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The United States military budget -- the threat to China

By NicolasDavies - Posted on 29 October 2010

Last January, Carl Conetta of the Commonwealth Institute’s Project for Defense Alternatives wrote a paper titled “An Undisciplined Defense: Understanding the $2 Trillion Surge in US Defense Spending.” ( Conetta looked at the doubling of U.S. military spending since 1998, and concluded that only about half of the increase was linked to the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or to terrorism. Remarkably, this left over $1 trillion of extra U.S. military spending over the past 12 years unaccounted for -- not justified by any policy or strategy that U.S. political leaders have explained to the American public or to the rest of the world.

Equally disturbing, Conetta explained that the surge in military spending between 1999 and 2010 differed qualitatively from the 43 percent spending surge of the 1960s (Vietnam) and the 57 percent surge in the 1980s (Reagan) in that this was not just a peak in a fluctuating historical cycle but rather an unprecedented new baseline for U.S. military spending. From 1951 to 2002, U.S. military spending averaged $425 billion per year (in 2010 dollars) and never fluctuated more than 25 percent above or below that figure. Now it’s 63 percent above it and rising, and the government has no plans to scale back to the “normal” level established during the previous 50 years of U.S. military dominance.

This dramatic increase in military spending contrasts sharply with what the taxpayers who are funding it say they want. A PIPA poll in 2005, when the US military budget was “only” $521 billion per year, found that the average American would choose to cut it by $163 billion. This would have brought the total military budget down to $358 billion, close to the 1998 level when adjusted for inflation, and well within the previous “normal” range. ( But of course that’s not what happened. Instead, military spending grew another 35 percent over the next 5 years to give the public double the military budget it said it wanted.

Conetta explained the spending splurge in terms of the conflicting dividends of the end of the Cold War: the peace dividend and the power dividend. Even as bases were closed and the numbers of personnel in the U.S. armed forces were reduced in the 1990s, U.S. leaders were at the same time determined to capitalize on the collapse of the U.S.S.R. to expand American power around the world. As we now know, our leaders squandered the peace dividend and their pursuit of the power dividend led us into unwinnable wars and unsustainable hostile military occupations, but the disastrous results of their megalomania have yet to lead to a more rational policy or a genuine recommitment to peace.

Other factors driving the “splurge” were the desire to obtain new weapons and technology without giving up “legacy” systems from the Cold War; and underlying confusion regarding overall U.S. goals and global resistance to them. These factors combined to result in “cover your ass” planning for virtually unlimited contingencies.

The title of Conetta’s paper, “An Undisciplined Defense,” emphasized his view of this whole problem as a huge waste of resources driven by powerful institutional interests and the failure of anyone in government to impose choices, priorities or discipline. In Conetta’s narrative, U.S. taxpayers are the victims, and the greatest risk is that unsustainable runaway military spending and the further militarization of the U.S. economy will turn the United States into something like the “suicide state” that Osama Bin Laden promised it would in 2001.

But even if Conetta and Bin Laden are entirely right, this huge military build-up is justified in the minds of senior officials by the ways they can use the unprecedented military forces they now have at their disposal. It is no consolation to the victims of American aggression in Iraq or Afghanistan that the killing of their loved ones and the devastation of their countries was driven by vested interests and undisciplined budget priorities. On the contrary, it adds insult to injury.

So, lack of discipline and institutional interests aside, we must still ask: what has the U.S. Department of Defense spent an extra trillion dollars on since 1998, how does it plan to spend trillions more as it further bankrupts our country, and how and where is it likely to use those forces and weapons in the future?

Conetta’s analysis of the increase in U.S. military spending provided some useful data on where the extra money has gone. Of the missing trillion, $580 billion was categorized as non-war-related “modernization” or “procurement, research and development.” That’s right, our government has spent an extra $580 billion on weapons and equipment that are not related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or to terrorism. Incredibly for a country engaged in two wars, this was more than double the $264 billion that was spent on extra weapons and equipment for those wars or to replace equipment destroyed in them. And remember that all these expenses are in addition to the “normal” 1998 baseline expense of $105 billion per year for weapons and equipment, which did not count as “extra” spending at all in Conetta’s analysis.

More incredibly still, the Air Force and the Navy have taken greater shares of the “modernization” spending boom than the Army and the Marines despite their leading role in two ground wars. Air Force procurement dominated in the first period (1999-2002), while procurement for the Navy has come to the fore since 2007. The non-war-related splurge was only temporarily eclipsed by actual war spending in Iraq and Afghanistan during the middle period (2003-2006), and war-fighting may once again be competing with ship-building during the new escalation in Afghanistan.

Conetta attributed the Navy’s extra procurement spending mainly to “discordant modernization” or the reluctance to sacrifice Cold War ships and weapons to free up money for new ones, leaving the taxpayers saddled with the combined expenses of both.

