Analytical and Scientific Arrogance

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditures on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free.

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor, Strategy for the West

I’m returning to the past to make a timeless point: Analysis is a tool of decision-making, not a substitute for it.

That’s a point to which every analyst will subscribe, just as every judicial candidate will claim to revere the Constitution. But analysts past and present have tended to read their policy preferences into their analytical work, just as too many judges real their political preferences into the Constitution.

What is an analyst? Someone whose occupation requires him to gather facts bearing on an issue, discern robust relationships among the facts, and draw conclusions from those relationships.

Many professionals — from economists to physicists to so-called climate scientists — are more or less analytical in the practice of their professions. That is, they are not just seeking knowledge, but seeking to influence policies which depend on that knowledge.

There is also in this country (and in the West, generally) a kind of person who is an analyst first and a disciplinary specialist second (if at all). Such a person brings his pattern-seeking skills to the problems facing decision-makers in government and industry. Depending on the kinds of issues he addresses or the kinds of techniques that he deploys, he may be called a policy analyst, operations research analyst, management consultant, or something of that kind.

It is one thing to say, as a scientist or analyst, that a certain option (a policy, a system, a tactic) is probably better than the alternatives, when judged against a specific criterion (most effective for a given cost, most effective against a certain kind of enemy force). It is quite another thing to say that the option is the one that the decision-maker should adopt. The scientist or analyst is looking a small slice of the world; the decision-maker has to take into account things that the scientist or analyst did not (and often could not) take into account (economic consequences, political feasibility, compatibility with other existing systems and policies).

It is (or should be) unsconsionable for a scientist or analyst to state or imply that he has the “right” answer. But the clever arguer avoids coming straight out with the “right” answer; instead, he slants his presentation in a way that makes the “right” answer seem right.

A classic case in point is they hysteria surrounding the increase in “global” temperature in the latter part of the 20th century, and the coincidence of that increase with the rise in CO2. I have had much to say about the hysteria and the pseudo-science upon which it is based. (See links at the end of this post.) Here, I will take as a case study an event to which I was somewhat close: the treatment of the Navy’s proposal, made in the early 1980s, for an expansion to what was conveniently characterized as the 600-ship Navy. (The expansion would have involved personnel, logistics systems, ancillary war-fighting systems, stockpiles of parts and ammunition, and aircraft of many kinds — all in addition to a 25-percent increase in the number of ships in active service.)

The usual suspects, of an ilk I profiled here, wasted no time in making the 600-ship Navy seem like a bad idea. Of the many studies and memos on the subject, two by the Congressional Budget Office stand out a exemplars of slanted analysis by innuendo: “Building a 600-Ship Navy: Costs, Timing, and Alternative Approaches” (March 1982), and “Future Budget Requirements for the 600-Ship Navy: Preliminary Analysis” (April 1985). What did the “whiz kids” at CBO have to say about the 600-ship Navy? Here are excerpts of the concluding sections:

The Administration’s five-year shipbuilding plan, containing 133 new construction ships and estimated to cost over $80 billion in fiscal year 1983 dollars, is more ambitious than previous programs submitted to the Congress in the past few years. It does not, however, contain enough ships to realize the Navy’s announced force level goals for an expanded Navy. In addition, this plan—as has been the case with so many previous plans—has most of its ships programmed in the later out-years. Over half of the 133 new construction ships are programmed for the last two years of the five-year plan. Achievement of the Navy’s expanded force level goals would require adhering to the out-year building plans and continued high levels of construction in the years beyond fiscal year 1987. [1982 report, pp. 71-72]

Even the budget increases estimated here would be difficult to achieve if history is a guide. Since the end of World War II, the Navy has never sustained real increases in its budget for more than five consecutive years. The sustained 15-year expansion required to achieve and sustain the Navy’s present plans would result in a historic change in budget trends. [1985 report, p. 26]

The bias against the 600-ship Navy drips from the pages. The “argument” goes like this: If it hasn’t been done, it can’t be done and, therefore, shouldn’t be attempted. Why not? Because the analysts at CBO were a breed of cat that emerged in the 1960s, when Robert Strange McNamara and his minions used simplistic analysis (“tablesmanship”) to play “gotcha” with the military services:

We [I was one of the minions] did it because we were encouraged to do it, though not in so many words. And we got away with it, not because we were better analysts — most of our work was simplistic stuff — but because we usually had the last word. (Only an impassioned personal intercession by a service chief might persuade McNamara to go against SA [the Systems Analysis office run by Alain Enthoven] — and the key word is “might.”) The irony of the whole process was that McNamara, in effect, substituted “civilian judgment” for oft-scorned “military judgment.” McNamara revealed his preference for “civilian judgment” by elevating Enthoven and SA a level in the hierarchy, 1965, even though (or perhaps because) the services and JCS had been open in their disdain of SA and its snotty young civilians.

In the case of the 600-ship Navy, civilian analysts did their best to derail it by sending the barely disguised message that it was “unaffordable”. I was reminded of this “insight” by a colleague of long-standing who recently proclaimed that “any half-decent cost model would show a 600-ship Navy was unsustainable into this century.” How could a cost model show such a thing when the sustainability (affordability) of defense is a matter of political will, not arithmetic?

Defense spending fluctuates as function of perceived necessity. Consider, for example, this graph (misleadingly labeled “Recent Defense Spending”) from, which shows defense spending as a percentage of GDP for fiscal year (FY) 1792 to FY 2017:

What was “unaffordable” before World War II suddenly became affordable. And so it has gone throughout the history of the republic. Affordability (or sustainability) is a political issue, not a line drawn in the sand by an smart-ass analyst who gives no thought to the consequences of spending too little on defense.

