Threat versus "Threat"

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This is the second in a three-part Prospect series on what an ideal military budget might look like. Read Part One hereRead Part Three on what's keeping us from a more perfect military budget here.

About a year ago, Army General Martin Dempsey went to Capitol Hill trying to defend $55 billion in annual budget cuts by sequestration. With a straight face, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman testified to a panel of the House Appropriations Committee: “In my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime right now."

It's the kind of thing that makes a person alternately question the judgment and the honesty of our military leaders. It's obvious nonsense, just another ludicrous statement in the campaign mounted by the military, industry, and Congress in their effort to fight sequestration.

That said, Dempsey raises a good question: Do we live in a dangerous world? Are there threats out there that might be the sort of thing that we would want a military to protect us, or our economic interests, from?

This is a great way to approach designing an ideal budget for our military. It is, of course, idealistic; the bureaucratic interests of the various components of our national security apparatus and the financial interests of our military contractors play an enormous role in the budgeting process. If we were to try to approach the budget strategically rather than cynically, the most obvious means would be by working backwards from a threat analysis. Put simply: (1) identify short-, medium-, and long-term threats; (2) figure out how to respond to them effectively and what role the military would have in that response, if any; and (3) price it all out. Voilà, you've got a budget.

It’s harder than it sounds. First, the notion of a threat is amorphous. What is a threat? Who or what does it threaten? How? How much? How likely? If the threat is to U.S. economic interests rather than to the common defense, whose interests?

Second, you have to tune out the static. If we’re trying to figure out whether Al Qaeda's activities in Mali threaten Americans or American economic interests, what we hear is that "it's very dangerous" and that if we "turn our back … the threats will find themselves in Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, Manhattan, Washington, D.C., down the road" (in the words of the commandant of the Marine Corps). That's not an answer. There are so many assumptions permeating our security establishment that make it hard to think rigorously about threats.

Third, if we can get clear on a threat, we have to ask whether it’s something that can be reduced or eliminated by military action, or if military action will make it worse. If the former, does the military have that capability at present? If the military can do the job, is it a job the American people would actually want the military to do?

Do we live in a dangerous world? Yes. Is it the most dangerous that it's been in 38 years? The answer is surprising: Very possibly. But not for the reasons Dempsey mentioned.

The Usual Suspects

The usual non-state suspects—Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, and terrorism, bioterrorism, or any other variety of [insert prefix here]-terrorism—do present some degree of threats, but they tend to be wildly overstated in their likeliness and impact (as satirized by Team America). And our way of fighting them with the military has a habit of making those groups more popular. Want to fight terrorism? Try politics, policing and intelligence, or something as simple as a bit of cash, a job, and the prospect of marriage.

The same goes for insurgencies. We create them when the military shows up in a country, and then our military's continuing use of force keeps them alive. We spend a lot of coin on COIN (counterinsurgency) without a lot to show for it, yet the military responds, as you might guess, by asking to spend more. The military won't improve its weak capabilities by buying a bunch more gunships and V-22 Ospreys.

The usual nation-state suspects—China and Russia—present a threat mainly in economics from the perspective of the so-called Great Game or Great Power Politics (i.e. who gets which smaller foreign country's goodies), but zero threat to the folks at home. Syria and Middle East instability fall in this category.

The bogeyman-du-jour of the American political right—Iran—is also a threat only in economic terms. The worries born of Iran getting a nuclear weapon stem from fearing the country will refuse to do our bidding, closing off the economic opportunities that some U.S. companies see inside its borders. As people who like nukes always say, they are weapons of deterrence.

The new 21st century threats that get attention in glossy magazines are technological. We hear about excitement in space, over which the United States has claimed hegemony. Former secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld created a new U.S. Space Command after he chaired a space commission that warned hyperbolically of a "space Pearl Harbor" because some other country might, someday want to develop the ability to shoot down one of our satellites. This is pure science fiction, threatening nothing.

