The Cost of the Oceans
Updated: Apr 20, 2020
This article was first published by the Washington Times on March 15, 1995, under the unfortunate title "What does Brookings know about defense?" While that title greatly increased readership, it changed the meaning of the article and therefore became an unnecessary distraction. The real issue discussed in this article remains germane today.
The Johnson administration considered it a home for right-wing zealots. The Nixon administration thought it was a Communist haven, worthy of fire-bombing. Whichever side of the political spectrum you think it leans towards, the Brookings Institution is arguably Washington’s preeminent think-tank.
All the more reason for me to be disturbed by what I have seen since my fellowship began at this institution.
Let me first say that I was trained in science, and although my degrees have little to do with the arcane nature of international relations, I am convinced that certain truths apply to all disciplines. One of those truths is as follows: As an honest analyst, you must first collect your data, and then base your conclusions on the data you have collected. This principle seems to be curiously absent from the analysis I have seen here.
Consider the following: several defense analysts, led by Brookings’ Larry Korb, have recently been engaged in a defense-reduction argument that goes like this: in 1996 the United States will spend three times as much on defense as any other country on earth, and more than all prospective enemies and neutral nations combined. Therefore, we are wasting money on overstuffed defense programs. Case closed.
The argument is given additional weight when Mr. Korb is introduced as a former assistant defense secretary for the Reagan administration. If a Reagan defense official feels defense is bloated, it must be so! Doesn’t it?
The fallacy of this argument is that it assumes that all things are equal, and that a comparison between how much the United States spends vis-à-vis other nations is a legitimate metric of who should prevail in a conflict.
But because of geography, all things aren’t equal. Here’s why:
· We are separated from our potential enemies by two great oceans.
· Rather than fighting wars in our own back yard, Americans prefer to fight “over there.”
· It will quite naturally cost us much more than it costs our enemies to field the same force, since we have to move, sustain, and fight our force in a place where his already is.
· Each of these activities—moving, sustaining, and fighting far afield—increases the cost of our military without significantly changing the friendly-to-enemy force ratio. This cost can be referred to as the “cost of the oceans.”
· The increase in cost is, as we engineers like to say, nonlinear. That is, taking into account the cost of the oceans, doubling our capability may cost us four times as much.
· The oceans that surround America are what require us to field a globally dominant, sea control Navy that is unrestricted by host-nation land-base sovereignty issues that might otherwise limit our ability to act. The oceans are what drive the need for our expeditionary Air Force. Without the oceans, we might have little need for the entire United States Marine Corps.
· This higher cost is raised still more if we want to field a force that is not just equivalent to his, but one that can in fact defeat his force. This can be referred to as the “cost of winning.” More than 2000 years ago Sun Tzu said you should have five times the strength of an enemy to assure success—that calculus has changed little over time. This does not, however, imply that you need five times the number of troops, because force enhancements such as sea and air power are part of the equation. In any case, if you want to fight over there and win, you can expect to pay many times what the enemy pays for his military.
The question is therefore not whether we will be paying more for our armed forces than our enemy does, but rather how much more we must pay. Is the right number three times as much (as with Russia), or is it five times as much? There is no way to definitively and quantitatively determine what the right ratio is, because the cost is too scenario-dependent and we can never be sure under which scenario we will find ourselves fighting.
But more to the point, the cost of the oceans make any comparisons between what we pay and what our enemies pay irrelevant. And we haven’t even begun to consider other intangibles, such as the fact that what we consider defense spending may not be what our adversaries consider defense spending; the cost of recruiting, paying, providing medical care for and retiring a high quality volunteer military (the costs of which are actually the largest part of our defense budget and are not included in our adversaries’ price tags); our world-wide surveillance network; our nuclear deterrence; and so on.
The purveyors of these arguments are smart people. They know this. But hey choose to ignore it. Why? I have to conclude that despite the specious nature of this argument, they use it because it supports their view of defense. By ignoring inconvenient evidence, they impeach their claim of conducting unbiased, cogent analysis.
Rather than pointing to interesting but irrelevant factoids that compare our costs to theirs, legitimate analysis should be limited to issues of capability. Whatever your opinion of how much we ought to spend on the military, rational people would agree that we should first decide what we intend to do with the military, and then spend no more than is necessary to get the job done. That is, we should field what we need, but no more.
Reasonable people can disagree on what it takes to field a given capability, but let’s drop the pseudo-analytic comparisons that only serve to obfuscate the real issues, and restore intellectual honesty to the debate.