National Security

A Stampede of Hysterics

America's generals are just as morally bankrupt as Congress.

I read two critically important reports this week on the impact that sequestration would have on national defense. That possible reduction in military spending -- $48 billion, or 7.4 percent of the $645 billion currently appropriated for fiscal year 2013 -- is being characterized by the stampede of hysterics who run the Pentagon as the virtual end of national security as we know it. What these two reports show is that we should now consider the Pentagon as morally and mentally broken as Congress.

The first report, by Chuck Spinney, who spent a few decades inside the Department of Defense evaluating budgets, weapons, and bureaucratic behavior, was published at Counterpunch and Time's Battleland blog. The second was a Congressional Research Service report by Amy Belasco, who has spent the last few decades at CRS and the Congressional Budget Office parsing defense budgets and their implications.

Both authors indirectly address the testimony this week of the deputy secretary of defense and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff at the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. To a man, they lent all the rhetorical and substantive support they could muster to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's depiction of sequestration as "doomsday" and to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey's description of it as an "unprecedented crisis" -- a characterization he augmented by adding that he was "jumping up and down." He truly was.

Put simply, the chiefs and their ostensible civilian masters plan to implement the cuts mandated by law in the most destructive, negative way possible, which has the convenient effect -- for them -- of pushing Congress and the White House to cough up more money. According to their testimony, the Army will reduce training levels to such a low point that units cannot be sent to Afghanistan. The Navy plans to postpone, if not cancel, maintenance for ships in a fleet already at historic lows for upkeep and repair, and deployments to the Persian Gulf have already been postponed. The Air Force is going to further reduce its historically low training of pilots, and maintenance will also hit new lows. Throughout the services, civilian maintainers, auditors, and program overseers will be furloughed, aircraft will be grounded, and ships held in port.

However, there is no reason for this to be so. Had Spinney and Belasco also been testifying at these hearings -- had anyone in the committees been even slightly interested in a little balance or a few budget facts with cogent historic and objective perspective -- the chiefs would probably have experienced a bureaucratic form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

What Spinney might have told the committees can best be summarized by this graph from his article:

Spinney

The essential point is that even under the dreaded sequester, President Obama will spend more on defense than most other postwar presidents (and without the sequester he will outspend all of them, including Reagan). Moreover, it's all in dollars adjusted for inflation.

That's quite some "doomsday." Surely, you will agree it's an "unprecedented crisis," no?

For its part, Belasco's CRS report looks into the weeds of sequestration and finds that the chiefs are proposing to cut about twice as much as they need to from the central military readiness account in the operations and maintenance part of the Pentagon budget. They plan to lop off 20 percent, instead of the 10 to 12 percent that they could limit themselves to. They could be obviating many of those horrendous readiness cuts by hitting up less readiness-critical operations and maintenance accounts. But, of course, they chose not to.

And -- not coincidentally I suspect -- after all the cutting is done as planned, the chiefs will find themselves with even more money than they requested for some of their favorite hardware items. After the sequester has taken a cut out of the Pentagon's (separate and legally distinct) procurement account, the Air Force funding for aircraft will increase by $829 million; Navy shipbuilding will have $155 million more than requested for 2013 waiting to be spent, and the weapons and tracked combat vehicles account in the Army budget will have $404 million too much. Only in the collective of mindlessly selfish and careerist politicos in today's Congress and Pentagon "leadership" can a budget doomsday result in more than was asked for in certain -- apparently covertly preferred -- categories. It's quite staggering, but it's laid out explicitly in Belasco's report.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Cater put the cherry on top of this pile of absurdity when he testified that, when he was offered the flexibility to cut where he deemed appropriate (rather than the across-the-board cuts mandated by Congress), he actually declined.

What we have here is the mother of all Washington Monument budget drills: A classic Beltway gambit where agencies warn that any budget cuts whatsoever will force them to end their core mission, rather than cut out the fat. (The head of the National Park Service was fabled to testify that any cuts in his agency budget would force him to close the highly popular Washington Monument to the public.)

Today, Congress professes itself all too eager to fall for the ruse. At the hearings this week, members railed on about the stupidity of the laws the vast majority of them voted to enact; several of them even purported that it was all the Pentagon's fault, which didn't exactly go over well with the money-grubbing Joint Chiefs.

The irony, however, is that the rancor, self-aggrandizement, and cowardice that dominates so thoroughly in Congress means that the dreaded sequester is almost sure to take place on March 1. While both parties in both the House and the Senate have prepared bills to divert it, each side has -- very consciously -- written legislation that they know the other side will enthusiastically reject: The Democrats want tax increases to pay off the sequester; the Republicans want to decimate the federal work force. More intended for fund-raising and election-maneuvering, the bills were not just dead on arrival; they were dead in procreation.

