Yesterday, Chuck Hagel gave what amounts to his “opening address” as the new secretary of defense. As expected, it was full of arguments about the need for reforms in how the Pentagon goes about its business—some true enough, others less so. And it was also full of vague formulations about the continuing need for American leadership and a strong military, the complex global environment the nation faces, and the requirement to match the ends, ways, and means of carrying out the country’s security strategy. Exactly what the strategy will entail or the risks involved in changing that strategy was also left less than clear. The speech should have concluded with: “Watch this space for more information.”
But two points of history worth challenging in the speech are: 1) Hagel’s repeating of former Defense Secretary Gates’ assertion that there was a “post-9/11 ‘gusher’ of defense spending” and; 2) that between “the lean interwar years” of World War I and World War II, a group of “farsighted officers—with virtually no funding or prospect of promotion—conceived important new platforms and operating concepts” that “proved decisive in the Second World War.”
On the first count, Gates, and now Hagel, are simply wrong. The base defense budget—that is, what is spent on the military outside of war funding—grew by a little over 4% annually from 2001 through 2009. And it grew from a base in 2000 that was, as a percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), at the lowest level since the end of the Second World War. Defense spending increased because we were at war, not because there was unmitigated largesse on the part of Congress. There was no “gusher” when it came to recapitalizing the American military after the “procurement holiday” of the Clinton years.
On the second count, Hagel’s right to point out that a lot of innovative concepts in naval, ground, and air warfare were put forward during the interwar years. In doing so, he implies that the lack of money should not be a hindrance to such innovation in the years ahead or, even possibly, that lean times might not be for the better—as in, necessity is the mother of invention. But what’s missing in this account of the interwar years is the phenomenal “costs” that followed—as in, the U.S. not being seen by either the Germans or Japanese as a credible deterrent to their global ambitions and the U.S. fielding a military that was ill-equipped and ill-trained for the war that came. Arguably, thousands upon thousands of lives were lost over the next two years precisely because the military was not properly resourced. Pictures from that time of Army units practicing “innovative” armored warfare maneuvers on bicycles with signs on the side saying “tank” should be a reminder that there is no substitute for keeping the military equipped and prepared.