Is the Pentagon Hyping the Russia Threat?
While most of our foreign-policy attention is focused on the Middle East, a new danger lurks. According to a number of high-ranking Pentagon officials, that danger is not Russian aggression but rather their own colleagues, who are inflating the threat Russia poses in an effort to boost the Defense Department’s budget.
Those in the military who are encouraging the build-up of U.S. troops along Russia’s European border are “the ‘Chicken-Little, sky-is-falling’ set in the Army,” one senior Pentagon officer told Politico. “These guys want us to believe the Russians are 10 feet tall.”
“There’s a simpler explanation,” he added. “The Army is looking for a purpose, and a bigger chunk of the budget. And the best way to get that is to paint the Russians as being able to land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. What a crock.”
He’s not the only one to suspect bureaucrats are inflating the Russian threat. When Politico highlighted a recent Pentagon study on Russian capabilities, high-ranking current and retired Army officers told the magazine it was laughably incorrect. They particularly rejected frightening descriptions of Russian technological prowess.
All this hype is “news to me,” said one respected officer. “Swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles? Surprisingly lethal tanks? How come this is the first we’ve heard of it?”
The massive momentum of the U.S. military may presently be on the side of the inflaters, but the facts are on the side of the skeptics.
The Pentagon’s stated goal for its Eastern European escalation is to provide a counter-balance to Russian strength in the region. “Russians have been doing a lot of snap exercises right up against [their border with Poland and the Baltic states] with a lot of troops,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, who labeled the exercises “provocative.”
But a moment of consideration here presents a very different picture indeed.
First, if Russians confronted the United States military, they would be wildly, laughably outmatched. As vividly explained by former paratrooper Daniel Kearns, the answer to the question, “How much stronger is the United States military compared with the next strongest power?” is “1,000 times. Maybe more.”
“Fighting a conventional war against the U.S.,” Kearns continues, “would be like a three-year-old child playing chess against Gary Kasparov.”
Compared to Russia specifically, our considerable advantage is easily demonstrated, as Politico summarizes:
The United States spends seven times the amount of money on defense as Russia ($598 billion vs. $84 billion), has nearly twice the number of active duty personnel (1.4 million vs. 766,000), just under six times as many helicopters (approximately 6,000 vs. 1,200), three times the number of fighters (2,300 vs. 751) and four times the total number of aircraft. We have 10 aircraft carriers, the Russians have one.
The Russian bear is also easily outmatched by the militaries of our close allies (and obvious counters to Russian power) in Britain, France, and Germany combined. The U.K. alone outspends Russia on defense each year. Add to all that America’s other security advantages—such as two major oceans, numerous allies, and friendly neighbors—and the suggestion that we must send troops to contain Russia becomes difficult (if not impossible) to justify on national-security grounds.
Such engagement sure would drive up the Pentagon’s budget, though.
Another important question: How is it more “provocative” (per Secretary Work) for Russia to do military exercises inside its own country than for the United States to send troops halfway around the world to do military exercises right on Russia’s doorstep?
It isn’t hard to divine Russia’s perspective here. American expansion in Eastern Europe “would be a very dangerous build-up of armed forces pretty close to our borders,” said Andrei Kelin of the Russian Foreign Ministry. “I am afraid this would require certain retaliatory measures, which the Russian Defense Ministry is already talking about.”
His push for restraint stems from Russia’s national interest, to be sure, so more compelling from an American perspective are the benefits of restraint for us. Namely, we can save a lot of blood and treasure. As Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula put it, “It’s time to stop waving the bloody red shirt.” Instead of grabbing for ever more money in response to inflated threats, “We really need to think in a deliberate goal-oriented way to secure national interests, not just parochial Army interests.”
He’s right: The Pentagon budget should be dictated by the state of our national security—not the other way around. And here’s hoping it doesn’t take war with Russia for Washington to figure that out.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a contributing writer at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time, Relevant, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.