I will now zoom in on the era of interest.

CBO’s “Building a 600-Ship Navy: Costs, Timing, and Alternative Approaches“, which crystallized opposition to the 600-ship Navy estimates the long-run, annual obligational authority required to sustain a 600-ship Navy (of the Navy’s design) to be about 20-percent higher in constant dollars than the FY 1982 Navy budget. (See Options I and II in Figure 2, p. 50.) The long-run would have begun around FY 1994, following several years of higher spending associated with the buildup of forces. I don’t have a historical breakdown of the Department of Defense (DoD) budget by service, but I found values for all-DoD spending on military programs at Office of Management and Budget Historical Tables. Drawing on Tables 5.2 and 10.1, I constructed a constant-dollar of DoD’s obligational authority (FY 1982 = 1):

FY Index
1983 1.08
1984 1.13
1985 1.21
1986 1.17
1987 1.13
1988 1.11
1989 1.10
1990 1.07
1991 0.97
1992 0.97
1993 0.90
1994 0.82
1995 0.82
1996 0.80
1997 0.80
1998 0.79
1999 0.84
2000 0.86
2001 0.92
2002 0.98
2003 1.23
2004 1.29
2005 1.28
2006 1.36
2007 1.50
2008 1.65
2009 1.61
2010 1.66
2011 1.62
2012 1.51
2013 1.32
2014 1.32
2015 1.25
2016 1.29
2017 1.34

There was no inherent reason that defense spending couldn’t have remained on the trajectory of the middle 1980s. The slowdown of the late 1980s was a reflection of improved relations between the U.S. and USSR. Those improved relations had much to do with the Reagan defense buildup, of which the goal of attaining a 600-ship Navy was an integral part.

The Reagan buildup helped to convince Soviet leaders (Gorbachev in particular) that trying to keep pace with the U.S. was futile and (actually) unaffordable. The rest — the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR — is history. The buildup, in other words, sowed the seeds of its own demise. But that couldn’t have been predicted with certainty in the early-to-middle 1980s, when CBO and others were doing their best to undermine political support for more defense spending. Had CBO and the other nay-sayers succeeded in their aims, the Cold War and the USSR might still be with us.

The defense drawdown of the mid-1990s was a deliberate response to the end of the Cold War and lack of other serious threats, not a historical necessity. It was certainly not on the table in the early 1980s, when the 600-ship Navy was being pushed. Had the Cold War not thawed and ended, there is no reason that U.S. defense spending couldn’t have continued at the pace of the middle 1980s, or higher. As is evident in the index values for recent years, even after drastic force reductions in Iraq, defense spending is now about one-third higher than it was in FY 1982.

John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy from 1981 to 1987, was rightly incensed that analysts — some of them on his payroll as civilian employees and contractors — were, in effect, undermining a deliberate strategy of pressing against a key Soviet weakness — the unsustainability of its defense strategy. There was much lamentation at the time about Lehman’s “war” on the offending parties, one of which was the think-tank for which I then worked. I can now admit openly that I was sympathetic to Lehman and offended by the arrogance of analysts who believed that it was their job to suggest that spending more on defense was “unaffordable”.

When I was a young analyst I was handed a pile of required reading material. One of the items was was Methods of Operations Research, by Philip M. Morse and George E. Kimball. Morse, in the early months of America’s involvement in World War II, founded the civilian operations-research organization from which my think-tank evolved. Kimball was a leading member of that organization. Their book is notable not just a compendium of analytical methods that were applied, with much success, to the war effort. It is also introspective — and properly humble — about the power and role of analysis.

Two passages, in particular, have stuck with me for the more than 50 years since I first read the book. Here is one of them:

[S]uccessful application of operations research usually results in improvements by factors of 3 or 10 or more…. In our first study of any operation we are looking for these large factors of possible improvement…. They can be discovered if the [variables] are given only one significant figure,…any greater accuracy simply adds unessential detail.

One might term this type of thinking “hemibel thinking.” A bel is defined as a unit in a logarithmic scale corresponding to a factor of 10. Consequently a hemibel corresponds to a factor of the square root of 10, or approximately 3. [p. 38]

Morse and Kimball — two brilliant scientists and analysts, who had worked with actual data (pardon the redundancy) about combat operations — counseled against making too much of quantitative estimates given the uncertainties inherent in combat. But, as I have seen over the years, analysts eager to “prove” something nevertheless make a huge deal out of minuscule differences in quantitative estimates — estimates based not on actual combat operations but on theoretical values derived from models of systems and operations yet to see the light of day. (I also saw, and still see, too much “analysis” about soft subjects, such as domestic politics and international relations. The amount of snake oil emitted by “analysts” — sometimes called scholars, journalists, pundits, and commentators — would fill the Great Lakes. Their perceptions of reality have an uncanny way of supporting their unabashed decrees about policy.)

The second memorable passage from Methods of Operations Research goes directly to the point of this post:

Operations research done separately from an administrator in charge of operations becomes an empty exercise. [p. 10].

In the case of CBO and other opponents of the 600-ship Navy, substitute “cost estimate” for “operations research”, “responsible defense official” for “administrator in charge”, and “strategy” for “operations”. The principle is the same: The CBO and its ilk knew the price of the 600-ship Navy, but had no inkling of its value.

