On Dec. 19, 2009, President Obama authorized a military budget plan for a record $663 billion to defend the United States, the highest since World War II -- higher, adjusted for inflation, even than during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Six days later, al-Qaeda struck with an attack on a Detroit-bound airliner that very nearly succeeded in killing 278 passengers on board the Northwest Airlines Airbus 300. Less than a week later, al-Qaeda attacked in Afghanistan, where the United States is building up a force of nearly 100,000 troops at a monthly cost of $3.6 billion. This time it was a suicide bomber who evaded U.S. intelligence nets and killed seven Americans and a Jordanian at a remote CIA base.
The threat from al-Qaeda, meantime, is spreading from Pakistan to Yemen, Somalia and across the Sahel, the belt that runs across northern Africa. Nuclear weapons research and development in North Korea and Iran threaten to ignite destabilizing arms races in Asia and the Middle East. American troops are battling to reverse insurgent gains across Afghanistan. In a growing rivalry, China, holding enormous American debt, is challenging American economic and political interests around the globe.
Everywhere, it seems, Uncle Sam is struggling to regain its footing -- despite its vast spending on security.
Counting outlays for the military, homeland defense, airport security, nuclear weapons, and other facets of defense, the United States will spend well over $700 billion for security this year, more than the rest of the world combined.
But thanks to a cunning and innovative enemy, a defense budget encrusted with "we've always done it this way'' convention, and strategic choices attuned to the last century, the United States seems to be merely treading water in what senior officials acknowledge will be a long and difficult war.
"This is going to be an enduring effort, without question,'' Gen. David Petraeus, architect of the Iraq and Afghan war strategies, said on CNN last weekend. "I have certainly never used a word like 'victory' in this particular effort."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who as a former CIA official has grappled with security issues for as long as any official in Washington, identified the problem in a speech last summer
. "Over the last two decades the nature of conflict has fundamentally changed, and much of America's defense establishment has yet to fully adapt to the security realities of the post-Cold War world and the complex and dangerous new century,'' Gates told the Economic Club of Chicago. "Our spending and program priorities are increasingly divorced from the very real threats of today and the growing ones of tomorrow."
That speech was widely viewed as pressure to prevent Congress from adding additional F-22 fighters to the budget. It worked on the F-22, but the Pentagon persists in making investments ill-suited for the war the United States is fighting. Senior U.S. officials often have described the conflict as a global war, albeit against a different kind of enemy. Conservative critics of the commander in chief have been clamoring for Obama to use that word, "war," and truth be told he's done it several times, including in his inaugural address. He employed that term last week as well, and he even named the enemy: al-Qaeda. And therein lies the rub: Most of the $700 billion is not designed to fight this foe.
Insurgents are beginning to field the first generation of weapons that will soon become the new and improved equivalent of the IED (improvised explosive devices) responsible for 26,280 American battle casualties (killed and wounded) since 2001. These new weapons are guided rockets, guided mortars and guided missiles, a terrifying new variant on the primitive yet deadly mortars and rockets used against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The new weapons are highly accurate and can evade current defense systems because they can be maneuvered in flight.
They are "an undeniable near-term threat to U.S. and allied air bases and forces,'' writes Thomas P. Erhard, a retired Air Force colonel, who is a special assistant to the Air Force chief of staff. "However, the [military] services have given little thought as to how these terminally guided systems could disrupt military operations,'' Erhard writes in a paper for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments
, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.
The Pentagon, encouraged by Congress, is instead investing in large weapons "platforms'' such as the Virginia-class attack submarine. One such attack sub in the budget this year carries a $4.2 billion price tag. In a similar mismatch of strategy and investment, short shrift is being given to U.S. special forces, the commandos who include Green Berets, Navy SEALs and more secretive units like Delta force, which are a critical need in the war against al-Qaeda. As they did in Somalia recently, special forces can carry out missions clandestinely against al-Qaeda and other targets that can't easily be reached in air strikes. Special Forces also are skilled at training local security troops, as they are doing in Yemen and elsewhere.
But even after years of war against al-Qaeda, the special forces, which number about 54,000 in all, are so short of personnel that Adm. Eric Olson, who leads the Special Operations Command, has put out a call for help from the conventional military forces. He said SF badly needs field medics, regional experts, engineering planners, interpreters, dog teams, close air support specialists, and technical help with remote logistics, aerial sensors, construction and intelligence.
Far more money is tied up in buying weapons systems of questionable value. For instance, the Pentagon plans to spend more than $300 billion to buy thousands of F-35 fighters, which Erhard said are overly sophisticated for counterinsurgency operations in places like Afghanistan, but not capable enough for air warfare against a sophisticated enemy. He calls the F-35 a "classic 'middle' capability that lacks critical performance characteristics needed for high-end challenges, while it is over-specified and over-priced for low-end challenges.''
Meanwhile, the Air Force is stuck using its costly F-15 and F-16 fighters over Afghanistan, to chase off insurgents or to help U.S. ground troops see over the next ridge, at a cost of up to $17,000 per flight hour. Cheaper turboprops could do the job at $1,000 to $2,000 per hour, in Erhard's analysis, but "no funded development plans for such inexpensive aircraft exist.''
The Pentagon, after a year of labor, is about to produce a new guide to strategy and investment. Called the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), it's an opportunity to better align security challenges with the defense budget. But the previous QDR, in 2006, didn't shift any major programs such as the F-22 and F-35 aircraft.
Moreover, today's threats clearly emerge from beyond the military's traditional expertise -- for example in airline passenger screening, or biological warfare. Americans may have been irritated that it took months to produce enough H1N1 vaccines last year. But the U.S. ability to quickly develop vaccines and other defenses against biological warfare is so stunted that it would take "six to nine years'' to come up with a vaccine for a new disease introduced by terrorists, according to former Sen. Bob Graham and former Rep. Jim Talent of the congressionally mandated Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction
Underlying these scattered examples of unreadiness, critics say, is a lack of an overarching strategy to guide U.S. investments and actions in the long war against insurgents. Consider, for example, that a consistent feature of U.S. posture in the Middle East since 9/11 has been accepting huge costs for the United States compared to those imposed on insurgents, writes Andrew Krepinevich
, a former Defense Department strategist. The United States spends billions of dollars a year to protect troops against IEDs constructed of fertilizer, motor oil and a few cents' worth of wire and batteries.
"Being on the wrong side of cost imposition is not a characteristic of strategic competence,'' writes Krepinevich, a retired West Point-educated officer who is president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Following the Christmas bomber's attempt to bring down an airliner in Detroit, the president ordered a review of air security and vowed that the United States would help Yemen deal with its growing al-Qaeda presence -- despite the fact that Yemen is said to have the highest anti-American sentiment of any Middle East country.
But merely acting in response to events, Krepinevich writes, "is a strategic choice . . . But it is unlikely to be the wisest one. In light of the complex and intensifying security challenges the United States now faces, the nation can no longer afford poor strategic performance.''
Or, as Bruce Hoffman
, a terrorism expert at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service wrote recently in The Washington Post,
the United States "is superb at reacting and responding but not at outsmarting. . . . Remarkably, more than eight years after Sept. 11, we still don't fully understand our dynamic and evolutionary enemy.''