The U.S. Army recently discovered $900 million worth of spare Stryker parts, many of which are obsolete or unnecessary, collecting dust in a warehouse. None of the parts appear on the Army’s property books, a $900 million accounting error.
Take, for instance, the $57 million worth of obsolete infrared equipment the Army has not installed in Strykers since 2007. It lingered at the Stryker warehouse until the Inspector General called attention to it last year.
Or, the 9,179 small replacement gears called pinions the Army bought as a temporary fix for a Stryker suspension problem that surfaced between 2007 and 2009. The Army took care of the root malfunction in 2010, but kept buying pinions.
It needed only 15 of the gears. The 9,164 extra pinions are worth $572,000, the Inspector General reported.
Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute, thinks it “much ado about nothing” because it’s “essentially miscommunication.” Miscommunication? Apparently, fighting a war and keeping good records are mutually exclusive tasks, never mind the fact that the Stryker Program Management Office wasn’t actually fighting a war, but rather working in an air-conditioned office in Michigan not balancing their books.
I understand that, given the size of DoD’s budget, this is essentially a rounding error. Maybe that’s because it’s too abstract. Using the DoD Comptroller’s FY2013 Program Acquisition Costs by Weapon System report, I calculated the per unit cost for weapon systems. Here’s a list of nicer things we could have had for $900,000,000:
Or we can put this accounting error in the context of total military expenditures by country.
1. United States $689 billion
2. China $129 billion
3. Russia $64 billion
72. Serbia $920 million
73. Stryker PMO accounting error $900 million
74. Slovenia $788 million
75. Bahrain $731 million
Goure’s comments are actually insightful in that they show at least some segment of the defense community believes this incident to be completely normal. The lack of accountability will reinforce the business as usual response. The Department receives and spends so much money, and it’s so complex that it’s hard to keep track. And it’s never been audited so it’s nearly impossible to identify how it (mis)spends money except in cases like this where the Inspector General stumbles upon it. Panetta ordered DoD to be audit ready by 2014, which should force some degree of accountability.
So before we follow the recommendations of those who think DoD needs even more money, or that we can’t afford to cut a single dime, perhaps we should ensure the Department knows how to spend the money we already give it.
Buried in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s long and depressing article on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is an interesting statistic. The F-35 program office employs 2,000 people.
For some perspective, here’s a list of offices, staffs, agencies, and commands and their estimated staff size (not including contractors):
Joint Staff 2,800
Defense Logistics Agency 27,000
I know that the Joint Strike Fighter is an inordinately complex acquisition program that, after years of neglect and mismanagement, requires diligent oversight, but it’s still just a single acquisition program. And yet it employs the same number of people as Centcom, which hasn’t exactly been starved of work in the last decade.
As the Department’s budget grew after 9/11, so too did the overhead. Overhead consumes about 40% of the budget. As of FY10, that was $240 billion, equivalent to the entire Israeli economy. We’ve been trying to reduce it for years.
In 1997, Secretary of Defense William Cohen created a task force called the Defense Reform Initiative and tasked it “to find ways to improve the organization and procedures in the Department” by recommending “organizational reforms, reductions in management overhead and streamlined business practices.” The task force recommended: 1) OSD and associated activities personnel will be reduced 33% from FY 1996 levels; 2) the Joint Staff and associated activities personnel will be reduced 29% from FY 1996; and 3) Defense Agencies personnel will be reduced 21% over the next five years.
In 2010, Secretary Gates tasked the Defense Business Board with repeating the exercise. Again, a task force recommended reducing overhead by streamlining processes and eliminating positions. Some, like dissolving Joint Forces Command, were implemented (though most of these positions simply transferred to the Joint Staff). Gates also identified 102 general officer / flag officer (GOFO) billets to be eliminated, 65 of which were supposed to be eliminated no later than this month. To date, only 31 have been eliminated, mostly 1-stars.
And these are just the two most recent iterations of the game. Studies recommending efficiencies and reducing staff size go back to 1956. They all say the same thing.
The sequester is stupid. There’s no defense for reducing a department’s budget by slicing every line item by an equal amount. Not when there’s so much fat available. But it’s laughable when people act like the budget can’t be cut by another penny. To make that claim is to either betray an ignorance of how the Department actually spends money or put political ideology before analysis.
Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program officer, recently announced his intention to streamline his office by trimming staff. Putting aside for a moment the almost comical goal of keeping JSF costs under control by trimming some staff, I’ve got one thing to say.
There’s been a lot of teeth gnashing and handwringing in the last 24 hours. Having one of your Ambassadors killed and two embassies stormed tends to get the juices flowing. But the embassy protests and consulate attack were just the opening act of a three-act play. Before Act I was finished, Mitt Romney entered stage right and launched a broadside against the administration for “apologizing for American values” and “sending mixed signals.” Act II thus became a referendum on the appropriateness of Romney’s remarks and their timing.