Too many scientists and analysts want to make policy. On the evidence of my close association with scientists and analysts over the years — including a stint as an unsparing reviewer of their products — I would say that they should learn to think clearly before they inflict their views on others. But too many of them — even those with Ph.D.s in STEM disciplines — are incapable of thinking clearly, and more than capable of slanting their work to support their biases. Exhibit A: Michael Mann, James Hansen (more), and their co-conspirators in the catastrophic-anthropogenic-global-warming scam.

Related posts:
The Limits of Science
How to View Defense Spending
Modeling Is Not Science
Anthropogenic Global Warming Is Dead, Just Not Buried Yet
The McNamara Legacy: A Personal Perspective
Analysis for Government Decision-Making: Hemi-Science, Hemi-Demi-Science, and Sophistry
The Limits of Science (II)
The Pretence of Knowledge
“The Science Is Settled”
Verbal Regression Analysis, the “End of History,” and Think-Tanks
Some Thoughts about Probability
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
AGW in Austin?
The “Marketplace” of Ideas
My War on the Misuse of Probability
Ty Cobb and the State of Science
Understanding Probability: Pascal’s Wager and Catastrophic Global Warming
Revisiting the “Marketplace” of Ideas
The Technocratic Illusion
AGW in Austin? (II)
Is Science Self-Correcting?
“Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings”
Words Fail Us
“Science” vs. Science: The Case of Evolution, Race, and Intelligence
Modeling Revisited
The Fragility of Knowledge
Global-Warming Hype
Babe Ruth and the Hot-Hand Hypothesis
Hurricane Hysteria
Deduction, Induction, and Knowledge
Much Ado about the Unknown and Unknowable
A (Long) Footnote about Science
Further Thoughts about Probability
Climate Scare Tactics: The Mythical Ever-Rising 30-Year Average
A Grand Strategy for the United States

Defense Spending, One More Time

A long-time friend, who for 40 years worked in and for the Pentagon, advances a rationale for defense budget-cutting that, I fear, is all-too prevalent: A defense budget that matches or exceeding the Cold War’s shouldn’t be needed when the threat of global war has receded so much.

A more complete (honest) version reads like this: The U.S. defense budget should be large enough — despite errors of intelligence, allocation, and execution, and despite the vagaries of war — to defeat a determined and skillful enemy, should that enemy not be deterred by its perceptions of U.S. military strength, the willingness of U.S. leaders to wield that strength, and their skill in doing so.

When spelled out in that way, it’s more obvious that the judgments involved in deciding the requisite size of the U.S. defense budget (let alone its allocation) are largely subjective. That is, knowing “how much is enough” was a grossly uncertain undertaking during the Cold War. So grossly uncertain that the level of U.S. defense spending during the Cold War can’t be used as a valid benchmark for U.S. defense spending in the future. All we know about Cold War defense spending is that it was adequate to deter (and probably defeat) a Potemkin-like Soviet military. We don’t know (and never can know) if it would have been adequate to the task of deterring and defeating the Soviet military that it was intended to deter and defeat.

Moreover, the formulation omits a crucial consideration. Reductions in the U.S. defense budget invite ambitious, aggressive regimes to build enough military strength to (a) deter a weaker U.S. from contesting limited military adventures that could harm U.S. interests and (b) badly damage U.S. forces deployed to contest such military adventures, with the aim of forcing U.S. withdrawal pursuant to media-orchestrated domestic backlash (as in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, and Iraq).

In sum, there is no real case for the reduction of defense spending after the so-called victory in the Cold War. Indeed, the very act of cutting the U.S. defense budget invites anti-American adventurism while weakening the ability of U.S. leaders to respond to it, and therefore weakening their willingness to respond to it. The cases of Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia reveal a preference among post-World War II American leaders for withdrawal in the face of tenacious opposition — a concept foreign to Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. That preference was duly noted in Osama bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa against the United States.

What about the fact that the U.S. — despite a lot of budget cutting — hasn’t been threatened by a truly powerful adversary since the end of the Cold War? The problem is that force reductions and force buildups aren’t time-symmetrical. Forces can be cut quickly, but can’t be reconstituted and returned to fighting shape nearly as quickly.

Unfortunately, however, war usually comes more quickly than expected, if not unexpectedly. Consider the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941; the North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950; and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Yes, given the evidence at hand, the U.S. should have been better prepared for those events. But unpreparedness seems to be a systemic feature of America’s squabbling, interest-group based, multi-headed, media-sensitive political “system.” This argues for a permanently high level of preparedness, attained (somehow) despite the “system.”

I’ll end on that tantalizing note.

*     *     *

Related posts:
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy, Revisited
Libertarians and the Common Defense
Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style
War Can Be the Answer
Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism
Now, Let’s Talk About Something Else
The Fatal Naïveté of Anarcho-Libertarianism
Thomas Woods and War
“Peace for Our Time”
Not Enough Boots
Defense as the Ultimate Social Service
Not Enough Boots: The Why of It
Blood for Oil

It *Is* the Oil
Liberalism and Sovereignty
Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace
The Media, the Left, and War
The McNamara Legacy: A Personal Perspective
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
The “Predator War” and Self-Defense
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars
Delusions of Preparedness
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
Rating America’s Wars
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
September 20, 2001: Hillary Clinton Signals the End of “Unity”
Patience as a Tool of Strategy
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Preemptive War
Preemptive War and Iran
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
More Thoughts about Patience and Its Significance
Mission Not Accomplished

A Grand Strategy for the United States

REVISED 11/22/10; UPDATED 04/06/14 (where indicated)

The title of this post is a play on Strategy for the  West (1954), by Marshall of the Royal Air Force Sir John Cotesworth Slessor. Slessor was, by some accounts, a principal author of nuclear deterrence. Aside from his role in the development of a strategy for keeping the USSR at bay, Slessor is perhaps best known for this observation:

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditure on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free. (Strategy for the West, p. 75)

In keeping with that observation, my purpose here is to outline the requirements for the ultimate social service that the government of the United States can provide: the defense of Americans and their interests, at home and abroad.

