Overestimated Kabul. Underestimated Kyiv
In a recent report with the provocative title How to be a 'Cheap Hawk' in the 2020s, Michael O’Hanlon, Director of Foreign Policy Studies and Director of the Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology at the Brookings Institution, seeks solutions to problems that are important not only for the United States but also for the global collective security system.
Does America have the money to fund its defense budget properly? Are these resources sufficient to respond to today's challenges – Russia's war in Europe, China's military policy, and the threats of cybercrime and terrorism?
In the dramatic escalation that accompanied the conclusion of the budget deal in June 2023, when US President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy managed to avoid an unprecedented default on the government’s financial obligations, US defense spending became a matter of debate. It has not been frozen, but the possibility exists.
Could the US provide more security while spending its budget more efficiently? And what should the Pentagon's priorities be?
The United States spends just under $900 billion a year on defense, representing up to 15% of the federal budget or about 3.3% of gross domestic product (GDP).
The US defense budget has reached about half of what the US spent during the so-called Cold War. At the same time, the US now spends about three times more on defense than China and many times more than Russia.
The Air Force (249.7 bn) and the Navy (244.7 bn) receive the most funding among the services of the US Department of Defense.
Learn how to make accurate forecasts. Not at the expense of additional funding.
In the report, O’Hanlon justifies the need for the planned moderate budget growth and suggests ways of optimizing it – reducing aircraft, radar detection systems, etc., restructuring tasks and processes, and calling for a rethink of “naval presence” and limiting the size of the fleet (to 292 ships in 2022, including 11 aircraft carriers and 14 ballistic missile submarines).
According to the researcher, implementing all the proposals would save between $10 billion and $12 billion a year.
The Brookings Institution expert's final recommendation is to freeze the growth of intelligence spending, which is expected to exceed $100 billion by 2024. This is because the service has made several serious mistakes in recent years – overestimating Russia’s military power, underestimating Ukraine’s armed forces and making incorrect predictions about developments in Afghanistan.
“But even with such funding largesse, it wrongly predicted that the Ukraine war would be over fast and it overestimated the Afghan government’s ability to survive for long after the U.S.-NATO departure in 2021"
Money will not eliminate such errors, and we should avoid any temptation to think that it might. Robust intelligence funding makes sense, but the case for growth in excess of the trend in overall DOD spending is unconvincing,” writes Michael O’Hanlon, calling for a total of $2 billion a year in savings.
How much did Afghanistan cost?
The United States sent troops to Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001. Believing that radical Islamists were harboring Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures behind the 9/11 attacks, Washington declared its aim to remove the Taliban from power.
The United States has been increasing its presence in the country as planned. First, by pouring billions of dollars into the fight against the Taliban insurgency, and then into the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
At its peak in 2010-2012, when the US contingent in the country was more than 100,000 troops, the war cost the US defense budget $100 billion a year. From 2018, as the US shifted from offensive operations to training Afghan forces, spending fell to $45 billion.
According to the US Department of Defense, total military spending in Afghanistan (from October 2001 to September 2019) was $778 billion. In addition, the US Department of State, in cooperation with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and other government agencies, has invested $44 billion in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
Furthermore, according to a 2019 study by Brown University, the US spent money on organizing and maintaining a base for US operations in Pakistan.
Taking this into account, the total US spending in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2019 amounted to $978 billion.
Of this, $143 billion was spent on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. $88.32 billion was spent on building the Afghan security forces, including the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. Nearly $36 billion has been spent on governance and development. Slightly smaller amounts were spent on counter-narcotics and humanitarian aid.
Almost $19 billion was also lost to corruption and fraud, according to the oversight organization responsible for Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
The UK and Germany also spent around $30 billion and $19 billion respectively on the war.
On 31 August, the United States officially ended its 20-year mission in Afghanistan. The military contingent was withdrawn and civilians and Afghan refugees were evacuated. After the last US military aircraft left, Taliban extremists regained control of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport and the rest of the country.
The second chance
Since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, the largest amount of actual aid to Ukraine has come from the United States. The total amount of aid Ukraine has received from the United States is $66.2 billion. This includes $43.1 billion in military aid, $20.5 billion in financial support for Ukraine's budget, and a further $2.6 billion in humanitarian aid.
According to media reports, this is more than the US allocates to help any other country. For comparison, over the past year and a half, Israel has received $8.6 billion from the United States, Egypt $3.3 billion, and Jordan $2.9 billion. But this is incomparably less than the US spent on previous major military campaigns.
Source: Infographic by Leonid Lukashenko
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer outlined three goals during the July debate on the defense budget.
“So, we can keep our country safe, support our friends in Ukraine, outcompete China, and give our troops the pay raise they rightfully deserve.”
Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says the same thing, but shifts the emphasis from the USA: “Remember, threats of sanctions and stern diplomatic warnings didn’t deter Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. Words alone will not deter Chinese aggression in Asia. The Biden Administration can continue to speak softly. But Congress must ensure that America carries a big stick.”
If the Ukraine conflict ends with a happier outcome than now seems likely, some of these plans might be reassessed and scaled back – but for now, NATO should think in terms of robust forward defense of its east and the global system of deterrence and balancing military threats.
Michael O'Hanlon's report highlights the error of focusing too much on external or domestic political interests in shaping military strategy and finding responses to global challenges for the US armed forces.
Those who favor a “come home, America” approach to foreign policy fail to recognize the three most consequential data points since 1900 about matters of war and peace: the outbreak of World War I, the outbreak of World War II, and the nonoutbreak of World War III”, including thanking the US, says O'Hanlon.
The size of the active US Army is 1.3 million people, much smaller than the 2.2 million that existed in the last years of the Cold War and, for reference, smaller than the current Chinese Army of over 2 million.
“The U.S. goal is deterrence, not victory in what would surely be a devastating war. As such, a significant budgetary and technical advantage is highly desirable”, as an argument for potential aggressors, the expert points out.
The first two wars began when the United States was virtually uninvolved in the security of its key partners. The third world war has probably not yet begun, in part because of American security guarantees within a strong system of alliances among countries that account for a significant share of global GDP and military power.
So, the US remains a key player, and hopefully, it will be able to draw good conclusions from its previous “investments” in global security.
“Having spent less than 3% of annual U.S. military budget in security assistance, Ukraine managed to cut Russia’s combat capacity in half”, said former US Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor in response to a CNN question. He stressed that Biden should expand the arguments for supporting Ukraine “beyond talking about the need to preserve the rules-based international order”.