Misuse of $1 million in government funds is corruption or inefficiency. Mismanagement of $1 billion is a scandal. Misdirection of $10 billion is pork barrel. But what do we call the waste of $100 billion? The problem is US military spending. Not just the Clinton Administration’s budget of $264 billion for fiscal year (FY) 1995, but the $239 billion target for FY 1997 and beyond (all figures here and below in constant dollars at projected 1995 prices).

Mismanagement of $1 billion is a scandal. Misdirection of $10 billion is pork barrel. But what do we call the waste of $100 billion?

Many respected analysts believe that another $60-100 billion could be cut from these levels. They have identified a glaring flaw in Pentagon planning: it inflates near-term military threats to justify forces far larger than are needed to assure the security of the United States and US allies worldwide. Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration official, says that an FY 1995 budget of $200 billion would be sufficient (The New York Times, 15 February 1994). Jerome Wiesner, former presidential science adviser and president of MIT, and MIT scientists Philip Morrison and Kosta Tsipis argue that by the year 2000 US military spending should be reduced to $145 billion (Scientific American, February 1994). William Kaufmann, a senior Pentagon adviser for decades, has outlined cuts over a decade that would bring the budget down to $141 billion (Assessing the Base Force: How Much Is Too Much?, Brookings Institution, 1992).

In fact, in recent Defense Department documents, senior officials themselves seem to argue that the high level of spending is needed not to meet current threats, but to counter new or renewed military threats that might emerge after 2000. But here we see a serious lapse of judgment in the Clinton Administration’s approach to security: Pre-emptive US military preparation against threats that do not yet exist shows every sign of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. It encourages other countries to build up their armed forces and precludes arms control measures which could head off new threats before they emerge.

• • •

Threat Inflation

The Pentagon’s Report on the Bottom-Up Review of post-Cold War defense needs, published in October 1993, begins by wiping the old threat slate clean with admirable clarity and verve:

The Cold war is behind us. The Soviet Union is no longer. The
threat that drove our defense decisionmaking for four and a half decades — that determined our strategy and tactics, our doctrine, the size and shape of our forces, the design of our weapons, and the size of our defense budgets — is gone.

But the tone immediately changes. Alluding to hypothetical war scenarios, the report implies that other potential future threats already loom large. “Chief among the new dangers,” then Secretary of Defense Les Aspin warns in the introduction, “is that of aggression by regional powers.”

In justifying the size of the forces the United States needs to counter “aggression by regional powers,” Pentagon officials make four key assumptions:

  • The United States will face a regional opponent with military forces comparable to those of Iraq before the Gulf War.
  • U.S. forces will not be supported by allies from outside the region.
  • The United States must be able to destroy all the opponent’s military forces within a few weeks.
  • The United States must be prepared to fight and win two such wars simultaneously, to insure that no country is tempted to commit aggression when our forces are already engaged in a war elsewhere.

Critics have argued that it is unrealistic to expect two major wars to occur simultaneously, to plan to fight both wars with no allied support from outside the region, and to require utter devastation in a matter of weeks as the standard for effective defense and successful deterrence. (See Carl Conetta, Charles Knight, and Robert Leavitt, “Free Reign for the Sole Superpower?,” Boston Review, December/January 1993-94.) These points are all valid and important — but the Pentagon’s post-Soviet threat picture goes beyond worst-case planning. The problem is not merely that the two-war scenario assumes such an unlikely combination of circumstances but that it involves opponents that do not exist: an imaginary opponent in the Middle East, with forces that do not exist today and have no prospect of being amassed by the year 2000; and in the Far East, a country like North Korea, but far stronger militarily than North Korea is today or has any prospect of becoming in the next few years.

The charge that the Pentagon has vastly exaggerated near-term military threats is grave. It goes to the very foundation of the forces and spending planned not just for 1995, but for the next decade. For this reason, it is essential to spell out the evidence in some detail.

• • •

Potential Sites of Regional War

Outside of the United States, Russia, and the countries of Europe, only a handful of countries worldwide have the military capability to engage in a major regional war, that is, have military budgets over $1 billion per year and ground and air forces equipped with sizable numbers of tanks (at least 700) and aircraft (at least 275). These countries are China, Taiwan, North and South Korea, and Japan in the Far East; India and Pakistan in South Asia; and Israel, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran in the Middle East. (There are no such countries in Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa.) Which of these countries could pose a threat of war which the United States might want to oppose with direct military intervention? India and Pakistan cannot because the United States has neither security commitments nor strategic interests in South Asia.

