What a year it has been for GOP candidates vying to one-up each other in outlandishness. One of them has claimed he will force Mexico to build a wall along America’s southern border. Another has argued vociferously that as a young man, he tried to stab a friend. You’d think you could count on Jeb Bush, with his strong establishment pedigree, to be a voice of reason in the Republican race. But Gov. Bush’s recent statement on U.S. defense policy demonstrates a troubling determination to catch up to Donald Trump and Ben Carson in their crusade against reality.
“Defending our national interests always involves risk,” Bush said in a speech on national security policy in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. “But the greatest risk of all is the risk of military inferiority. Today, that is the direction we are headed.”
It’s difficult to imagine a more wrongheaded statement.
The U.S. spends far more on defense than any potential adversary–or any combination of adversaries. According to estimates by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. spent $610 billion in 2014. Of the top-spending seventeen countries, the U.S. accounted for 40 percent of total defense spending. Of the remaining sixteen counties, all but Russia and China are U.S. allies, partners, or friends. Russia and China combined spent $300 billion less than the U.S. alone.
The U.S.’s massive spending advantage actually understates the extent of its dominance, because China’s and Russia’s militaries face real problems. A recent RAND Corporation report argued that, despite increased Chinese defense spending, shortfalls in airlift capabilities, logistical weaknesses, poor training, lack of professionalism, and endemic corruption, (among other problems), will prevent the People’s Liberation Army from conducting effective offensive operations in the near future. And Russia’s faltering economy has forced Moscow to scale back plans to modernize its military and reduce its operations.
Nevertheless, Bush claims that a failure to invest in defense has placed U.S. military superiority at risk. “The next president will take office after an eight-year drawdown of American military power,” he argued. “In the span of a decade, our government will have withheld a trillion dollars from our national defense.”
It’s true that America’s defense budget has shrunk a bit from its post-9/11 peak. But the Pentagon hasn’t exactly fallen on hard times. Pentagon budget authority last year was just shy of the heights reached during the Reagan defense build-up. Moreover, that trillion dollars Bush says was “withheld” from defense hasn’t been withheld at all. The Budget Control Act of 2011 spending limits reduced the amount the Pentagon was projected to spend over the course of a decade.
A projection isn’t a promise. The Pentagon has no claim on funds until they are actually appropriated by Congress. If resources don’t match the plan, you change the plan. That is how strategy works.
To his credit, Bush mentioned the need to seek savings by trimming overhead and streamlining procurement. But these proposals have been recycled ad nauseam since the Pentagon first opened its doors.
Meanwhile, Bush bemoans the state of Army and Marine Corps readiness–yet ignores the problems with the Pentagon’s Defense Readiness Reporting System, identified by defense analyst Todd Harrison. According to Harrison, the input-based model the military uses to measure readiness doesn’t tell us much about actual unit performance. The personnel increases he proposes might improve readiness in the ground forces. Or they might do nothing at increased cost to American taxpayers.
Bush’s plans for the Air Force also flirt with incoherence. He proposes to build a “new generation of aircraft, so that our planes aren’t older than our pilots.” Yet his campaign’s defense policy statement considers resurrecting the F-22—a program begun in the 1980s to fight the Soviet air force. And Bush complains that the U.S. Navy is now half the size it was when the Soviet Union collapsed, but would it really make sense to double the fleet’s size when the United States now has as many aircraft carriers as the rest of the world combined?
If Bush is right, and the U.S. really is at risk of military inferiority, despite spending over $600 billion a year on defense, truly drastic action would be called for. If the U.S. is outspending the combined forces of its main potential adversaries by $300 billion, but nevertheless teeters on the brink of military inferiority, then the Department of Defense is broken beyond repair. Razing the Pentagon, firing all the generals, and starting over from scratch would be the only sensible solution.
Yet, for all the Pentagon’s problems, America’s military superiority remains vast. Bush’s claim that America is edging toward military inferiority is just Trump-level crazy.
Op-ed by Matthew Fay; originally published in The Hill