National security policy the rational way (a partial view)

I laid out in my previous blog post that the military has different political purposes in wartime and peacetime. That's quite self-evident, but also important.

The political purpose of armed forces in peacetime should be to impress potential aggressors, to add a risk premium to whatever aggression might be contemplated against the country. The risk of excessive costs or outright failure of any aggression shall reduce the probability of war (deterrence).

This requires an impressive military; impressive in the eyes of politicians and the public.
The classic Cold War metrics for military power were combat aircraft, tanks, artillery pieces, divisions, nuclear warheads. The published matchups were really that simplistic (NAT-internal documents referred to "heavy division equivalents" instead - not much better). Nobody discussed in a newspaper whether the infantry of a nation was well-versed in nightly infiltration attacks.

This superficial part of military power must not be exaggerated, though. It might pervert its national security purpose if you had too much of it. Too much overt military strength may provoke an arms race. Arms races are counterproductive because they cost much in peacetime and lead to a greater net damage in wartime.
It's even worse; one or more parties of an arms race might go beyond a sustainable spending level (resulting in a lack of national capital investments, lack of system-stabilising consumption or a tradebalance deficit). This is not only wasteful, but might even lead to war. One such overextended racer might be tempted to seek an exit in actual war, rather than to admit arms race defeat (= risky loss of deterrence) or even a system collapse.

The importance of the obvious during peacetime leads to an emphasis on the obvious (high-profile hardware, quantity) during peacetime. The matchups show combat aircraft, not the annual flying hours of their pilots, after all.
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It's all different during wartime:
During wartime the armed forces should be capable enough to achieve a low net damage outcome. It shall get the country out of the mess that is war, back to constructive peace instead of destructive war. The age of net profit wars is gone, nowadays only a tiny minority can benefit from war.

Yesterday I wrote "minimal net damage" instead of "low net damage", and this is correct if you look at the wartime period only. A national security strategy needs to consider that such minimal net damage would be bought with increased effort (= costs, damage to prosperity) in peacetime. A country with some confidence in its ability to keep the peace would accept a trade-off (with low peacetime expenses at somewhat increased expectation value for wartime damages). Such a compromise might look cynical to the reader, but think of the savings being invested in curing otherwise terminally ill people. A world of scarce resources (such as ours) requires some seemingly cynical trade-offs.

Anyway, the wartime demand for actual capability instead of show-off puts an emphasis on the quality of the personnel and generally 'hidden' qualities of the armed forces.

It's noteworthy that this requires some preparation during peacetime as well, and accordingly no national defence strategy that rests on national armed forces must neglect the nurturing of 'hidden' qualities.
This is where the competence of press, public and politicians as well as the influence of lobbyists (even from inside the armed forces) may be to blame for a suboptimal defence policy in just about every country.

By the way; I don't spot much of a semblance between this and actual national security policies of today. Do you?

S Ortmann

1 comment:

  1. No idea how true it is, but its frequently repeated that the Falklands War led to the USSR adjusting their views on what a NATO Division was capable of, compared with a Soviet Division.

    The general public might not care about flying hours, but I'd be surprised if opposing generals (and politicians) didnt.

    Then again, its a frequent mistake, The BEF in 1914 fought a force that outnumbered it 10:1 and managed to retreat better order than the French who were near parity.


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