Only six countries outside Europe and the former USSR combine substantial military capability with possible reasons for attacking a US ally.

In the case of Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia — all close US allies, largely dependent on this country for armaments and other military support — no forms of aggression are foreseen which the United States would oppose with armed force. That leaves China and North Korea in the Far East, and Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Iran in the Middle East.

What risks of aggression are posed by these potential regional opponents?

  • North Korea could conceivably attack South Korea.
  • China could threaten Taiwan.
  • Iraq, if it escapes from the current arms embargo and rearms, could pose a threat of aggression against any bordering or nearby state, particularly where valuable resources lie. That is the lesson of Hussein’s previous attacks, aimed at seizing oil-rich territory first from Iran and then, when that failed, from Kuwait.
  • Conceivably Iran could also try to use aggression to expand its resource base, although there is no recent historical evidence to suggest a propensity in this direction.
  • In theory, Syria and Libya could pose a threat to Israel, but this seems unlikely for several reasons. Libya cannot reach Israel except by air. Syria has been keen to improve relations with the West, even to the extent of siding with the West in participating in the war against Iraq.

In sum, only six countries outside Europe and the former USSR combine substantial military capability with possible reasons for attacking a US ally. None of the possible wars seems likely to occur in the next few years. Of the set, the potential war that seems closest at hand is that between North and South Korea. Although North Korea would have little to gain by starting such a war deliberately, the tense military situation might escalate out of control. By comparison, an Iranian or Iraqi attack on Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, large-scale Arab aggression against Israel, or a Chinese attack on Taiwan all seem much more unlikely.

• • •

Current Military Capabilities for Aggression

In February 1992, Les Aspin, then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, compared the military capabilities of potential US regional opponents to those of Iraq before the Gulf War. (An Approach to Sizing American Conventional Forces for the Post-Soviet Era: Four Illustrative Options, 25 February 1992, Washington, DC.) Aspin identified the six countries listed above (and Cuba, which he later dismissed) as countries “often assessed to be potential threats to US interests,” with this comment: “These countries are major powers in regions in which the US has key interests, and each of them in the past has come into conflict with the US. Nevertheless, their presence on the list does not reflect a judgment that a war with any of these countries is likely today or in the future.” Aspin began his assessment of the military capability of these countries by characterizing pre-Gulf War Iraqi forces in the following words:

Iraq invaded Kuwait with what was accounted at the time to be the world’s fourth largest army, including some 6,000 tanks. This army was assumed to be battle hardened and reasonably well-led as the result of a grueling eight-year war with Iran. In quality, it was judged to be one of the better Third World armies. Of particular concern were the heavy ground forces, centered around heavy tanks and artillery. Iraq had a modern air force of over 700 planes, a modern air defense system, capabilities for chemical and perhaps biological warfare, and theater ballistic missiles. The US-led international effort that became Operation Desert Storm dealt with the Iraqi military very handily, however.

Treating pre-war Iraqi ground and air forces as a “1,” Aspin then reported the following assessment of the current forces of these countries: Ground Air Forces Forces Iraq (1990) 1.0 1.0 Iraq (today) 0.4 0.5 Iran 0.2 0.4 Syria 0.6 0.8 Libya 0.3 0.7 North Korea 0.6 0.6 China 1.4 2.6 Several points are immediately striking about this comparison. First, apart from China, the potential regional opponents have ground forces that are either less than half as strong as those of pre-war Iraq (Iraq today, Iran, and Libya), or only a little over half as strong (Syria and North Korea). Second, again apart from China, all of the potential opponent’s air forces are weaker than those of pre-war Iraq. And Iraq’s combat aircraft were so outclassed by those of the United States that after the first couple of encounters, they stopped flying altogether, except to flee to Iran.

By comparison with pre-Gulf War Iraq, only China has comparable or stronger forces. But in this case the comparison is not immediately relevant. The ocean offers a natural barrier to any attempt to take over Taiwan — an island about 100 miles from the Chinese mainland — and China does not have the naval or air “power projection” capability needed to assure the success of such an effort. China has no aircraft carriers to provide offshore air cover for Marines or paratroopers; it has no large amphibious assault ships for a massive, rapid over-the-beach landing; and its most capable aircraft deployed in substantial numbers are Chinese-made versions of the MiG-21, a Soviet plane designed in 1958, and Chinese-designed derivatives. In considering Aspin’s 1992 assessment of the capabilities of potential opponents, it is important to keep in mind that the Bottom-up Review and the 1994 Annual Report of the Secretary of Defense both argue that the United States must maintain sufficiently large ground and air forces to fight two wars like the Gulf War simultaneously, one in the Middle East, the other in the Far East, both with opponents that are assumed to be at least as strong as Iraq was during the Gulf War.

