That it is people, not hardware, that provide the winning edge in warfare was clearly expressed at the end of the first Iraq war when the U.S. commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, stated that had the two sides switched equipment, the United States still would have won its lopsided victory. There are many veterans of other wars who agree. Indeed, Napoleon said it succinctly 200 years ago: "The moral is to the physical as three to one."
Just as those F-22 pilots had difficulties against some highly skilled Typhoon aircrew, the United States can expect to encounter smart, skillful enemies in the future. The country has been surprised by opponents it had assumed were inferior -- for example in the Vietnam War -- and by crude but highly effective technology it failed to anticipate, such as handmade road mines (decorously called improvised explosive devices) in Iraq and Afghanistan. The "we are the best in the world" foolishness is prologue to wars of choice making America pay dearly, just as the country discovered immediately after the arrogantly predicted "cakewalk" against Iraq -- a prediction that contemplated no "after."
Both sides of the American political spectrum persistently cheapen this debate.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke for the right when he attacked Obama for "deep and arbitrary" cuts in the defense budget (cuts that actually were neither deep nor arbitrary) at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) on Oct. 8. He also alleged that Obama is responsible for reducing the size of the U.S. Navy to a post-World War II low and for putting the Air Force "out of business." To fix all this, Romney will do things like spend more money and put the F-22 back into production. He ignores that Obama is spending on defense at a rate well above any other post-World War II president, and Romney doesn't mention that Obama inherited a U.S. Navy and an Air Force from George W. Bush that were already at post-World War II lows. Most significantly, Romney is oblivious to the fact that the shrinkage has been occurring as the non-war parts of the defense budget increased by a trillion dollars from 2001 to 2010.
Romney's proposal to put the very disappointing F-22 back into production is a classic example of "solving" the problem by making it worse: At many times the price of the F-15 it replaces, the F-22 can only be bought in such small numbers -- at greatly increased total cost -- that the overall inventory shrinks and ages as the Pentagon is forced to retire as few ancient F-15s as possible. The disingenuousness of Romney's cheap shot on defense spending is exceeded only by the ignorance of his solution and silly pander to ill-informed conventional wisdom.
In his VMI speech, Romney also made a seemingly conscious attempt to walk his previously expressed adventurism into the closest; some hostile rhetorical flourishes aside, he sounded a lot like Obama. It remains entirely unclear, however, whether Romney is merely Etch-A-Sketching away the neoconservative premise that, with U.S. armed forces being the best in the world, the United States can and should use them in still more adventures, such as Iran. He may be asking for even more future trouble than does Obama.
Many on the left do not exactly distinguish themselves in the overall debate. While they are typically far more accurate in characterizing what increases or decreases have or have not occurred in the defense budget, most Democrats persist in the notion that Obama has husbanded a U.S. military that remains the best in the world. The shrinkage is OK because the newer -- even if preposterously expensive -- equipment is more capable, both individually and collectively. It has all the hallmarks of a political argument of convenience, and it ignores as much evidence as the right does when it asserts that the amount of money spent measures the health of overall U.S. forces.
Were Romney running for reelection to a second term, he too would be crowing the "best in the world" rhetoric, and it would be in the face of still further shrinkage and aging despite the heaps of extra money he would strain to pile on to America's less-bang-for-more-bucks defenses.
The empty rhetoric that U.S. armed forces are the best masks serious problems that have been festering for decades. Obama tolerates the problems; candidate Romney would make them even worse. All of it will continue until leaders emerge who understand that more money has meant more decay, and less money can mean the start of reform.