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The Price of Change

How does U.S. military spending stack up against the rest of the world?

Trends in defense spending, Cold War through the present, and proposed future budgets.

Techno-skeptics like Chuck Spinney doubt the kind of hi-tech investment proposed can yield dividends on the battlefield. "How's he gonna operate this in the mud?" questions Spinney. "By the way, where is he going to get the power to operate it, he's going to be carrying around all these batteries, and what is going to happen when someone starts shooting at him?"

Spinney is a Pentagon analyst, and a long-time critic of the military's weapon procurement system. "The first thing you have to remember is that machines don't fight wars, people do, and they use their minds. Any combat veteran will tell you he doesn't want to focus inward on his weapons while he's in a firefight. The Revolution in Military Affairs and the so-called Transformation requires very explicit integration of technology and that causes you to focus inward, which is exactly what your adversary wants you to do."

Spinney says another problem is cost. The U.S. will spend $328 billion this year on defense, more than the next 15 largest defense budgets in the world combined. But with an unwillingness to cut obsolete or redundant weapons, these hi-priced, hi-tech systems come at the expense of more basic needs: such as better training, more sea-lift and air transport and updating aging equipment. Chuck Spinney says that we are spending more defense dollars now per unit of combat power than ever before. "Maybe the problem isn't so much how much we spend on defense, it's what we're buying. And this is killing us," he says.

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» Technology and War - Boston University World of Ideas: Guest Eugenia Kiesling

Kiesling (Photo by K. Zabarsky)

If the promise of hi-technology could mean remote controlled warfare and reduce, even eliminate, risks to American soldiers, wouldn't that be worth the investment? Eugenia Kiesling, a military historian at the U.S. Military Academy doesn't think so. "I think it's generally a myth to say that technology has made war less blunt or more effective," She says that after WWI, many theorists argued that the tank was going to make war cleaner. "In fact if you look at WWII, you see enormous armored battles and huge casualties," she says.

Kiesling argues war is at best a blunt instrument to resolve human conflict. Removing the human element, she says, raises troubling moral issues. "If we find ways to kill other people without suffering harm ourselves, we prove that we are the sort of people they are not going to want to make peace with. Right now we recruit soldiers on the assumption that they will be putting themselves in harm's way, and if we are looking to recruit people who will not do that, but will simply kill by playing video games, I don't think we'll be putting the right sort of people in uniform." says Kiesling.

But Harvard's Stephen Rosen says the technological revolution has been making war less blunt, even more humane. "When we wanted to bomb targets in Europe or Japan in WWII, we killed millions of civilians. When we went to war in Serbia and Kosovo in a very densely populated urban environment using air power, we killed maybe four or five hundred civilians, because war had become less blunt," he says. "It's still blunt, just not as bad as it used to be, and that's good, from a moral point of view."

If technology represents the decisive factor for RMA advocates, its promise is less clear for Charlie Company at Fort Lewis. In the mock raid on the town of Jezabar, teams move from building to building, firing blanks at hooded rebels hiding in the shadows.

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REVOLUTION IN MILITARY AFFAIRS: There's an old saying: Generals always fight the last war, and that's why they often lose the next one. When it comes to armed conflict, figuring out the future is the key to victory. But it's always a guessing game. Guessing where the new political hotspots will be. Guessing the best way to put out the fires. Guessing what the next generation of weapons will be or should be... More... 

The exercise bogs down and one team is pinned down and picked apart by rebel gunmen. Tensions mount, and First Sergeant Kemp shakes his head in dismay and declares seven America soldiers wounded or killed.

"I think it could have been accomplished it they had paid a little more attention to what they had been doing," says Kemp. "There were a lot of simple mistakes that got people hurt. It's very complicated, going through a maze and making decisions on the fly. It's not easy."

Charlie Company commander Captain John Kiriazis says this kind of exercise shows both the promise and the limitations of technology.

"Great tool, before a fight, fantastic tool after the fight," he says. "During the fight, I think that heads have got to be in the game and break away from using digital and concentrate on the mission at hand. Technology is a great help for us, but when it comes to pulling triggers, people going down, soldiers stepping up to take initiative, it's always going to come down to that individual soldier and his training."

Next: Missile Defense: Imperative or Unworkable?