Moreover, the US ground and air forces maintained for this purpose — 15 Army and four Marine divisions, and 20 Air Force wings — represent more than twice the size of the US forces needed in the Gulf War. Thus, while the current budget is buying the capability to fight two pre-war Iraqs simultaneously and win equally “handily,” no candidate for aggression in either the Middle East or the Far East is nearly as strong militarily as Iraq was in 1990. The gap is particularly great in the Middle East, where the only country whose ground and air strengths are assessed as more than half those of Iraq, Syria, is not considered a likely near-term aggressor — or an opponent that Israel could not defend against alone. What we see, in short, is not two pre-war Iraqs, but a weaker version, North Korea, in the Far East and no plausible counterpart in the Middle East.

• • •

Future Military Capabilities

What about the possibility that one or more of the potential opponents will become much stronger in the next few years? This is where the Pentagon’s threat assessment is most misleading. Defense Department presentations do not actually state that potential regional opponents currently have military capabilities as powerful as those of pre-war Iraq. What they say is that they need to be prepared to meet two possible future threats of that magnitude. This does not seem unreasonable — until you ask about the timeline. The possible rates of expansion are suggested by past rates of growth and change in the forces of these and other countries. As a basis for estimating those rates and seeing where they could lead, Table 1 shows the current tank and combat aircraft holdings of the potential opponents, along with those of their possible regional adversaries, the United States, and pre-Gulf War Iraq. (Of course, numbers of tanks and aircraft do not, in and of themselves, determine overall military strength. But they do provide an important indicator of overall ground and air power.)

It is costly and time-consuming for Third World countires to increase the size of active ground or air forces by more than a modest increment each year.

In many cases, there are tanks in service based on pre-1950 designs, and aircraft designed before 1958. China has disproportionate number of the older types: 80% of its aircraft and 90% of its tanks are copies of old Soviet systems which China built in the 1960s and 1970s, after breaking with the former USSR. North Korea also has many of these Chinese-made systems, and some Chinese or original Soviet versions have been exported to Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya. Because they are vulnerable to weapons of more recent design, these older systems are discounted in most military assessments. In fact, during the Gulf War, Iraq apparently did not use any of its 1,600 older tanks which are still in service today: it relied entirely on its 4,000 or so newer tanks, which were decimated, leaving just 700.

Focusing on the newer aircraft, we can see that in comparison with Iraq’s pre-war 627, China has many more, 1,429 — but nearly all of these are unsophisticated Chinese adaptations of the older Soviet systems. Among other potential opponents, Syria, with 543, is the only one with more than half as many. Israel (588) and South Korea (445) have more recently designed aircraft than their potential opponents, and Taiwan’s holdings (428) are probably a match for the aircraft that China might be able to get to Taiwan. In newer tanks, Iraq, with 3,930, had 50% more than the next most well-equipped potential regional opponents, Syria (2,400) and North Korea (2,350), and nearly four times more than China (1,100). (For comparison, the United States has three times more newer tanks than pre-war Iraq, and 11 times more newer aircraft.)

The quantities of tanks and combat aircraft acquired by potential opponents, allies, and the United States over the past 20 years are given in Table 2. Much of the time, new systems are not simply added on, increasing war reserve stocks or equipping expanded forces. Instead, they replace older systems that are lost in accidents (or combat), worn out in training, or technologically obsolete. Thus, for both tanks and aircraft, Table 2 shows not only the net change in forces (row 1) but also the absolute numbers of systems acquired (row 2) and lost or retired (row 3). In the case of aircraft, only the United States and China (and the USSR/Russia, not shown here) acquired thousands of new systems over the past two decades; no other country in the world acquired more than 800. In tanks, the same three countries dominated worldwide acquisition; but the gap between these countries and others is smaller. Iraq, which acquired almost 6,000 tanks, is close behind China. The next largest acquisitions among the potential opponents are those of Syria (about 4,000), North Korea (about 3,500), and Israel and Libya (about 3,000 each).

