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To Win Wars, Cut the U.S. Defense Budget

(Hisham F. Ibrahim/Getty Images)

“It is time to slash the United States defense budget. The money wasted on weapon systems designed to win last century’s wars is staggering, as are the opportunity costs.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the tank-shot heard around the world, especially by American defense hawks. President Joe Biden is now one of them, shocking his Democratic base. The White House requested $813.3 billion for national defense for the 2023 budget, the largest request in history. To put that big number into perspective, it is about 40,000 new high schools. It is more than Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product (GDP) by a whopping 18%. Were it seconds, it would be 25,763 years. Measured in miles, it is 95 roundtrips to Pluto at its farthest point from Earth. The United States spends more on defense than the next 11 biggest militaries combined, including Russia and China, and has been for years.

Defense spending is Washington’s cocaine habit. Some cheer for it. The obvious winners are Beltway Bandits like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamic, and Northrup Grumman, whose stocks have risen sharply since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. On Capitol Hill, the war has become a cause célèbre for hawks, making it a key talking point for the upcoming midterm elections. 40 Republicans from the Senate and House Armed Services Committees urged President Biden to include a 5% increase above inflation for defense in his proposed 2023 budget. Democrats are seething. Less than a year after the United States’ shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan that ended a 20-year war, President Biden is boosting the military budget by nearly $30 billion. The Left had hoped to shift money away from overseas wars toward domestic problems. However, even some Democrats are pushing for more defense spending in the face of an increasingly belligerent Russia and China.

But why does everyone assume that more money means more security?

Colossal defense budgets did not win American wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where we struggled against Luddites fighting in flip-flops and AK-47s. Expensive tanks and fighter jets proved worthless in these wars, while the enemy used cheap, low-tech roadside bombs that American forces could never fully defeat. There should be a lesson here for American strategists, but they refuse to learn it. Instead, they increase the defense budget, the very definition of insanity. Rather than throw money at the problem, let’s solve it.

Washington suffers from a low strategic IQ. Remember all those experts and retired generals on television during the first week of the Russian invasion and how they expected Ukraine to fall within a week? It is what President Vladimir Putin thought, too. They were all spectacularly wrong, yet somehow still employed. In the defense world, this level of blunder is called “strategic surprise”; think of Pearl Harbor, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and September 11th. Intelligence failures of this scale are due to “cognitive limitation,” a social science term for stupidity.

There is a saying: “Generals always fight the last war, especially if they won it.” This truism happens to be true. When it comes to seeing the future of war, nations turn to the past—or, rather, past successes. We like to study victories that make us feel good and ignore the unpleasant lessons of failure. This is how we get sucker-punched by the future, usually at a heavy cost. On the eve of World War I, European militaries were practicing Napoleonic horse drills, leaving them unprepared for the slaughter of the trenches. Afterwards, the victorious Allies remained fixated on static trench warfare and built the Maginot Line only to be blindsided by the blitzkrieg of World War II. The Germans evolved their way of warfare while the French remained stuck in the past and were conquered.

Like the French in the 1930s, one of the United States’ most serious problems today is that we do not know what war is, and, if we do not understand it, then we cannot win it. French historian Marc Bloch witnessed the German blitzkrieg crush the French military in 1940 and lamented how “our leaders…were incapable of thinking in terms of new war…[their] minds were too inelastic.” American minds are too inelastic today. Instead of preparing for modern war, we are stuck in our own Maginot mentality. We imagine future wars based on our past successes rather than current conflict trends, and this guarantees strategic surprise.

The American paradigm of war is World War II, the last time the United States won a big war decisively. My grandfather fought and was shot in the Battle of the Bulge, and he called it the “good war.” Others say it was fought by the “greatest generation.” Nearly 80 years on, the demand for World War II movies appears unstoppable, and the supply is inexhaustible. Like a handsome man in uniform, World War II films never really go out of style. There are over 400 unique titles of World War II movies, and at least four more this past year. This war remains iconic because it is the last time the West won authoritatively, unlike today. The frustrations that followed, from Korea to Afghanistan, are either forgotten or dismissed as “quagmires.”