The government of the United States was created to serve limited purposes, among them to “provide for the common defence … and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The United States owes liberty to no one but its citizens, though the liberty of others may help to ensure the liberty of Americans.

A grand strategy that promotes the liberty of Americans cannot be complete unless all components of the federal government are aligned with it. What follows is a prescription for the “common defence” that is not restricted to the Department of Defense. The broader reach of this prescription becomes evident in the latter portions of this post.


Nuclear deterrence, as a strategy, was adequate for a particular place and time: to forestall Soviet aggression toward Europe in the 1950s. It was succeeded in the 1960s by the strategy of “flexible response,” that is, the deterrence or defeat of Soviet aggression in Europe with a combination of nuclear and “conventional” forces. The latter would be capable of waging a prolonged land-air-sea campaign against Soviet forces, while also dealing with threats to U.S. interests in other parts of the world.

A grand strategy, by contrast, anticipates an evolution of potential threats and points to a defense posture that is capable of dealing with their realization. In the context of World War II, for example, the defeat of Germany by Allied forces — beginning with victory in North Africa and the Atlantic, and culminating in the entrapment of German forces by Allied invasions from the west, south, and east — was a strategy. A grand Allied strategy, on the other hand, would have seen the possibility of Stalin’s post-war expansionism, and thwarted it by (a) excluding the USSR from the occupation of Germany and (b) maintaining large standing armies instead of rushing to demobilize. The failure of the Allies to adopt a grand strategy — despite Churchill’s premonitions about Stalin — can be ascribed to Roosevelt’s declining health, the  prevalence of “doves” (if not Soviet sympathizers) among his inner circle, and the rush to demobilize in the U.S. and Britain. Then, barely two months after the surrender of Germany, British voters turned Parliament upside-down, replacing Churchill’s Conservatives with Atlee’s Labourites. Atlee’s party

ran [and won] on promises to create full employment, a tax funded universal National Health Service, and a cradle-to-grave welfare state, with the campaign message ‘Let us face the future.’

In other words, the Great British Public (or a sizable portion of it) was eager to resume its ill-advised love affair with socialism.


Moving forward to the present, it is evident that the responsible officers of the United States have failed to articulate a grand strategy. Specifically, in a report issued earlier this year, the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel (a distinguished group of defense cognoscenti assembled at the behest of Congress) recommended the formation of a standing Independent Strategic Review Panel, which would (among other things) “provide to the Congress and the President its assessment of the strategic environment.” The National Security Council, in turn, would use that “assessment [to] develop a ‘grand strategy’ for the United States that would be formalized as the National Security Strategy.”

What now passes for a strategy is written in Barack Obama’s “National Security Strategy” of May 2010. Obama’s speech of August 31, 2010, about the end of combat operations in Iraq touches on many of the same points as his strategy statement. Regarding the Iraq speech, Kenneth Anderson, a student of defense affairs, says (in part):

Commenters have noted, some with puzzlement, as to why the domestic economy figured in this speech.  Seen through a domestic policy lens, it’s obvious — Americans, with upcoming elections, are worried about the domestic economy, and this foreign stuff, even when it is a major war, is merely a side-show and distraction from the domestic agenda that is, at bottom, both what American voters care about and what the Obama administration has always truly cared about, even if those two have sharply divergent views as to what the domestic policies should be, to judge by the polls.

Seen through a foreign policy lens, however, the answer is somewhat the same, but emphasizes a different point.  That point is that the Obama administration proposes that the United States should embark on an extended period of in-turned focus upon its domestic issues but that, seen from the standpoint of the rest of the world, friend and foe alike, it looks very much like America wants a good, long, global nap.  I’m a conservative critic of this whole idea; I don’t think that would work out very well for the United States, for our friends and allies, or really for anyone — including many of our enemies, active and passive — who rely on the US for the provision of certain basic public goods in both global security and the global economy.

But I would say that the way in which the President linked the foreign and domestic policies in last night’s speech — ambiguous, to be sure, but that, from this perspective, is part of the problem — is a modest indication of the Obama administration’s overall global strategic view that “multilateral engagement” is a rhetorical term for “American strategic withdrawal.”

It is clear (to me) that Obama is willing to take the risk that bad things won’t happen, and to paper over that risk with high-sounding hopes for diplomacy and “multinationalism”? Why is he willing to take that risk? So that he can push resources in the direction of his domestic agenda. Obama’s so-called strategy is nothing more than an excuse for the continuation of the American left’s ill-advised love affair with socialism.

In that regard, it is galling that secretary of defense Gates would lend himself to Obama’s purposes. But here he is, doing just that in a speech earlier this year:

  • The U.S. operates 11 large carriers, all nuclear powered.  In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.
  • The U.S. Navy has 10 large-deck amphibious ships that can operate as sea bases for helicopters and vertical-takeoff jets.  No other navy has more than three, and all of those navies belong to pur allies or friends.  Our Navy can carry twice as many aircraft at sea as all the rest of the world combined.
  • The U.S. has 57 nuclear-powered attack and cruise missile submarines – again, more than the rest of the world combined.
  • Seventy-nine Aegis-equipped combatants carry roughly 8,000 vertical-launch missile cells.  In terms of total missile firepower, the U.S. arguably outmatches the next 20 largest navies.
  • All told, the displacement of the U.S. battle fleet – a proxy for overall fleet capabilities – exceeds, by one recent estimate, at least the next 13 navies combined, of which 11 are our allies or partners.
  • And, at 202,000 strong, the Marine Corps is the largest military force of its kind in the world and exceeds the size of most world armies.

