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Indefensible costs of military one-upmanship

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — I was recently surprised to learn that Singapore has 72,500 troops on active duty and plans to double the number of “combat-ready aircraft” to more than 200. It also plans to have 10 more submarines to add to the four it has today. Or so the Wall Street Journal reported (“Asia’s New Arms Race,” Feb. 12-13).

In fact, Singapore has “one of Asia’s most modern armed forces,” according to a U.S. military site proudly announcing the country’s purchase of 12 more F-15 fighter jets for $1 billion (October 2007).

The island nation is smaller than New York City (90 percent in land and 60 percent in population). Yet its annual military expenditure of $9 billion is 3.4 times as large as that of Vietnam (population 18 times as big) and 70 percent larger than that of Indonesia (population 50 times bigger).

All this was a surprise to me, because the proud and prosperous Lion City strikes me as eminently indefensible in any serious military confrontation. I do not have to bring up the Japanese Army overrunning the British Empire’s “impregnable fortress in the Far East” in six days, back in early 1942, with a troop size less than half that of the defenders. Imagine New York City as an independent nation having to defend itself from surrounding enemies.

I do not mean to advance any argument on geopolitics or regional military strategy. It’s simply that when the WSJ article came out, I had just read Andrew Bacevich’s essay, “The Tyranny of Defense Inc.” (The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2011). I was also thinking about Yukio Mishima’s novel “Silk and Insight” that I translated a dozen years ago.

Bacevich, a retired army colonel who teaches international relations at Boston University, for some years now has been highly critical of U.S. foreign policy, especially in the military field, writing books such as “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism” (2008) and “America’s Path to Permanent War”(2010), to name only the latest two.

In the Atlantic article, he revisits President Dwight Eisenhower and his warnings on the military running amok “in the councils of government.” It is of course his famous farewell speech, in which he said, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

But Bacevich also discusses Eisenhower’s speech eight years earlier, the one he gave soon after he became president. The speech, before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, shows the military commander’s thinking did not change over the years. It is particularly notable for the concrete examples illustrating the high costs of military hardware.

“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities,” Eisenhower said. “It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.”

Direct cost comparisons between six decades ago and today may be difficult to make, but let me try.

Each B-2 “Stealth Bomber” costs $1.01 billion. The “flyaway cost” — the whole cost minus research and development — of each F-35, the product of “the most expensive arms program” of the U.S. ever and for now the source of congressional hubbub, is somewhere between $89 million to $200 million.

The CIA’s World Factbook puts the 2010 U.S. per capita income at $47,400. This means a total of 21,300 people — men, women, children — must work one whole year to produce a single B-2, and that 1,900 to 4,200 people must work just as long to produce a single F-35. Japan, whose per capita income is way below that of Singapore, plans to buy 100 F-35s.

The biggest issue in education in New York City now is Mayor Bloomberg’s threat to “eliminate” 6,000 teaching jobs because of a budget shortfall. These teachers are new hires, so suppose their average salary is $30,000. The elimination of a single F-35 at the higher cost estimate should make the firing of those 6,000 teachers unnecessary.

St. Vincent’s, the most valuable hospital in my neighborhood, shut down last year because of a monthly deficit of $7 million to $10 million, according to the New York Times. To maintain a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan just one year costs “a cool one million dollars,” Bacevich puts it. The U.S. now has 100,000 troops, at the monthly cost of $8.4 billion.

The main purpose of the U.S. invasion and destruction of Afghanistan is now obscure, but if it is to force its own idea of government on it, it goes against Eisenhower’s observation: “Any nation’s attempt to dictate to other nations their form of government is indefensible.”

As for Yukio Mishima’s 1964 novel “Silk and Insight,” it was based on Japan’s “first human rights strike” at a textile manufacturer 10 years earlier, in 1954. Mishima does not seem to have explained it, but the puzzling title he gave to the novel harked back to the phrase “silk and warships” that dated from the Russo-Japanese War.

For decades before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, silk was Japan’s principal export product, so it was silk that enabled the country to buy and build warships, hence the phrase. But the Yamato, the greatest battleship Japan ever built, and its twin, the Musashi, were both sunk ignominiously before engaging in any worthy battle. Of the two, the Yamato was sunk in the country’s biggest and, yes, “stupidest,” suicide sortie.

What was the cost of building the Yamato? As I have remembered it since my junior high school days, the same amount would have enabled Japan to electrify its entire railway system at the time, in 1940.

Has any of the expensive weapons systems, many of which Japan has been buying from the U.S. since it was coerced into rearmament despite the “no-war clause” of “the MacArthur Constitution,” served any real purpose in defending the country? I don’t know.

I do know that F-86s were used for years to slaughter Steller sea lions. They ate too many fish near the Japanese coast. Partly as a result of that operation perhaps, their number has dropped from 20,000 in the 1960s to 5,000 today.

Hiroaki Sato is at work on a biography of Yukio Mishima.