World War II remains paradigmatic for experts too, who view this style of warfare as timeless and universal. Generals describe it using normative language: conventional war, symmetrical war, and regular war. I like the term “conventional war,” but they all mean the same thing. So strong is this dogma that other types of warfare are labelled unconventional, asymmetrical, or irregular. These are snubs. Wars waged by non-state actors are not legitimized as “war” but as mere criminality. For example, “Narco-Wars” in Latin America can kill more people than wars in the Middle East in a given year, yet they are inexplicably not considered war by the international community. Over 800,000 people were killed in 90 days during the Rwandan Genocide, yet it is somehow not war but a mass homicide. By contrast, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan combined over 20 years total about 929,000 deaths. To claim that Rwanda is “sub-war” compared to the Middle East is ignorant and a sign of conventional warfare bias.

World War II is the epitome of conventional warfare: state-on-state conflict where the primary instrument is brute force and big battles determine nations’ fates. Think of how Stalingrad, D-Day, and Midway changed the course of WWII victory and how we celebrate them. Other elements of national power such as diplomacy, economics, and information take a subordinate role to the military, which fights with industrial strength armed forces. It is a military-centric vision of international relations and why armed forces cling to it and remain smitten to its call. Honor matters, as do the laws of war, and citizens are expected to serve their country in uniform with patriotic zeal. It is why we say, “Thank you for your service” to vets in the airport.

The high priest of conventional war theory is Carl Von Clausewitz, a Prussian general from the Napoleonic era. A hagiography exists around the man, and his book On War is enshrined as the Bible of war. When I teach this text to senior officers at the war college, the room grows silent with reverence. His ideas constitute the DNA of American strategic thought, and a few of his concepts have even made it into popular culture, like the “fog of war.”

There is just one problem: No one fights “conventionally” anymore. Until this year, the last conventional wars took place in the 1980s, and the last one in Europe was sparked by Hitler. Like most things, conventional warfare is neither timeless nor universal but has a beginning, middle, and end: Napoleon, the Crimean War, and World War II, respectively. Today, there is nothing more unconventional than a “conventional war.” The Uppsala Conflict Data Program, a respected data set in social sciences, evidences this trend: Interstate and extrastate wars since World War II have declined to near zero, yet violence has not waned. Armed conflict has increased since the Cold War, and the number of conflict deaths in 2015 surpassed any in the post-Cold War period.

Conventional warfare went extinct because it no longer delivers victory. The nuclear age made conventional warfare between great powers untenable for fear of mutual annihilation. Instead, they fought indirectly through proxy wars around the world, but even these were not conventional. Superpowers that tried to fight conventionally failed: The French lost in Indochina and Algeria, the British in Palestine and Cyprus, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the United States in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In each case, the superpower tried to adapt its conventional military to non-conventional circumstance and flopped. They won battles but lost wars. Nothing exemplifies this trend better than President George W. Bush standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier and declaring “mission accomplished” after the American military achieved perfect battlefield victory over the Iraqi armed forces in 2003. According to conventional theory, it should produce decisive victory. But it was irrelevant, and “mission accomplished” has become a meme for clueless failure. Battlefield victory no longer guarantees success in war because conventional warfare is obsolete in today’s geopolitical landscape. Other things win, and some of the best weapons do not fire bullets.

We are not alone in our low strategic IQ. Until recently, President Putin was a case study in strategic savvy, capturing the Crimea with ease in 2015 and turning Russia into a feared power once more. Until recently. Russia is failing in Ukraine because it mounted a conventional warfare invasion in a post-conventional warfare era. Like American television pundits, President Putin assumed his conventional war juggernaut would crush the Ukrainians in days. But the Russian Blitzkrieg did not cow Ukrainians any more than the United States’ “shock and awe” campaign intimidated Iraqis in 2003. The tank-on-tank battles expected by traditionalists have not occurred, and they probably will not.

Russia’s 40-mile column of Russian tanks stuck on the road to Kyiv is an apt example of conventional warfare’s problems today. Exasperated, President Putin has abandoned conventional warfare and is opting for full-on medieval warfare. His new commander General Aleksandr Dvornikov is notorious for cruelty such as flattening cities and massacring civilians, as seen in Grozny, Aleppo, and Bucha. For him, war crimes are not a problem but a tactic. Russia’s new approach takes from the Conan the Barbarian school of strategy: Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!

