Home / Robert Farley / The LCS, Apple Pie, and What Not

The LCS, Apple Pie, and What Not


First off, let me recommend some reading on a couple of defense issues. Galrahn has an excellent post (really, the latest of a long, long series of excellent posts) on the dual Littoral Combat Ship buy. See also UltimaRatioReg who, with typically purple prose, raises legitimate questions about the point of the LCS. Then, see this old Bill Sweetman article on the Tu-22 Backfire bomber. It’s a masterpiece of military writing. It includes close technical analysis based on available intelligence, an elaboration of the political and strategic consequences of tactical development, and an evaluation of the causes and consequences of misunderstandings about the capabilities of the Tu-22.

These pieces share the project of working through the political implications of choices about military hardware and doctrine. I’m recommending them here because I continue to believe that progressives consistently underestimate the importance of discussions about military doctrine and technology. More importantly, I think that progressives can and should commit themselves to making more of a contribution on these debates. I believe that, right now, progressives have evacuated the field on questions of military doctrine and technology (with a couple of important exceptions, as noted below), leaving the conversation to conservatives and “centrists”. Effectively, this means that the “left” side of the US debate on the composition (rather than the size) of the defense budget is represented by people like Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, or (at very best) by the folks at the Center for American Progress. Finally, I think that we are approaching a political reality in which real cuts to defense spending will become possible, and that staking out genuinely progressive positions on issues of military doctrine and technology actually have a chance of affecting the composition of US military forces.

I think that progressives agree on two broad lines of thought about US defense.  The first is that the United States should refrain from fighting stupid, random wars, while the second is that the US defense budget is far, far too high.  A corollary to both of these is that the United States ought to stop acting in an “imperial” manner, regularly interfering in the politics of foreign countries and so forth.  These broad concepts are far more radical than they should be in American political discourse; a substantial portion of the institutional Democratic Party disagrees with one or both, the Beltway establishment (to the extent it is legitimate to attribute direct political views to it) isn’t on board with either, and of the major foreign policy think tanks there’s not wide agreement on either concept (I think that CAP is on board with a weak version of both arguments, and perhaps CATO for different reasons).  Of course, there are more radical critiques of US defense policy (US only needs a Coast Guard, US defense budget should be zeroed out, etc.) but while these critiques influence the mainstream of progressive thought, I wouldn’t say that they’re representative of progressives as a whole.

These two broad points of agreement are fine as far as they go; in the context of the modern American defense debate, they remain depressingly radical and marginalized.  I can understand why there’s a general reluctance to go beyond these two arguments into the details of defense procurement and military doctrine.  To the extent that progressives think very much about either of these, the two major themes discussed about dominate discussion; we discuss COIN in terms of its implications for remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we think about cutting the F-22 in terms of budgetary impact.  This is to say that thinking about optimal US defense posture, or more broadly thinking about the role that the US military ought to play in the world, takes a backseat to the two main points of progressive thought on military policy.

There’s no question that these lines of inquiry have been productive.  In my view, progressive critics of COIN have done a much better, more nuanced job than right wing critics, even if we’ve gotten some big things (the tactical successes of the Surge, for example) wrong.  I often find progressive thought on COIN somewhat frustrating, since much of the body of work seems to assume that COIN was invented in 2006 as a way to keep the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the best progressive critiques of operational and tactical issues are very, very good.  Moreover, I think that progressives have done some good work on identifying systematic problems in defense budgeting and procurement.

But here is the problem: If the United States withdrew from Iraq, and Afghanistan, ceased drone incursions into Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and reduced defense expenditure to the Japanese level (1.3%, which is below the European norm), the United States would still have the world’s largest military budget, and would probably field the world’s most capable military forces.  At some point China would pass the US in overall expenditure, but the US would still lead in many metrics of training, technology, and effectiveness.  While I’m not sure that it would be correct to call the US the “indispensable nation” in military affairs in such a situation, the United States would obviously remain a very important piece of the global military picture.

In this context, I think it’s important for progressives to ask ourselves two related questions.  The first is “What role should the United States military play in the world?”, and the second is “What should US force structure and military doctrine look like?”  Obviously, the first needs to inform the second, and is probably the more complicated of the two.   Nevertheless, the second is important; US decisions on how many Littoral Combat Ships, amphibious warships, F-35s, in-flight tankers, and deployable soldiers to purchase and train have deep implications for the ability of the United States military to undertake successful operations. Most importantly, a working knowledge of US doctrine and technology is useful for both questions. If you envision the ideal US military as performing a “hegemony light” role, including disaster relief, anti-smuggling and anti-piracy, certain forms of counter-terrorism, and similar missions, then the Littoral Combat Ship is a very interesting and potential useful piece of equipment. If you envision the role of the US military as primarily about territorial defense (potentially extended to certain allies) this has different implications for a platform like the LCS.

