Power & Market

The US Military Isn't As Invincible As It Thinks

The United States itself has about a zero-percent risk of being invaded from any foreign power. This has been clear since 1945 that the Navy and nuclear arsenal make invasion of the US both politically and practically impossible for any foreign regime. The US Army could be totally abolished this afternoon without in any way increasing the risk of foreign military action against the US in North America.

The invincibility of the military itself, on the other hand, is something different. After all, the US military is mostly in the business of doing things other than protecting the borders of the United States. It primarily worries about projecting its power into every corner of the globe, propping up dictators in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and bossing around foreign regimes that are no threat to the United States.

But most of this has long been based on the assumption that the US can do anything it wants to any country without any fear of significant repercussions to its allies anywhere.

Those days are rapidly coming to an end.

In the UK's Independent last week, Patrick Cockburn noted that some important targets are now sitting ducks, and the US and its allies have no economical defense:

On the morning of 14 September, 18 drones and seven cruise missiles – all cheap and unsophisticated compared to modern military aircraft – disabled half of Saudi Arabia ’s crude oil production and raised the world price of oil by 20 per cent.

This happened despite the Saudis spending $67.6bn (£54bn) on their defence budget last year, much of it on vastly expensive aircraft and air defence systems, which notably failed to stop the attack. The US defence budget stands at $750bn (£600.2bn), and its intelligence budget at $85bn (£68bn), but the US forces in the Gulf did not know what was happening until it was all over.

...a middle ranking power like Iran, under sanctions and with limited resources and expertise, acting alone or through allies, has inflicted crippling damage on theoretically much better-armed Saudi Arabia which is supposedly defended by the US, the world’s greatest military super-power.

...If the US and Saudi Arabia are particularly hesitant to retaliate against Iran it is because they know now, contrary to what they might have believed a year ago, that a counter-attack will not be a cost-free exercise. What happened before can happen again: not for nothing has Iran been called a “drone superpower”. Oil production facilities and the desalination plants providing much of the fresh water in Saudi Arabia are conveniently concentrated targets for drones and small missiles.

In other words, the military playing field will be a lot more level in future in a conflict between a country with a sophisticated air force and air defence system and one without. The trump card for the US, Nato powers and Israel has long been their overwhelming superiority in airpower over any likely enemy. Suddenly this calculus has been undermined because almost anybody can be a player on the cheap when it comes to airpower.

Meanwhile, the US is pouring money into expensive toys like the F-35 which after more than a trillion dollars offer no defense against dirt-cheap drones:

Compare the cost of the drone which would be in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to the $122m (£97.6m) price of a single F-35 fighter, so expensive that it can only be purchased in limited numbers. As they take on board the meaning of what happened at Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities, governments around the world will be demanding that their air force chiefs explain why they need to spend so much money when cheap but effective alternatives are available. Going by past precedent, the air chiefs and arms manufacturers will fight to their last breath for grossly inflated budgets to purchase weapons of dubious utility in a real war.

It is unknown how long it will take for US military planners to accept "that they command expensive, technically advanced forces that are obsolete in practice. This means they are stuck with arms that suck up resources but are, in practical terms, out of date."

This doesn't mean, of course, that the US has no options here. The US could engage in a full-scale war against Iran, killing hundreds of thousands of Iranians and spending trillions. The number of US casualties would be very small by comparison, but probably not trivial. This bloodbath eventually incapacitate the Iranian state, but not before Iran destroyed the flow of oil out of the Persian gulf, and extracted its pound of flesh from US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The effect on rivals like China and Russia would be electrifying as well, since the US would then be viewed as having slipped the bonds of rational foreign policy.

This means the situation now is far different from what it was before. But don't expect the Pentagon to act any differently. It will keep demanding trillions of dollars for weapons of war designed to fight a 1960's-style war. But that all sounds perfectly reasonable in a place like Washington, DC where both Capitol Hill and the Pentagon exist in a world of fantasy built on printed money.

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