Meanwhile, the plucky Ukrainians are winning using unconventional warfare strategies and guerilla tactics. The humble Javelin missile costs $174,000 and has thwarted, with Ukrainian courage, a billion-dollar-a-day Russian conventional force. Two Neptune anti-ship missiles sank the Russian flagship Moskva, a blow to Russian might. Both demonstrate the obsolescence of tanks and big ships in modern warfare. Unsurprisingly, neither played an important role in any United States war since World War II.  While Russia is rolling armor, Ukraine is mobilizing memes and social media to denigrate President Putin and cast Ukraine as David battling evil Goliath. Zingers like President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s “I don’t need a ride, I need more ammunition” win global hearts and minds—and ammunition.

Russia’s conventional war failures are a cautionary tale for Americans who blindly want to increase defense spending as the solution. Like President Putin, American national security circles are largely stuck in the past with a conventional warfare mindset. They imagine future conflicts as World War II with just better technology, a symptom of the Maginot Mentality. They think power challenges by China or Russia will be resolved ultimately on the battlefield. Pentagon planners imagine tank-on-tank combat in eastern Poland and a wargame Battle of Midway-scenario in the Taiwan Straits fought by Ford-class carriers, F-35s, and drones. Yet conflict trends since 1945 are clear: Conventional battles do not win wars anymore. President Putin is learning this the hard way.

Meanwhile, the United States is investing trillions of dollars to win future battlefield fights because their strategic thinking is stuck in the 1940s. Budgets are moral documents because they do not lie. Examining which weapons the Congress and Pentagon buy reveals the kind of war they expect to fight. Every year, the top acquisitions are the same: fighter jets, warships, and tactical vehicles like tanks. These are conventional warfare weapons for a post-conventional warfare age, and they are ridiculously expensive. The Ford class aircraft carrier costs $13 billion per ship, more than Ukraine’s entire defense budget. The F-35 fighter plane program costs $1.7 trillion, more than Russia’s GDP. They are obsolete war junk. Predictably, they played no meaningful role in two decades of wars and would not deter Russian or Chinese aggression. Yet the United States is buying more and pitching allies to do the same.

It is time to slash America’s defense budget. The money wasted on weapon systems designed to win last century’s wars is staggering, as are the opportunity costs. Cutting the defense budget will improve national security. First, the money saved could be redistributed among the inter-agency more evenly, where it is needed. It is stunning that the Department of Defense receives more discretionary funding than the rest of the inter-agency combined, and it accounts for 11% of all federal spending. If firepower alone won wars, as conventional war strategists assume, then Afghanistan would not have been the longest war in American history. And the United States still lost. Instead, invest in non-kinetic capabilities like savvy coercive diplomacy, cash reserves for economic warfare, and technologies that counter foreign disinformation campaigns. Alternatively, take the Pentagon Dividend and reinvest elsewhere for domestic needs. Secondly, cutting the Department of Defense’s budget will make it hungry and innovative. Scrapping expensive conventional war weapons is a good start. We do not need to cut troops, but we should re-organize, train, and equip them to win the unconventional fight. Ironically, it is what the United States did for the Ukrainian forces; now, let’s do it at home.

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” This pun on Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous words “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” speaks volumes about why strong militaries do not win wars anymore. Conventional warfare is an antiquated form of warfare, and those who rely on it will fail—a lesson President Putin is learning. However, American national security circles must learn it too. Some get it, like retired Admiral Jim Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). So does General David Berger, Marine Commandant. He stripped the tanks and helicopters out of the Corps and is re-configuring it into smaller, nimbler units. Conventional warriors are freaking out, but rigid strategic culture is the enemy of progress.

Warfare has changed since the glory days of 1945. Going forward, we need improved strategic education focused on critical thinking, so our strategists can detect the changing character of war before we fall victim to it, as the French did with their Maginot Line. Otherwise, we spend trillions of dollars preparing to fight the only kind of war we will not face in the future—conventional war—leaving us dangerously vulnerable.

Sean McFate is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, Professor at Georgetown University, and author of The New Rules of War: How America Can Win—Against Russia, China, and Other Threats.

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