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Defense spending and the declining 'bang' for the buck

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HO, General Dynamics Land System/AP/File

(Read caption) This undated photo, released by the General Dynamics Land System, shows the production of an Abrams tank in Lima, Ohio. Rows of sand-colored armored vehicles ready for deployment are parked outside the nation’s only tank manufacturing plant. But the Pentagon says it will soon have enough tanks and wants to halt production for several years as it wrestles with deep cuts in military spending over the next decade.

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Gore Vidal, veteran of WWII, died last week. Here’s something he wrote in 2003.

I can recall thinking, when I got out of the Army in 1946, Well, that’s that. We won. And those who come after us will never need do this again. Then came the two mad wars of imperial vanity — Korea and Vietnam. They were bitter for us, not to mention for the so-called enemy. Next we were enrolled in a perpetual war against what seemed to be the enemy-of-the-month club. This war kept major revenues going to military procurement and secret police, while withholding money from us, the taxpayers, with our petty concerns for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

He might have added another petty concern: national solvency.

And still another: military preparedness.

Today, the US has no worthy enemies. Still, it spends $1 trillion a year — fully loaded — to defend itself against them. The ‘terrorists’ and ‘insurgents’ it protects us against have no divisions, no trained officers, no heavy armor, no ships, no aircraft, and no heavy weapons. That is why the news from the front is so boring; the newspapers barely report it. There are no pitched battles. No Napoleonic charges. No breathtaking victories. No Stalingrads. No Gettysburgs. No brilliant strategies. No crushing defeats.

Oh, for another battle of Kursk! It was the greatest land battle in history…a tank battle pitting the Germans’ Tigers and Panzers — about 3,000 of them — against the Soviet’s T-34s, of which there were about 5,000 in the area. The Germans’ tanks had greater range. But the Soviets’ tanks were faster…and there were more of them. Wehrmacht forces numbered almost half a million men. For their part, the Soviets had 1.5 million soldiers. The ground was firm. The sky was clear. Both sides fielded experienced, battle-hardened troops.

This was a monster slugfest. Too bad both monsters couldn’t lose!

It was a battle on a scale the world never saw before…or since. You already know how it ended. The Soviets had many advantages. First, they had the German’s battle plans. They knew where they would strike. So, they built 8 defensive lines…including tank traps and minefields…which slowed the attackers down and wore them out. Second, the Soviets had shorter supply lines. They could rush more troops and equipment to the front much more easily than their enemy. Third, they had a huge superiority in men and machines.

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Most important, after the defeat at Stalingrad, the gods of war had gone over to the other side. The momentum of the war had quickly turned against the 1,000-year Reich. Christmas fruitcake would last longer.

Even if the Germans had won the battle of Kursk, they would have gained little. It would have been an empty victory; there was no way to follow up. They lacked the forces to launch another big offensive into the Soviet heartland.

The Germans were on the defensive everywhere. They had already lost North Africa and now they were losing Italy too. A huge invasion of France, though still a year away, was inevitable.

If they had been smarter, they would have renounced their agenda of conquest, taken all their troops back to Germany itself — as fast as possible — begging forgiveness and promising never to set foot beyond the Rhine or the Oder ever again. Maybe there they could put up enough of a fight to force an end to the war without being totally annihilated.

Instead, Hitler had given orders to hold ground everywhere. The Battle of Kursk was intended to give the Germans time. Time to what? Time to lose on a bigger scale!

If only the US had been on the scene; it might have learned something. The US was not involved in that battle. Which is probably a good thing, since its tank crews were inexperienced, and its tanks inferior; US forces probably would have been wiped out, no matter which side they backed.

But now, 70 years later, the US is prepared for the battle. It has 2,300 M1 Abrams tanks in service around the world….and another 3,000 just sitting around in the desert awaiting orders. These tanks are super-big, super-heavy, super sophisticated with super firepower…and super expensive. They can turn an entire building into a pile of rubble from 2 and a half miles away.

On today’s battlefields, if you can call them that, the M1 Abrams is in a class of its own. None were knocked out of action in the Iraq war by enemy tanks. The main threat to the M1 turned out to be friendly fire and IEDs — homemade explosives.

Unlike WWII, when the US had the 16th largest army in the world, smaller than Rumania, this time the US is prepared. But preparedness is like everything else under the sun. It soon reaches the point of declining marginal utility. When you reach that level, the more prepared you get the less prepared you are.

That point was probably reached some 110 years …at least 500 billion dollars… and perhaps 5,000 M1s ago. In the 1890s, Teddy Roosevelt had so much preparedness he used it to wallop 200,000 Filipinos. As for the half a trillion dollars, it’s the part of current ‘security’ spending — grosso modo — which has nothing to do with defense and everything to do with giving offense to civilized people all over the globe, which is what got Gore Vidal worked up.

No need to get indignant about it. That’s just the way the gods of war amuse themselves. They encourage dim militarists to spend themselves into bankruptcy, preparing for a war the nation will never again fight. Which is why the M1 story is important.

The maker of the M1 Abrams is General Dynamics. When the Pentagon announced that it would like to stop spending money on the M1, the company was justifiably upset. It had spent millions to buy key members of Congress. It expected to get a good return on its investment.

For its part, the Pentagon thought it could save a little money by putting off refurbishment of the tanks for a few years. This would save $3 billion, admittedly chicken feed, but it would also give it time to redesign the beast for what it imagines might be future combat.

But lobbyists got on the case, apparently timing their campaign donations to correspond with key decision points. Lydia Mulvany reports on what happened next:

“After putting the tank money back in the budget then, both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have authorized it again this year, allotting $181 million in the House and $91 million in the Senate. If the company and its supporters prevail, the Army will refurbish what Army chief of staff Ray Odierno described in a February hearing as “280 tanks that we simply do not need.”

Mr. Odiero says the M1 is a relic of an earlier age of warfare. It would have been great — maybe — at Kursk. But when the enemy has no tanks, it is merely an expensive — and vulnerable — pile of metal.

Said Mr. Odiero at a February hearing:

“We don’t believe we’ll ever see a straight conventional conflict again in the future,” he said.

Which is why the M1 is perfect. At least to the Law of Declining Marginal Utility.

It allows the military industry to spend billions while actually making itself less able to fight the wars of the future.

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