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Tag: "military procurement"

Revolving Door

[ 4 ] January 12, 2011 |

In my latest WPR column, I try to think through specifically who gets hurt by the migration of retired generals and admirals into the defense industry:

For a variety of reasons, traditional defense suppliers have huge advantages over newcomers, even when the technologies in question are non-traditional, because they already have an understanding of DOD requirements and a feel for the DOD procurement process — and because they employ many, many retired members of the armed forces. New suppliers lack these advantages, even when they have a superior or more-innovative product, and as a result have a hard time breaking into the defense business. This limits innovation to the small number of traditional defense suppliers, which in turn limits potential competition for even those products that civilian firms could theoretically supply.

The increasing number of senior military officers who have taken jobs in private-sector defense firms exacerbates this problem.


How Far Can Progressive Defense Theory Go?

[ 12 ] January 10, 2011 |

On Friday evening, InksptsGulliver and I got into a long argument about the appropriate role of ideology in defense policymaking, and consequently of the meaning of “progressive” and “conservative” defense policy.  Inkspots is suspicious of the idea that we should try to characterize defense policy in such ideological terms.  Allowing that grand strategic preferences may differ, Inkspots argued that actual defense policymaking should be thought of in terms of utility maximizing, non-ideological pragmatism (if this characterization is unfair, Inkspots is free to challenge).  Jason Sigger makes a similar argument here. Sigger and ISG put forth what I think can best be described as “good governance” progressivism; the idea that progressive policy thought should be built around the idea of a non-ideological pursuit of good, effective, efficient government, rather than the hyper-ideological approach to government that we find on the right.

I disagree pretty strongly with this, for several reasons.  My own thinking about national interest and national security flows heavily from Arnold Wolfers discussion of the terms in National Security as an Ambiguous Symbol.  Wolfers defines national security as the protection of values previously acquired.  This is to say that when we discuss national security, we have to make reference to the values that are being protected.  These values can include system of governance, national pride, territorial integrity, the control of key waterways, sovereignty, economic prosperity, security of the population from attack, and so forth.

To my mind, ALL of these values are the subject of domestic political dispute.  Not all of them are always in dispute in all places, but all of them are certainly potentially subject to politicization, and thus all are ideological.  States, and factions within states, regularly engage in brutal abuse of their populations, invite interventions by international organizations and foreign powers, invite foreign powers to occupy parts of their country, and pursue policies that economically punish the greater portion of their citizens in order to benefit a privileged few.  When we’re modeling international relations, we make assumptions that abstract the reality of foreign policy construction in order to make generalizable predictions.  These models may (or may not) even do a relatively good job of predicting the behavior of some states in some situations. We can’t, however, forget that such assumptions are abstractions designed to make the model work, rather than true statements about reality.

Consequently, we simply can’t describe a “national interest” apart from the domestic political context that elevates some values above others.  Different interest groups have different foreign policy preferences, just as different ideological coalitions have different visions of the foreign policy good.  There may be broad agreement across societal and ideological groups regarding some ends- few people think that allowing terror bombing of Omaha is a good thing- but these points of agreement don’t eliminate societal divides.  Even in cases where, say, labor and capital both benefit from a particular defense policy (exploitation of workers in a third country, for example), disputes over the distribution of gains take on a political character.  There’s no way around the fact that security policy is political, even if the debates don’t always manifest along clear party lines.

What does this mean in terms of progressive defense policy?  Both the ends and the means are up for contestation, and progressives should think about both in terms of progressive political goals.  Obviously, progressive grand strategies differ from conservative formulations.  Even a progressive “isolationism” is likely to differ in important ways from conservative understandings of the term.  Similarly, ideological and demographic differences will color the means through which defense policy is undertaken.  Many progressives believe that nuclear weapons are simply immoral, and that steps ought to be taken to reduce US arsenals, while conservatives disagree.  Progressives and conservatives also disagree about conscription, among other personnel policies.  Distributive questions are also legitimate targets for political contestation.  Arguing that defense dollars should be spent in a manner that is most economically beneficial to the greatest number is entirely legitimate, even if the stance is in some tension with efficiency or capability concerns.