Moreover, answers to the second question can affect the first. Although strategy can dictate capabilities, capabilities also limit strategy. A military with minimal expeditionary capabilities obviously will have difficulty fighting expeditionary wars. Small land forces make large scale overseas deployments difficult. The absence of counter-insurgency capabilities may reduce the ability of the military to wage long term anti-guerrilla campaigns, although it may not. To the extent that progressives are interested in arguing for a particular vision of US foreign policy, they can use military doctrine and technology as tools in that fight; conservatives do so all the time.

So what I’m asking for is this: Progressives should start making arguments framed around the question of whether or not the F-35 (or the LCS, or whatever you feel like) is the kind of weapon that could underpin a progressive vision of US foreign policy.  I don’t ask for any particular foreign policy vision, or any particular view of the specific weapons in question (I’m feel rather ambiguous about both, and my own preferred “vision” would be something along the lines of “hegemony light”), but rather for arguments that attempt to interpret the characteristics of weapon systems and of doctrinal choices in the light of progressive political preferences.  This means taking some time to learn about weapons and doctrine, and making some effort to put forth progressive views on these subjects.  Deriving the position of AEI or Heritage on a given weapon isn’t particularly difficult, even beyond the “buy more” baseline; apart from its budget impact, I have not the faintest what CAP thinks of the F-35 or the LCS.  This is a problem.

I do understand the temptation to wall ourselves off from these arguments; since key progressive goals on both the budget and on foreign policy are not likely to be met in the near or medium term, it can seem like a waste to put arguments on them together.  Moreover, participation in the discussion runs the risk of legitimating outcomes that we don’t approve of.  My answer is twofold.  First, the US defense budget (and broader US foreign policy) is more malleable than we often think.  We’re only twenty years removed from a very substantial downsizing of the American military establishment, and we may well be entering political conditions that will allow similar reductions.  Second, the people who currently make defense policy don’t give a damn about whether they’re legitimated or not.  Being the “left” voice on defense policy is good for Michael O’Hanlon, and represents a great situation for the Heritage Foundation.  Strategic boycott only makes sense if those boycotted care about being delegitimized, and in this case they don’t.  Analysts, institutions, and politicians tend to respond to the arguments they see, rather than those that they don’t.  Progressives have been excluded from even informal discussions of most questions of military doctrine and technology, but have also made themselves absent from those discussions .

As I suggested above, we are approaching a political and economic situation in which real reductions (depending, I suppose, on how we characterize “real”) to defense spending can become possible.  Consequently, I think it’s very important that progressives start thinking through the details of defense issues now.  Non-partisan blogs like Information Dissemination and the USNI blog have commenter communities that are both well informed about defense issues and lean strongly right; there is no good reason for this situation to persist.  Institutions like CAP should continue to contribute on Afghanistan and Iraq, but should also give greater attention to what US military doctrine should look like in five years, and to how progressives can and should shape overall US military capabilities.  Robust, consequential progressive work on technology and doctrine will be good for progressives, and good for debates on US military capabilities.

/end pious lecture on why people should think the stuff I do is really important

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  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    In this context, I think it’s important for progressives to ask ourselves two related questions.  The first is “What role should the United States military play in the world?”….

    Maybe I’m picking nits here, but it seems to me that first question needs to be be reframed:

    What role should the United States play in the world, and how should the US military help the US play that role?

    The US military as such has–or at least should have–no role in the world. It is a tool of the US state…tho’ one whose mission has been (and continues to be) expanded seemingly without end. Your very question suggests the extent to which it has unfortunately become a kind of independent actor.

    FWIW, I start with the assumption that the chief role of the US military should be defending this country from the militaries of other countries. Every other mission should be at least open to debate.

    • Nick L

      this. a crucial distinction; the original phrasing reveals that extent that scholars tend to become intellectually embedded, so to speak…

    • Having just rewatched Life of Brian the other night, I’m thrilled to see your name.

  • catclub

    How does one actually get the entire Sweetman (1977) article? The link points just to one page.

    If I goofed up, tell me how.

    • I think you’ll find some sort of drag up a new page navigator on the left side. It’s worth the struggle to read it.

      • catclub

        Thanks, I did.

