wouldn’t be necessary. We could easily just ‘nuke them from orbit, just to be sure’.

            I suspect that we are closer on this than you might think. Boots on the ground are a necessary, but not sufficient condition to impose one’s will, which is why the key in your question is ‘enough boots on the ground to get the job done’. Boots on the ground are only useful when you use enough of them (Iraq is an excellent example of this), and when you use them for something other than simply protecting your bases or fruitlessly patrolling (Vietnam), and when you keep them there long enough for them to be useful (Western Europe). Firepower is a wonderful thing, but it is inherently limited in its usefulness, as anyone who studied the Western Front in WWI could tell you….

            As for Mattis, that is a charming quote (and I love the spirit it evinces), but his ethos is far more than that. Mattis is actually a big believer in boots on the ground, which is why Obama was so eager to get rid of him in the first place. He is also a big believer in diplomacy (something his detractors seem to ignore), and a determined enemy of political correctness. I believe we have the right man for the job of cleaning up the ugly mess that Obama has left behind.

          • Andrew Allison

            We’re usually closer than we think [grin] In this case, we seem agreed that boots on the ground are only useful if there are enough of them and their command staff are committed to winning.

          • Andrew Allison

            Not in the nuclear age.

  • Pait

    Mad Dog was offered the post because of his expertise in corruption – see the Theranos lobbying story. His military experience is useful only to fool the press, and his opinions on Russia completely irrelevant to the president elect, who “knows more than the generals” and will ignore them.

    • Tom

      Given how many other people were fooled by Elizabeth Holmes, your concerns are…misplaced.

      • Pait

        Good point. However notice that he wasn’t fooled – he started pushing their wares while still in a position of command, presumably with the intention of future gain.

        It can only be in this capacity of an accomplice that he was considered by Trump.

        • Tom

          “However notice that he wasn’t fooled – he started pushing their wares while still in a position of command, presumably with the intention of future gain.”

          Remember, I said “fooled.” If the tech had worked, it would have been a massive boon for the military, and Mattis, for all his virtues, probably has the faith in technology shared by most Americans.

          • Pait

            That is a possibility. Indeed if he was misled, he wasn’t the only one, and no one is immune to being fooled.

          • Pait

            Revisiting your argument, I’m not so sure. I can understand that a military man would get overexcited about a technology with obvious impact on his military work, and perhaps commit an understandable error of judgement. Can happen in any area.

            Theranos was nothing like that. The fact that he would use his influence to try to lobby for a company that was not central to his mission or within his expertise, while still in Central Command, suggests that indeed his was invited to the administration because he has a record of bribe taking.

          • Tom

            If you can’t see how Theranos would have been really awesome for the military, I can’t help you.
            It frankly seems more like you’re dedicated to the proposition that everything Trump does is nefarious and evil. Which is fine, but you’re really grasping here.

          • Pait

            No, I can’t see how a better blood testing technology can be transformative for the military altogether. Useful, perhaps, if it worked, very useful for whoever used it, but really awesome? I’d say that requires a tremendous amount of wishful thinking.

          • Pait

            I recognize that it is possible that the perspective of an unprecedented lethal assault on our institutions is clouding my judgement.

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