I agree with Rich Lowry and other conservatives who believe that the administration’s response is fair game for politics, although I do disagree with the substance of that critique. But Romney’s timing highlights another symptom of a world linked instantaneously by modern communications and a 24 hour news cycle: the “WE MUST RESPOND NOW!” Syndrome.
As the east coast woke up yesterday morning to the horrible news that our Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, had been killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Twitter began to light up with calls for statements and words of reassurance from the President. Mind you, the President had only been notified of Stevens’ death shortly before sunrise. That fact, and the fact that “the facts” were still trickling in, was irrelevant.
Others (mostly private citizens on Twitter) began calling for action. That’s not surprising. After all, our embassy in Cairo, sovereign American territory, was overrun and the U.S. flag was replaced with an Islamic flag. Some wondered why the U.S. Marine Embassy Security Guards had not fired on protesters. Others wanted to bomb Benghazi.
What links both of these reactions is the emotion driving them. Absent is calm, reasoned analysis, particularly of the second and third order consequences. Romney’s statement didn’t necessarily lack reasoned analysis, but by issuing it when he did and by doubling down on it in an early morning press conference, he displayed a remarkable lack of tactical patience. As noted by Dan Drezner had he held back, the media would have done his job for him.
People often think that the military is trained to react instantly. While true, there’s another lesson often taught to young officers that’s equally as important. It’s called tactical patience. In a nutshell, it’s letting a situation develop in order to 1) understand exactly what is happening and 2) ensuring that conditions are most favorable for a strike. Gunner Keith Marine relays this example:
A guy pulling a pitchfork out of the hay at night looks just like a guy taking a weapon out of a cache at first glance. Take the time to wait a few minutes and observe what the guys are doing before you shoot. The damage you cause may be irreparable. Along with that, if you are still covert and have the drop on folks, hold off they may bring in some of their friends and you can kill them too.
In a tactical engagement, a couple of seconds can be the difference between success and failure. On the strategic stage, seconds equals days or weeks. Sometimes doing nothing is okay. Saying nothing is okay. Not always of course, but sometimes letting a situation develop is as prudent as it is necessary. The 24-hour news cycle and social media provide strong incentives to be first, not be right. Leaders have a responsibility to resist that temptation — being right is far more important than being first.
When Romney stepped into Act I, he altered the course of the play. Act II became a narrative of the appropriateness of Romney’s attack itself. When the GOP nominee says that the President is sympathizing with people attacking American embassies (and ultimately killing an Ambassador), what does he expect that news cycle to look like? Thinking it would unfold any differently displays a stunning naivety of the news cycle and political reporters, and/or amateurish political instincts.
But of course Romney isn’t to blame for the WE MUST RESPOND NOW! Syndrome; he’s merely a product of the public sphere in which, thanks to the magic powers of The Google, we are all stakeholders. He said something because a segment of us wanted someone, anyone to say something, anything to make us feel like the U.S. government was on the case. He did this because as his audience we prioritize speed. Instead, we should prioritize patience.
P.S. — It looks like not even tactical patience can help Ralph Peters.
It’s campaign season and the defense budget, after a decade of bipartisan support for steady growth, is once again a battlefield for Democrats and Republicans. Having used a credit card to fund a forty-year bender, both parties recognize the need – in theory if not practice – to get a handle on the national debt. Representing 20 percent of total Federal government spending and 50 percent of Federal discretionary spending, the defense budget is a large target. And while it may not be the primary driver of deficit spending, to use a basketball analogy, it’s dishing assists like John Stockton. Even some prominent Republicans recognize that some reduction in defense spending is necessary if cutting the debt is to be a real goal and not just a talking point.
Mitt Romney apparently didn’t get that memo. He has pledged to increase the defense budget, spending a minimum of four percent GDP. Pegging defense spending to GDP is not a new idea. The Heritage Foundation wrote a series of reports in 2007 under the tagline Four Percent For Freedom. Around the same time, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen also publicly supported the four percent baseline. In 2009, Sen. James Inhofe and Rep. Trent Franks introduced a joint resolution that would have required DoD base spending to remain above the four percent figure.
A couple of themes emerge among the arguments for pegging defense to GDP. Some argue that “measuring defense spending as a percentage of GDP is the most appropriate and realistic means to gauge America’s commitment to ensuring an adequate national defense.” Without the four percent baseline, they claim that “America’s military will become a ‘hollow’ force placing the lives of our young men and women in uniform at risk and jeopardizing the Pentagon’s ability to defend the nation’s vital national interests.” Others note that because it is the primary responsibility of lawmakers to “provide for the common defense,” DoD is not just another line item in the Federal budget and thus deserves a baseline. And perhaps the most commonrefrain is that setting a four percent baseline sends a message that the United States is committed to its security.