  • mpowell

    Not that my opinion really matters since I don’t work in politics in any way so I won’t be engaged in the type of advocacy or debate you are talking about, but I’m just not sure this debate is as important to progessives as you claim it is. Sure, there is probably a group of left-of-center types who would like to see the military performing tasks that would require funding at 80% of current levels and efficiently directed towards equipment and tasks that are critical to those tasks, but that group may not be very large. I suspect that many progressives who are not part of the beltway elite would prefer such vastly reduced military spending and military function that it hardly matters what they spend it on at current funding levels. I would consider myself part of that group. On the one hand, I kind of prefer a COIN oriented military because that’s the most valuable task that our military currently performs, but on the other hand, I wish we weren’t performing that task at all. So maybe I wish we had a much smaller military personnel wise that focused on advanced R&D and weapon’s systems that would potentially have civilian uses and also enable us to deal with a theoretically much more aggressive China 30 years from now. But either way, my first priority regarding military spending is just to reduce it and I don’t care nearly as much how it happens. It will still be far higher than it needs to be to address any policy concern of mine for the foreseeable future and that will be true whether we roll out the LCS or F35 or not.

    That being said, our carrier task force groups would be a huge liability in a shooting war with China, but I think reducing their number would be one of the least likely results in this debate.

    • Just addressing COIN. It appears we have just one COIN doctrine and while it may have worked in Iraq (I think the bribes did far more and at far less risk), it doesn’t necessarily translate, say to Afghanistan. I have serious doubts that our military generals and admirals have the flexibility to accept and change the blessed COIN doctrine to work in different cultures. They can do terrain transfer but have real problems with different kinds of people. Does the military have a clue what works with say the Pashtun?

      • covert

        Fluffy, you do not understand COIN doctrine at all. The “bribes” as you describe the co-opting and paying of the SOI groups in Iraq were every bit a part of COIN as the kinetic operations to kill or capture leaders of the resistance. You cannot parcel out parts of it and say one was more effective than the other because the co-opting, the killing, the blast walls, the more troops on the ground, the support of a political resolution of the sectarian conflict, etc were all working in concert to achieve the desired results. If you remove any one part of this combined effort, the over all effectiveness of your COIN operation will be lessened.

        As far as your question: “Does the military have a clue what works with say the Pashtun?” – it is their profession to dedicate themselves to learn this and they are doing an admirable job despite the situation they find themselves in and you would do yourself a favor by becoming more informed on the issue before offering your opinion.

        • John F

          Does anyone have a clue what works on the Pashtun? Based upon what I’ve read (including Anthropological studies done before the Soviet invasion) I would say what “works” is simply staying away and leaving them be.

          Imagine the worst strawman neanderthal southern tea party redneck archetype you can think of, sexist/mysogynistic, viciously bigoted (against everyone and anything that can be characterized as the “other”), willfully ignorant, self righteous (my religion is the ONLY religion, my interpretation is the ONLY one), luddititc, anger management impaired, etc…
          That strawman pretty much describes the average Pashtun tribesman.

          • Magnolia

            Interestingly, I didn’t hear anyone in Restrepo speak a word of Pashto besides the translator and locals.

            I realize the Korengali’s have a sub-dialect but deployments are a year long.

            • Nadnerbus

              I was reading, I think in the Wanat report that was just recently released, that the unit featured in Restrepo was originally tasked to deploy to Iraq, and that was changed at the last minute. So they had been preparing basic phrases in Arabic and how to deal with Iraqi culture, and then kind of had to go into the Korengal flat footed.

              As for their time in country, I dunno.

        • I understand how bribes can be part of COIN perfectly well. But the bribes I was referring to were on a much larger scale.

          “profession to dedicate themselves to learn this and they are doing an admirable job despite the situation they find themselves in” What manual is that in? I’m not implying that it’s not in a manual. I’m sure it is. But quoting it doesn’t help solve any problems.How many Pashto speakers are attached to the troops in Pashtun areas? How many intelligence troops speak Pashto well? I think the answer there is too damn few, approaching none. Hiring local interpreters is not a very good solution. Walking into a situation without reasonably credible intelligence is not a good solution. The best intentions in the world often lead to lousy solutions. BTW your cute username and your obvious assumptions about mine show a maybe a fuzzy logic, neh?

          And doing an admirable job in a totally hopeless situation (which Afghanistan might or might not be) is the stuff of legends and stuff, but not of winning.

          I have no clue who you really are or what you do, but I suspect we do not see the same world. You just assume what you see is right. Might get you in deep one day.

          • It seems to be an enelelcxt tool and it’s pretty cheap if you think about the money that you can earn with this.

      • mpowell

        I didn’t mean to generate a debate about what COIN means or how it is being implemented. What I was referring to was a more human resources heavy army with reduced funding for the Navy and AF (which is nearly impossible from what I understand). Also, some weapon systems would be different with a COIN emphasis.

        Ironically, though I would continue to maintain that this debate is not as important, I do find it interesting.

        • My apology for accidentally sort of hijacking this. Your comment was very interesting and we should probably move a COIN discussion elsewhere. Anyone care to insert a COIN comment at the top level of comments:)?

