Sustainability of military power

People often arrive at similar scenarios when they think about the geo-strategic situation in a couple of decades.
This cluster of scenarios includes an economically strong China that challenges U.S. power in an attempt to regain regional supremacy, the province that we call today "Taiwan" and to turn some neighbours into puppet states.

These scenarios assume that - in 10, 20, 30 years - Europe and the U.S. still stagnate in military power and Russia has recovered somewhat - but not enough to re-establish full dominance over Eastern Europe.

Is it reasonable that the NATO - and especially its biggest defence spender, the U.S. - can sustain their military power? Is it reasonable to expect that the ratio of military power inside the NATO will still be so one-sided US-heavy?

In fact, it can be disputed with good reason that our societies can sustain the present levels of defence spending. The Soviet Union lost the Cold War largely because its inferior industrial base was forced to sustain a similar level of defence spending as did the west. This excessive burden eroded the economy and society. It was an astonishing accomplishment that they held out that long. Imagine our societies being permanently in near-total war mobilization for 40 years ... we would have completely ruined ourselves as well, probably much earlier.

But even the moderate levels of defence spending today are stretching the capabilities of some NATO nations beyond the sustainable maximum. Our old nations have accumulated lots of suboptimal features over time that limit their ability to focus resources on unproductive activities such as military preparations.

Let's have a look at the USA. That nation prides itself with having the most powerful (and expensive) forces in the world and being the most powerful economic power. Well, it's doubtful whether their forces are truly a result of their own economic power and sustainable. I'll use the "CIA World Factbook" here to avoid doubts whether these values might be manipulated against the USA.

GDP: $13.21 trillion (2006 est.)

Public debt: 64.7% of GDP (2005 est.)

Current account balance (2006 est.): -$862.3 billion (2006 est.)

Debt - external: $10.03 trillion (30 June 2006 est.)

Military expenditures of GDP: 4.06% (2005 est.)

Source: CIA World Factbook
For FY 2008, the Bush administration has requested $647.3 billion to cover the costs of national defense and war. This includes the Defense Department budget ($483 billion), some smaller defense-related accounts ($22.6 billion), and the projected FY 2008 cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and counter-terror operations ($141.7 billion). However, it does not include non-DOD expenditures for homeland security ($36.4 billion) or the Veterans' Affairs budget ($84.4 billion).
Nor does it include the request for supplemental funds for outstanding FY 2007 war costs ($93.4 billion).
The $647.3 billion request represents a 75 percent real increase over the post-Cold War low point in national defense spending, which occurred in 1996. Today's expenditures are higher in inflation-adjusted terms than peak spending during the Vietnam and Korean wars -- as well as higher than during the Reagan buildup.
quote from "America Speaks Out: Is the United States spending too much on defense?" Carl Conetta, Project on Defense Alternatives (The overall projected sum for 2008 is $861.5 billion.)

Another source gives the figure of $728.2 billion for 2006, calculated in a similar manner.

So basically the account balance deficit of the USA (about $850 billion) is quite close in size to its defence spending (about $700-850 billion).

The USA as a whole is significantly living beyond its own economic capabilities as there's a huge external debt at the same time. No matter whether it lives beyond its own means due to defence spending or other spending (there isn't much other spending in the federal budget at least), this situation is not sustainable. The USA as a whole can only spend to date what it spends because other nations lend it their economic outputs (including the PR China).

An end of the Iraq war would not fundamentally change this situation - it would probably cause a drop of the defence spending by 15-30%, but not eliminate the long-time account balance deficit.

The NATO nations with positive account balances have little inclination to increase defence spending to levels like 4% of their GDP as they have internal economic problems such as retirement provisions, state debts and small economic growth. European nations don't feel threatened by the PR China.
It's also difficult to argue in Europe that the USA would be threatened by China due to the Pacific Ocean - and the US allies in East Asia are notorious for seeing less threats for themselves than the USA do.
European defence spending would likely react to a Russian threat, but not to Chinese ambitions. An arms race with Russia wouldn't help in a conflict with China as the first requires rather power at land and the second rather power at sea.

We should not consider the present strength as sustainable when we look 10, 20, 30 years into the future of NATO's security and position in the world. It's almost guaranteed that the upcoming nations China and India will rise in military, political, cultural and economic power - but it's almost guaranteed as well that the NATO countries will have trouble to keep their present military power level. Their old military equipment inventories might even become older in average as is typical when forces become less well-funded.

The insight into the unsustainability of NATO's present military power should influence our behaviour towards other relevant powers and our grand strategy. (If we had a common grand strategy in the NATO.)


War or not war? Victory or defeat?

One of the most important reasons to wage war is that people expect to win.
Well, history tells us that losing a war is statistically at least as likely as to win it, but statistics cannot reveal the true horror.