As if certain numbers of ships, aircraft, missiles, displacement tons, and Marines can be thought of as “too many” without reference to potential and actual threats. As if those numbers should not be out of proportion to the numbers owned by prospective enemies. As if it were somehow wrong to possess a large Navy and Marine Corps, when the U.S. has far-flung interests to protect.

Mr. Gates would object that he is only trying to steer the Navy and Marine Corps away from their outmoded ways. That is the thrust of what he says later in the same speech:

Our Navy has to be designed for new challenges, new technologies, and new missions – because another one of history’s hard lessons is that, when it comes to military capabilities, those who fail to adapt often fail to survive.  In World War II, both the American and British navies were surprised by the speed with which naval airpower made battleships obsolete.  Because of two decades of testing and operations, however, both were well prepared to shift to carrier operations.  We have to consider whether a similar revolution at sea is underway today.

Potential adversaries are well aware of our overwhelming conventional advantage – which is why, despite significant naval modernization programs underway in some countries, no one intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the U.S. to a shipbuilding competition akin to the Dreadnought race before World War I.

Instead, potential adversaries are investing in weapons designed to neutralize U.S. advantages – to deny our military freedom of action while potentially threatening America’s primary means of projecting power:  our bases, sea and air assets, and the networks that support them.

We know other nations are working on asymmetric ways to thwart the reach and striking power of the U.S. battle fleet.  At the low end, Hezbollah, a non-state actor, used anti-ship missiles against the Israeli navy in 2006.  And Iran is combining ballistic and cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, mines, and swarming speedboats in order to challenge our naval power in that region.

What will happen, of course, is that the “excess” forces will be pared, in sacrificial homage to deficit reduction. But it will be a long time — if ever — before the gaps are filled with more “relevant” forces. Even if Mr. Gates does not mean to help Obama achieve some kind of limited, unilateral disarmament, that is precisely the end that will be served by his facile and irrelevant comparisons.


When I say that a grand strategy “anticipates an evolution of threats and points to a defense posture that is capable of dealing with that evolution,” I do not mean that the nation’s security posture should be determined by a sequence of set-piece scenarios. These are easy enough to conjure — for the near future, at least — but they focus on known knowns. A grand strategy worth its name should yield a coherent defense posture that can accommodate unknown unknowns.

The current bureaucratic-political process, which eventuates in the passage of defense budgets by Congress, yields a defense posture that is neither coherent nor connected to a strategy, except by mere verbiage. I therefore prescribe an analytical-political process that moves from the development of a grand strategy to an open debate about the risks of failing to implement it:

1. Describe a complete defense-in-depth; that is, prepare an exhaustive outline of the ways in which the nation must be able to defend itself, even against threats that have not (and may not) materialize. The implausibility of a potential threat is no proof against its materialization.

2. Size the budget from which a complete defense-in-depth can be constructed. An “affordable” defense budget is not a figure picked out of the air by a president who is anxious to advance his domestic agenda. (By “defense budget,” I do not mean just the budget for the Department of Defense, but rather the budget for all military and civilian components of government that have a role to play in a complete defense-in-depth.) A failure to defend Americans and their interests carries a high price tag, in lives, limbs, and treasure. An “affordable” defense budget is one that is justified by the value of the lives, limbs, and treasure that it saves by deterring, thwarting, and defeating enemies. (I offer some benchmarks of “affordability” below.)

3. Test alternative defense postures against demanding and feasible scenarios, in various combinations. The main purpose of this step is to test the robustness of the “affordable” defense budget, that is, its ability to provide a complete defense-in-depth against a variety of threats, near-term and long-term. This step yields a baseline against which the effects of lower defense budgets can be compared.

4. Assess the effects of lower defense budgets, by testing the capabilities they afford against the baseline obtained in step 4.

5. Prepare a detailed multi-year defense program and describe the risks it entails, relative to a complete defense-in-depth.

6. Present the results of steps 1-5 to Congress and the public. Members of Congress with a “need to know” (e.g., members of the subcommittees for Department of Defense authorizations and appropriations) would have access to classified information. An unclassified version would be published and distributed via the internet.

6. The ensuing political debate — in the press, over the internet, and in Congress — would culminate in the adoption of a defense budget for the coming year and adjustments to the multi-year defense program.

7. Repeat the process every two years, but change the cast of characters involved in steps 1-4.

The rest of this post focuses on step 1.


The Essential Elements

A grand strategy should

  • be rooted in a conception of Americans’ interests (e.g., continued access to foreign oil  for as long as it remains an efficient source of energy);
  • take into account the present and likely future threats to those interests — threats both specific (e.g., Islamic terrorism) and generic (e.g., attacks on vital networks, such as transportation, energy generation and transmission, and telecommunications);
  • provide a template against which the adequacy of U.S. security programs defense forces can be assessed (e.g., adequate for conventional combat against organized armies but inadequate for damage control in the event of a cyber-attack on government computing networks);
  • point to specific, technologically feasible, program and budget recommendations for shoring up areas of weakness.

The Calculus of Global Engagement

It may be possible to devise and implement a grand strategy based on military disengagement from the wider world — one that focuses on homeland defense, rapid responses to emerging overseas threats, and nuclear retaliation. But disengagement is not the proper starting point.