  • c u n d gulag

    Some great points!
    The problem with Liberals discussing military spending is that the right sees American ‘Exceptionalism” and “Imperialism” as two sides of the same coin.
    Hence, any proposed cuts in the military are taken as some symbolic lack of patriotism and committment to democracy because they would limit the ‘spread’ of our “exceptional” character and practices, by whatever means are necessary.

    The real problem is that somewhere between before WWI, and then before WWII, and the late ’60’s, the conservatives in this country went from being isolationists to being a combination of John Wayne and Dr. Strangelove.
    Cutting or holding down military spending was a part of conservative DNA until this happened. And, until we can realign (in their minds) overall budgetary prudence with a military whose primary goal is defense, with some involvement with other nations in some policing of holocausts and piracy, it’s a lost cause. And I think that genii is too long out of the bottle. In their minds, any hint of isolationism in the face of terrorism is cowardlice. That we should attack, attack, attack!
    And there’s also their love of corporations and the military industrial complex.
    So, I’m not sure what Liberals can do to change any of that, no matter how well versed we become in matters of the military. But we do need to try. What we should do is work to chip away at this slowly, since any sort of relatively quick change in character and outlook are unlikely for a good chunk of our population.

    • Mr X

      The isolationist conservatives are called “paeolo-conservatives” today. Todays conservatives were called “neo-conservatives” yesterday. The neoconservatives have more or less exterminated the paeloconservatives today.

      • c u n d gulag

        Another great die-off. And I missed it (not quite).
        Was it due to ‘global warring?’

    • MikeJake

      The M-I complex is real, but I think there was a legitimate concern among our leaders that our military not end up in the position it was in prior to WWII, where it had to innovate quickly and painfully to catch up with our enemies, and immediately after the war, where our desire to scale back the military to peacetime levels only encouraged the Soviets to act aggressively.

      Of course now we’ve reached the point where there’s practically no established ceiling on military spending, so there’s room for progressives to make a principled stand on budgetary concerns. But the author of this blog is right, any critique has to be intelligent, and it has to display an understanding of the areas our military is highly capable in.

      For example, fighter jet programs are easy to criticize because they’re expensive and appear increasingly unnecessary. But if the US went to war today with an enemy that has an effective air force, who would be likely to have air superiority? Almost certainly the United States. Is that the type of advantage we should be willing to give away purely out of spending concerns? If you can recognize the advantage we hold while proposing cuts that don’t harm that advantage, your proposals will be met more receptively than if you’re putting flowers into gun barrels and saying “Give peace a chance.”

  • jadegold

    Non-partisan blogs like USNI??

    Come now. As far as the commenters being well-informed, that’s equally questionable as most are of the opinion that we’re still fighting the Imperial Navy in the Straits of Malacca and would be much better off if we (a) put women back in clerical pool; (b) relegated minorities to the steward’s dept; and (c) built BBs.

    Re LCS, it’s not useful (ever) to seriously discuss URR’s ‘points’ except as a target of snark. Galrahn does raise some interesting points WRT how the sausage was made. However, the key point he misses in his cost per 1000T analysis (which is essentially meaningless) is the costs incurred by the lack of commonality between the LM and Austal variants. This will be an enormous cost driver as many systems are not common and will be supported by the contractor for only 3 years after delivery, after which it becomes a Navy problem. Crew training will also be an issue.

    The big story here isn’t the direction of military doctrine and technology–it’s about money and politics. Preserving the industrial base.

    • rea

      most are of the opinion that we’re still fighting the Imperial Navy in the Straits of Malacca

      When did we ever fight the Imperial Navy in the Straits of Malacca?

      • There are some Brits here, and they did, a bit. Two VCs worth, I’d say.

        • I think we sometimes get confused over which ‘we’ we are talking about.

          • rea

            Since we’re talking about the USNI, “we” must mean the united states

            • ajay

              In context, yes, since the Royal Navy never had a policy of “relegating minorities to the steward’s dept”.

  • jim

    Let me have a go.

    The Cold War is over. The Emergency Conference Room was torn down nearly twenty years ago. But Cold War structures persist in the US military. We need to restructure the military to remove them, since they’re the cause of our post-war errors. At the same time, we can refocus what the military does.

    The Cold War structures include an independent Air Force; the unified and specified commands (which became the CINCdoms); the Joint Chiefs (once the CSAF and the CMC “on matters concerning the Marine Corps” join the CSA and CNO, you have a committee, which requires a Chairman, which requires a staff ….) and the cult of Jointness generally, which has led to the insanity of the JFLCC and JFACC; and the Department of Defense as a whole, with its agencies.

    Drop them. Revert to a Department of War and a Department of the Navy. Bring the Air Force under the Army, push the Marines back firmly under the Navy. The Navy conducts Naval Operations; the Army conducts Army Operations. The Marines are our expeditionary forces, as part of Naval Operations. No more EUCOM or CENTCOM. PACOM merges with PACFLT.