The net increases in the tank and combat aircraft holdings of all these countries between 1972 and 1993 are lower than these absolute numbers, particularly for aircraft. It is very costly and relatively time-consuming to increase the size of active ground or air forces by more than a modest increment each year, particularly for Third World countries which import weapons rather than produce them domestically. Big increases in the tank holdings of Syria and the combat aircraft of Libya and Syria were subsidized in the 1970s and 1980s by the USSR, which exported weaponry on generous credit terms. More recently, Libya has been under an arms embargo and Syrian acquisitions have trailed off. North Korea, too, has stopped acquiring substantial numbers of new weapons because its economy is in bad shape and China and Russia have refused to provide weapons on credit. The rate of growth in tanks and aircraft in Iran has been very low since the Shah left in 1979. And Iraq is under embargo.

The highest average annual rates of acquisition (row 5) by any importer are those of Iraq before the Gulf War. From 1972 to 1990, Iraq acquired combat aircraft at the rate of 33 per year, and tanks at 309 per year, on average. If we assume that the potential opponents suddenly begin to acquire weapons at the rate Iraq did before the Gulf War, expand their forces, and not retire or lose any of their current weapons, it would take Iraq, Iran, and Libya ten years to build up to Iraq’s pre-Gulf War strength (Table 3). It would take North Korea between five and ten years, and Syria about five years. But because of the several-year lead-time in arms export orders, we know that today none of these countries is actually building up at that rate. We also know that Iraq will not be able to escape from the embargo for at least a couple of years (if then), that none of the other potential opponents has the resources needed to buy and field weapons at Iraq’s previous rate, and that neither Russia nor China will provide large quantities of arms on credit. That means that we can add about five years to the estimates of each candidate’s timeline shown in Table 3 before some unimagined political or economic change in any potential supplier or recipient state could conceivably allow the worst-case rates of growth and generate holdings as large as those of pre-war Iraq.

In sum, it is impossible to see how any potential regional opponent could develop forces comparable to those of pre-Gulf War Iraq before the year 2000 or even, for all but Syria and North Korea, before about 2010. In the case of China, which is reportedly trying to buy plans and construction assistance for an aircraft carrier from Russia, force modernization and restructuring of a nature that might increase the threat to Taiwan or other nations will also take well over a decade. Moreover, the Pentagon’s threat assessment ignores the ability of US regional allies to counter the forces of potential opponents without US assistance. Saudi Arabia now has holdings of newer tanks and aircraft that are as large as those of Iraq or Iran and considerably more sophisticated (see Table 1). Israel is more powerfully equipped than Syria. South Korea’s forces are probably a match for those of North Korea, and Taiwan can probably defend itself from any air attack by China. In each case, only modest US help, if that, would be needed.

• • •

The Russian Threat

This assessment of regional threats suggests that the United States might well cut active ground, air, and naval forces by half, compared with the Clinton target for 1997, keeping the remainder in reserve or deep storage. Smaller active forces, between those proposed by Korb and by Morrison, Tsipis, and Wiesner, would cost between $50 billion and $100 billion per year less than the planned budgets for the next decade. Why hasn’t the Democratic administration, with the support of a Democratically-controlled Congress, seized the opportunity to realize these huge savings? In part because of public ignorance and indifference and vested interests.

What is the future “Russian threat”?

In addition, however, there is a widely shared view that someday Russia could again pose a major military threat to the West. Even though this risk may lie a decade or more in the future, it has a profound influence on current US budgets and plans. Analysts assume that it is not worth making deeper cuts in forces and industry if developments in Russia are certain to require remobilization eventually. What is the future “Russian threat”? The mildest concern is that once Russia stabilizes, the likely size and power of the country’s armed forces will inevitably create potential for aggression to the west, the south, or the east. The most serious concern is that if right-wing nationalists come to power, they may forcibly rebuild the former USSR and perhaps even invade parts of Eastern Europe. This would put a threat of aggression back on NATO’s doorstep.

• • •

An Ounce of Prevention

There is an untried way to increase security while reducing costs and taking the potential future Russian threat into account. This is to cooperate with Russia in negotiating new limits and reductions in armaments, while at the same time strengthening the foundation for a more effective collective security system under UN auspices. Three ambitious new forms of arms control would complement and reinforce collective security arrangements by heading off military threats before they arise. (On collective security, see my “Creating a Cooperative Security System,” Boston Review, November/ December 1992). Each measure alone would help reduce certain risks, but the three would be most powerfully effective, and mutually reinforcing, if implemented as a package.

