Tag Archives: military industrial complex

The national interest?

This evening, the class I teach on military and defence policy will be discussing the concept of the ‘national interest’ and whether it has any value. One of the questions I will pose to the students is ‘who defines the national interest?’ That will lead us on to a discussion of the idea of the ‘military industrial complex’, and again we will debate whether this term has any value. The point will be to consider whether defence policy flows naturally from some objective ‘national interest’ or whether it is instead determined by certain narrow, vested interests (or perhaps some combination of the two).

In a happy coincidence of timing, the head of the British Army (of which once, a long time ago, I was a member), General Sir Nick Carter, has provided us with a relevant case study to chew upon in our class. The BBC reports that in a speech tonight to the Royal United Services Institute, General Carter will argue that, ‘Britain’s armed forces risk falling behind Russia without more investment.’ According to the BBC, General Carter ‘will say the Army’s ability to respond to threats “will be eroded if we don’t keep up with our adversaries” … He will add that Russia is building an increasingly aggressive expeditionary force, which already boasts capabilities the British Army would struggle to match.’

Making exact comparisons between countries is somewhat difficult, as exchange rates fluctuate considerably, and there is some disagreement as to what should be included as ‘defence’. According to some estimates (e.g. the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), Russia spends a bit more on defence than the United Kingdom, perhaps a little under US $70 bn, compared with about $50 bn for the UK. That might seem to support the general’s point. However, the most widely respected database on the subject, the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual Military Balance, lists British defence spending as being larger than that of Russia – $52 bn versus $46 bn. That doesn’t support the idea that Russia is more capable militarily than the UK. Perhaps a fair compromise might be to say that both countries’ spending is roughly in the same ball park. But Russia’s population is more than double that of the UK. Also, the UK is a very small country stretching just a few hundred kilometres from top to bottom, whereas Russia covers 11 time zones. The Russian armed forces have to defend not only their border with NATO, but also borders with the Caucasian and Central Asian states, China, and North Korea. The proportion of the Russian military which would be able to confront the UK in a conflict would be quite small. If you define capabilities in general terms, rather than a few specific items of military equipment, General Carter’s statement that Russia ‘boasts capabilities the British Army would struggle to match’ is rather hard to justify.

This is particularly so given that the UK is a member of NATO, and in the extraordinarily unlikely event that the UK and Russia ever went to war (the low likelihood of which is itself a point against General Carter), the British Army would never have to fight Russia alone. It would be part of a much larger alliance which outspends Russia by about 13 to 1. Just the European members of NATO outspend Russia by 4 to 1, and outgun it several times in terms of items of major military hardware (tanks, artillery, aircraft, ships, etc). NATO would certainly not ‘struggle to match’ Russia in the case of war.

The BBC notes that in his speech tonight, General Carter ‘will highlight Russia’s new cyber warfare capabilities.’ This is an odd choice of threat to highlight in order to appeal for an increase in defence spending. Combatting cyber threats isn’t an expensive activity, especially compared with, say, building and maintaining aircraft carriers. Mentioning it seems to serve only one purpose – to generate fear.

The BBC is quite clear about what’s going on here – there is ‘speculation of defence cuts’. To resist these, the Defence Minister has instructed the general to speak out about the Russian threat. The BBC says:

General Carter’s intervention is more driven by fears of further deep cuts to the UK’s armed forces. The Ministry of Defence has a black hole in its budget. It is rare for a military chief to make such an obvious and public appeal for more cash. But he’s doing it under the orders of the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. He has sent his generals over the top to put pressure on the chancellor.

When the Cold War came to an end, the justification for the British defence budget collapsed along with the Soviet Union. Defence planners instead came up with the idea of using the military to be a ‘force for good’, reshaping the world through armed intervention. Next, they used the terrorist ‘threat’ to justify increased budgets to pay for wars supposedly being fought against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. None of that worked out well, so the military has had to find a different justification for its money. And this is where Russia comes in useful. By exaggerating the Russian threat, the British army can make a claim to an increased share of the the country’s resources. The connection between the two – exaggerating threats and claiming resources – is quite explicit in this case.

