The pandemic’s effect on national defense strategy

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If a virus can kill Americans and wreck the economy more easily than a foreign enemy, is the United States approaching the idea of national defense the right way in the first place? That’s the question several longtime military practitioners and observers have raised. Two of them joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to talk more: Nora Bensahel, a frequent writer and lecture on defense policy, and retired Army Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, both of whom are visiting professors of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Nora, good to have you back.

Nora Bensahel: Thank you.

Tom Temin: And Dave Barno is a retired Army lieutenant general. Dave, good to have you back on.

Dave Barno: Good to be back, Tom.

Tom Temin: Both are visiting professors of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University. And you have co-authored an article that really raises some unusual questions, saying, well questioning really whether the budget that the United States expends on the military is justifiable or will be justifiable after this is all over, given the national security implications. Tell us what your thoughts were?

Nora Bensahel: Well, the coronavirus is changing everything. This is a major national catastrophe that’s going to have long term implications for our politics, our society and for how national security is viewed by most Americans. The Defense Department is the biggest single item in the discretionary budget, about 15% of the overall US government budget, and through no fault of its own, the Department of Defense wasn’t able to do anything to protect most Americans from the virus and is playing a very, very small role in the response to it. And so because this crisis is affecting so many Americans and the country so deeply, we think that how they view national security is going to change once the immediate crisis of the pandemic passes, and be much more concerned about their own security, about their health and about other threats that come from places other than foreign adversaries. And it’s not clear that they’re going to continue to want to spend that many taxpayer dollars on the Defense Department anymore.

Tom Temin: And Dave, as someone of course who served overseas recently in recent wars and has had a long military career, what’s your take on this because, they’re still our foreign enemies, when this is all said and done.

Dave Barno: Well, there are. But I think, as Nora pointed out, I think the American people are going to take a hard look at what does it mean to be secure. And we argue, in our piece at War On The Rocks, that the foremost responsibility of government is to provide for the security of its people. That’s not something mayors can do, or governors can do. That’s got to be the federal government. We do that through, you know, the largest institution in the world, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. spends over $700 billion a year, but it’s aimed outward, it’s not aimed inward. And now, Americans I think, are going to look at this period of time and realize, you know, maybe the biggest threats and the biggest danger and the most disruptive things that have happened in our lives weren’t even the attacks of 9/11 or, you know, other potential foreign adversaries. But this threat that has overwhelmed the country in a lot of respects, that was somewhat unexpected, not completely unexpected. So they’re going to ask the question, what does it mean to be secure? And why hasn’t the government been able to do that? And part of that answer is going to come from how are we allocating our resources and I think there’ll be a reallocation of attention and resources towards the threats to the homeland in ways that are much different than the post 9/11 response coming out of this crisis.

Tom Temin: Yes. In fact, there are think tanks looking at that very question right now. But do you envision this taking the form of a military which does new and different things, or a chunk of money from the military, to do other things and other agencies?

Nora Bensahel: It’s clear that the United States is going to have to continue to defend itself against the possibility of external attack. We’re not suggesting that the Department of Defense is going to go away. But as Dave said, resources are going to need to be reallocated because that’s what the American people are going to demand in the aftermath of this crisis. I don’t think it means new roles for the military in being on the frontlines of healthcare provision in the country. You know, we’re going to need to stockpile medical equipment and other things for possible future pandemics like this and the military may have a very small role to play along the margins in that, but that’s not going to be a Department of Defense task. And the Department of Defense is not going to be in the lead in that nor should it be. And because of the great debt that the United States is taking on to respond to this crisis and everything else that is going on, the way that individual Americans view their own security after the pandemic, the Department of Defense just isn’t going to be in the lead.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Nora Bensahel and Dave Barno, they are both visiting professors of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University. And so then what could the military look like, given that money would be diverted from it? It would have to certainly give up some of its roles even if it did not take on that role of, you know, first responder in the homeland on health. Dave?

Dave Barno: I think this will inevitably reshape the military and partly because of the budgetary pressure. I think there’s going to be money that is going to be reallocated out of the defense budget and the military is going to have to look at what the nation can afford for defense against foreign adversaries and probably reshape itself maybe in some fairly dramatic ways. You know, the military spends an astronomical amount of money on, at this juncture at least, on recapitalizing and modernizing legacy equipment, whether it’s manned aircraft or large aircraft carriers, very expensive what you know, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates once called “exquisite weapons programs.” It may have to shift to smaller or more unmanned and less expensive platforms and have a kind of a revolution in how it fights from these very big, very vulnerable, in some cases, expensive platforms out there, to more unmanned, more autonomous, you know, more use of artificial intelligence really kind of more of a 21st century leaner military, reliant more on technology that doesn’t have these extraordinarily expensive weapon systems that could become very vulnerable. So I think the military in facing this challenge, there’s an opportunity here for it as well as to really reshape itself to accelerate – what for example, the Marine Corps is already starting to do now is to move into a very different kind of a fighting force oriented on high technology and less on big expensive weapons. I think that may be in the cards for the military or looking forward.

Tom Temin: Because the biggest, maybe expense of the all-volunteer force is the force itself in terms of lifecycle costs of a given troop. And so maybe this change could also help on that side, too? With fewer manned platforms, you need fewer people.