Of course, the Constitution does not stipulate minimum spending on defense. Instead, the Preamble states that “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense… do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” (emphasis mine). The Oath of Office requires our elected leaders to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” (again, emphasis mine). Neither of these texts, however, defines defense or how to provide for it. A narrow interpretation might hold that these clauses require defense against threats to the territorial integrity or political sovereignty of the United States. A more expansive definition might include defending against threats to American interests far away from our shores. The former would seem to be guaranteed by a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons and two oceans, and the latter by a robust navy, a moderately sized army, significant intelligence capabilities, a fleet of unmanned aerial systems, and special operations forces. Many might disagree with these prescriptions, and how well they serve in the defense of the United States and/or its interests, but that’s the point—there’s no Constitutional instruction for defense, and reasonable people can and should debate these points.
Instead, the premises often used to support a defense-by-GDP conclusion are a mixture of vacuous platitudes (hollow force!), red herrings (entitlements are the real cause of runaway government spending!), and/or irrelevant facts (we can afford it!) making the conclusion itself a giant non sequitur. Putting aside the illogical nature of the arguments, what are the practical consequences of setting a baseline on defense spending that is tied to GDP?
For one, pegging defense spending to GDP is divorced from the strategic environment. In the words of one budget specialist, it has “no analytical basis.” Defense spending does not occur in a vacuum. It takes place in the context of threats, interests, obligations, allies, revenues, and other spending requirements. None of these are static. Once upon a time, the U.S. fought Japan and Germany. Once upon a time, the U.S. faced an existential threat from the Soviet Union. Once upon a time, the U.S. didn’t have a large network of allies. Pledging to spend four percent of GDP on defense disregards changes to the strategic environment. Furthermore, it focuses on only one variable of a multi-variable equation. Richard Betts writes:
Today’s supporters of increased military spending justify their advocacy by pointing out that current levels of spending, measured by the share of GDP devoted to defense, are well below those of the Cold War. This is both true and irrelevant. The argument focuses on only one component of the equation — spending — and conveniently ignores that the scope of commitments, the choice of strategy, and the degree of risk accepted can be adjusted as well. And it draws the wrong lesson from history, which when properly interpreted suggests that today’s lesser threats could be handled with greater aplomb.
I’m sympathetic to the argument that setting a minimum investment in defense sends a message to other branches of government, allies, and potential enemies that defense is a priority. But does anyone think that if the U.S. only spent 3.5 percent of GDP, which is roughly $525 billion, on DoD’s base budget, that we would be any less secure? Conversely, if we spent 9 percent of GDP, roughly the proportion we spent in 1968, would lawmakers feel more secure? Would we actually be more secure? Remember, no amount of money will completely mitigate risk.
Pledging to spend four percent of GDP is no more than a campaign slogan. It serves to cast Democrats in the role of dove played opposite the familiar Republican hawk, but does so without evaluating the strategic environment or (re)assessing potential threats and American interests and how the military should be used to protect them. And the great irony is that many of the proponents of setting a defense baseline have stated unequivocally “strategy should always guide the defense budget.” Pegging defense to GDP as one’s starting point would seem to violate this maxim.
Except, in the Republican worldview, it doesn’t. Mitt Romney and the Defense Defenders’ (worst band name ever?) plan to devote increasingly larger piles of money to the defense budget makes perfect strategic sense. In their view, which for all intents and purposes is a neoconservative one, U.S. military power is the only thing holding this crazy, anarchic world together. Moreover, it’s the only tool the U.S. has for getting what it wants. Rather than reassess commitments and obligations, or tailor strategies, they would double down on old ones, like defending Europe as if it was 1984, and take on new ones, like periodically bombing Iran and intervening in Syria. Thus, a perpetually rising DoD budget becomes necessary, and pegging it to GDP, rather than Federal government revenues (which go up and down), forms an appropriate benchmark.
In reality, setting a floor on defense spending pegged to “the number of Big Macs meals sold at McDonald’s” seems to be a myopic scheme designed to ensure the defense budget rises in perpetuity while assiduously avoiding consideration of the possibility that after spending $4 trillion fighting violent non-state actors, deposing regional pretenders, and fighting wars that never seem to end that maybe, just maybe, we’re doing it wrong. Throwing money at a problem might be good politics, but it’s rarely sound defense policy.
In late April, supporters of a hardline Islamist group camped out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to rally for their presidential candidate. I was visiting Cairothree years after I lived there, and downtown looked completely different than what I remembered. Men with full beards and women in black niqabs were rallying for shariah law and carrying the raya, the black banner often carried by Sunni fundamentalists across the region. These were rare sites a few years ago when downtown was packed with American University of Cairo students, tourists, and businesses thriving off of the capital city’s commotion. The demonstration occurred against a backdrop of street art depicting the young martyrs of the revolution, many of them clean-shaven and dressed in Western clothing. The contrast between these new protesters and those depicted on the wall illustrated the early evolution of the new Egypt.