Any strategy that cedes forward defenses and preemption can be viewed by an adversary as an invitation to seize (or be capable of seizing) critical masses of land, water, and space, to the grave disadvantage of Americans’ interests. Forward defenses and preemption — like them or not — can prove more effective and less costly than reactive defense postures.

Some enemies cannot and will not be deterred. They must be contained — and, when necessary — struck before they can strike or abet others with a penchant for anti-American violence.

The world is not our oyster, but it is the source of much that brings prosperity and enjoyment to Americans. Any administration that claims to value to well-being of Americans should be prepared to defend the overseas sources of goods and services enjoyed by Americans — and the air, sea, and space through which those goods and services must travel.

Enemies: Within and Without

America is more despised that loved, for reasons varying from resentment to envy to inculcated hatred. The particular reasons are less important than the fact — of which most Americans seem ignorant — that the downfall of America would be greeted in much of the world with glee. This is true even of peoples who owe their liberty to the force of American arms and their prosperity to trade with Americans.

I did not write “more feared than loved” because America is no longer feared. America would still be feared if, in the aftermath of 9/11, the forces of the United States had attacked terrorism and its state supporters relentlessly and decisively. But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were too limited — in part because of the shrinkage of American forces in the preceding decade — and partly because Americans — led by a generation brought up on anti-war rhetoric — have lost whatever taste they once had for all-out, decisive warfare. Afghanistan and Iraq have been Korea and Vietnam all over again, complete with halfhearted leaders, second-guessing pundits, and backstabbing politicians.

Because America is both despised and no longer feared — and is unlikely to give the world a reason to fear it — its enemies are emboldened.

Many Europeans — especially so-called intellectuals — view Americans (collectively) as boors and bullies, whose values are inconsistent with “enlightened” Europeanism, where the state reigns supreme over the individual and peace reigns by dint of the sacrifices of Americans. It would, however, be a strategic mistake to abandon Europe to its own devices and to the ambitions of Russian imperialists,  UPDATE (04/06/14) which are (barely) repressed by the Russian leadership’s evident fear of NATO which are personified in Vladimir Putin (see this and this, for example).

A “European” view of America is shared by many Americans — especially so-called intellectuals, whose views have migrated to the mainstream of American political thought. They believe that enemies can be won over by diplomacy and gestures of friendship. They believe, in sum, that peace is a product of hope, not preparedness and the will to fight.

I make these points to emphasize another one: The search for a grand strategy should not and must not be diverted by the “strategy” of hope. That — as history proves time and again — is a strategy for retreat, if not defeat.


It is equally important to keep the question of “affordability” in its proper place. Members of the executive and legislative branches should first ask what must be done to assure, with a high degree of confidence, the defense of Americans and their interests. Only after having asked and answered that question should they consider how much it would cost to do the job. Then, and only then, should they consider spending less than the full amount, while assessing and acknowledging the risks of doing so.

A grand strategy — to be a real thing — must be more than a collection of words on paper. The true grand strategy will be whatever it is that can be accomplished by actual, well-trained human beings, equipped with reliable, state-of-the-art hardware and software, and backed by modern well-run installations, logistics, communications, and intelligence systems.

In the end, the “affordability” of a defense posture should be measured by the cost of failing to protect Americans and their interests, at home an abroad. (Cutting off oil is just as much an act of aggression as flying planes into the World Trade Center.)

“Affordability” can be measured by the costs of the Great Depression and World War II. The Great Depression was caused, in part, by an international trade war, triggered by protectionist impulses. Massive and successful attacks on telecommunications facilities, trade routes, and terminals could easily replicate the economic destruction wrought by the Great Depression. How costly was that destruction? In the United States, the Great Depression cost Americans about one-fourth of the GDP that they would otherwise have enjoyed during the years 1930-1940.

What happened next was even worse. It was necessary for the U.S. to enter World War II — Pearl Harbor or not — in order to prevent encirclement, impoverishment, and possibly enslavement by the Axis powers. But, had the U.S. (along with Britain and France) prepared sufficiently, the Axis powers might have been deterred. Even if they had not been deterred, the Allies would have won sooner and at a lower cost in lives and treasure. As it turned out, World War II consumed one-third of the GDP of the United States in the years 1942-1945, peaking at 43 percent in 1944.

In effect, the Great Depression continued through World War II and did not end until 1947, when defense spending dropped to 7.5 percent of GDP. And yet there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth nowadays because defense spending has recovered a bit from its suicidal, Clintonian, budget-balancing trick:

Derived from Bureau of Economic Analysis, Table 1.1.5. Gross Domestic Product, available here.

The current push to trim the defense budget is foolish on two counts. First, the huge deficits projected for the federal government arise mainly from commitments to continue and expand three major entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (Obamacare represents an expansion of all three). Second, the defense budget should be geared to external threats, not to the federal government’s fiscal problems. Cutting the defense budget to fund profligate spending on “social services” is like preparing for a street brawl by spending money on a new suit instead of brass knuckles.

There is, nevertheless, a tendency in political-punditry circles to bemoan the amounts spent on defense. Anti-defense zealots get it into their heads that the government spends “too much” on defense — period. What they mean, of course, is that the government spends money to execute wars of which they disapprove, and to prepare for wars that they would rather not think about. There is also the fear — now that the looming bankruptcy of entitlement programs cannot be denied — that money will be taken from “social services” rather than defense. On that score, it is well to remember that “the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free.”

