Why Is America’s Military So Expensive?

Maintaining a combat-ready military force is not cheap.  In fact, it’s damned expensive, and (barring massive cuts to the defense budget) there’s no reason to believe that the price tag will come down much in the foreseeable future.

Why is America’s military so costly?  If you’re looking for a quick and easy answer to that question, you can find some rather pointed sound bites on cable news regarding the inefficiency of the defense acquisition process and the greed of the military-industrial complex.  I won’t try to dismiss such criticisms, because there’s a degree of truth in them.  The acquisition process is significantly flawed, and I won’t pretend that everyone in the defense industry is straight and honest.  There are bad apples in every industry, and defense is certainly no exception.

But bureaucratic inefficiency and corporate greed are not the primary cost drivers in national defense.  Most of the big ticket expenses are tied to emerging military technologies.  The various services have been investing in next-generation aircraft, weaponry, sensors, and vastly upgraded information architectures.  Our friends in the Pentagon are also dabbling in robotics, directed energy weapons, and all manner of cool military tech.

Do we really need all of these shiny new toys?  Before we can form an intelligent opinion on that question, we have to know what all of these new technologies are intended to accomplish.  The systems in question include an extremely diverse range of hardware and software solutions, each with its own operational parameters.  Despite their diversity, they share a common intent: to limit the number of casualties on both sides of the fight.

People look at me funny when I say things like that.  Nevertheless, it’s true.  The U.S. military has been moving away from indiscriminate warfare for decades, in favor of the much-touted surgical strike.  The goal is no longer to crank up the body count.  Instead, we try to hit carefully selected targets with extreme precision, keeping our own casualties to a bare minimum, and restricting the number of collateral deaths and injuries on the other side.

America has the firepower to reduce entire cities to fields of ankle-high rubble, but we no longer fight that way.  If we carry out a strike against an enemy installation, we go to great effort to avoid destroying the buildings across the street.  The good news is that we’re getting better at this all the time.  Our ability to put precision munitions on target is already high, and it’s continuing to improve rapidly.  Unfortunately, the technologies required are extremely expensive.  Bombing ten city blocks into the Stone Age is cheap.  Hitting a single building with pinpoint accuracy is not. 

The desire to limit casualties among our own forces has led to a growing emphasis on robotics and automated systems.  The logic is obvious…  Machines are expendable and replaceable.  Human beings are not.  If an unmanned system can be sent into danger in place of a Soldier, then it makes sense to send the machine.

Of course, most of the real fighting is still done by men and women.  Our military personnel are out there on the tip of the proverbial spear every day.  Warfare is not abstract theory to them.  It’s not political gamesmanship or economic bean-counting.  It’s a no-shit life or death struggle, and frankly, some of them are not going to survive it.

There’s an old saying: “If you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck.”  An alternate version says, “If you find yourself in a fair fight, you didn’t plan it properly.”  I’m inclined to agree with either version.  As far as I’m concerned, we should never send American troops into a fair fight.  If they’re going to risk their lives for this country, I want them to have every advantage we can possibly give them.  That includes the best sensors, weapons, armor, computers, and other gear that we can devise.  It also means continuing to develop new technologies to ensure that our warriors retain the edge over our enemies.

Ultimately, this brings us back around to the money thing.  Can our troops make do with older (and less expensive) military hardware?  Undoubtedly.  But I firmly believe that the only thing more expensive than having the best hardware on the battlefield is having the second-best hardware on the battlefield.  If we let ourselves lose the edge, we will pay for it one way or another.  If not in dollars, then we will pay in human lives.

Do we need to continue to invest our tax dollars in shiny new military toys?  Not at all.  Our military can fight much more cheaply if we don’t insist on limiting the casualties.  Warfare is cheap, if you don’t care who gets killed.

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