Even many victories are questionable.

So, how shall we decide whether a conflict was won or lost?
The most basic condition that needs to be fulfilled is that a won war actually improved the situation for the country that "won" it in comparison to a "defeat" or no war at all.

Well, this is remarkably difficult to fulfill. Philosophy still doesn't provide us the tools to weight variables like killed citizens, wounded citizens, money, resources other than money, influence, fame and prestige. As every war that's claimed to be "won" included both losses and gains, it's probably impossible to claim victory at all based on math. But perceptions alone as measure for victory or defeat don't help either as everyone is thoroughly manipulated in his perceptions at the end of a war.

Anyway, it cannot hold up to serious thinking that some people claim that victory or not is simply decided by mission accomplishment. To accomplish a mission doesn't tell much, as missions almost never include comprehensive cost limits.

It's certainly no victory to accomplish a small mission that benefits the own country only marginally at costs of several thousand own KIA and several ten thousand own WIA as well as some hundred billion dollars expenditure.

It seems as if the choice of war and peace isn't usually done based on hard facts in the west, but rather on the limits of public opinion (with incorporated fading memories of past bad experiences) and not really understandable decision finding mechanics inside of the governments. There's no reason to trust that civilian politicians were more often than not competent enough to anticipate how a military mission would look like or to anticipate the costs both for individuals and for the national budget.

It's about time to develop a better system to determine whether possible missions are worth the losses and whether wars should be waged although they're often avoidable. The Powell-Weinberger doctrine for example doesn't include the costs - it merely attempts to avoid them by allowing only short wars with such overwhelming power that a military defeat seems impossible. It's a doctrine that wouldn't have allowed to stop Hitler - and that alone suffices to disqualify it.

We also need doctrines that help us to determine when a war is unlikely to end in a victory and the war should be ended. Delaying defeat has never served any country in history.

We truly need to improve our political culture concerning the decision of "War or not (any more)?". It's too important, we cannot be satisfied with the performance of our politicians so far.



The great ABM deception

ABM (Anti Ballistic Missile) technology was one of the R&D favorites in the 90's, triggered by the Scud experience in the 1991 Gulf War.

It seemed as if besides light infantry guerrilla tactics and terrorism only ballistic missiles enabled grossly inferior forces to hurt the west despite its superiority. That, of course, was something that our western military communities could not bear.

The tactical, operational and strategic value of ballistic missiles is very mixed. If we ignore those with nuclear warheads for a minute, it becomes visible that except non-physical effects only the really short-ranged models (MRL weapons up to ATACMS size) have enough effect to justify the effort as the cost/payload ratio worsens with greater ranges.

It may be that high-value targets like ships, bridges and airfields are vulnerable enough against BMs that ABM defense is almost necessary. But that does certainly only apply against those BMs that have precision guidance.
It's understandable that air defense assets need upgrades with new missiles to enable them to intercept short-ranged ballistic missiles such as Scud, Frog and converted long-range SAMs. It's relatively easy to adapt systems like Standard, Patriot and Aster like that.

The longer range ballistic missiles are something entirely different. Even with precision guidance they could not really do enough harm without a nuclear warhead to justify the expenses of an ABM coverage unless the ABM costs are much lower than we're used to. Even biological and chemical weapons (both ill-suited for BM delivery) haven't got much effect. An exception might be accurate hits on nuclear power plants and skyscrapers with special SAP warheads (semi armour piercing - warheads that detonate after penetration), but it's actually much simpler to strike such targets with other, covert means.

And that's the huge problem for strategic ABM justification in general.

Let's assume a nuclear-equipped ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) is in enemy hands. Let's further assume that we built an ABM system that would actually intercept that ICBM if it's fired.
What would our enemy do in that case?
He'd simply use a much cheaper, much simpler form of delivery. Ballistic missiles are after all a very complex, costly technology.

A nuclear warhead light and small enough to fit into an ICBM can easily be sent in a container by ship, in a private or airline aircraft, by truck, by submarine, by train hidden among iron ore and by thousands of other delivery methods. It takes just one person with less than 50,000 US-$ to arrange the delivery - no intelligence service or police/border patrol can protect against that with any reasonable chance.

Strategic ABMs are no defense. They're something that deceives us, wastes financial capital, wastes political capital and they are a proof of incompetence.


edit May 31st, 2008:
I have recently read (again) about the guidance of the Russian Iskander missile (50 to 400+ km), and it's impressive. A battery commander could select the most vulnerable spots of a bridge for the missile and destroy it if no ATBM system (or Murphy's law) intervenes (5-7 m CEP normal, 20 m CEP monkey model). The same guidance (comparison of area around ballistic impact point with target information) might also be used to guide on a ship, which justifies naval ATBM efforts. Ships are very high-value targets, which would even justify the more difficult ATBM capability against medium-range missiles (although NATO and Russia don't use this due to a 80's disarmament agreement).
Air forces and Navies should emphasize this and replace the public image of inaccurate Scuds as typical BMs with accurate HE-loaded BMs like Iskander.

