A sharper blade | The Economist

To keep its fighting edge, America needs to spend more on technology

ALL good things come to an end, and that may one day include America’s military pre-eminence. Although the United States is still by far the world’s strongest martial power, others are catching up. America’s ability to project overwhelming force around the world, which it has taken for granted since the end of the cold war, is now threatened.


In the past America has harnessed technology to offset its rivals’ advantages. Faced with much larger Soviet conventional forces in Europe, it first relied on the superiority of its nuclear arsenal for deterrence (in the 1950s) and then, when the Soviet Union caught up, invested in “deep strike” systems that could spot distant targets and destroy them with precision-guided conventional warheads (from the late 1970s). The Gulf war in 1991 demonstrated the devastating effectiveness of smart munitions, battle networks and electronic warfare. But these technologies have now proliferated. During the past decade, as America fought low-tech insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, potential adversaries—such as China, Russia, and even Iran and North Korea—have been making rapid progress.


Of these, it is China that worries American strategists the most. Its armed forces are growing more sophisticated and its government is becoming more assertive towards its neighbours. China is determined to prevent American aircraft-carriers from operating close to its shores, and could even threaten American bases in the region. To this end it has built up an array of land-based precision-guided missiles; submarines and fighter aircraft equipped with anti-ship missiles; and electronic, cyber- and anti-satellite weapons intended to disrupt and blind America’s command-and-control networks. China’s aim is to deter any American president from coming to the aid of allies subjected to threats or bullying from Beijing.


To shore up its military dominance, the Pentagon late last year began the quest for a new range of breakthrough technologies—what it calls a “third offset strategy” (see article). These are likely to include stealthy unmanned planes and underwater vehicles that can operate autonomously (and thus survive enemy disruption of their data links). Because pilots are heavy and get tired, their absence lets drones fly farther, more often and more cheaply. The Pentagon is also working on a long-range strike aircraft to penetrate the toughest air defences and exotic technologies, such as directed-energy (laser) and electromagnetic weapons to defend ships against missile attack.


The technical obstacles are formidable—but so are the political and bureaucratic ones. Congress and the White House used to co-operate over military budgets and plan for the long term. No longer. The Budget Control Act of 2011 not only cut military spending, but through the mechanism of the sequester also distorted it by locking in spending on old programmes and blocking new ones that the Pentagon actually wants.


A smarter, leaner killing machine

Whatever happens, defence spending is likely to remain tight. To find more money for “leap ahead” technologies, savings must come from elsewhere. A start would be for Congress to let the Pentagon close unneeded bases. Lavish pay and benefits (including horribly inefficient health programmes) need curbing, too. The real cost of each active-duty service member has jumped by 76% in the past 16 years. If they were to continue to rise unchecked, personnel costs would swallow the entire defence budget by 2039.


The top brass often defend their toys. Admirals love their mighty carrier groups and air-force generals their fast jets. But the growing vulnerability of ships and the limited range of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (2,500 are being bought, making it the costliest military programme in history) suggest where cuts should be made today to pay for the weapons of the future.


And procurement must be more efficient. Thanks to red tape, the Pentagon spent $74 billion more than it needed to on kit in 2012, the Government Accountability Office estimates. Military acquisition has a terrible reputation, but reform is under way and may well succeed: many of the new military technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, are spin-offs from the ideas of civilian tech firms. The Pentagon’s R&D department should act more like a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, spotting good ideas and backing them.


American power is not always wielded wisely. But it remains the best guarantee of the rules-based international order, from which nearly all countries benefit—and not just America’s allies. That order is already impaired. If America loses its technological edge, it will only fray faster.

A sharper blade | The Economist.