Rather than take money from defense, our “leaders” should be thinking about how to spend more on defense. There is nothing more inviting to an aggressor than his intended victim’s lack of preparedness. As the man says, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” But if you choose to pay later, you will pay one hell of a higher price, if you are still alive to pay it.


A grand strategy, as I have suggested, is a defense-in-depth that extends across time. It should not be based on a particular scenario, or a particular set of them. It should be based on a catalog of feasible threats to Americans and their interests, as those threats may change with the evolution of technology. Which is not to say that a grand strategy should fixate on technological advances, for — as the events of 9/11, 3/11, and 7/7 (among many others) should remind us — there always will be much to fear from determined, resourceful, and fanatical enemies whose main weapon is their victims’ lack of preparedness and resolve. Moreover — given the possibility of recurrences of 9/11 on a much larger scale, and the ever-present threat of cyber-war — a grand strategy cannot be built on the assumption that there will be ample time in which to mobilize the resources of the United States.

I therefore submit that America’s posture vis-à-vis its actual and potential enemies must encompass the capabilities listed below. I am not equipped with the particular knowledge or expertise that would enable me to elaborate the points in detail. Accordingly, I restrict my commentary to arcane and off-beat aspects of a defense-in-depth.

1. Effective strategic and tactical intelligence, accompanied by effective counter-intelligence.

I have several thoughts on this aspect of a grand strategy:

  • Abolish the CIA’s analytical arm. Replace it with competing “red” teams, whose funding and eventual survival would depend on their accuracy in predicting developments that affect the security of the U.S.
  • Hire unsavory characters, as necessary, for analytical and operational work, but keep a close eye on them and “terminate” them at the first sign of treachery.
  • Monitor all international communications from sensors in space and overseas, under a legal grant of authority enacted by Congress. Everything else should be fair game, but only as authorized by “intelligence court” warrants under the scrutiny of a restricted number of executive officers and members of Congress.
  • Prosecute leakers and publishers of leaks to the fullest extent of the law, without fail and regardless of rank or influence. Establish a separate prosecutorial office, staffed by “untouchables,” for that purpose.

2. Secure, hardened, and redundant telecommunications, transportation, and energy networks.

There are lessons to be learned from the evolution of business communications:

  • Technology has eliminated, and will continue to eliminate, much of the need for business travel. This development is independent of the terrorist threat, though that threat may have accelerated an otherwise inevitable shift toward more productive means of business communication.
  • The broader point is that telecommunications, transportation, and energy networks will not retain their present configurations. Technological innovation can, and will, make them more efficient and — at the same time — less vulnerable. Government should be in the business of protecting the networks from the outside, but the design of the networks should evolve from the inside. Otherwise, the “tail” of security will wag the “dog” of efficiency.

As for energy:

  • Nuclear energy may or may not be more efficient than the alternatives, but it should be given a chance. If it really is “too risky,” why haven’t all existing plants been shut down?
  • Offshore drilling platforms and production facilities in “sacred” places like ANWR can be protected more readily than foreign fields. That is merely to point out the hypocrisy of the green crowd, which tends to oppose “blood for (foreign) oil” but also opposes the best substitute for it, which is the home-grown variety.
  • But I do not counsel government-dictated retreat from foreign oil; Americans are well served by market-based changes in energy supplies, and ill-served by tax-subsidized scams (e.g., ethanol). As long as foreign oil remains a competitive source of energy, the task of securing the energy network must include the protection of foreign fields and ports from terrorists and unfriendly regimes. The cost of that protection should not be assigned solely to the cost of obtaining foreign oil — contra libertarian isolationists — for the deterrent effect of a demonstrated willingness to defend Americans’ overseas interests is a plus for U.S. interests around the world.

Regarding terrorism, generally:

  • Although al Qaeda’s terroristic repertoire includes attacks on ground transportation and buildings, its favored way of terrorizing the U.S., beginning with 9/11, has involved the use and attempted destruction of commercial aircraft. This emphasis has, in turn, led U.S. officials to focus on the protection of scheduled passenger flights, with the result that the measures used to screen passengers have become so intrusive as to spark outrage in the U.S.
  • The terrorists have “won,” in the sense that they are spreading fear and imposing heavy costs on Americans. And there is more to come. (See, for example, “Al Qaeda affiliate threatens more small-scale bomb attacks,” The Washington Post, November 21, 2010.) At some point, before it is too late, the U.S. government must focus on the real threat, which is not the mass of American travelers but an overseas-based network of terrorists who share a religion (Islam) and a hatred of non-Islamic cultures.
  • In the meantime, other forms and nodes of transportation remain relatively unprotected. Low-cost threats against those forms and nodes will impose more costs on Americans. And then there are public buildings, shopping malls, energy production and transmission facilities, and water supplies.
  • A purely defensive posture will leave Americans hunkered down. It is time for a real war on terror, which requires far more than the more-or-less conventional operations on display in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the use of UAVs in targeted killing. Which leads to the observations under the next two headings.

3. Quick response (at home and abroad) to tactical intelligence via special operations units (including units equipped for cyber-war as well as shooting skirmishes).

I counsel an ounce (or more) of prevention:

  • Federal operations on U.S. soil, especially if they affect citizens and legal aliens, involve some tricky constitutional issues and real threats to liberty. But cunning enemies can exploit the demonstrated squeamishness of American governments, as we saw in the case of the “wall” between foreign intelligence and domestic operations that allowed the 9/11 attacks to proceed.
  • Accordingly, top priority ought to be given to the working out of protocols that enable intelligence (foreign and domestic)  to be collected and released to operational units — with proper authorization — in time for them to prepare and execute preventive action in the U.S.
  • Beyond that, there is preemptive action overseas…

4. The preemptive use of technological trickery (e.g., cyber-attacks), targeted killing, small-scale hit-and-run operations, and large-scale sea, land, and aerospace operations.

