Opinion

Why debating the Pentagon's budget is a pointless distraction

Arguing about much money the military spends is dumb. It's where the money goes that matters.

America just got a new Republican administration, and a new defense secretary who is determined to make his mark. This means we're going to start hearing a lot about the Pentagon budget as the year goes on.

These debates are going to be boringly predictable. Republicans will say the Pentagon budget needs to be bigger, because national security is really important and we need all of the best weapons to destroy ISIS, keep China at bay, confront Russia, and deter adversaries. Democrats are going to call Republicans crazy.

It's going to be a big waste of time, because debates about how much money the Pentagon should spend are inevitably used to obscure much more important debates about how, exactly, to spend it.

Once you accept this observation, you will be stunned by how often you see it in action. Politicians and even so-called experts bloviate for hours on end about the size of the Pentagon budget without even mentioning what we should spend all that money on. This is maddeningly backwards. After all, a military is not a sum of money, it is something a government uses to serve a national security objective. The budget is the means, not the end.

This is all a bit theoretical. But it's important to understand the overall principle, so let's get specific with an example.

This article in the serious foreign policy review The National Interest makes, roughly, the following argument: A lot of people in Washington are scared about China's rising naval ambitions, but China's growing navy isn't actually all that impressive. Therefore, the U.S. Navy's ambitious 355-ship plan is probably too expensive.

There's nothing "wrong" with this argument, really. People are always hyperventilating about the latest foreign threat, and China's navy is far from being a match for the U.S. Navy at most things.

But China is also developing anti-ship ballistic missiles that have probably made America's super-carriers obsolete and would probably enable it to prevent the U.S. Navy from defending Taiwan or the South China Sea should China choose to invade. As a response, then, the U.S. Navy should steer its focus away from aircraft carriers, a 20th century technology, and towards 21st century technologies like missile- and drone-launching stealth submarines, and unmanned submarines and ships, that can project power even through ballistic missile curtains.

The point here is to focus on specific things the U.S. military should do in response to specific threats, in order to accomplish specific objectives. Notice what isn't being mentioned: how much these things would cost. We might be able to do them for less money than the Navy currently plans on spending, just because super-carriers are so insanely expensive. We can almost certainly do them for the same amount of money. But that's not the point.

Instead, the debate we tend to hear goes something like this: "China is very scary, therefore the Pentagon needs to spend very large (or not so large) amounts of money." This is dumb. Again, it's not about how much money you spend, it's what you spend it on. Yet I promise you, the debate will be about the former and not latter. This is pointless and distracting.

The silver lining is that it looks like we might have a defense secretary who understands this. One of Secretary James Mattis' most heartening early acts was his decision to order a review of the F-35 jet. The F-35 is fantastically expensive, but more to the point, it's a bad plane. The problem isn't that we're spending too much money, it's that the U.S. is set on replacing its good planes with bad ones. If the F-35 was a good plane, it might be worth spending all that money on. Secretary Mattis obviously wants the American taxpayer to get a good deal, but he also wants to know what all his options are, so he can make good recommendations to Congress and the president.

Let's hope he takes the same approach for everything the Pentagon wants to spend money on.

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