I am still rock solid on the same position as in 2007 about strategic missile defence, though.


National defense industries

The national defence industry is often considered as a strategic asset, as something essential to national self-preservation. Well, it's like that in larger nations. Smaller ones survive easily without.

Such national defence industries have a surprising, somewhat funny and weird characteristic: They always seem to be the only ones who meet the demands of their nation's forces. Well, sometimes only in partnership with defence industries of allied nations, but that's the exception from the rule.

Of course, they don't always offer the best stuff. It's a matter of lobbying and even rational behaviour. About 40-60% of defence spending on indigenous equipment flows back as taxes and so on. Indigenous weapons might be more expensive to buy, but in the end they're usually cheaper over time.

Arms exporters stumbled on this problem and found a nice solution; offset agreements. Nation A buys for x bucks in nation B and nation B buys for y bucks in nation A.

In theory, this system could even include an exchange to trade these obligations among countries. Trading the obligation to buy in nation C a with the obligation to buy in nation D would eliminate some inefficiencies of the system.
Overall this seems to be a nice system that would make it as expensive to buy domestically as to buy overseas.

But there's another, probably outdated, reason for buying indigenous products; the needs of mobilization. There might be a crisis/war that needs a build-up, fast. Now this is usually considered as a remote possibility and certainly no problem as long as you buy inside of your alliance.

So why do our forces then prefer so strongly indigenous products while experts can most often identify superior alternative offers within the same alliance?

Procurement should be freed of irrational national egoisms, our troops should get the best stuff, not the cheapest or strictly indigenous products.


Diminishing technological advantages

Much has been written about technological advantages based on digital radio communication and satellite navigation. C4ISR and guided weapons give us the feeling that our technological edge over non-NATO forces is much larger than at the end of the Cold War.

But bandwidth requirements, electronic warfare challenges and especially some defensive technologies are probably effective counters to this superiority. As Edward Luttwak already pointed out in "Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace", the greater the advantage of one party, the quicker and more thorough will be the counter reaction to it.

Only small innovations and advantages - those barely visible to outsiders - are likely to persist and not be countered by the opponent. The huge effects of our electronics-based innovations are visible to anyone, it doesn't need more than TV news to know about them.

One such reaction might be physical interception. When sea-skimming missiles threatened modern surface warships to become obsolete in the 1970's, the navies reacted with some delay with CIWS (Close-in Weapon System) such as the Vulcan Phalanx, Goalkeeper, RAM, AK-630 and Type 730. The same approach is now applied to base defense against mortars, as well. Laser-based systems that intercept incoming projectiles and missiles have been applied to intercept surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and on experimental scale against unguided rockets and howitzer rounds. Small torpedoes can already intercept large torpedoes.

Some producers of SAMs like the RBS-23 BAMSE claim that their missiles can intercept enemy missiles, even anti-radiation missiles that emit no treacherous signals and travel at up to Mach 4. Present-day active defense suites (ADS) of tanks are much more capable than those of the 90's - it's actually possible to intercept and severely affect incoming long rod penetrators, a hard and dense metal dart flying at almost Mach 6. Future tank battalions might be protected by umbrellas of air defense firepower that does not only endanger aircrafts, but intercepts artillery, mortar, drones and missiles as well.

Russia equips some of its newest, Su-27-based, fighters with a small rear radar. A rear sensor is necessary not only to fire missiles to the back (as demonstrated already with R-73 missiles) and of questionable usefulness in warning against fighter threats - it could also be considered as essential sensor component in hard kill defenses against incoming missiles.

Technology often origins in the navies as their ships are important and few enough to justify expensive equipment and at the same time large enough to support equipment that has great volume, weight and energy demands ... as new technologies often have in the beginning. Such technology does then often spread to air forces once only cost is limiting the use. Active defences are an example of such "navy-first".

It's been a miracle for decades why fighters should still depend on prevention and soft kills to protect themselves against missiles. Hard kill technologies should be applicable. The whole approach of the F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters to air combat would become obsolete if their missiles could be intercepted - they themselves are so stealth-orientated that they could hardly implement the necessary sensors and weapons necessary for such technology without losing their strengths.

Overall, the reaction to our technological advantages are predictable - not the precise "how?" and "when?", but the "if" and "how seriously?". It would be wise to orient the national security policies of the NATO nations according to this fact.
It would be foolish to expect that our present technological edge won't be countered sometime.

Sven Ortmann