    What operations? Call my vision of the role of the US military “Monroe Doctrine Plus.” We care about the Americas (“Hegemony Light” within the Americas, say) and our two adjoining oceans. We have alliances that buttress these interests. Theoretically with Canada, Britain and the Atlantic-facing European states (in practice with NATO) over the North Atlantic. With Canada, Australia and New Zealand over the Pacific.

    The Navy has a world-wide mission of submarine and anti-submarine warfare. It has the mission of controlling the Atlantic and Pacific. The Navy and Marines have the mission of force projection as needed. The Army has the mission of supporting hegemony over the Americas and with the USAAF of defending the territories of the US. The Army has legacy forces (and the sooner they’re reduced solely to Army forces the better) in Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea, which it will be drawing down as time and opportunity permit. The Army, augmented by the Guard and Reserve, has the mission of deploying to and fighting land wars we choose to declare.

    Implications for force structure and weapons systems. Slightly fewer carrier groups, organized entirely under PACFLT and LANTFLT. The LCS probably makes sense in this setup. The USAAF retains its strategic bombing mission, but since strategic bombing has failed everywhere it’s been tried, that mission can be confined to nuclear retaliation capability. Fewer bombers. THE USAAF will be required to establish and maintain air superiority in any land war we choose to declare. But it doesn’t take the fighters on the drawing board to do that. The Army can push even more capability back to the Guard and Reserve. One of the things that the Iraq deployment, badly managed as it was, showed was that reserves can be mobilized in a timely manner. So fewer active forces, more reserves.

    It may be naive, but I do think if you get the force structure and missions right, then the professionals will get the weapons systems right. The fact that arguments over weapons systems occur outside the military says our military structure is dysfunctional. Every Service has to be part of every operation everywhere. Naturally they all want every weapons system available and some that aren’t. Incentives matter.

    • covert

      I agree with your points almost completely with the exception of your comments on the usefulness of strategic bombing. By itself, it cannot win wars but strategic bombing can make wars much less costly to win. Strategic bombing of Japan ended the war in the Pacific with out the necessity of an invasion of Japan and strategic bombing of Germany forced the Luftwaffe to concentrate it’s fighters in defense of Germany rather than providing air cover to it’s forces in the field. And reliances in manned bombers for nuclear deterence is not efficient at all. Nuclear deterence should be done by ICBM/SLBM and if necessary, stand off air and sea launched cruise missiles.

      • Brett

        Bombers are actually a better idea for the US in terms of nuclear deterrent than ICBMs. We have enough time and warning from any incoming nukes to get a bomber fleet off the ground, and decades of drills in doing so (take a look at this video of 15 B-52s getting off the ground in 9 minutes 56 seconds in one of those drills).

        More importantly, they can be called back. Once you launch an ICBM, you can’t call it back.

      • ajay

        Strategic bombing of Japan ended the war in the Pacific with out the necessity of an invasion of Japan and strategic bombing of Germany forced the Luftwaffe to concentrate it’s fighters in defense of Germany rather than providing air cover to it’s forces in the field.

        The phrase you are missing here, especially in the context of Germany, is “opportunity cost”. Yes, bombing Germany led the Luftwaffe to bring its fighters back to defend the cities against bombers, rather than keeping them in France and Russia and Poland to defend the Wehrmacht against fighter-bombers.

        But bombing Germany also meant tying up a vast amount of personnel and resources in manufacturing long-range bombers, maintaining them, crewing them and so on. Bomber Command alone suffered more than 70,000 aircrew killed, wounded and captured. I don’t know the total size of Bomber Command but the aircrew component alone was 125,000, and one can assume that the ground crew component was double that size – so you’re talking about very roughly 350,000 fighting men. A non-trivial benefit.

    • wiley

      The Cold War is over, but nuclear arsenals remain. The Air Force includes the Space Command and operations involving military satellites necessary to the monitoring of missile launches, and other services that all branches use. Thinking of the Air Force simply in terms of bombers is a bit backward.

      • jim

        I don’t think anyone’s thought of the Air Force simply in terms of bombers since Curtis LeMay. And even LeMay thought of the Air Force as bombers plus support systems for bombers.

        It’s true that the Air Force has been bureaucratically agile. As one raison d’etre has dwindled, they’ve come up with another. Space Command is an example. There’s also the new(ish) computer security command. But the Air Force hasn’t been alone in this. The breathtaking example was the transformation of DNA into DTRA.