Meanwhile, across the 6 of October Bridge, the activist band El Zabaleen headlined a concert for Earth Day. Zabaleen, which means “garbage people” in Egyptian Arabic, refers to a class of people who collect and recycle most of trash generated by Cairo’s 6 million residents. As students at American University of Cairo, the band formed as a way to bring attention to the grave environmental state of the city, and to Egypt as a whole.
Last week, Egyptians headed to the polls for their first free and fair elections. The resulting runoff between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi and the former Mubarak official Ahmed Shafiq leaves voters in the tenuous position of having to choose between an Islamist domination of the government and a remnant of the regime they revolted against.
Though an Islamist domination ofEgypt’s politics seems highly possible now, this was not necessarily the case in January 2011 when the revolution seized Egypt. At that time, the members of El Zabaleen had joined their friends and classmates in Tahrir to protest a system, and a government that was no longer tolerable even for the wealthy and employed. Youssef El Kady, the founder of El Zabaleen, describes the other early revolutionaries: “You can’t really generalize by saying it was young people or Salafis or whatever, but from my perspective, I think that it started off not by the people who are struggling economically, but rather with the people who are fed up with the corrupt system that has been there all their life.”
In January 2011, many in Egypt shared El Kady’s perspective. While the Arab Spring found its catalyst in a poor Tunisian street vendor, the impetus for the revolution in Egypt was Wael Ghonim, an educated Google executive who was raised in a middle-class family. Ghonim and other young activists used not just their presence in Tahrir but also social media to topple Mubarak. There are disagreements over the extent to which Facebook and Twitter themselves produced the revolutions, but studies such as the Dubai School of Government’s Arab Social Media Report give empirical substantiation to the unique and prominent role of these online tools.
But on Earth Day 2012, none of these educated, well-off youth could be found in Tahrir. The liberal parties have taken a backseat to Islamist and military political dominance, despite Cairo’s prodigious graffiti and artwork depicting the martyrs of the revolution – many of whom were employed young adults or current university students.
Instead, Tahrir was packed with ardent supporters of Salafist leader Abu Ismail. While it is difficult to summarize the broad spectrum of Salafism with one definition, Center for Naval Analyses analyst and Johns Hopkins adjunct faculty Will McCants describes the practice in the Brookings report Lesser of Two Evils as “the method modeling one’s thought and behavior on Muhammad on the first three generations of Muslims, called the ‘forefathers’ (salaf).” Salafists generally adhere to a strict interpretation of the Qu’ran, and many shun participation in parliamentary democracy. As such, most of Egypt’s “quietist” Salafi leaders were apprehensive of or outright resistant to the uprising against Mubarak in early 2011, and conservative religiosity was uncommon in downtown Cairo even after the early days of the revolution.
So where did the Salafis come from, and how did the Salafis manage to win a quarter of the seats in the recent parliamentary elections?
El Kady explains, “When we went into the streets on January 25, we never dreamed of what could happen in a couple weeks. After Mubarak fell, we were ready for the Muslim Brotherhood but the Salafis were very much a surprise. We didn’t even realize there were Salafis in Egypt.”
McCants contextualizes not just the little-known presence of Egyptian Salafis, but also their unprecedented political participation. He explains that Salafis not only existed before Mubarak’s fall, but were able to organize freely because they shunned involvement in politics and thereby earned Mubarak’s “benign neglect.”
While there is a distinction between the now organized Salafi party members and the illiterate, religious, conservative masses who voted for Salafi parliamentarians, McCants concedes that it is hard to quantify this distinction from publicly available reporting. Nonetheless, it is clear that “the Salafi parties are formidable, drawing their support from charitable institutions with broad geographical reach, popular satellite channels, and deep pockets that are allegedly filled with Gulf petrodollars (estimated by one analyst at $1 billion).”
As for the original protestors, it should be no surprise that the majority of Egyptians are not liberal secularists. They are a very small minority of the Egyptian population; as Hudson Institute research fellow Samuel Tadros aptly writes, “Egypt is not Cairo and Cairo is not Tahrir Square.” Too, there is a sense, even among themselves, that the secular liberals retreated too early, pulling back just as Mubarak fell.
This has engendered sour feelings among those who had supported the young revolutionaries. Salwa, an artist and mother of two living in Cairo, told me, “I feel betrayed. I feel like we all went out into the streets and supported these young people and put our lives on the line. But as soon as they thought they won, the streets were left empty. They didn’t think ahead and now you have people in Tahrir who want to mix religion and politics and to take away our freedoms.”
Other secularists seem to have a more realist approach to the events of the Arab Spring, both in recognizing their populist shortcomings as well as the incumbency of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Mariam Ali, the lead singer and eponym of another Earth Day activist band, AboMariam, explains, “SCAF kind of pulled the rug out from everyone, I think, by having Mubarak step down and having it seem like the revolution had succeeded – which it has in some ways, but it’s not even close to being over. Despondency and despair is our enemy, not people.”