I offer three ideas:

  • Establish competing “dirty tricks” shops to develop cyber-war tools (e.g., Stuxnet), and enable the command authority to use the tools to disrupt the development of offensive capabilities by hostile regimes.
  • Enable lightning strikes overseas by maintaining various kinds of “presence,” ranging from carrier battle groups to special-operations units. “Presence” has the added benefit of deterring overtly hostile acts.
  • Wars are not won by air power alone. UAV strikes would be much more effective if complemented by the occasional hit-and-run, take-no-prisoners attack on known terrorist locations. If collateral damage, host-nation protests, and bad publicity bother you, you shouldn’t be in the business of defending Americans and their interests, you should be in the State Department or on Madison Avenue.

5. A large “standing army,” with a broad range of nuclear and conventional forces that are fully manned and trained, well-maintained and supplied, and technologically advanced.

I offer two words — competition and duplication:

  • Much verbiage has been emitted over the years about the supposedly deleterious effects of inter-service competition and the duplication of certain types of forces. A time-honored example is the insistence of the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps (and the Army, to some extent) on maintaining their own (somewhat) duplicative) and (undoubtedly) competitive air forces.
  • Whether this so-called competition and duplication is actually detrimental to the nation’s defense posture is another matter. I have never seen a good case made that the money would have been better spent in other ways. (Yes, the pundits often have their favored ways, but don’t we all?)  The real problem seems to be  a certain lack of neatness. Methinks the critics of duplication and competition suffer a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder; they want the armed forces of the country to fit into neat, non-overlapping, perfectly balanced organizational boxes. Those critics should worry, instead, about the overall effectiveness of those forces vis-à-vis a broad range of potential threats.
  • There is a way to obtain more bang for the buck; it is called competition. For the past 40 years, each of the military departments has been given a set of multi-year budget constraints, within which the department must could construct and propose its multi-year program. It would be a healthy, invigorating, and informative exercise to ask each of the departments (and other major players in the defense arena) to offer competing multi-year programs for the entire defense effort, not just their slice of it. These would be considered and evaluated in the course of the new defense planning and budgeting process, described earlier.

In general, any serious effort to devise a defense-in-depth should assume that all present and prospective defense programs are candidates for modification or cancellation. Sunk costs are sunk; plans are not promises.


Again, a grand strategy is not mere words. It is what the forces, systems, procedures, and people of the defense establishment (broadly conceived) are able to do, given the resources at hand or in train, under the direction of a command authority that (one hopes) is far-seeing, imaginative, flexible, and — above all — determined.

The United States will not have an enduring, consistent, and effective grand strategy unless two things happen:

  • American voters consistently elect members of Congress and presidents who are committed to peace, prosperity, and liberty at home through swift, sure justice and military preparedness.
  • That condition will obtain only if there is a successful, bloodless revolution which ends the dominant role of the “progressive, one-world, hope-over-experience” crowd in the nation’s schools, universities, news outlets, and government bureaus. Their way is peace at any price but the price of preparedness. Their way is oppression at home (disguised as do-goodism) and capitulation abroad.

It is the prospect of realizing the second condition — and through it, the first — that gives me somewhat justified hope for the future of the nation.

In the alternative, there is this, this, and this.

Related posts: War and Peace

Delusions of Preparedness

The current push to trim the defense budget is foolish on two counts. First, the huge deficits projected for the federal government arise mainly from commitments to continue and expand three major entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (Obamacare represents an expansion of all three). Second, the defense budget should be geared to external threats, not to the federal government’s fiscal problems. Cutting the defense budget to fund profligate spending on “social services” is like preparing for a street brawl by spending money on a new suit instead of brass knuckles.

There is, nevertheless, a tendency in political-punditry circles to bemoan the amounts spent on defense. Anti-defense zealots get it into their heads that the government spends “too much” on defense — period. What they mean, of course, is that the government spends money to execute wars of which they disapprove, and to prepare for wars that they would rather not think about. There is also the fear — now that the looming bankruptcy of entitlement programs cannot be denied — that money will be taken from “social services” rather than defense.

On that score, it is well to remember the words of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor:

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditures on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free.

Rather than take money from defense, our “leaders” should be thinking about how to spend more on defense. Nothing is more inviting to an aggressor than his intended victim’s lack of preparedness.

A common mistake, even among students of war, is to assume that there will be time to mobilize American’s economic engine, as in World War II. But that was before the advent of nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, and the ability of terrorists and cyber-warriors to create economic and military chaos. I submit that America’s strength vis-a-vis its actual and potential enemies now requires the following:

1. secured/hardened/redundant telecommunications (including internet), transportation, and energy networks

2. effective strategic and tactical intelligence (necessarily more intrusive than desired by civil-liberties purists)

3. quick response (at home and abroad) to tactical intelligence via special operations units (including some that can respond in kind to cyber-attacks)

4. a large “standing army,” with a broad range of strategic and conventional forces that are fully manned and trained, well-maintained and supplied, and technologically advanced — to deter and, as necessary, fight hostile regimes that pose threats to Americans and their overseas interests.

It is my sense that our current and planned defenses do not measure up to those requirements. The talk of cutting the defense budget should be scuttled, as should the “social services” that are the real cause of the government’s fiscal problems.