Thus, we have a freakishly large budget being characterized by the Pentagon's military and civilian leadership as so small that they must literally destroy the armed forces' ability to fight. We have a Congress of Republicans and Democrats who declare themselves near universally dedicated to fixing the problem -- with more money -- while at the same time they work feverishly to make sure nothing happens. And just to reinforce just how serious they are, their action in the immediate aftermath of the hearings is to go on vacation for a week.

The biggest loser -- and fall guy -- in all of this is Chuck Hagel, who is anxiously trying to squeak by in his effort to replace Leon Panetta as secretary of defense. It comes after a profoundly depressing performance in his confirmation hearing, at which he inarticulately but effectively ate his own words on issue after issue in order to curry favor with even the most junior member of the Armed Services Committee. Eschewing also the opportunity to inject badly needed insight, information, and spine into the budget situation, Hagel also pandered eagerly to conventional wisdom, calling the sequester a "straightjacket" that would "devastate" the military and require DOD to "significantly revise the defense strategy."

In the final analysis, Congress will do something to accommodate the budget protection gambit being performed by the real masters of the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Meanwhile, the new secretary of defense, who has pre-emptively capitulated to the chiefs' budget fancies, as he has to everyone else, has made it abundantly clear that he will sit on his hands as the Pentagon decimates military readiness.

Chuck Spinney has tracked for decades our military forces as they have shriveled -- counter-intuitively -- at ever-increasing cost, and Amy Belasco has reported to Congress time and time again opportunities for doing things smart, not ugly. Both will be foregone for the easier and politically remunerative way the current system prefers to do things: stupid, crooked, and ever-so expensive.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

National Security

Will Chuck Hagel Stand Up to the Drone Lobby?

Or will he be yet another victim of Pentagon operators?

U.S. Central Command has released some interesting numbers on the performance of modern air systems in Afghanistan; the data do not auger well for our defenses in the next decade, nor for the suitability of the man who appears likely to be the next secretary of defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel -- his admirable iconoclasm toward some national security dogmas notwithstanding.

With the Department of Defense budget looking at no real growth or even reductions in the next few years, there will be a clear need for defense systems that offer more performance for less cost. The data from Afghanistan on what drones are contributing to the war there show that we are getting little but paying a lot, the reverse of what we will need in the future. These data notwithstanding, drones are the embodiment of what conventional wisdom in Washington holds to be the wave of the future for air power -- the quintessence of the high tech cutting edge that the pundits want more and more of and just the kind of myth that politicians appointed to senior executive branch positions fall for time and time again.

The Pentagon's new leadership needs the wit to recognize that the conventional wisdom on these (and other) systems can be badly wrong, and it needs the moral courage and political dexterity to act, standing up to the embedded material and intellectual special interests in the Pentagon, Congress, and think tanks that leap to the defense of these systems time after time. Without such brains, guts, skill, and, especially, persistence in the next Pentagon leader, our defenses are in for a rough ride -- downhill -- in coming years. In short, we need real deeds from a tough, no-nonsense executive, not just interesting, sometimes iconoclastic words.

The Air Force component of CENTCOM (AFCENT) releases numbers to the public each month on Air Force and allied sorties and weapon releases in Operation Enduring Freedom (which mostly means the war in Afghanistan) for drones and manned aircraft. (Data on CIA drone activities in Pakistan and elsewhere are not included.)

The released data are bad news for drone advocates. They show that in the first eleven months of 2012, the U.S. and NATO forces involved in Afghanistan conducted 1,505 air-to-ground "strike sorties" -- i.e., those that involved the release of at least one weapon. A total of 3,886 weapons were released on those strike sorties -- 3,439 from manned aircraft and 447 from remotely piloted aircraft, or drones (namely, the MQ-1B Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper). In other words, the drones were responsible for just 11.5 percent of the air-to-ground weapons used in the war. Manned aircraft, such as the A-10, F-16, F-18, AV-8B and B-1B, were responsible for the other 88.5 percent. Put simply, in the air war in Afghanistan -- called by some "the Drone War" -- drones did little better than 10 percent of the weapons delivery.

Little as they did in the first eleven months of 2012, they did even less in 2011, when manned aircraft released 5,117 weapons and drones released just 294 -- or 5.4 percent of the total.

The AFCENT data is very sparse on allowing more meaningful comparisons between drones and manned aircraft in the Afghanistan war. AFCENT declined to provide this writer more detail, but it gave some useful data to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the United Kingdom. That data shows that in 2011, manned aircraft flew almost 24,000 of the total close air support sorties -- whether a weapon was released or not -- and they flew well over 17,000 in the first ten months of 2012. Drones flew 10,300 sorties in the same category in 2011 and 7,600 in 2012. Thus, the manned aircraft are responsible for about 70 percent of the total sorties in both years.

More importantly, manned aircraft are flying an even larger percentage of the strike sorties: aircraft performed 1,743 strike sorties, or 88 percent, in 2011 and over 1,100, or 82 percent, in the first ten months of 2012. Finally, for delivering numbers of weapons during a strike on a target, drones averaged 1.4 weapons per strike in 2012; aircraft averaged twice that.