As an outsider, I expected there to be more animosity between these rival groups and viewed the Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood as having hijacked the revolution. But many of the young secularists I spoke with repeated this sentiment that they are not particularly worried about who is in Tahrir. They were more optimistic that they were free of the initial grievance of the revolution, the state of emergency law. And it is abundantly clear that people, from Salafis to secularists, are finding a myriad of ways to remain politically active. Ali explains, “People are campaigning for their rights, engaging in political discussion, through music, film, theater, comedy, street art and much more. It’s like new life has been breathed into them. It’s enough for me that we feel we have a claim in our country and its future.”
Tara Vassefi is a faculty member with the Naval Postgraduate School’s Leadership and Development Education for Sustained Peace program. She received her Master’s from the University of St. Andrews and lived in Syria and Egypt from 2007-2008. These views are her own and do not represent those of LDESP, CCMR or NPS.
GEN Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has released his Chairman’s reading list. So far, this one is receiving better reviews than the reading list he released during his short stint as Army Chief of Staff last summer, which received some harshreviews. Just about every general officer publishes a reading list, formal or informal, but the Chairman’s reading list and those of the service chiefs generally get the most press.
These reading lists are easy to poke fun at and critique because no list is perfect. That said, they serve a useful purpose. Most of the books, especially those targeted to field grade and general officers, are intended to get the military reader thinking and learning about larger, strategic issues that govern the military profession or affect U.S. foreign policy. For instance, both of Dempsey’s reading lists had Robert Kaplan’s Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power and Samuel Huntington’s The Soldier and the State. On the other hand, the generals have a tendency to include some weird stuff, like books about starfish and spiders.
Last summer, I re-read E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed. The GOP primary season was nearing its pinnacle of farce and I thought to myself that this book ought to be required reading for anyone who sought the office of President because anyone who wants to be Commander-in-Chief needs to bone up on the consequences of their decisions to send American boys and girls to war. While the military does an exceptional job of publishing reading lists to help officers and staff non-commissioned officers better understand civilians, the reverse is, sadly, not true.
In that spirit, here is a reading list that, if the G&L collective was President or National Security Advisor, it would require each civilian political appointee working in State, Defense, or the NSC to read. Like GEN Dempsey’s list, this one is not exhaustive and I’m sure there are some things we missed or omitted. This will be a list-in-progress and we’ll be adding/subtracting titles. So, feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section.
As a self-aware Predator drone, I get my share of criticism. “You’re flying lost-link again!” “You vaporized a playground!” “You’re trying to usher in a post-human robo-dystopia!” Some of this is valid, some of it…okay, most of it is valid. But sometimes, the public discourse over drones like me becomes so turgid and dramatic that it obscures reasonable discussion of my pros and cons. And when the hyperventilating gets most hyper, when the language becomes most overwrought, when the prognostication gets most preposterous, I see it stemming from the conflation of two very different issues. And I don’t think that that’s an accident.
Two distinct constituencies use UAVs as a touchstone. One is concerned with the national security and foreign policy implications of drones, and the other with their privacy and domestic law enforcement applications. For brevity’s sake, I’ll call the first group “Oppenheimers,” after a guy who got a good look at a new kind of warfare and spent the rest of his life championing international institutions to make sure it never took place. They feel that remotely-piloted aircraft represent a qualitative shift in the ability of a nation, and a chief executive, to use force. And not a shift for the better.
Oppenheimers think drones will usher in an Imperial presidency. The capitalization there is important, because we’re talking Imperial as in Palpatine at the helm of the Galactic Empire. They fear that through technical means, drones are reducing or eliminating the political impediments to war, and blurring the line about what kind of conflict constitutes war in the first place. (Nobody puts a flag over drone wreckage, let alone puts it on the nightly news.) Oppenheimers also deplore the role that drones play in the larger framework of the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, which the Obama administration interprets as giving them clearance to use force (whether under Titles 10 or 50) against al-Qaeda or its affiliates anywhere on the planet.
Oppenheimers advocate for the application of international law to the use of drones, and where such laws don’t exist, for their development and implementation. They see UAVs as tools that let rich countries violate human rights, flout national sovereignty, circumvent the judicial process, and do it all in a legal gray area that requires no real accountability for those who command them. And they foresee a world in which a string of tactical successes, a veritable terrorist Whack-a-Mole, leads to a crippling strategic failure by turning local populations against us through faceless violence.
The second constituency I’ll call the “Orwells.” Their primary concern about drones is domestic. They see the technological potential for drone surveillance, the interest from law enforcement and government agencies, and the massive aerospace industry primed to meet the demand. While there are often noises made about UAV safety, the primary gripe of Orwells- who can point to an actual passage in 1984 which describes small unmanned aircraft peering through people’s windows- is that drones are vanguards of a pervasive surveillance culture. The police watch you outside with robots, corporations like Facebook and Google parse your user data to better bombard you with ads, and the NSA hoovers up your phone and email communications to feed through a secret counter-terrorism algorithm.
