Campaign discussions of defense issues routinely degenerate into scary numbers and misleading comparisons. The GOP ticket, for example, warns that we will soon have the smallest navy since before World War I. Numerically true, but highly misleading. Many Democrats like to point out that the United States is spending more on defense than the rest of the world combined and, even with recent cuts as we draw down from Iraq and Afghanistan, are spending at levels above the average during the Cold War. Also numerically true, but no justification for either cuts or increases in future spending. Still other analysts say that we are wasting money on the wrong kinds of weapons acquired in the least efficient way.
The true test of military strength is not what we spend, but what we get for those expenditures; not how many particular units, people, or weapons we have compared with others, but how well they can perform in combat. Regrettably, we have a predictable tendency to make decisions in peacetime on the basis of efficiency and in wartime on the basis of effectiveness.
Over time, these cross-pressures tend to balance out. We still tend to put a premium on systems that are best for offense rather than defense; we still prefer high tech promise over lower tech reliability; we continue to underestimate the true costs of most equipment we acquire. On the other hand, we eventually embraced unmanned aerial vehicles; we eventually adopted counterinsurgency doctrine and trained units for it; we traded numbers for capabilities time and again -- even when that left the navy with fewer ships than in 1916.
I wish our debates would focus on threats, capabilities, combat effectiveness, and ways to reduce long term costs rather than on the misleading measures tossed about in the current debates.