HONOLULU, February 27, 2013 – Six years ago at a diplomatic reception as a journalist I had the opportunity to meet the defense minister of a major U.S. ally in the Pacific and I asked him off the record why his country had recently withdrawn from service its last fighter aircraft. “In light of the fact that China, Indonesia and others in the region are modernizing their air forces and acquiring stand-off air launched missiles, aren’t you concerned that the lack of any supersonic multirole fighters will put you in a pickle if there are territorial disputes over the oil rich islands in the near future?” I asked, piquing the interest of his diplomatic entourage, some of whom raised their eyebrows at the political scenario I had just painted.
“Those are external defense platforms you’re talking about,” he answered with a smile, not missing a beat. “High tech weapons. My country needs internal defense platforms. Low tech weapons. External defense is not a priority. What we need right now are attack aircraft that can fly low and slow. Propeller planes. Things that can get in the weeds and stay on station for long periods of time. We need more cargo planes like the C-130 that can land and take off on short, undeveloped areas. And most of all we need more troops to fight terrorists.”
At the height of his country’s power during the Cold War, it had as a critical American ally one of the most capable air forces in the region. Today, that nation’s order of battle consists – as that minister desired – of a handful of light “attack trainers” which support plenty of helicopters and troops on the ground.
As an international affairs political scientist, I couldn’t help but see chilling parallels between that minister’s prioritization towards “internal defense over external defense” and the devolution of the United States’ view of our military forces from deterrence – peace through strength – to sending commando raids and drone strikes against international insurgents and criminals all across the world. And now, as America prepares to see the rise of some 30,000 remote piloted ISR drones – not abroad but in domestic skies – the banana republic style of low tech yet brutal internal security regime is beginning to see its day in the United States.
Call me a policy dinosaur, but having been born in 1979, I grew up during the final era of the Cold War and remember being very proud of the fact that there was a clear distinction between the way the East and West treated the world and their own citizens. In school, we learned that both the East and the West were defended by the point of a bayonet– the difference being that the East’s bayonets pointed in toward their own people to prevent them from escaping and the West’s bayonets pointed out to deter communist aggression.
During the Cold War, as a child I remember my teachers and other adults mocking countries for their heavy handed use of paramilitaries – that is, “troops” that perform the role of both police and military – and how in socialist banana republics whether one is at a train station or the airport, heavily armed paras with AK-47s stand guard. “In the United States, we’re better because we don’t do that kind of thing,” my teachers would boast. “America doesn’t treat its citizens like they’re under a perpetual state of martial law.”
Today, we ought to look at what America in 2013 looks like and strongly consider whether or not that observation holds truth anymore.
Sequestration will definitely result in deep cuts to America’s military and defense, but the real question is which direction do our bayonets point? Are they pointing out towards external aggression or are they pointing in? Like Eastern regimes, America treats its citizens with a perpetual state of emergency and our police are looking more like military and our military are looking more like police with each passing day.
When I hear my elected officials saying things like “we need more special forces and UAV [drones]” during debates and when think tanks start saying we only need a single service – “The Army” – I know that the end cannot be far off.
I don’t worry when policymakers ask Congress to give the Air Force more fighters like the F-22 or a manned strategic bomber replacement. That is “external” defense. I do worry when policymakers ask Congress for ISR drones and stealth helicopters. I don’t worry when policymakers ask Congress to give the blue water Navy a new Ford-class carrier or a Virginia-class submarine. I do worry when policymakers start demanding more brown water capability and littoral combat options.
I don’t worry when policymakers say that the Army needs main battle tanks, self-propelled howitzers or attack helicopters. Those are external defenses. I do worry when policymakers demand more commandos and troops trained in urban warfare.
We should be very wary of the direction our policymakers and defense academia are taking the United States and its vision of security. The more a nation devolves, the more its policymakers transform the defense apparatus into an internal security system. History and comparative analysis of other nations shows that the road to antiterrorism and counterinsurgency leads only in the end to counter-citizenry.
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