But the Orwells face a problem of domestic case law. Despite fractious debate over “reasonable expectations of privacy,” the Supreme Court has consistently held that police departments are permitted to conduct aerial surveillance of private citizens and property, so long as they traverse publicly-available airspace and use the same technology commonly available to members of the public. Those rulings made no distinction between whether the platform used for such surveillance was manned or unmanned, nor do many court-watchers expect that precedent to be soon overturned.
While the Orwells demand action from the FAA (which, as I’ve complained, is a safety regulator and not a privacy watchdog) the only real recourse will come from state and federal legislation to restrict such searches. But it’s certainly not imminent, thanks in large part to burdensome FAA regulations and review processes. Right now, police departments drone programs lag behind such surveillance ninjas as hobbyists and high school science teachers.
The Oppenheimers want to curb the executive branch’s authority to conduct lethal operations overseas, primarily through the military and intelligence community. And they want international norms and laws to constrain the kinetic use of remotely-piloted aircraft. Conversely, the Orwells want to more carefully govern the power of local, state and federal law enforcement to conduct surveillance and evidence-gathering on Americans.
On the surface, the distinction between Orwells and Oppenheimers may not seem significant. But they truly are. Yes, both are trying to rein in the use of flying robots, which, depending on who’s talking, are assuming a role in society somewhere between J. Edgar Hoover and a winged Terminator. And both want to accomplish that goal by bringing national security and surveillance law into the 21st century. But the similarity ends there, and they are doing two important discussions a twin disservice by deliberately allowing the public to conflate them.
The Oppenheimer challenge is relevance. Why should the vast majority of Americans care about the particular platform our spies and soldiers use, when they’re using it to kill people we’ve never met, in a country we’ll never visit, as part of an effort we generally support? And the Orwell challenge is harm. Why should Americans worry about the police using drones when most of us have never seen one, most of us will probably never be surveilled by one, and even if we are, police helicopters do this kind of thing already?
By allowing the two questions to blur together- drones abroad and drones at home- the Oppenheimers demonstrate relevance and the Orwells show harm. The recent FAA reauthorization, despite the hype, allowed only a gradual phasing-in of government drone usage over the next three years. And yet it was a gift to both sides; by using stock photos of MQ-1s, MQ-9s or Global Hawks, media outlets implied that military-grade, Cessna-sized robotic weapons platforms would be found under the Christmas trees of every police department from Manhattan to Mayberry.
It’s a lot easier to make people uneasy over privacy concerns when you pair the article with pictures of a targeted-killing machine. Same way it’s easier to make people care about collateral damage in Yemen or the Phillipines by being able to say with a straight face, “You may be next.” This line-blurring is inaccurate, widespread, and actively harmful to an informed debate.
Oppenheimers are wrestling with the problem of how America uses force in hostile, fluid or ungoverned territory; Orwells are trying to apply 250 years of the rule of law to a new police technology. Both are doing so, by and large, in good faith. But establishing international standards for the deployment and operation of lethal military assets will do precisely nothing to curb the rise of the surveillance state within America’s borders. Nor will enhanced American legal protections against police UAV surveillance somehow prevent collateral damage in the lawless regions of Pakistan or Yemen.
While I actually agree with many of the concerns of both groups, pretending that their goals have anything in common, just because they use the same stock photography, is ridiculous. And when Orwells and Oppenheimers imply that the New Jersey State Police will soon rain Hellfire missiles onto Garden State Parkway speeders, it creates a rhetorical fog bank that’s too thick for logic to penetrate.
I spent January listening to the first half of Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, in which she dissects the run-up to World War I. Tuchman describes conversations taking place across Europe in which generals and politicians alike are all, “We’re absolutely going to be home by Christmas. There is no possible way that couldn’t happen. The other side? Pushovers. Probably won’t even show up to fight. Also this is totally a great idea and we will get everything we want out of this war. EVERYTHING.”
We all know how well that worked out.
Reading the heated op-eds about the necessity of war with Iran and/or Syria, it strikes me that they’re nothing new. The strange overconfidence on display in the 1910s – that war would be quick, easy, and end favorably – was echoed in the run up to Iraq and is being rehashed today. This reminded me of the Rubicon Theory of War, a barely-noted article from last summer’s issue of International Security that offers valuable food for thought, particularly for those charged with thinking or writing about war. The authors address the overconfidence conundrum, namely, that people who should know better than to think war will be quick and easy often act like this is their first rodeo. The authors conclude:
When people believe they have crossed a psychological Rubicon and perceive war to be imminent, they switch from what psychologists call a “deliberative” to an “implemental” mind-set, triggering a number of psychological biases, most notably overconfidence. These biases can cause an increase in aggressive or risky military planning. Furthermore, if actors believe that war is imminent when it is not in fact certain to occur, the switch to implemental mind-sets can be a causal factor in the outbreak of war, by raising the perceived probability of military victory and encouraging hawkish and provocative policies.