Long story short, most things are on the political table for defense policy.  This is not to say that there aren’t wide swaths for agreement between defense analysts of different ideological stripes.  Broad ideological and political coalitions behind particular grand strategic ends and policy means are possible.  Moreover, some factual claims about the price and capabilities of specific systems remain firmly within the territory of “right or wrong”, ideology notwithstanding.  Finally, recognition that ideology plays an appropriate role in defense analysis doesn’t preclude criticism either of the ideological stances of opponents or of the policy manifestations of those ideological stances.  EMP awareness advocates continue to straddle the space between liars and fools, and calling them out for such is just fine.  We shouldn’t, however, resist thinking about defense policy in progressive terms because of concern about playing “politics”.  A political point of view is necessary to saying most anything interesting about defense policy, or any other kind of policy.

Slighting Progressive Defense Analysts

[ 26 ] January 10, 2011 |

Bernard Finel suggests that my rant last week about progressive thought on defense slighted existing progressive defense analysts.  I partially agree, but only partially.  The essay that I wrote was intended as an exhortation for progressives to give more thought to defense policy, rather than a review essay about progressive defense policy thought.  Accordingly, the focus was on what more there could be, rather than on what we already have.

Finel also suggests that I’ve misidentified the problem, and that the real issue isn’t that progressive don’t think about defense, but rather than progressive defense thinkers are regularly ignored in mainstream defense discourse.  Again, I think that this is only partially correct.  With a couple of exceptions, the defense progressives that Finel mentions write in relatively small corners of the internet to small audiences.  Democracy Arsenal is a fantastic resource, and yet it receives something less than 20000 hits/month. It’s not just that security oriented progressives fail to find much purchase in the mainstream security debate (such that it is); security writers don’t tend to find much purchase in progressive security organs.  This applies to both the institutional “beltway” left (CAP) and to the alternate centers of progressive thought (Daily Kos, FDL) that have developed in the blogosphere.  While there are some high profile thinkers in both places (Larry Korb at CAP, obviously, and Spencer Ackerman’s tenure at FDL), most progressive institutions tend to exhibit a disinterest in matters of security policy, beyond the specific issues of budget cuts and anti-war activism.  Both of these are quite important (indeed, it would be absurd for a defense analyst to resist talking about Iraq and Afghanistan), but they’re also limited.   Indeed, Spencer’s work has taken a far more technical turn since he moved to the non-partisan Danger Room.   The problem, again, is not simply that progressive security thinkers have been excluded by their conservative and “moderate” counterparts; it’s also that progressives have not done a good job of either taking advantage of the expertise that exists in their midst or supporting the development of more robust defense analysis.

But Finel is undoubtedly correct that I could have used that post to toss a few links and recommendations to extant defense analysts. So, consider the following an injunction to Support Your Local Progressive Security Blogger.  Some people you should be reading, and twitter feeds you should be following:

Armchair Generalist ,, @progmilitary

FAS Strategic Security Blog

Democracy Arsenal, @speechboy71

Attackerman, @attackerman

Ink Spots, @InkSptsGulliver

Bernard Finel, @BernardFinel

Progressive Realist, @EricMartin24

Adam Weinstein @adamweinsteinMJ

This is incomplete, and I’m certain that others could point out other progressive defense analysts.  Nevertheless, it’s a good start.

The LCS, Apple Pie, and What Not

[ 73 ] January 4, 2011 |

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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The UK Nuclear Deterrent from the US Point of View

[ 7 ] October 1, 2010 |

Idea: Today, the United States has virtually no interest in the modernization of the British nuclear force. To the extent that the United States has influence over British defense decisions, it should push the UK to spend money on things other than a Trident replacement.


Patterson NEEDS a Pre-Owned F-117…

[ 6 ] August 4, 2010 |

Visit your nearest Lockheed Martin dealer today:

Via Trimble.

Prestige and the F-16

[ 27 ] July 16, 2010 |

This article, about Pakistan’s preference for F-16s is pretty interesting:

Pakistanis are fascinated, if not obsessed, with F-16 fighter jets.

It is the best fighting aircraft in the fleet of the Pakistan air force, allowed to be flown by only the country’s best pilots. Video of F-16 fighter aircraft roaring through the skies figures prominently in the air force’s inspirational anthems…

Ironically, those who oppose American policies towards the country, including drone strikes, also welcomed the induction of American-manufactured fighter aircraft.

Zaid Hamid, a self-styled defense analyst known more for his conspiratorial and sensational commentaries regarding American influence in Pakistan, praised the delivery of the aircraft in a newsletter as “Alhamdulillah (thanks to Allah), another technological milestone achieved by Pakistan air force.”

