There are a lot of unhappy campers at the Pentagon right now. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates chose last week to present a controversial new budget that will affect the course of US foreign and military policy for decades to come.
Furious debate has raged in the Pentagon over the future and mission of US military forces ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Pentagon has been deeply divided over whether the US military should be configured to fight conventional wars against Russia and China, or be transformed into an agile force to combat Third World guerillas.
Both the Bush and Obama White Houses have been pushing the Pentagon to opt for the latter by beefing up forces and deploying new equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan. But many generals and admirals have been bitterly resisting cuts in US conventional forces.
Last week, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates finally put an end to this debate. Gate’s newly announced defense budget makes clear that America’s military future lies in what the Pentagon calls, `expeditionary warfare’ or `counter-insurgency operations.’ These, it is clear, will take place mostly in the Muslim world.
The British, less given to euphemisms than Americans, used to call their distant operations against unruly natives, `colonial warfare’ or `little wars.’
However, in 1914, the British Empire’s army, trained to fight colonial wars against lightly-armed Zulu, Dervishes and Afghans, met the modern Imperial German Army and suffered a bloodbath. Neither Britain’s generals nor soldiers were ready for the horrors of modern warfare.
While Gates was waving his big stick and warning all misbehaving Muslims, President Barack Obama was playing the good cop on his visit to Turkey, offering the `hand of friendship’ to the very same Muslim world to which Secretary Gates was planning to dispatch more US troops and Predator killer drones. This sharp irony was completely lost on the US media.
Though the US deficit just reached a staggering US $1 trillion for the first half of 2008, military spending will still rise 4%. The Afghan and Iraq wars will alone cost $200 billion this year.
So much for Obama’s promised government austerity. Plowshares will be beaten into swords. Congressmen and lobbyists will scream to high heaven when some major weapons programs are terminated, but overall, the US military industrial complex is hardly suffering.
Supporting the Afghan and Iraq wars is now the Pentagon’s priority. Fifty more deadly Predator and Reaper drones will be acquired. They are the Pentagon’s favorite tool for `taking out’ foes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, along, of course, with civilian `collateral damage.’ The British writer George Orwell called using such euphemisms, `making murder respectable.’
More special forces and advanced ground and air sensors to target `terrorists’ and `insurgents’ (ie those resisting the American Raj) will be deployed. Over 500 more versatile F-35 strike aircraft will be purchased. Production of the magnificent stealth F-22’s, costing $140 million a piece, will shortly end at 187 units. This has dismayed the Israelis, who were planning to order the F-22. Political pressure may yet keep the F-22 production line open to fill the Israeli order.
The Army loses heavy combat vehicles, artillery, and anti-missile systems. The US Navy loses one of its eleven carriers and some planned high-tech destroyers. Coastal combat vessels for shallow water Gulf and Third World operations will be added. Thirteen billion dollars of gold-plated presidential helicopters worthy of an airborne mogul emperor were sensibly postponed.
These realignments of defense spending clearly show the Obama administration intends to pursue a long war strategy in Afghanistan, Iraq, perhaps Somalia, and in other future Third World hot spots located near major oil deposits. President Bush’s so-called `war on terror’ cost taxpayers $808 billion. Obama has renamed it `overseas contingency operations,’ but otherwise he seems to be following Bush’s lead.
What caused so much heated debate in the Pentagon – and the heads of some senior generals like former Air Force chief of staff Michael Moseley – is the concern that reconfiguring the US military to fight `counter-insurgency’ wars in the Muslim world will undermine national defense and America’s ability to wage future wars against other great powers like China, Russia or even India and Europe.
Keeping one US soldier in Afghanistan costs $330,000 annually. The US military has been engaged in various conflicts abroad for 17 years: much of its equipment is seriously run down. The average age of US Air Force fighters is 24 years old. The USAF KC-135 tankers that allow long-range power projection average 47 years old.
The Iraq and Afghan wars have worn out the US Air Force and Navy: equipment replacement from operations in Iraq is alone estimated at over $60 billion.
Meanwhile, Russia is planning for small wars around its frayed borders, but it is still retaining substantial military muscle. China and India are steadily modernizing their armed forces.
The US Navy’s carriers, America’s key to strategic power projection, are now seriously threatened by three new weapons. China’s improved, 2,000 km range DF-21 missile than can be guided onto carriers by radar, satellite and drones; Russia’s 300 kph `Shkvall’ rocket-powered torpedo that travels in a self-generated air capsule; and the Russo-Indians supersonic BrahMos 300 km range anti-ship missile. They may make US carriers’ sitting ducks.
It takes decades to order and deploy new weapons systems. The Obama administration has now locked the US military on a course that cannot be quickly changed if new strategic threats emerge.