Their research suggests humans are only rational actors until we make a decision – cross the Rubicon – at which point our mental apparatus will go through whatever logical leaps necessary to avoid questioning that decision. The authors frame this idea in terms of mind-sets – deliberative vs. implemental – to account for the full range of attendant biases, which they’ve laid out in a helpful table:
Essentially, when we’ve crossed the Rubicon, we are less likely to accept information that does not support our decision, and we’re more likely to believe we will be successful regardless of evidence to the contrary. This overconfidence leads to riskier war plans and a higher likelihood of going to war. As for the standard rational actor model, the authors suggest that rationality goes out the window once a decision is taken:
Early on in the decisionmaking process, a leader is more likely to be in a deliberative mind-set and may approximate a rational actor. Later during the crisis, the same leader is more likely to be in an implemental mind-set, and may display a range of biases that deviate from rationality.
This phenomenon affects the general public as well. Take Iraq:
For example, in 2003, regime change in Iraq might have been relatively straightforward, but postwar stabilization was likely to be difficult and protracted. Nevertheless, as the invasion drew near, Americans concluded that success in both of these objectives would be swift. … In the months leading up to the conflict, a majority expected “a long and costly involvement” in Iraq. But judgments switched immediately before the war, such that a majority now expected “a fairly quick and successful effort.”
Again, we know how well that turned out.
It should be noted that this decision needn’t be a conscious one, nor is it necessarily predicated upon a rational cost/benefit analysis. However, when one writes that the alternatives are narrowing, as Elliot Abrams did, and that some action must be taken, and then concludes that action must be military in nature, we can assume the die’s been cast:
If success were made of speeches and sanctions the Obama policy would be marvelous — and adequate. The problem is that Syria is at war, and one side or the other will win that war. It will be the Assad/Russia/Iran/Hezbollah side, or the popular uprising with its European, American, and Arab support. A deus ex machina ending is possible, wherein some Syrian Army generals push Assad out and agree to a transition away from Assad and Alawite rule. But such a step by the generals is far more likely if they conclude that Assad’s war is lost.
So we must make sure he loses. Directly or indirectly, the next step is to provide plenty of money and arms, training, and intelligence to the Free Syrian Army and other opponents of the Assads.
Abrams notes that there could be problems down the road, but dismisses them with a handwave: “All those questions will come with victory against the bad guys — but only with victory.” As though the path to victory will have no bearing on the eventual outcomes. As though arming the opposition is a surefire way to win this war. As though there’s no way it won’t be over in days, not weeks or years.
Whether we should get into a war with/in Iran/Syria is outside the scope of this blog post. Rather, I want to make clear that there are unconscious psychological biases that come along with the acceptance of war that make it difficult to maintain objectivity and rationality – and that we must be on our guard against sloppy thinking. Once we’ve committed to the idea, we begin to assume things will go our way, and we avoid thinking about – and planning for – negative outcomes. If the actual decision about going to war is a determinant of our ideas about how that war will play out - and not, say, intelligence about an opponent’s military preparedness, or the potential negative consequences of war, or even the difficulty of executing the war – it’s crucial that we guard against overconfidence. And it’s not like we can’t fight against that inclination; it’s just that we often don’t.
At the end of every war, somebody says, “This. This is the end of war. Now, finally, it’s too expensive/too stupid/too wasteful/too destructive.” And indeed, it seems like the costs of war are rising and the benefits shrinking. But we seem incapable of the necessary in-the-moment questioning our cognitive processes to determine whether this war, just this one, will actually be easy, cheap, and rewarding, or if we just really want it to be.
It’s critical for leaders, intellectuals, the media, and the general public alike to understand consciously what mind set we are in and the attendant cognitive biases that brings. These sort of metacognitive tasks are admittedly difficult – our knowledge about how and what we think is limited, and gaining greater control over those processes is challenging (read Thinking, Fast and Slow for some great – and disturbing – examples of this). But it’s not impossible, and given the stakes, I’d argue that we are all responsible for knowing when we’ve cast our lots. Without the self-awareness and intellectual honesty to recognize when we’ve switched to an implemental mindset – and to then guard against the resultant surge of overconfidence – we’re doomed to the same debates and the same outcomes.
Post script: It was while chewing over all that that I made those sarcastic Go The Fuck To War prints. I’ve never been good at artist statements, so I’m going to assume y’all understand what they mean (to wit: once you start thinking war is an okay idea, you’re probably gonna be a little too enthusiastic about it). Anyway, I forgot that I was supposed to give two of them away last week, so! You get another chance: head over to this post and comment and you’ll be entered to win. Manage your expectations.