Where science fiction starts to meet reality, the prefix is cyber-. At least since the movie War Games, we have had a cultural meme of the young and brilliant computer nerd hacking his or her way into important government computer systems—and anyone who has ever owned a computer knows that viruses are a reality. Unlike the Y2K brouhaha, there does appear to be some actual concern that a world run on computers is vulnerable to hackers. Therefore it is completely sensible that the U.S. government make serious efforts to protect its information systems. Whether the military's new U.S. Cyber Command will do a good job of that remains to be seen. But what about the military's new notion of "cyberwar"? This is a dangerous new horizon. The military's Stuxnet virus, used against the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz, already showed the potential for blowback by reminding us that, unlike explosives that go boom just once, viruses are viral and hard to control after they're deployed.

Making Our Planet Dangerous

But the usual suspects are just the baby threats. Here's the big triple-threat, the one that has been in action for years but is only finally getting a fraction of the attention it deserves: environmental degradation and pollution; global warming and climate change; and resource depletion. Not only have these already begun to directly harm people all around the world, they will shape and create many of the threats to Americans and U.S. economic interests in the future. Had these been what General Dempsey was talking about, they would have validated his rhetorical bomb.

On their own, global warming and pollution already lead to incredible numbers of deaths; a Cornell scientist went so far as to suggest that pollution, coupled with population growth, poverty, and malnutrition, causes 40 percent of deaths worldwide. (More conservative estimates are still high: the World Health Organization blames global warming for 140,000 deaths and outdoor air pollution for 1.3 million deaths every year.) The ripple effects are what national-security planners need to think about.

The instability caused by climate issues has already begun. Several million people are displaced every year by environmental degradation (as well as natural disasters). From the point of view of U.S. interests abroad—or at least of U.S. companies that work in foreign countries in order to access oil, gas, rare earths, other minerals, and agriculture—new levels of political instability and resource depletion will drive up operating costs.

What makes these intertwined threats truly different is their scale, certainty, and direct relevance both to the folks at home as well as the nation's economic interests, however broadly or narrowly you define them. The key word to understand why is scarcity.

As important resources become scarcer, their economic value rises (obviously), and when those resources are basic needs like food, fresh water, and even clean air, their scarcity can lead to social and political upheaval—riots, mass migration, and even state failure.

Fortunately the Pentagon has made peace with the science and is paying attention, adding environmental concerns to the list of threats it thinks the nation and the military face. Both the 2010 Quadrennial Force Review (QDR) and Obama's 2010 National Security Strategy list it, albeit below the other moderate economic threats, unlikely threats, and pseudo-threats. The military's most obvious response so far is its so-called "pivot" toward China, complete with new doctrine—Anti-access/Area Denial ("A2/AD") and "Air Sea Battle"—and more requests for new toys. The pivot is intended to counter China's economic reach as worldwide resources dwindle.

One might ask: What's the military and its budget got to do with it? The military could stop making it worse. The U.S. military is the world's biggest consumer of fossil fuels. The other branches—particularly the Air Force—could follow the Navy's lead and improve its energy efficiency, for starters. (Now there's a good place to spend some military R&D dollars.) We shouldn't let our military be used to make the biggest threat to our (and everyone else's) security worse, wasting gas to protect access to oil wells or to enable further environmental destruction, especially with the newer, more earth-punishing techniques like fracking and tar sand oil production.

How could we manage the security aspects of these problems with a smarter defense budget? First, with regard to China, even a robust approach to U.S. interests does not require galactic spending. A "gap" or "race" mentality won't help do the job (except of defense lobbyists).

Second, as U.S. companies exert their influence to get military protection for their resource acquisition, we need to think about whether each request is a legitimate use of our military. An ideal defense budget would demand democratic accountability. (Yes, this is idealistic, but we're talking about an ideal defense budget here.)

Third, should we as a nation exert some control over when the military gets involved, we should make sure that the military gets involved in a way that is actually useful. History has shown that wherever our military goes, greater instability follows (Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, just to name a few). Our invading military tends to inspire and nurture terrorist and insurgent movements.

With both the security-related challenges that will come from the environmental triple-threat as well as the usual suspects, the effort to create an ideal defense budget would need to truly come to grips with the fact that the military is not always the answer. Often it's not. It's time to pay attention to the lessons learned in the reams of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency studies that the Pentagon has paid for since 9/11. Is the answer to send in the drones and the B-52s and the gunships? Sure, if you want a self-perpetuating conflict. But if you'd rather skip the bloodshed, it's a lot less expensive: be nice, speak the language, know the culture, and bring lots of cash.

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