We see here how the military industrial complex works. The army makes wild claims to justify its budget; the defence minister and his bureaucracy support the claims; institutions such as RUSI spread the word further among those who influence public opinion; and the press does its bit by giving space to the exaggerations. This isn’t a conspiracy – no doubt all these people believe in what they are doing. Long exposure to a given set of institutions tends to make people identify the national interest with those institutions’ interests. But the two aren’t the same. The British nation – that is to say its people – doesn’t benefit from conflictual relations with Russia; nor does it benefit from spending extra money on defence rather than on more productive activities (or alternatively, people getting their money back in the form of tax cuts).

Of course, the military industrial complex isn’t the only ‘complex’ making a claim on the government’s money. Other interest groups are pushing their own stories which justify them getting a large share of the pie at the expense of defence. They too will no doubt make exaggerations of their own. Government has to balance all the different claims for its resources from different groups, and in the process some understanding of the ‘national interest’ perhaps reasserts itself. But that shouldn’t deflect us from seeing in this story a crucial truth: one reason why Russia fear-mongering has become so widespread of late is that it serves powerful sectional interests to have an enemy.

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Missile non-defence

Remember how, back in 2001, George W. Bush abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, previously one of the cornerstones of the international security system? It was one of the first American steps to annoy the then relatively new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, helping launch US-Russian relations on their long downward trajectory. The Americans claimed that it was worth the price, however, because they foresaw a danger from ‘rogue states’ armed with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, and by reneging on the ABM Treaty the US could develop a means of defending itself. And thus was born the National Missile Defense boondoggle.

Sixteen years later and, if we are to believe the CIA and the press, the predictions have come true, and North Korea has finally developed a miniaturized nuclear bomb which can fit inside a ballistic missile, and has also developed missiles capable of hitting the continental USA. Donald Trump is threatening ‘fire and fury’ the likes of which the world has never seen. Something must be done, he shreaks. The United States faces a terrible danger, we are told.

But why? Aren’t the Americans safe by now behind their missile shield? It hasn’t been cheap, and surely given how much has been spent, it must be able to shoot down those North Korean nukes? After all, we are told:

According to Missile Defense Agency (MDA) estimates, Congress has appropriated roughly $190 billion for the agency’s programs between fiscal years 1985 and 2017. That total does not include spending by the military services on programs such as the Patriot system or the many additional tens of billions of dollars spent since work on anti-missile systems first began in the 1950s.

So, why are the Americans running around like headless chickens and threatening blue murder? There is only one answer – they don’t believe that their beloved missile defence system actually works. And they’re right. National missile defence’s latest manifestation is the so-called Ground-Based Mid-Course Defense System. This alone has cost $40 billion. But according to a report issued last year, it is ‘simply unable to protect the public’ – in other words, it’s a dud.

In a world of rational policy making, somebody would ask why such vast sums of money had been wasted on a project which to date has failed utterly to produce what it promised, and which has also incurred broader political costs, such as those associated with the abrogation of the ABM Treaty. In such a world, policy makers would decide that it was long past time to put an end to this fiasco and stop funding immediately. That, of course, is most unlikely to happen. The progress made by the North Koreans will almost certainly instead be used to argue that missile defence has never been more critical, and so to demand even more money to throw even deeper into the hole.

If this were the only such example of massive waste, one could perhaps forgive it (if one was a particularly generous soul). But, of course, it isn’t. In other posts I have, for instance, highlighted the $100 billion plus which the USA has spent on economic aid to Afghanistan, which the American government’s own auditor admits hasn’t achieved any positive results he can identify. And then, there’s the trillion or so dollars the US has spent on its military campaign in Afghanistan, similarly without success. And, I’m sure, it would be pretty easy to find other, equally outrageous examples.

I’m going to say it straight. The military industrial complex is a system of scandalous profligacy and inefficiency, the primary effect of which is not to make the USA (or other countries with similar MICs) any safer but rather to redistribute wealth out of the pockets of the general taxpayer and into the pockets of select constituencies (military personnel, defence contractors, and the like). It also largely beyond democratic control. The foundation of a liberal democratic system is accountability. But the MIC is not accountable. The large and more wasteful its failures, the more it is able to claim that it needs more money: smash up the Middle East and then the resulting disorder enables one to claim that the world is dangerous and one needs more funding; spend $190 billion failing to produce a workable missile defence system, and the fact that you don’t have a workable system justifies even more money in order to try to create one. And so on. In the world of military affairs, nothing is as rewarding as failure.

Will anybody in a position of power now start asking what’s happened to the $190 billion which was meant to protect the USA against North Korean missiles? Don’t bet on it.