Nora Bensahel: Well, it’s unquestionably if the defense budget goes down, the services are going to have to get smaller, and particularly the land services, the army and the Marine Corps. Because as you said, the cost of sustaining the all-volunteer force is very, very expensive. So there are opportunities in terms of the more you move to unmanned systems, the fewer people you need in uniform, but I think all of the service leaders would tell you that they’re concerned already that the size of the land forces are too small, given the range of potential external threats that the nation faces, and if anything would have wanted them to increase. If they have to take further cuts and if the cuts are very deep, because the defense budget cuts are deep, they’re going to be extraordinarily concerned about their ability to prepare for the full range of external threats that the nation may face.

Tom Temin: Well, let me ask you this. I mean, China is watching very carefully. Let’s face it, they probably know more about what’s happening here than perhaps any of us do. And they could add a million people to their army, you know, if that’s what they decided to do, there’s no choice if you’re in the Army now. And so what about the fact that the other foreign great powers have much greater flexibility in some sense, because they are command and control governments? How does that figure into the equation?

Dave Barno: I don’t think there are too many military leaders that are terribly concerned about the Chinese adding a million men to their army, you know, that’s a land-based force. The war in the Pacific, you know, most defense experts would say is going to occur largely in the maritime domain in the western Pacific at sea in the South China Sea, etc. And so the importance of your naval fighting capability is accelerated. You know, the use of the United States Army in that domain is probably not going to be as large would have been in a fight in the European domain. You know, we still have significant concerns with Russia out there. But I think the reality is the U.S. may have to rely more on its national guard and its reserves to expand, you know, in a large way in times of crisis and have fewer forces on active duty that are the most expensive forces out there. That also lends itself to the National Guard in particular being very useful for Homeland Security and Homeland Defense. They’re playing a larger role right now and in the response to this pandemic than they would for any other type of, you know, homeland crisis or catastrophe than the active forces probably would. So there may be a need to be a rebalancing between how much we spend to put people in uniform and do more of it in the Guard and reserve, and perhaps a bit less of it in the large forces in the army in particular, but perhaps the Marines or some of the other forces that have a lot of people, doing people-intensive tasks that may not need to be done by humans as much in the future as we looked at a higher technology force out there.

Tom Temin: And of course, it’s easy – not easy, but it’s a simple matter to envision what the military might look like, given the range of threats and the way the landscape will be in the future. But it’s a really heavy lift to change anything fundamentally because of the inertia in the military itself and in the impasse that characterizes our politics. So how could this happen in a practical sense?

Nora Bensahel: Well, I’d argue it’s actually very difficult to know exactly what the US military should look like for the future, again, because we now face you know, with the rise of great power competition, potential conflict with Russia and China. We also have the unpredictable things that always come up that we don’t foresee, you know, if we had thought on Sept. 10, 2001, that we were going to go to war in Afghanistan within a couple of weeks, you know, you would have been laughed out of Washington for suggesting that. So things come up and the military, even at its current size, and with its current capabilities, is very concerned about being prepared enough for the full range of scenarios which may come to pass in the future. Then you add to it, the difficulty of taking the world’s largest organization – the Department of Defense is the world’s largest organization and trying to change it with all the bureaucracy and all the inertia on top of that, and you start to see the scale of the challenge facing Defense Department leaders, both military and civilian.

Dave Barno: You know, defense industry is another one of those, you know, characters out there along with Congress, and, you know, kind of the institutional hole that the Defense Department has just because of its size on you know, and being unwilling to get smaller to make cuts. But I think we’re going to run into some very difficult math to argue with and the math will be that deficits and the national debt are going to balloon as a result of this crisis. You know, the deficit going into this crisis was averaging about a trillion dollars a year, which was money that we were borrowing, because we weren’t bringing enough revenues from taxes and other sources. For this fiscal year, it’s now going to be $3.6 trillion in red ink of borrowed money in the deficit, and next year, at least $2.4 trillion. That’s got to come from somewhere and eventually that money’s going to have to be paid back. The national debt is soaring during this period of time. And again, as we look at what we expect is going to happen, every part of the federal government, all the spending elements of the federal government are going to come under a lot of pressure. So the idea that the military can essentially rely upon the same size budgets with you know, some steady increases every year to make up for inflation and basically stay the same, I think is very unrealistic. So this is kind of a warning bell, in a sense, and neither Nora nor I, I think, have a crystal ball that says, here’s what that perfect US military the future might look like. But we’re both pretty confident it’s going to have to be less expensive and smaller and perhaps reshaped because of that to be more effective against what we see the future threats to be.

Tom Temin: Now influential people do read you and they do read War On The Rocks. Have you gotten any blowback or feedback or kudos on this article yet?

Nora Bensahel: We’ve gotten a bit of feedback that our piece sparked discussion, which of course, always makes us happy. That’s why we write to help people think about these things. But I think you know, a lot of people’s reaction you know, most of what we heard back was people hadn’t really thought about this yet and what the implications for defense would be. You know, we published the column that you mentioned at the end of March, which was still in the very earliest days of this crisis when each day brought new and earth-shattering news about what was going on. You know, I think we sounded a warning bell about this trend earlier in the crisis than many would have foreseen otherwise. And I hope that that starts people thinking about how to prepare for this new financial reality that is bound to emerge once the pandemic ends.

Tom Temin: Nora Bensahel is a frequent writer and lecturer on defense policy and you heard Dave Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general. Both are visiting professors of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University. We’ll post this interview at www.FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Subscribe to the Federal Drive at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.