        • mpowell

          I pretty much agree with the original post. In addition to the misplaced mission priority it creates, we are forced to pretty much fund all 3 forces similarly, and the AF really doesn’t need that kind of funding. If you are thinking about maintaining air superiority against a real adversary like China, you are dreaming. Your carriers will be sunk if you put them in range and you don’t need the F-22 to beat up on countries like Iraq. All these auxiliary functions like space command can be taken up by the Department of War or some other government agency. Then, they’ll have to justify the value of their mission in the competition for scarce resources within a department instead of the way it works now, which is that the AF invents missions for itself to continue justify getting 1/3 of the military budget.

          • ajay

            If you are thinking about maintaining air superiority against a real adversary like China, you are dreaming.

            It’s interesting you say that, because from a Chinese point of view it is exactly the same as saying “If you think we couldn’t maintain air superiority, or at best neutrality, against the Americans, you’re dreaming.”

          • Brett

            If you are thinking about maintaining air superiority against a real adversary like China, you are dreaming.

            Not really. The Chinese air force has numbers but not technological superiority, and missiles are not as effective as they once were do to the development of various anti-missile systems. Hell, if we get can get some decent sized solid-state lasers going (and those are in development), missiles will be almost a non-factor.

  • pathman25

    I think Chalmers Johnson (who was not a progressive)discussed this topic pretty well. Basically, the empire needs to be dismantled. There is no rational reason to have 700+ military bases in 130 countries around the world. It’s about global dominance. Eventually the money to fund our legions will run out and we will go the way of empires past. I imagine it will be a long and painful process, but completely necessary.

    • Sean Peters

      Thank you. While I’m not opposed to the idea of “hegemony light” as expressed by Dr. F., the idea that all problems everywhere can and should be solved by the US military is nuts.

  • milprof

    Great post. As someone who is in the business of teaching how foreign policy links to strategy and military force structure decisions, I know what Rob is talking about. He’s right about how important it is, and right about how absent progressives are from the debate.

    It hasn’t always been that way — liberal academics and liberal think tanks were very involved in nuclear arms control debates in the 1970s and 1980s, not just in terms of protesting on the Mall, but in terms of having very detailed understandings of nuclear technology, strategy, and operational planning — and offering their own detailed recommendations for alternative postures. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was pretty much a whole journal devoted to dovish discussion of nuclear matters.

    One additional reason progressives should want to join this debate is that you are more likely to acheieve cuts if they are part of a coherent strategic approach and comprehensive force structure. It is far, far more powerful to argue that “Here is what US foreign policy should be (i.e., less interventionist than today), here is the military needed to support it, and it costs 25% less than todays”, than to say, “We should cut 25% of military spending, because we don’t like military spending very much”.

    If you’re a progressive and you’re serious about want to see defense spending cut, you owe it to the cause to get smart about strategy and forces and to make coherent arguments, not just pick budget targets out of the air.

  • Yes, if only there were web sites dedicated to the discussion of progressive politics with respect to the military… hmmmmm.

    On a more serious note, Rob, why are you fighting to re-invent the wheel? If you’re focused on identifying a progressive position on defense acquisition issues, go to the Project on Defense Alternatives. Or talk to Lawrence Korb at CAP. Or the analysts at CSBA. It’s not like this is an unexplored area.

    The problem with developing a “progressive position” on the F35 or the LCS isn’t as simple as “good or bad.” It’s not that we’re against defense acquisition projects, we’re against poorly-conducted and excessively expensive defense acquisition projects. Just like “we’re not against wars, just stupid wars.”

    As the first commenter pointed out, the real question is “what role should the US play in the world, and what part of that is executed by the US military?” Then the next question has to be, “do we develop a national military strategy with the assumption of constrained resources, or do we develop a national military strategy without considering fiscal constraints?” The latter is what has gotten us so deeply mired in the muck.

  • wengler

    I don’t really want to argue the SURGE again, but I think the implication of it as a success is getting a lot of people killed in Afghanistan(yep our guys too) so I feel like I must address it. Turning countries into new Lebanons does nothing to help the security of those countries or ours.

    I actually think that the people you refer to are not so much inarticulate on security matters but irrelevant. Dennis Kucinich and other House Progressives have ideas on defense but they aren’t even allowed to air them because of the bulwark of congressional, military, media and professional security “experts” ridiculing them before they even get in a word. I also have no doubt that many people who self-identify as progressive would join the rightwingers in a hippie-punching fest for even considering a different approach to military affairs.

    This leads us of course to the situation we are now in where the people taken seriously are those that wish to kill and maim and spend us into the ground on military-related spending. What war did progressives or liberals or anybody slightly tinged with leftism lose to deserve this? Vietnam? Last time I checked Ford was in office when those old Soviet tanks swept into Saigon. Though the rightwing narrative on Vietnam must have won out, just like every other rightwing idea over the past 30 years. All that got us is an economy in ruins, imperial commands backed by hubris at the collapse of the Soviet empire, and rightwingers pissing away the largest amount of wealth ever known.

