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The United States specializes in exaggerating the threat

The overhyping of the Russian and Chinese threat has led to record-setting defense budgets with no sign of easing the burden

War ZonesUSA Politics

Soldiers salute the American flag at Camp Taji, Iraq, March 18, 2020. Photo by Caroline Schofer/US Army.

Every day we gather evidence of the pathetic performance of the Russian military in Ukraine. There was the inability to deal with Ukraine’s primitive air defense; the loss of the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet; the sadistic behavior of a ground force that lacks any sense of discipline or professionalism; the loss of general officers; and the near total breakdown in logistical support for the invasion force. The head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, Major General Bulanov, dismissed the Russian invasion force as a “horde of people with weapons.”

The symbol of Russia’s miserable performance thus far was the 40-mile armored convoy to Kyiv that turned into traffic gridlock. Russian troops surged in without air support, and there was no campaign to take out Ukraine’s air defense. According to Lt. General Mark Hertling, a former commander of the US Army in Europe, the “incompetence in planning command, control and communications is staggering.” The Russians used cellphones and old-fashioned radios to communicate, which may explain how the Ukrainians (and Americans) acquired intercepted messages enabling them to target general officers. The invasion force may have been the largest one assembled in Europe since the Second World War, but it was too small to fight in some cases or to hold territory.

Russia as a Superpower? Of course it isn’t, but will this lead to any reconsideration or reassessment of US military requirements regarding the Russian threat? Will there be an adjustment in the bloated defense budget that receives mindless bipartisan support? Or will Biden’s national security team do what its predecessors have done since the end of the Second World War—simply exaggerate the Russian threat and argue for increased defense spending.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the mainstream media have supported government efforts to “scare the hell out of the American people,” and convince Americans that only increased defense spending could deal with the multi-front threat that includes international terrorism, “Islamo-terrorism,” Russia, and China. The exaggeration of the Russian-Soviet threat began in the last days of the First World War when the United States joined European countries and Japan in occupying Russian territory to defeat the Bolsheviks.

For 16 years, the United States refused to recognize the Soviet Union; fortunately, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reversed that policy, which contributed to the eventual Soviet-American alliance that defeated the Nazis. With the start of the Cold War, successive US administrations demonized the Soviet Union. Also, remember the “bomber gap,” the “missile gap,” and even the “intentions gap,” a creation of Harvard Professor Richard Pipes, who argued that Soviet leaders believed they could fight and win a nuclear war?

The intelligence community often cooperated with the efforts of the White House to exaggerate the Soviet threat. The worst period of all was the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was on its path to dissolution, but found the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency supporting the myth of the Soviet Union as a superpower. In the 1980s, the DIA produced an annual compendium of Soviet weaponry that was a completely politicized product issued at an unclassified level to influence political and public opinion. CIA deputy director Robert Gates created fictions regarding Soviet strategic weaponry in order to justify President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program. Gates was totally wrong about the Soviet threat, and he made sure that CIA’s finished intelligence was also wrong.

The exaggeration of the Russian threat, and the additional problem of dealing with China, has led to record-setting defense budgets with no sign of easing the burden. We are the most active military force in the world; the leading provider of arms to the world; and the only nation capable of projecting power anywhere in the world. Russia has two overseas military bases, and China has one. The United States has over 700 bases and facilities around the world. No major power has the geographic advantages of the United States with its secure borders north and south, and the security of oceans east and west. Very few appropriations attract bipartisan support, but nothing garners bipartisan support like the defense and intelligence budgets. We spend more on defense and intelligence than the entire global community.

The United States has an Air Force and a Navy that dominate the skies and the seas. A former chief of naval operations conceded that the United States enjoys a “degree of overmatch (with any potential adversary) that is extraordinary.” The Air Force has spent billions of dollars on advanced aircraft, such as the B-1 bomber, the F-22 fighter, and the F-35 fighter that have never been deployed in combat. The final F-22 rolled off of Lockheed Martin’s assembly line in 2012 at a cost of $153 million. In 1988, Lockheed Martin executives told congressional committees that the cost of the F-22 would be $35 million per plane.

The redundancy of the US military services never receives serious attention from the Congress. The Navy has its own air force, its own army (the Marine Corps), and its own strategic weapons. It is equal in size to all the navies of the world combined with a subordinate organization, the Coast Guard, which represents the world’s seventh-largest fleet. The Marines haven’t conducted an amphibious operation in more than seven decades, but still garners massive support in the budgetary process. Meanwhile, there is no other nation in the world that has such a Corps in terms of numbers and capabilities.

Defense spending and procurement are rarely related to actual threats that the United States faces or is likely to face. Too often, moreover, we allocate billions of dollars for weapons systems to counter enemy systems that never got out of the design stage. The Virginia-class submarine, designed to counter Soviet attack and nuclear-launch submarines, is a case in point. The Zumwalt-class destroyer is a naval combatant designed to fight mid-ocean battles that no other nation is preparing to initiate or fight. There are the costly weapons systems, such as aircraft carriers, that have lost much of their strategic utility because of China’s success in developing anti-ship missiles. Tens of billions of dollars could be saved by cutting naval platforms without any risk to US national security. There would be associated savings in personnel and maintenance costs as well.

Congressional delegations will resist cuts in any program, however, typically appropriating greater funding than either the Pentagon or the White House requested. States such as Connecticut and Virginia view naval construction as public works projects for their states. Even California’s liberal representatives protect the interests of California-based Lockheed Martin, and Lockheed Martin ensures its own success by manufacturing components for its aircraft in nearly every state in the union. In view of the F-16 and the F-22, there was no need for the F-35, particularly in view of US air superiority that finds only one US aircraft lost to the enemy over the past 45 years. Even the late Senator John McCain, who rarely met a weapons system that he didn’t love, referred to the F-35 program as a “train wreck.” It should come as no surprise that Lockheed Martin is the top donor to members of the House Armed Services Committee.

We are essentially waging an arms race with ourselves. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” There is nothing more wasteful than the $2 trillion currently earmarked over the next several years for the modernization of strategic nuclear forces and strategic defense systems. Offensive strategic nuclear weapons have no utility, and defensive strategic weapons don’t work.

Eisenhower would have deplored a recent presidential administration that had a retired four-star general as the secretary of defense; two three-star generals as national security advisers; a retired Marine general as director of homeland security and then White House chief of staff; and general officers serving as directors of national intelligence. There is an American tradition to place military veterans in high political office, but the over reliance on general officers contributes to the threat exaggeration that dominates US thinking in international security.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021).

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