Friday, January 27, 2023

A Great Boondoggle | The Z Blog

 Back during the Cold War, specifically in the Reagan years, the media used to love reporting on military boondoggles. The format of the story required a few budget items that would strike the normal person as outrageous. Perhaps it was a hand tool that cost tens of thousands of dollars. This tool was part of a weapons system budget that was being criticized for its cost. Perhaps it was a mundane items like a toilet seat or a hammer that would cost thousands of dollars.

The main reason for these stories was to promote the charade that the two parties were locked in serious opposition. The Democrats pretended to be against the military, while the Republicans were pro-military. In reality, both parties were fully owned by the military industrial complex, but the demands of the Cold War required the two parties to maintain the aura of a lively democracy. The free world was open and debated things, while the Soviets were closed to debate.

We no longer see stories like this, despite the fact that for the last thirty years America has spent over a trillion on war per year. Officially the war budget is a trillion a year, but no one seems to know how much is really spent. There never has been an official accounting of the Afghanistan debacle or the war in Iraq. America technically has a budget, but no one knows what is in it. At this point, it is an abstract concept even to the people who vote on it Congress.

Those old stories about military contractors ripping off the taxpayer also served as a distraction from larger issues. America had shifted after Vietnam away from fielding a military to fight a large scale war to a military built for small wars. That meant a change in the tools of war. Instead of inexpensive machines that a recruit could be quickly trained to operate, the machines would be complex and require years of training, but they would be unusually lethal.

A simple example is the tank. In the Second World War the tank was the symbol of the opposing armies. America produced massive numbers of Sherman tanks that overwhelmed the technically superior German tanks. The Tiger was superior than the Sherman, but not better than a swarm of them. The Abrams tank, developed in the 1980’s for the new army, was a technological marvel. It is big and complicated, but unusually lethal in the right hands.

Another way of putting this is the American army was transitioning from the shotgun approach to war to the rifle approach to war. Instead of firebombing cities, the American military will hit the military targets in the city. Instead of indiscriminately attacking the enemy positions, it would hit key points with pinpoint accuracy. This would require new weapons that pushed the edge of military technology. The new smart military would require new smart  and expensive weapons.

Over the last thirty years this approach looked smart. In the first Iraq invasion the American military attacked and destroyed a big army in the desert, without suffering any serious losses. Smart missiles knocked out their air defense system and smart bombs destroyed key infrastructure. The smart air force pinned down the Iraqi army while waves of Abrams outflanked them. By any measure, it was an amazing display of the new smart army versus the old dumb army.

The thing no one bothered asking is whether this new smart military would look good against a more serious opponent. Instead, it has been thirty years of applause as the American war machine beats up on hand picked opponents. Launching cruise missiles from destroyers that hit targets in Baghdad is not the same thing as hitting targets in China from the South China Sea. Destroying tanks in the Donbas is a different task than strafing them in the Iraqi desert.

The war in Ukraine is giving as a clue on this front. In theory the West is about to send main battle tanks to Ukraine. Whether this actually happens is questionable as it takes a long time to train a crew on an Abrams or Leopard tank. It will take months to get the infrastructure in place just to operate them in the rear, away from Russian drones, artillery and missiles. The Pentagon thinks they can get Abrams in the field by 2024 but they are not making any promises.

The thing that no one really wants to say, but is painfully obvious, is that the smart tanks are not much use without smart operators and a massive technological infrastructure to sustain and control them. In fact, the Abrams tank may not be suited for the fighting in the Donbas for the simple reason it is too fragile. This is a high intensity ground combat and this tank is simply unfit for these conditions. In other words, it is more of a show pony than a workhorse.

A similar story is unfolding with other weapons. The Russians have been using their missiles to knock out Ukrainian air defenses and utility systems. The West has promised to send new air defense system, but it turns out that they are so expensive and complicated that few of them actually exist. The lead time to make new missiles and their launchers is years. In one case, the lead time for a single missile is close to three years.

It is not just the wonder weapons that are in short supply. Land wars are about the industrial capacity of the combatants. In land war, both sides will use massive amounts of ammunition in an effort to degrade the opponent. Some estimates say that the Ukrainians expend five thousand artillery rounds per day in some areas, while overall the total is twice that number. Reliable reports say the Russians currently outgun the Ukrainians by a factor of ten.

The problem for the West and specifically America is there is nowhere near enough military industrial capacity to meet Ukraine’s demands. The Pentagon is asking for bids to build new capacity, but that will take years. The Ukrainian army will be history long before it happens. Putting that aside, the new capacity is a fraction of what an army would need in a land war. Instead of spending billions on the F-35 program, the Pentagon should have been making artillery shells. Whoops.

It turns out that the logic of the new technological army rested on Francis Fukuyama being right about the end of history. The trillion dollar whiz-bang army would never have to fight a serious opponent. Russia would be parted out and China would be flying the rainbow flag of diversity. The new technological army just needed to look good in shorts, not actually perform on the field. It also had to make the friends of the imperial government obscenely rich.

Like so much that has happened since the end of the Cold War, the American war machine is something of a scam. It was built on the assumption that the narratives the ruling class was spinning were a reflection of reality. Instead, those narratives simply secured their position atop the new world order. They had little connection with the reality of what was happening in the world. As a result, the imperial war machine is unfit for the task of defending the empire.

The irony here is that it proves Pat Buchanan was right. As he heads into retirement, he is seeing his warnings come true. The great de-industrialization of America has turned the country into a paper tiger. A century ago, America was the arsenal of democracy, but now it is unable to make much of anything. Like so much about the last thirty years, the military industrial complex is just another grift. It is a trillion dollar boondoggle, a great con on the American people.

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