Since 1999, the Navy has added two new “big-deck” aircraft carriers to the nine it already had, and it has three more in the pipeline to replace one older one that will be taken out of service in 2013. It also has four smaller “amphibious assault ships” in the works to replace two older ones, for a total of twelve of these smaller helicopter carriers. It has launched 32 new destroyers since 1998, and has started building a whole new class of Zumwalt “land-attack” destroyers, an unabashedly offensive weapons platform, and a new class of shallow-draught “littoral combat ships” to operate in shallow water close to foreign shores.

Utterly irrelevant to America’s current wars, the Navy has introduced two new classes of attack submarine since 1997, with 8 built and 13 more planned at a rate of two per year. It has also converted 4 of its ballistic missile submarines to carry conventional guided missiles. It still has 14 nuclear-armed submarines prowling the world’s oceans with 24 Trident missiles and 192 nuclear warheads each (of up to 475 kilotons). Together they pack about 100,000 times the destructive force and poisonous radiation unleashed on Hiroshima, or about half of the U.S. nuclear “deterrent.”

The build-up of U.S. naval forces suggests that America’s leaders are preparing for a very different kind of warfare than the guerilla wars against lightly-armed resistance forces that they face in Afghanistan or Iraq. However, as a result of its arms build-up, the U.S. share of global military spending has increased from 28 percent during the Cold War to about 50 percent today, making the notion of any other country posing a conventional military threat to the United States seem absurd. The rest of the world put together barely matches U.S. military expenditures, so this is essentially a one-sided arms race.

On the other hand, after a century of economic dominance, the United States is for the first time facing the reality that it will soon be overtaken by China as the largest economy in the world. This has serious implications for the competitive advantage that the United States has enjoyed in many sectors of the global economy for generations. It need not by any means signal the end of America’s prosperity any more than its own rise meant the end of prosperity for Britain, France or Germany, but it will mean the end of the central political and strategic role that the United States has become accustomed to playing in world affairs. The United States will have to carve out a new role in a world that it can no longer dominate as it has for the past 70 years.

So where does the U.S. military build-up fit into this picture? Why is the United States pouring money into new weapons and naval forces at precisely the moment that it desperately needs to invest in next-generation energy technology; to educate a highly skilled work force to compete on a more level global playing-field; to develop more balanced relationships with people and governments in the emerging global South instead of threatening them; and to ensure social protections for our most vulnerable citizens during an inevitably challenging transitional period?

When we examine the economic rise of China, two crucial things stand out. The first is that it is following essentially the same path to economic development as other successful countries in the past. Alexander Hamilton based the United States’ early industrial policy on protecting its “infant industries” from competitive British imports. Germany, Japan, South Korea and the BRIC countries today have followed similar paths to development, using state power to protect and invest in key sectors while selectively embracing “free trade” policies and rhetoric to open up export markets and gain access to foreign resources. Other governments in the global South, particularly in Latin America, are belatedly applying the same principles to their economies, reforming previously subservient client relationships with the United States.

The United States will either develop new trade and economic patterns and more balanced relations with other countries or it will fall back on the threat of force that underpinned those relationships in the past to try to restore the kind of regimes and relations that have been so favorable to U.S. interests. This is a critical and fundamental choice: a crossroads in the conduct of U.S. foreign relations. As we continue to deplete many of the world’s natural resources at an alarming rate, will the allocation of scarce resources in the 21st century be determined by peaceful negotiation and cooperation, or by military competition and the threat and use of force?

The real significance of the escalation of U.S. military spending is the implication that America’s leaders have so far chosen the latter. Even in military terms, this can be only a futile and tragic course. If the United States puts China in a position where it has to respond militarily, its wealth and economic strength will enable it to do so, as surely as the United States was able to convert its growing economic power into military power in the 20th century. An arms race would bankrupt the United States, not China, and war between the United States and China with 21st century weapons could kill hundreds of millions of people or even destroy human society as we know it.

Rather than directly threatening China, the United States is expanding its naval presence on the world’s oceans to control the trade routes on which China’s economic growth depends. It has placed China’s second largest foreign oil supplier, Iran, squarely in the sights of its war machine. And it is escalating a war over critical pipeline and overland trade routes through Afghanistan and Central Asia that could link China more securely to many of its import and export markets.

This brings us to the second critical factor in the rise of China. The global economic growth of the past two centuries has been based on the development and use of fossil fuels. Even though China is already investing far more than the United States in next-generation sustainable energy technology, its current growth is being fueled by coal and oil. Like the U.S. and tragically for our world’s climate, China is self-sufficient in coal and it faces no critical shortage of natural gas, but the supply of oil for its transportation sector is more vulnerable.

