Over the Horizon: Defense Budget Scare Tactics

By Robert Farley, on , Column

Defense budget advocacy can be a dry business. While debating the technical aspects of some weapon or another is boring enough to a lay audience, arguing the finer points of industrial policy can put all but the most dedicated bureaucrats -- and lobbyists -- to sleep. Accordingly, defense policy advocates often rely on scare stories designed to shock and awe, winning an audience's attention and credulity with dramatic claims of horrific outcomes should the wrong path be taken. If the story succeeds in creating the desired effect, no one realizes until too late that it was all a sham.

Perhaps the finest example of this tactic was a United States Air Force documentary, first aired on PBS in 1979, called "First Strike." In the film, the United States suffers a sudden, disarming nuclear strike at the hands of the Soviet Union and quickly surrenders to Soviet domination. Various talking heads then discuss the scenario, all advocating increased defense spending and nuclear readiness. The video is well-made and altogether shocking; it is also, strategically speaking, nonsense, depending on an absurd set of assumptions about U.S. and Soviet military readiness. Another example is the 2009 film "33 Minutes" by the Heritage Foundation, which purports to inform Americans of the dire threat that ballistic missiles pose to the U.S. heartland. The straightforward purpose of the film is missile-defense advocacy, but the scenarios discussed -- including an electro-magnetic pulse attack on the United States, and the notion that a terrorist state could attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons without fear of retaliation -- are simply ridiculous. ...

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