Nor is there any basis to think that drones have been delivering weapons more accurately. According to DOD's weapons tester, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the Reaper, for example, is capable of employing only two types of munitions: the AGM-AGM-114 laser-guided "Hellfire" missile and the GBU-12 laser-guided bomb. Manned aircraft carry a far greater variety, and while CENTCOM has not released the data, anecdotally it appears that most manned aircraft munitions are GPS-guided JDAMs, which have fewer limitations from clouds and weather and other causes than do the drones' laser-guided munitions.

That the drones are responsible for such a small percentage of the air-to-ground war in Afghanistan is the natural result of their inherent limitations. Prominent among them is their tiny payload compared to manned aircraft: The "more capable" drone, the MQ-9 Reaper, carries roughly one-ninth to one-fourth the payload of an A-10 or an F-16.

Nor are the drones cheaper to buy and operate. Using the Air Force's definition for all the components in a Reaper unit, they cost about $120 million to buy, compared to about $20 million for the original A-10 and about $55 million for a modern F-16. A Reaper "CAP," or unit, costs about $20 million per year to operate, compared to $5.5 million for an A-10C for a year or $4.8 million for an F-16C.

In short, with drones like the iconic Reaper, our forces get less performance for more cost -- compared to 35-year-old aircraft designs such as the A-10 and F-16.

These data notwithstanding, drones continue to be the darling of opinion in much of DOD, journalism, and think tanks. Articles repeatedly label Afghanistan as "the drone war," and one think tank drone advocate even referred to the AFCENT information as a "powerful data point" in favor of drones being "here to stay." They may, indeed, be here to stay, but that will be based on politics and hype, not performance in Afghanistan -- and perhaps the affinity of some for what drones are doing in Pakistan and Yemen under CIA control.

Whoever is the next secretary of defense will face a choice. He or she can operate at the policy wonk level, as so many already have, ignoring these kinds of basic nuts and bolts data. When they do so, and are told by in-house advocates of drones (or F-35s, or Littoral Combat Ships, or C-130Js, or almost anything else) that the newest technology is cheap and effective, the secretaries of defense with policy wonk and/or political backgrounds have proven themselves to be undisposed to serious, informed questioning. They end up taking the advocates' assertions at face value and acting on them.

The next steps in this process are as predictable as the sunrise: when some outsider suggests a budget cut, the DOD bureaucracies easily convince the secretary that their "affordable" and "effective" weapon systems will no longer be available. Then, the secretary proclaims the idea of insufficient resources for these pet rocks to be a "doomsday." In doing so, facilitators of business as usual like Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta thoroughly isolate themselves from the fact that the additional cost and low performance of these systems is much of what is driving the budget beyond acceptable levels of spending.

It is easy for the in-house advocates to co-opt the secretary of defense when he or she comes from an institution like Congress, where rhetoric and appearances trump facts, especially if the words are articulated cleverly or forcefully.

Such superficiality is precisely the profile Senator Chuck Hagel had as a member of the Senate. He was frequently in the news saying something interesting, often against the dogma of the Republican Party or even American politics in general. But, quick, tell yourself something he actually did of consequence in the Senate -- legislation or other important actions, not just words. Draw a blank? So did I, and I was watching up close and personal as a Republican Senate staffer for many of Hagel's twelve years there. Beyond the rhetoric, his record is quite sparse.

At a time when its budget is declining and advocates, backed by generally accepted myths, press hard for their particular hobby horse to be protected while others go begging, the Pentagon needs someone with a demonstrated record as a tough, acutely well informed downsizer or as an accomplished infighter against the powerful bureaucracies that run free under politically oriented secretaries of defense. A talker, not a doer, Senator Hagel, no matter how much I may admire his politics, is not the right person.

This is not to say that the other publically mentioned candidates for the job would be better.

As a denizen of the think tank and policy world, Michelle Flournoy -- as intelligent as she seems to be -- has been operating in a world where soft-policy differences are the stock in trade, not bureaucratic fights down in the weeds over the quality of data on performance or costs. As the chief architect of DOD's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review as the Pentagon's under secretary of policy, she showed little interest in or understanding of how the building actually operates at the basic level.

As undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics and then as deputy secretary of defense, Ashton Carter has shown little ability to master the bureaucracy. In fact, he let slide far more problems than he has done anything meaningful about. That is all too clearly the case with, for example, the Pentagon's most expensive program ever -- the F-35 -- which remains both unaffordable and a gigantic performance disappointment after four years of Carter's ministrations.

The vast chasm between conventional wisdom and reality on drones, their costs, and what is and is not working at the tactical level is replicated in myriad ways in the secretary of defense job portfolio -- from assault rifles to missile defenses to arms control and especially to questions of war and peace. What we need least is yet another dilettante who specializes in politics of the moment and fancy words.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images