I’m curious about the preference for the F-16 over other fighter aircraft.  In Pakistan this makes some sense, as the F-16 is superior to the various French and Chinese aircraft that fill out of the rest of the air force inventory.   However, if you’ve ever visited Israel, you might have noticed that there are more pictures of F-16s than F-15s or any other aircraft, in spite of the generally recognized superiority of the F-15. In the United States, for whatever reason, I tend to see and hear more about the F-15.

The Bear is Always Resurgent, Even When He’s Napping

[ 10 ] June 19, 2010 |

An alternative title to this article might have been “Russia’s arms industry a pathetic shambles.”

Russia is to embark on the biggest overseas arms shopping spree in its modern history with up to £8 billion earmarked for state-of-the art foreign military hardware, it has been claimed.

The forecast, made in a report from an influential military think tank close to the Russian Defence Ministry, came as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev launched what the Kremlin said was the world’s quietest attack submarine. “Most great powers heavily invest in the newest offensive and defensive systems,” he said at a shipyard ceremony in northern Russia on Tuesday. “We should do the same.”

The report, from the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said Russia was looking to spend up to £8 billion in the next five or six years on foreign military purchases. The unprecedented overseas shopping spree has been made possible after the Kremlin abandoned its traditional “buy Russian” policy with defence chiefs conceding that domestic arms manufacturers are not always able to compete with their Western rivals on quality…

The news is likely to alarm Georgia against whom Russia fought a short sharp war in 2008. It will also unnerve Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia who remain wary of their former imperial master despite being safely inside NATO.

Yasen, the “world’s quietest attack sub” was laid down in 1993. The second sub in the class is expected to be ready for delivery in 2016. To make the comparison with the US a touch more explicit, by the time Yasen enters service the United States will have built eight Virginia SSNs, a class which was largely designed after Yasen was laid down. Under the optimistic assumption that the second Yasen actually enters service in 2016, the United States will have thirteen Virginias to two Yasens.

None of this should surprise anyone who has followed the decline of the Russian defense industry. In response to the South Ossetia War and the new START Treaty, however, wingnuts have stepped up their dire rhetoric about the threat of a resurgent Russia, operating hundreds of PAK-FAs that will sweep our measly 187 F-22s from the sky, etc. The fact remains, however, that the Russian defense industry is a disaster, and that Russia has not demonstrated a capability since the end of the Cold War to build any kind of sophisticated defense equipment in any significant numbers. Russia is simply not a peer competitor to the United States, and given the fact that the Russian economy is 9% the size of the US, it won’t be anytime soon.

How European States Deal with Fiscal Shortfalls…

[ 7 ] May 30, 2010 |

Among other things, they cut defense spending. In the United States, it’s impossible to cut defense spending, because the world’s reserves of whiskey/sexy/democracy/freedom depend utterly on the ability of the United States to egregiously outspend any rival or potential coalition of rivals by a factor of five or so. In the US, as we know, the idea that the growth of defense spending should be cut is radical hippie peacenik nonsense. And incidentally, we also need a few engines that we’ll never use…

The Stark Reality of Defense Contracting

[ 1 ] May 10, 2010 |

Davida Isaacs and I have an article at TAPPED on Iron Man 2 and defense contracting:

Explosions, tattoos, and Scarlett Johansson notwithstanding, the disputes between Tony Stark and his antagonists revolve around ownership of the rights to the Iron Man technology. Iron Man 2 is the most expensive movie ever made about an intellectual property dispute.

There’s a non-trivial connection to the Elena Kagan nomination; to the extent that the Supreme Court allows wide use of the Military and State Secrets privilege, small inventors will remain at the mercy of larger defense contractors.

Moneyball and Force Structure

[ 0 ] April 16, 2010 |

Over at ID, I respond to some noodlings on baseball and naval force structure.

The Mistral Sale

[ 1 ] April 8, 2010 |

I have a short article up at World Politics Review about the sale of the French Mistrals to Russia:

France’s decision to negotiate the sale of four Mistral-class Amphibious Transport Docks to Russia has been met with harsh criticism in the United States and among some NATO allies. Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili was particularly brutal, declaring of the sale, “It’s not even appeasement of Russia. It’s a reward for Russia.” There is no question that the acquisition of the four amphibious warships will substantially enhance Russia’s power-projection capabilities. However, Russia is not the only state to have committed to the construction of large-deck amphibious warships. In fact, Moscow’s purchase of the Mistrals comes in the context of a global “amphib” splurge. Big “amphibs” are trendy, and the Russians have simply decided to join the club.

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