Would We Be Doing Any Better?
By Stephen Tuttle | May 21, 2022
The question occurs as we watch Russia’s top-heavy, untested, and bloated military slog to a near standstill in their ill-conceived incursion into Ukraine. What Vladimir Putin no doubt believed would be a quick and decisive victory, bringing Ukraine back into the arms of Mother Russia, has turned into something altogether different—an ugly war of attrition.
At the same time, it’s hard to describe it as a victory for Ukraine. Their determination and resilience have been admirable, if not downright heroic. But thousands—if not tens of thousands—of civilians have died, multiple cities have been reduced to rubble, and millions of Ukrainians have become refugees, fleeing to Poland and elsewhere.
Is our military, which we like to brag about being the best trained and equipped in the world, any less top-heavy and bloated than the Russians’ forces? Are we preparing for 21st century warfare, or are we, like the Russians, stuck in a World War II mentality?
There is no doubt about one thing: We certainly have the most expensive military in the world. In fact, according to the National Priorities Project, we spend more on defense than the next 10 highest-spending countries combined. We likely have the most over-budget and behind-schedule military in the world, too, but records of such things in other countries are a bit scarce.
Our defense budget is creeping toward $800 billion, and it keeps growing because every state has a stake. What used to be an industry concentrated in a handful of states has expanded more than a little; we are now spending on defense contracts in all 50 states.
Michigan alone received $7 billion in defense contracts, and that industry employs 27,000 Michiganders.
Unfortunately, defense spending, especially some weapons programs, are based less on what the military has requested or needs and more on what members of Congress have decided best benefits their re-election chances. Defense contracts in every state means we have at least 50 U.S. Representatives and all 100 U.S. Senators eager to protect and expand their home turf defense contracts.
The cost overruns that are now a chronic symptom have become a normal part of a bloated system Congress exploits rather than reforms. It gives us weapons like the F-35 Lightning, the most expensive example.
Created as the next generation of fighter/bombers, the F-35 was supposed to be a single aircraft that served the needs of the Air Force, Marines, and Navy. But all three branches had three separate missions and three separate needs for their aircraft, so the F-35 had to be modified for each. Conceived in 1995, it only became operational for the U.S. in 2019, though planes we sold to Israel were used a year earlier.
The F-35 is now the most expensive weapons system in our history with a total cost of nearly $1.7 trillion. The aircraft for the three services cost more than $112 million each. We’ve delivered 730 of the planes, but 300 of those have been sold to other countries. (We are the largest arms dealer in the world.) According to an investigation by our Congressional Budget Office, only about half the 430 delivered domestically are operational at any given time.
The General Accounting Office says the F-35 program is currently $165 billion over budget and eight years behind schedule. And that’s just one system. We also have monstrous cost overruns on our M-1 Abrams tanks, our allegedly stealth destroyer (which became so expensive the original plan for 32 vessels has been reduced to three), not to mention billions of dollars of spending on aircraft carriers and our submarine fleet.
One of the lessons we should be learning from Russia’s blunder into Ukraine is the naked vulnerability of ships and tanks. We now have 11 aircraft carriers that are nice targets for a variety of missiles and armed drones that did not exist in previous conflicts. While carriers might provide a needed platform for attack aircraft, they are also huge, slow, and convenient targets in a 21st century war. In fact, given the effectiveness of satellite surveillance and smart, anti-ship missile systems, it’s not clear ships are still an effective weapon or just an easy target. Russia lost what was supposed to be their most sophisticated ship to a simple anti-ship missile and a handful of decoy drones.
The same holds true for our battle tanks, which can be taken out by relatively cheap, shoulder-mounted anti-tank ordnance that easily goes through or circumvents modern tank defense systems.
We have the most military “stuff.” We spend the most and likely overspend the most. Our fancy weapons systems only work about half the time. Our military procurement system is controlled by politicians whose interests are reelection rather than military readiness.
Are we certain we’d be doing any better than the Russians?