    • covert

      Last I read, it was the Democratic controlled House and Senate that strangled funding to South Vietnam, passed the Case-Church Ammendment and refused President Ford’s request to render assistance to the South Vietnamese during the final North Vietnamese offensive in 1975. Otherwise, I guess you have your facts straight.

      • So Covert, what do you honestly think of the current assessments on the future of Afghanistan?

      • DocAmazing

        What assistance were we going to render? Could we have helped them fall twice?

      • wengler

        I really fail to see what a couple more bombing raids would’ve done. Though your stab-in-the-back theory makes more sense than Jane Fonda single-handedly turning the tide in favor of World Communism. By that I mean it doesn’t make that much sense at all. By the early 1970s the ARVN never had the political leadership at the top to sustain them in the long haul and the US military had to be put back together again.

        You can certainly take the wrong lessons from defeat(Germany circa 1930s), but you can also take the wrong lessons from victory. The twin triumphs of watching the Soviet empire crumble and absolutely massacring the Iraqi army in 1991 empowered some very bad people with very bad ideas about what it all meant. The US did respond initially by shuttering a lot of bases, but by the mid-90s that stopped and after 2001 the audacity of insanity propelled defense expenditures to unprecedented heights.

  • Western Dave

    “What operations? Call my vision of the role of the US military “Monroe Doctrine Plus.” We care about the Americas (“Hegemony Light” within the Americas, say) and our two adjoining oceans. We have alliances that buttress these interests. Theoretically with Canada, Britain and the Atlantic-facing European states (in practice with NATO) over the North Atlantic. With Canada, Australia and New Zealand over the Pacific”

    That’s all well and good, but the Indian Ocean is (once again) the turntable at the center of the world economy. If the US isn’t going to patrol it for pirates either in co-operation with other states or by itself, who is?

    • jim

      Why do you assume the US can fix the Indian Ocean’s problems? The US created Somali piracy. It didn’t mean to (insert appropriate Gatsby reference), but it did. More blundering around isn’t going to help.

      • Moose

        Actually, asia and Europe had a more direct role in the birth of Somali Piracy.

        • Brett

          Exactly. If you want to cast blame, cast it at those countries’ fishing fleets, which have taken advantage of the effective lack of a Somali government to trawl the crap out of the Somali fishing areas.

          • ajay

            Well, the prolongation of the Somali Civil War has certainly helped the pirates, and the US is partly responsible for that, because it took part in the invasion of Somalia a few years ago.

            • Western Dave

              Look, a fair amount of US trade including oil has to move through the Indian Ocean. That makes having a navigable and safe Indian Ocean a US defense priority. If the US isn’t going to take charge of that effort, there needs to be some other power or powers that does. And the US cannot unilaterally leave without a replacement plan in place. So, it’s kind of irrelevant who or what caused the recent spike in piracy in the Indian Ocean (and not just off the coast of Somali either), but rather how is it stopped?

              • Ask the Russian navy. If what I’ve read is to be believed, Russian ships (good grief, their nuke battlecruiser, old but still interesting) uses old fashioned anti-piracy methods when there are no witnesses. That might work.

    • DocAmazing

      If the US isn’t going to patrol it for pirates either in co-operation with other states or by itself, who is?

      Gee, I dunno, how about India?

      • wengler

        But then you would be ceding power and control of the Indian Ocean to Indians. What’s next? Chinamen patrolling the Yellow Sea?

      • Western Dave

        Yeah, Pakistan is really gonna go for that.

      • Sean Peters

        I think the issue is that it might not idea to cede control of a vital sea lane to someone who isn’t guaranteed to have our best interests at heart. Really, if you think it’s important to keep the Atlantic and Pacific open, you must logically also be concerned about the Indian Ocean. Some fairly huge amount of our trade (not insignificantly, a large amount of our imported oil) flows through there.

    • chris

      That’s all well and good, but the Indian Ocean is (once again) the turntable at the center of the world economy. If the US isn’t going to patrol it for pirates either in co-operation with other states or by itself, who is?

      India? Or a coalition of responsible states in the region, in which the world’s most populous democracy would probably play a fairly large role?

      Depending on how you define “Indian Ocean”, anything from South Africa to China to Australia might consider it their neighborhood enough to be involved, but one nation that clearly isn’t anywhere near the action is the US. So why should anyone (including us) expect us to be involved?

      • Western Dave

        Whether the US is near the action in miles is irrelevant b/c, as I pointed out above, a not insubstantial part of US trade moves through the Indian Ocean. I have very good reason to believe that putting India in charge of anti-piracy operations would antagonize Pakistan so any plan that involves India has to involve Pakistan (in fact, I think that’s a good thing since working together against a common enemy helps promote alliances between historical enemies – see UK-France re: Germany ca. 1900-1945. and UK-France-West Germany re: Soviet Union.) Anyway, I could see a South Africa, Aussie, India, Pakistan, Indonesia joint effort led and coordinated by China, US, Russia and EU with significant monetary contributions from Gulf States. But that’s going to take a fair amount of work to get going. But would be a long term positive good.

