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Pot calls kettle black: the Pentagon’s annual China report September 16, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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by Matt Leatherman and Mariah Quinn

Sometimes Congresses and administrations spend on the military in response to America’s overseas challenges.  Other times Congresses and administrations create or inflate overseas challenges in order to excuse money they want to spend.

The Pentagon’s congressionally-mandated annual report on the Chinese military tends to be just such a rationalization.  After all, Al Qaeda and the Taliban aren’t going to justify resurrecting the Future Combat Systems’ ground combat vehicle, recertifying the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter after a breach of Nunn-McCurdy cost controls, insisting on ballistic missile defense decades after the Cold War ended, or maintaining 11 carrier strike groups when no other country has more than one.

Like all rationalizations, though, this one is littered with uncomfortable irony.  The Pentagon’s report, released in August, determined that “the limited transparency in China’s military and security affairs enhances uncertainty and increases the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation.” Stroll through that sentence a little more slowly, and it’s easy to think that the word  “China” could very well be replaced with “United States” without the reader missing a beat.

China’s military strategy and spending indeed is inscrutable.  Only authoritarians can get away with treating their entire military budget as a state secret like China does.  And that secrecy does provide fertile ground for suspicion in light of China’s ambitious claims to international shipping lanes, wholesale repression in Tibet and Xinjiang, and indulgence of Kim Jung Il’s megalomania.

As Mom always said, though, “I don’t care about what the kid next door does – I care about what you do.”  The Pentagon needs just that kind of tough love.  It confessed in this year’s budget justification, for instance, that it is “one of a very few cabinet level agencies without a ‘clean’ financial audit opinion.”  Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), a member of the President’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, put this in perspective in a letter to the commission’s chairmen: “the Pentagon doesn’t know how it spends its money. In a strict financial accountability sense, it doesn’t even know if the money is spent. “

The trouble with this chronic shortcoming is that the Pentagon is right about the dangers of limited transparency and uncertainty.  It does create misunderstanding and miscalculation, and that is the foundation for conflict.  Reaping what we sow, our troops are at greater risk as a consequence of the Pentagon’s failure to account for its ever-growing resources.  Indeed, so are American citizens in general.

So exactly how have we managed to buy our way into a more dangerous world?  Perversely, it’s because the primary benefit of unaccountable defense spending is the financial boon of an arms race.  Each of the hardware systems referenced earlier depends on having a peer-level conventional threat, a role only China can fill after the Soviet Union’s demise, and each is a rainmaker for American industry.  A hundred and thirty-six billion dollars has been spent on ballistic missile defense since 1985.  Two hundred and sixty billion remains in the F-35’s future.  Aircraft carriers keep entire cities afloat at $10-$13 billion each.  And the ground combat vehicle builds on the promise of a $160 billion price tag of the allegedly-defunct Future Combat Systems.

Each of these American hardware systems is an end in itself, no different than stimulus money and government subsidies.  Some of our biggest-ticket military hardware is bought without a strategic purpose – for parochial, political, or profit-driven reasons – and so the ironies keep coming.

The Pentagon’s assessment also suggests that China’s military strength offers “few direct insights into the formal strategies motivating China’s force build-up.”  Yet China and others will try to make sense of our very own senseless spending, extrapolating that the U.S. has aggressive intent to match the fighter jets, missile defenses, aircraft carriers, and expeditionary vehicles it’s buying.

So this is how the trade-off ultimately breaks down: the U.S. is buying jobs and economic growth in the defense industry in exchange for a more conflict-prone relationship with China.  It’s not worth it.  An alternative world in which the U.S. taxpayer can save hundreds of billions a year by making the U.S.-China relationship more constructive is better, and achievable.  It starts in the short run by bringing the Pentagon up to pace with the government’s basic accountability standards.  In the longer term, Congress has to stop insisting on scary stories about China right before voting on the defense budget.



1. Matthew Leatherman - September 24, 2010

For a sense of how China also struggles with bureaucratic equities biasing their strategic debates, see John Pomfret’s article in the 24 Sept edition of the Washington post.

“In China, officials in tug of war to shape foreign policy,” available here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/23/AR2010092306843.html

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