LONDON-If President Donald Trump gets his way, our first line of defense against a Russian invasion of Europe might well be the Greek army.
It would, of course, be a spectacularly short battle. On one side: Russian tanks, missiles, and aircraft, all built for a European war. On the other: aging Greek pensioners wielding weapons designed to fight Greece’s supposed arch-rival, Turkey – not a military superpower.
That Greece is woefully unprepared to fight the Russian military is likely no surprise. But if you had picked one member of NATO to take on Russia based on President Trump’s favorite measure – how much that country spends on defense as a percentage of its gross domestic product – Greece would be second only to the United States. But Greece spends over 70 percent of those defense expenditures on personnel, including pensions for retirees; meanwhile, Denmark spends a smaller percentage on defense but is one of the top NATO troop contributors in Afghanistan.
Yet at home and abroad, President Trump has repeatedly mistaken quantity for quality, outcomes for incomes, when it comes to defense spending. Meanwhile, the U.S. and its NATO allies remain underprepared for the most serious threats of the 21st century: information-based warfare using cyber- and artificial-intelligence tools. If President Trump wants the U.S. and its allies to maintain their edge in the information age, he ought to start with a real 21st century defense budget – one built on an effective strategy for the threats of our time.
To be fair, excessive defensive spending, unmoored from any strategic assessment of our real national security needs, has been a problem since before President Dwight Eisenhower famously sounded the alarm about the military-industrial complex in 1961. I first wrote about it in 1983, as the founder of Business Executives for National Security (BENS), an organization that applies pragmatic business thinking to advance practical ideas to enhance our national security. In Inc Magazine, I argued that “every time a new crisis arises, a new mission is added to our military establishment, with little sense of how each mission fits into our overall priorities.” I wrote those words 35 years ago. I could have written them yesterday.
But while wasteful spending has long been a problem, President Trump has taken the “incomes, not outcomes” philosophy to new heights. When it comes to NATO, he has insisted in speech after speech that any NATO member that doesn’t spend at least two percent of its GDP on defense – which is all of them, save for Latvia, Greece, Estonia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.- is failing. It’s a dumb standard, because a two percent yardstick based on a nation’s overall GDP means that a country in recession with a shrinking economy would look stronger than a powerful country with a growing economy. Again, as I wrote three decades ago, it’s not the incomes (a.k.a. “how much are you spending?”) but the outcomes (“how well is it working?”) that matter most.
Case in point: the United States. President Trump’s 2019 defense budget, at $717 billion, is the biggest in recent American history, and around double the amount spent on defense by all other NATO members combined. But where exactly does the Trump administration want to spend this massive defense budget?
Clearly not for “science and technology,” which accounts for less than two percent of the administration’s budget request (and which, according to an analysis by the Senate Armed Services Committee, accounted for just 0.006 percent of the administration’s requested $74 billion increase in defense spending in FY2019). Nor for “advanced innovative technologies,” which adds up to less than the money allocated for procuring three littoral combat ships – two of which the Navy says it doesn’t need. The budget does pay for 77 new F-35 fighters, thirteen warships, a new stealth bomber for the Air Force, and modernizing Army combat vehicles like the M1 Abrams tank. It’s a budget that gives each military service its favorite toys for the wars of the past and not nearly enough for the wars of the future.
For some members of Congress, that’s just fine – as long as those toys are creating jobs in their districts. Yes, cyber creates jobs – but not nearly as many as the jobs it takes to build 77 F-35 fighters. But our military is not a jobs program; it’s the primary guarantor of our national security. That message has fallen on deaf ears in Congress and the Pentagon for too long.
That should concern all of us. While we continue to throw money at obsolete weapons programs, experts agree that today’s biggest threats are rooted not in traditional weapons but in the weaponization of information and technology – whether it’s a hurricane-force cyberattack that cripples the country in one fell swoop or, as former undersecretary for defense policy James Miller put it, a “death by a thousand hacks” that compromises our economy and communications systems over time. As journalist David Ignatius argued last August, while the future is being defined by “a new generation of combat system, powered by artificial intelligence, cyberweapons and robots that can operate on land, sea and air …America is still largely wedded to legacy weapons of the past.”
China and Russia may have smaller defense budgets than us, but they spend more where it counts. According to U.S. estimates, China spent around $12 billion on artificial intelligence systems in 2017. The U.S. spent $2.44 billion. Of course, as with President Trump’s short-sightedness on NATO, we shouldn’t make the mistake of judging quantity over quality – but in this case, quantity has created quality.
Chinese cyber-espionage efforts – deemed more than a decade ago “the single greatest risk to the security of American technologies” by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission – notably resulted in the theft of U.S. plans for its F-35 fighter plane and the deployment of a Chinese copycat fighter. As my friend Harlan Ullman, a senior advisor at the Atlantic College and revered fellow at the U.S Naval War College, recently wrote, the growing Chinese lead over America on AI isn’t just “akin to Russia’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 (that) shocked the Eisenhower administration into action to close what turned out to be a nonexistent space and missile gap” …but rather “the introduction of nuclear and then thermonuclear weapons capable of destroying society.”
Meanwhile, Russia, as we know, conducted a multipronged cyber-offensive in an effort to sway the outcome and sow distrust in America’s democracy through the 2016 presidential election. That’s all before we consider how cyber weapons have given outsize power to smaller and weaker adversaries; North Korean hackers, for example, last year stole 235 gigabytes of classified U.S. and South Korean military plans.
These are threats, as Ignatius argues, that “an aircraft carrier can’t stop”…(and that) “the Chinese are happy for the United States to keep building carriers and bombers, so long as they deploy the more advanced technologies that can disable those systems.”
It’s clear we need major changes if we want to keep up with our adversaries – and avoid wasting the money of American taxpayers. What can President Trump do to make sure we’re spending smarter on defense? Three things.
First, the Trump administration must build its defense budget around a real strategy for fighting the information-based threats of the 21st century. Identify the biggest threats, figure out what capabilities will give us the greatest edge against those threats, and budget what we need to get those capabilities. General Norton Schwartz, (Ret.), former chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force and current BENS President and CEO, rightly says, “China is actively investing billions of dollars, which the U.S. must address assertively to attract and retain talent.”
Second, President Trump must insist the Pentagon get its house in order. Incredibly, after the Defense Department finally agreed to an independent audit after decades of resistance, the report released last month revealed “the auditors couldn’t account for where all the money went because of flaws in information technology systems” and discovered such oversights as $53 million in working missile motors abandoned due to a labeling error.
Third, we must change the requests we make of our allies. The U.S. plays an important role in making sure our alliances are ready for the threats they may face. But Washington is pressing for the wrong things. Rather than meet an arbitrary two-percent threshold, James Stavridis and Dave Weinstein write in Bloomberg, we must ask our allies to share intelligence and contribute to cyber deterrence and defensive countermeasures. I agree.
President Trump was right when he said early this month that our defense spending is “crazy!” But until he embraces a smart strategy for the 21st century and changes what he asks of our military and our allies, he will remain part of the problem..