THE BLOG
01/21/2015 12:16 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2015

Assessing--Threat Assessments

The United States' military is reported to greatly exaggerate the threat posed by China's and Russia's navies according to a prize-winning column in the Washington Post by Walter Pincus. Others have written about this bias, but Pincus documents it very effectively and above all succinctly.

Pincus starts by summarizing a recent presentation by Sean Stackley, the Navy's assistant secretary for research, development and acquisition, who "reflects thinking in the Navy and other services." Stackley is quoted as stating that "Our superiority at sea demands that we maintain superiority in technology, science, engineering." He sees an "impressive" investment in naval capabilities by China, including in a "new aircraft carrier, nuclear submarines, their fifth-generation fighter, amphibious capabilities, unmanned aircraft and anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles."

Then Pincus, a veteran observer of military and security affairs, points to a series of telling facts: "China's one floating aircraft carrier is a refurbished old Russian carrier bought from Ukraine in 1998. Ukraine had been using it as a museum...on a recent sea trial it had an explosion that knocked out its new electrical system. There are reports China is building its first, non-nuclear powered carrier, said to be comparable to a conventional carrier that entered U.S. Navy service 25 years ago."

As for Russia, its first nuclear-powered supercarrier had its hull laid in 1988, but construction was canceled in January 1991." In contrast, Pincus says, the United States has 10 supercarriers (albeit aging ones) but Stackley holds that the US Navy needs 11 new aircraft carriers!

As for Russia's modernization of its small number of less-capable ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), the first of eight new Borey-class SSBNs were finished in 2013, and the construction of three more is underway. This production is miniscule compared to the American replacement program for the 14 Ohio-class strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), which can carry 24 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each able to deliver up to 12 independently targeted nuclear warheads. Pincus calls this replacement program a "big hangover from the Cold War," reminding us that the 2010 arms control treaty with Russia will allow only 12 Ohio-class SSBNs to be deployed at one time beginning in 2018, and with only 20 of their missiles loaded. This means, Pincus notes, that "the United States will still have more than 1,000 sub-launched warheads available, with some 320 on ready-to-fire, 24-hour alert on the four subs normally on patrol in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Each warhead is at least five times as powerful than the bomb that hit Nagasaki." Still, the US navy sees replacing the Ohio-class SSBNs as its highest priority. The current plan is for construction of 12 new ones. Pincus simply adds "These days, terrorist [sic] are the first threat, and not a single one will be deterred by a nuclear warhead."

Pincus does not delve into the forces that drive the US military to focus on China (and Russia) while parts of Middle East and Africa are turned into massive training and staging grounds for terrorists. One major driving force is the defense contractors. True, there is no one military-industrial complex that controls the US military budget. There are, however, a number of military-industrial-congressional alliances that, while competing with each other, jointly affect US foreign policy and tilt it toward conventional rather than asymmetrical warfare. Conventional war is capital intensive, involving aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, fighters, and bombers, all manufactured by the private sector at high cost. The market for these major weapons systems is characterized by high entry costs, technical complexity, "winner-take-all" competitions, and increasing emphasis on versatile rather than diverse weapons platforms, facilitating consolidation and even monopolies among manufacturers. The business model of major defense contractors, including Lockheed, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics, relies on such capital-intensive expenditures. By contrast, fighting terrorists and insurgents is labor intensive.

There much less need here for big ticket items and hence fewer opportunities for hefty profit margins. While corporations always played a role in defense procurement, their leverage over Congress has increased in recent years following several major decisions by the Supreme Court to weaken campaign finance restrictions. The largest defense contractors both have the greatest stake in government procurement decisions and are among America's top spenders on lobbying.

Moreover, the US military itself strongly prefers to fight World War II-style conflicts in which the naval, air, and land forces of one nation are clearly arrayed against another - what David Barno calls "iron wars," as opposed to the "shadow" and "silicon" wars of cyber and asymmetrical conflict. In the words of former Defense Secretary Gates, conventional war is in the US military's "DNA," leading to a misconception that "if you train and equip to defeat big countries, you can defeat any lesser threat" - ignoring the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam.

All this helps explain why we find ourselves in the odd situation that the US--and the sixty nation coalitions it put together--so far have been unable to roll back ISIS. That is a terrorist group that has not air force, no navy, no intelligence satellites, and a force estimated at most to include 32,000 fighters. Pincus is right. China will wait (if we truly find that the best way to deal with it is by a new arms race)--the terrorists in the Middle East and in Africa, remind us every day that they constitute a clear and present danger.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, The New Normal, was released in November by Transaction Publishers. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, or send an email to icps@gwu.edu to subscribe to his monthly newsletter.