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  • dilbert dogbert

    I am more interested in someone doing a study of what the rest of the world would do if the USA cut the war budget 80%, 75% 60% or whatever. What we do with our war budget does not occur in a vacuum.
    There are a lot of free riders taking advantage of the US war budget. They would have to make some very interesting decisions about their war budgets if the US cut back. Hardware arguments don’t interest me much.

    • wengler

      I think this argument is less compelling than what you present. The true “free riders” are those in perceived danger but opting for US military protection instead of building their own. Nearly all of these are small countries in the Middle East. Qatar and Kuwait come to mind. The other countries where the US has pretty substantial military bases such as Germany, Japan and South Korea, already have fairly substantial military capacity. I don’t even think US withdrawal would necessarily cause these countries to develop a nuclear weapon capacity if the promise of protection against nuclear attack were in place.

      • DocAmazing

        That’s actually the part that makes me sympathetic with hawks–the idea of a nuclear-armed Japan. They’re all cute Harajuku girls now, but a couple of generations ago they perpetrated the Rape of Nanking and numerous similar atrocities. Until we can be certain that all of that blood thirst has been bred out of them, I’m happy to have the US be their defense sugar daddy. Same with Germany: they may look like inoffensive hippies, but one good stem-winder of a speech and they start marching. They have quite enough military capacity now, thankyewverymuch.

        • Sean Peters

          Oh, for heaven’s sakes.

          Sure, they’re all fat asses now, but a couple of generations ago those Americans were massacring Indians right and left, annexing the Philippines and Cuba, etc. Until they have all that blood lust bred out of them, I’d be happy if they cut their defense budgets.

          Maybe we could just give stereotypes a rest.

      • Brett

        A nuclear guarantee would probably keep the South Koreans from developing nuclear weapons (although it might not), but you’d almost certainly see South Korea and Japan ramp up their defense spending considerably. The latter would drastically raise tensions in the region, I guarantee.

  • dilbert dogbert

    Sorry that last sentence about hardware was wrong. I am very interested in discussions of how the US maintains the infrastructure to keep a first class design and manufacturing structure for ships, aircraft, and ground mobile systems in place with reduced war budgets. These structures don’t just spontaneously build themselves. Design teams need to be maintained. They need new tasks to keep them sharp and new young designers need to be brought into the game and taught how to play. The same is necessary at the manufacturing end. This same maintenance is required all the way up the chain to the end user. This is more interesting to me than whether we build a specific weapons systems.

  • Ellie Light

    Its stupid comments that drive progressibe thinking such as “stupid and random wars?” Do nations really fight calculated, premediated, smart wars? I am peaceful nations like Poland in 1939? I mean if we wish to emulate Nazi Germany or the USSR I guess the progressives have shown their hand.

    I’d also like to see a military program that the Left supported, I mean besides sensitivity sessions so our Marines could be “the Few, the Proud, the Fabulous.”

    • Henry Holland

      I’d also like to see a military program that the Left supported, I mean besides sensitivity sessions so our Marines could be “the Few, the Proud, the Fabulous.”

      I was wondering how long it would take to for some form of gay-baiting to show up. Well played, Ellie Light!

      If the Marines can’t withstand gay & lesbian members not getting kicked out if they’re found out to be gay –the idea that there’ll be this wave of people coming out is absurd on the face of it– or a few guys getting their dicks checked out in communal showers, then the Dustbin of History is too good for the likes of them.

    • wengler

      Ladies and Gentlemen, a new Republican slogan!

      I was wanting a slogan-based defense plan. Try harder and maybe you can beat Zell Miller’s speech about arming our boys with spitballs.

    • rea

      Marines? Aren’t those the guys in buzzcuts and leather you always see at gay bars of the rougher sort?

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  • Ralph Hitchens

    Well, I enjoyed scrolling all the way down & seeing the back & forth. (As for “who lost Vietnam, it was Nixon self-destructing; had the CREEP burglars taped the Watergate garage door properly, a popular President with a huge electoral mandate — crushing an explicitly antiwar candicate — would have finished out his second term and the history of the 1970s would have been quite different, I believe.)

    But back to the main point — Democrats in general and the progressives in particular should indeed learn more about military affairs. The GOP somehow hijacked the national security issue and even the expensive aftermath of the most catastrophic strategic misjudgement of the 21st century (the invasion of Iraq) hasn’t seemed to have seriously shakened their control, in the mind of the electorate. We need to work hard to reverse that state of affairs.

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