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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