I have always been a strong supporter of the U.S. armed forces, because I believe they are needed to safeguard our freedom and prosperity in a dangerous world. But even hawks like me cannot be blind to the prevalence of “black swan” events in the past 20 years.
The biggest national security crises we have faced in the 21st century have been the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2008 financial meltdown, the 2016 Russian attack on our presidential election, global warming and now the coronavirus. That there have been so many emergencies that fall outside our traditional “national security” parameters calls into question whether we are spending our $738 billion defense budget on the right priorities.
The closest we came to a crisis necessitating a military response was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But even then, most of the work of safeguarding the United States fell not to the armed forces but to the intelligence community, the FBI, local police forces and the newly organized Department of Homeland Security. And while our armed forces could kill lots of terrorists, they could not bring lasting peace or stability to Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s a nation-building mission for which our government is ill-equipped.
The 2008 financial crash had nothing to do with the military — yet, if not contained, it could easily have turned into another Great Depression that would have shaken the world order to its foundations. Global warming is an even bigger crisis, yet it, too, has no military solution. Indeed, because the Defense Department is the nation’s biggest consumer of energy, using 85 million barrels of fuel in fiscal 2018, it is actually exacerbating the problem.
The 2016 Russian interference in our election may have altered the course of history by helping to elect President Trump, but there is no military response to this attack, either. We are not going to drop a bomb on Vladimir Putin’s head, even though he is a far bigger threat to our democracy than Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was. The steps we need to take to safeguard our political system from foreign interference are outside the purview of the military, even of the U.S. Cyber Command.
Now we are battling a pandemic that by Monday had already killed more Americans than died on 9/11 — and that is expected to kill more Americans than died in all U.S. wars since 1945. The Army Corps of Engineers (whose workforce is 98 percent civilian) is building hospitals, the Defense Logistics Agency is buying 8,000 ventilators, the Navy is deploying two hospital ships, and the Army is sending three field hospitals — but those contributions, while valuable, will not come close to turning the tide. By continuing to train and operate in close quarters, the armed forces may actually help spread the disease. (The aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt is having a particularly severe outbreak among its crew.) In the present crisis, as one public health expert noted, we need N95 masks, not F-35 fighter aircraft.
Even when it comes to traditional combat operations, the infrastructure of our military may be outdated. In a 2019 Foreign Affairs article, Christian Brose, a former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned: “A military made up of small numbers of large, expensive, heavily manned, and hard-to-replace systems will not survive on future battlefields, where swarms of intelligent machines will deliver violence at a greater volume and higher velocity than ever before.” That’s a big problem, because we are pouring vast amounts of money into manned ships, aircraft, armored vehicles and other “legacy” systems that may be death traps on a modern battlefield against high-tech foes.
Some in the Pentagon understand that we can no longer afford business as usual. The Marine commandant, Gen. David Berger, issued a “planning guidance” last year that said: “We cannot afford to retain outdated policies, doctrine, organizations or force development strategies. … What served us well yesterday may not today, and may not in the future.” Berger advocates shifting the Marines’ focus from the Middle East to the Pacific and from large-scale amphibious assaults to more dispersed operations by smaller units.
This is a significant departure for the Marine Corps, but it is still safely in the realm of conventional military operations. What we really need is a more radical rethink of the whole concept of “national security.” It never made any sense, as Trump’s 2021 budget had initially proposed, to increase spending on nuclear weapons by $7 billion while cutting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funding by $1.2 billion. Or to create an unnecessary Space Force out of the U.S. Air Force while eliminating the vitally important directorate of global health by folding it into another office within the National Security Council.
Instead of simply pouring more money into the Pentagon, we need to develop new capacities to combat foreign disinformation, transition away from carbon fuels and stop the spread of pandemics. Those are more pressing priorities than a military attack from China, Russia, Iran or North Korea, and if we don’t do a better job of addressing these threats, the pain we are feeling during the coronavirus outbreak may augur even greater catastrophes to come.