Update: Don’t bother reading what I wrote below. Go read what Gulliver wrote almost a year ago instead.
All of the DoD budget talk and the vociferous debate over whether or not to preemptively strike Iran’s nuclear infrastructure has highlighted what I think is a troubling trend in military analysis.
Too often, analysts point to total military expenditures as a means to compare relative military strength. For instance, proponents of forthcoming DoD budget cuts like to cite the fact that the U.S. spends more on national defense than every other country in the world combined as evidence that DoD can afford to tighten the purse strings. This evidence also appears when analysts and pundits are making the argument that Iran does not pose a military threat to the United States.
This argument is not limited to appearances in pithy op-eds and blogs either. It’s prevalent in scholarly journals and other academic texts as well. The following is from a 1997 article in International Security:
Each of the Eurasian great powers (with the exception of Russia) spends about the same amount on its military as the others, which suggests that none could easily overpower the rest.
Now, the authors moderate their claim by using the word ‘suggests’, but the point is clear – they believe similar levels of military spending equate to similar levels of military power.
Is this really the best way to measure the relative military strength of two or more countries? I submit that the answer is no. Military power is far too complex to measure with a simple fact like military expenditures. Concepts like doctrine and readiness are hard to quantify, but play a huge role in military power.
Let’s take the following hypothetical.
Let’s assume that the U.S. and Russia spend the same amount of money on their respective militaries. Let’s further assume that the U.S. allocates a sizeable portion of its resources to training – we’ll say the average fighter pilot gets roughly 150 hours per year in the cockpit. Russia, meanwhile, elects to spend its resources on slightly more capable jets, but its pilots only get 20 hours per year flight time, and they ran out of money before they could build a simulator. If we assume that similar circumstances exist throughout the Russian armed forces, who has the more capable military? The well-trained one or the one with the expensive equipment that the troops don’t know how to use effectively?
Military spending is an easy way to measure military strength, insofar as it can provide an initial estimate for assessing the comparative military strength of two or more countries and/or be included in an introduction to set the stage for the main argument. But it’s hardly appropriate to cite such data as your sole evidence while making an argument in favor of budget cuts or whether a hostile power represents a military threat.
And if that’s not convincing, just look at the Pentagon. Not exactly the model for spending money efficiently or wisely, huh?
I like nuance as much as the next guy, but sometimes something is either right or it’s wrong.
Like many people, I was disturbed this week to hear about the video-recorded incident wherein a few Marines urinated on the corpses of what are purported to be Taliban fighters. And I was angry to hear about Mossad’s alleged ‘false flag’ operation, using American money and passports to pose as CIA when hiring terrorists. These two incidents are disturbing enough in and of themselves, but the defenses, justifications, and equivocations I have heard around them are what spurred me to write.
What those Marines did was wrong. There is no argument you can make that can make it not wrong, though plenty of people seem to be trying. Some have argued that the Taliban do much worse to any dead soldiers they get their hands on. Well, are the Taliban really the role models we want to be following? We are not in the business of trying to be more like the Taliban. I hear this sort of argument used regularly to justify the more questionable activities undertaken by our government in the name of national security, and I find it baffling. Why would the fact that al Qaeda, or the Taliban, or al-Shabaab, or any other like organization, does something serve as our justification for doing the same? Are we not fighting them on the premise that what they do is wrong and criminal and they must be stopped? If that is the case, why would we ever seek to emulate them? And if it’s not the case, what are we doing fighting them?
Many also have made the point that terrible things happen in war; that this type of incident is not new; that war is not sanitary or palatable; that it is ugly, and crude, and people do unspeakable things in its course. This is all true. Horrible things happen in war. However, we can understand and acknowledge that fact without letting go of our striving to be better.
In justifying the ‘false flag’ operation, people leap to Israel’s defense by stating that e.g., Pakistan, or Afghanistan, has been a much worse ally to the United State. Even taking at its face the argument that, to use a favorite example of these arguers, Pakistan has been an overall less reliable ally to the US than Israel, that doesn’t change the fact that what Israel is alleged to have done is wrong and no way to treat your staunchest ally. It isn’t a ‘Crappiest Ally’ contest. We don’t have to argue that Israel’s worse than Pakistan, or France, or Afghanistan, or Burkina Faso, or anyone else in order to make our case that this is not OK: putting our people, our reputation, our operations in danger is unacceptable, is a hostile act, and is no way to treat a nation that protects you, subsidizes you, and goes to bat for you in the UN and the International Community in general even when that’s an overwhelmingly unpopular decision.
As complex as some factors are in both of these cases, some things just aren’t.
Gunpowder & Lead is a security-oriented blog dedicated to open-minded inquiry of a range of issues, including international relations, foreign policy, the U.S. military, the international arms trade, and strategy and defense writ large.