Like the United States, China has substantial but dwindling oil reserves. And, like the United States, it already imports about 60 percent of the oil it consumes. China’s sources of imported oil are quite diversified. Its largest suppliers are Saudi Arabia (21 percent), Iran (15 percent), Angola (13 percent), Russia (8 percent) and Oman (8 percent). Half its imported oil comes from the Middle East and 30 percent from Africa, and this is all transported by sea. China is expanding energy cooperation with Russia and building pipelines from Russia and Central Asia that will be more secure than the shipping lanes through the Malacca Straits and the Indian Ocean. The 1,400-mile Kazakhstan-China Pipeline is already carrying oil to China from the Caspian Sea.

But even as China develops trade links with its continental neighbors and shifts investment to its domestic economy, it will still be heavily dependent on ocean transport for exports and imports. It has therefore been investing in a chain of port facilities and potential future naval bases along what U.S. military analysts have dubbed the “string of pearls,” stretching from China to the coast of Africa. China has built or expanded ports at Port Sudan (Sudan), Gwadar (Pakistan), Chittagong (Bangladesh), Sittwe (Myanmar), Lamu (Kenya) and the largest and most strategic port in South Asia at Hambantuta on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. China has also offered to build a canal across the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand, which is only 28 miles wide at its narrowest point, to provide a safer and more direct route to and from the Indian Ocean.

On the military front, China has been careful to give the United States no pretext to treat its rise as a military threat. It has concentrated on economic development and lived by the “24 character” strategy laid out by former Premier Deng Xiaoping: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” U.S. analysts have zeroed in on “hide our capacities and bide our time” as a stealthy strategy to eventually challenge U.S. dominance, while Chinese commentators emphasize “never claim leadership” as a commitment to multilateralism and a renunciation of any future bid for hegemony.

But China has quietly been developing some critical defensive capabilities. It has been studying aircraft carrier designs and seems to be planning to build small carriers to protect its tankers and cargo ships along the “string of pearls” and other trade routes. Its extensive ballistic missile program has developed the Dong Feng 21D, a land-based anti-ship ballistic missile that could possibly sink a U.S. aircraft carrier at a range of 900 miles. The Dong Feng 21D is a powerful deterrent to the aggressive deployment of U.S. naval power anywhere near China’s coast, which is already patrolled by 52 attack submarines, 77 destroyers and frigates and hundreds of smaller missile- and torpedo-armed patrol boats.

China seems to be taking effective steps to counter threats from the United States, and at a fraction of the cost of the American “splurge.” It remains to be seen whether this will be effective in the long run. If the United States is determined to use military force to control access to the world’s dwindling natural resources in the 21st century, it will take even more skillful management on the Chinese side and unprecedented international diplomacy to avoid a serious military confrontation or a debilitating arms race.

The best possible outcome would be for the United States to back away from its policy of military threats and aggression and renew its commitment to the United Nations Charter and international law. Current U.S. policy explicitly threatens the use of unilateral force in flagrant violation of the U.N. Charter. The 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review formalized this illegitimate position as official policy wherever U.S. “vital interests” are at stake and defined those interests to include “ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources.”

Subsequent U.S. policy statements have reiterated this position, and the invasion of Iraq demonstrated the seriousness of U.S. threats. The 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy repeated that, “The United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our interests, yet we will also seek to adhere to standards that govern the use of force.” The United States Constitution defines international treaties as a binding part of the “Supreme Law of the Land,” not merely as “standards” or “norms” that U.S. leaders must pay lip service to as they violate them.

The U.N. Charter prohibits the threat as well as the use of force precisely because the one leads so insidiously to the other. Saying that “all options are on the table,” including illegal threats of aggression, poisons negotiations and undermines accommodation by either side. The side making the threats will always be inclined to ratchet up its threats rather than give ground, especially when it is emboldened by the illusion of military superiority, and the threatened party will be equally reluctant to give ground because no political leader can afford to be seen giving in to threats. Current U.S. military policy is therefore not just illegal and unconstitutional but a recipe for endless war and a potential threat to people everywhere.

American power has endured one military calamity after another for 60 years, from Korea to Afghanistan, but it has survived until now because of the strength and size of the U.S. economy, not because its aggressive use of military power has ever been successful. No slight intended to Grenada or Panama, but invading tiny nearby neo-colonies does not provide a blueprint for “full spectrum dominance” of the Earth. As its relative economic position declines and it has to find a new place in a multipolar world, the United States will find that reinvestment in a new productive peacetime economy and international cooperation will serve its interests far better than an arms race it can’t win and a debilitating state of endless war and global occupation.

But how much more war will it take to bring our leaders to their senses and how many more innocents must die on the altar of their nightmares? We must find a way to restore sanity to U.S. policy before our deluded leaders squander what is left of our nation’s wealth on an unwinnable arms race, or, even worse, make the fatal mistake of unleashing their war machine against a country that can actually fight back. Demanding the enforcement of our own laws against aggression, torture and other war crimes would be a good place to start, along with immediate and substantial cuts in all offensive weapons programs in the U.S. military budget.

Nicolas J S Davies is the author of “Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq” (Nimble Books, 2010). This article was first published by Online Journal. (

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