The first two measures, aimed at reducing the risk of regressive militarization in Russia, are to negotiate further worldwide reductions in the ground, air, and naval forces built up during the Cold War, and to place a moratorium on new production of major ground, air, and naval weapon systems. Both the reductions and the moratorium would apply, in the first instance, throughout a band around the northern hemisphere, taking in the United States and Canada, Europe, Russia and the other former Soviet republics, China, and Japan. The goal of the reductions would be to move as far as possible toward forces configured for two missions: non-offensive territorial defense, and a contribution to collective security enforcement. In particular, the reductions would be designed to build confidence and reduce the risk of war between Russia and its various potential future military opponents (China, Japan, the now-independent former Soviet republics, the countries of Eastern Europe, the countries of Western Europe, and the United States).

A moratorium on arms exports is essential to delaying and perhaps preventing the rise of new threats of military aggression of concern to the United States and its allies.

By placing a verifiable limit on future Russian forces now, while they are substantially demobilized and the future direction of Russian security policy is not yet set, the West would make the most of the window of opportunity that will exist for the next decade to avoid the eventual remilitarization of great power relations. Specifically, deep, agreed, verified reductions would place a very considerable practical obstacle and time delay in the path of remilitarization in Russia. The barrier to rapid remilitarization would be heightened by an agreement to move from a warm arms production base to what we can call a “cool” base: that is, replacing continued production of major weapon systems with a spare parts, extended life maintenance, and industrial reserve capacity. New techniques and procedures could be developed to maintain the skills and facilities for reopening production lines, if needed in the future. The combination of satellite and on-site inspection would ensure that compliance with a production moratorium could be verified; and evidence that it had been broken by any given country would be treated as preparation for war and a reason for others to resume active production.

While lengthening the time and increasing the political, economic, and technical obstacles to remilitarization, a production moratorium would advance an important longer-term goal. It would facilitate the development of agreed guidelines for conventional forces that maximize territorial defense while minimizing threats of attack on the territory of potential opponents. Once such guidelines were settled, production of the types and quantities of weapons useful for non-offensive defense would resume. An arms production moratorium would have another benefit: it would create optimal conditions for a moratorium on major arms exports, the third element of the arms control package. Such a moratorium is essential to delaying and perhaps preventing the rise of new threats of military aggression of concern to the United States and its allies.

Unlike arms export limits alone, limits on both production and export affect suppliers as well as recipients; that is, they do not discriminate against nations that have not built up an arms industry. The discriminatory aspect of export limits has been the main obstacle to such limits hitherto. Today, exports are being used to keep US and Russian arms production lines active until they have new demands and funds for production for domestic use. But if these two countries and the other exporters of major weapons (the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and China) were engaged in mutual force reductions and restructuring, with the goal of limiting future arms production and export to defensively-oriented systems, then they would not need to keep production lines open and they would have a strong incentive to minimize the acquisition of powerful new weapons by other nations. If, for example, Russia and China (now Russia’s biggest export client) undertook to limit China’s modernization according to non-offensive defense criteria, precluding the development of “power projection” capabilities, this would strengthen Russia’s security; and it might be acceptable to China if Russia and the United States were following the same guidelines. And if Russia and China agreed not to sell offensive weapons (including attack aircraft and tanks) to Iraq, Iran, Syria, and North Korea, that would add at least another decade before those countries could acquire forces even quantitatively comparable to those of pre-war Iraq. Russia cannot be expected to limit its arms exports unilaterally.

To be assured of preventing threatening build-ups in China, Iraq, Iran, Syria, or North Korea, the United States and Western Europe would have to suspend exports to their allies. Given current regional forces, this would not leave the West’s allies at risk. Over the longer term, the goal would be to achieve regional arms limits, reductions, and restructuring that would make it possible to strengthen and maintain security without the spiraling regional arms races of the past. Admittedly, a new approach to arms control will not be easy to implement. But what is certain is that it cannot happen without strong US advocacy and leadership.

Persistent US effort over the next decade to strengthen collective security and initiate a global process of reducing and restructuring conventional forces, and limiting arms production and export, if fully successful, could reduce annual US military spending for the period starting in 2005 to a figure as low as $80-90 billion (see my “Defense Cuts and Cooperative Security in the Post-Cold War Era,” Boston Review, May-July 1992). Even partial success could permit cuts down to, say, $150 billion. In contrast, if there is no such effort, the US military budget is likely to rise again after 2000 toward $275-300 billion, as the forces of potential opponents grow and a new generation of weapon systems comes on line.

Of course, saving $100-$200 billion per year in future military spending is not the only — or perhaps even the most important — goal of arms control and a cooperative approach to security. Such an approach could prevent a new arms race in the Far East, strengthen security in the Middle East, and greatly lessen the risk of regressive developments in Russia. With these stakes to win, and nothing but vested interests to lose, how can the Clinton Administration fail even to try?