By: Jerry Hendrix – nationalreview.com – March 17, 2022
How to correct decades of strategically unserious underspending
For 30 years the United States has been fundamentally unserious about its national-security strategy, which was predicated on the assumptions that it had entered Immanuel Kant’s era of “perpetual peace,” that the nation was the lone superpower, and that it would remain so for decades to come. As a result, four successive presidential administrations of both parties consistently underfunded the Department of Defense. The Clinton administration took “peace dividends” in the 1990s, the Bush II administration fought its Global War on Terror while neglecting force structure, and the Obama administration imposed the disastrous defense sequester in 2013, which over the next several years reduced planned defense budgets by over $495 billion.
Then–secretary of defense Leon Panetta had warned that the defense sequester was like “shooting ourselves in the head.” He was right. By the end of the Obama years, all the services were undermanned, relying mostly on aircraft, tanks, and ship inventories dating back to the 1980s and suffering from severe maintenance and training backlogs that had reduced readiness to dangerous levels. The Navy’s 2017 battle force of 271 ships represented the smallest fleet since 1916, and it was so overtasked and undertrained that in that single year it experienced three major collisions, two of which resulted in the loss of sailors’ lives, and one grounding. While some might point out that the modern fleet is more lethal than its predecessors, it is also true that the most lethal ship can be in only one place at a time, whereas the nation’s interests are many and widespread.
Meanwhile the threats to American security grew geometrically. North Korea acquired nuclear weapons; Iran began and advanced a nuclear program with the intent of putting the United States at risk, and it’s now close to completing it; Islamic terror groups proliferated; the United States continually suffered attacks in the cyber domain; and worst of all, great-power competition returned with a vengeance. While the United States was neglecting its defenses, China and Russia were growing and modernizing their militaries, placing great emphasis on fifth-generation stealth aircraft, advanced submarines and surface ships, and new missiles and sensors designed to keep U.S. military forces far from their shores.
The Trump administration began with a promising national-security strategy in 2017 that finally recognized that the United States was in a great-power competition and followed that by ending the defense sequester and pushing a substantial defense-budget increase through Congress. As a result, the Pentagon was able to buy back some lost readiness, but the extra funding was nowhere near sufficient to enable the services to add personnel or recapitalize their inventories. The last two Trump budgets barely kept pace with inflation, and the first Biden submission — for fiscal year 2022 — had a substantial real-dollar cut in the defense top line. Congress has increased the amount that Biden requested, but the budget for the current year will still, at best, be flat.
In short, the power of the United States has been declining for close to 30 years, while its adversaries have been proliferating in numbers and capabilities that threaten America’s homeland, allies, and vital interests around the world. Our current space architecture, made up of older, larger, multi-sensor satellites in low, medium, and highly stable — and vulnerable — geosynchronous orbits, is vulnerable. Our technological edge over adversaries has shrunk and, in some respects, disappeared altogether. Our forces are outgunned, outmanned, and outranged in crucial parts of the world — including China’s near seas, through which up to one-third of the world’s trade must pass.
Given the years of neglect and the growing threats, what would a realistic defense top line look like? It’s difficult to say with precision, in part because the Department of Defense has rarely been allowed by the White House to ask for what it really needs. But in 2017, then–secretary of defense Jim Mattis estimated that the DOD would need at least a 3–5 percent increase above inflation for an entire Five-Year Defense Plan to begin reversing the decline in capability. That estimate was confirmed by the Strategy Commission that Congress established in 2018 to review the needs of the armed forces. It’s a reasonable estimate, and it would mean — given the high rate of inflation — low-double-digit increases for the next several years, resulting in a top line of over $1 trillion by fiscal year 2025.
The increased funds must, of course, be spent in a way that makes sense when we consider the likely future threat environment. Here are what should be the top priorities:
The “pacing threat” — by “pacing” I mean we are running to catch up — is China, and that race is occurring in the Indo-Pacific theater, a maritime domain where naval and air power have primary importance. The White House’s national-security strategy and the Pentagon-level national-defense strategy should therefore shift to a maritime focus, with budgetary policy following accordingly. In the inter–Cold War era — because honesty compels us to admit that we have entered a new cold war — defense dollars were split equally among the Navy, Air Force, and Army. In the future, the air and naval services will have to get a bigger share of the pie. A 35–35–20 split of resources would be more appropriate, with the office of the secretary of defense receiving the final 10 percent. We should recognize that the 35 percent allocations would be divided between the Navy and Marine Corps on the one hand and the Air Force and Space Force on the other, while the 20 percent allocation would go to the Army alone.
Given that the total defense budget must increase substantially, a split along those lines would leave the Army with potentially the largest budget of any single service. It would enable the Army to support a much stronger forward position in Europe, while also empowering the Navy and Marines and the Air Force to complete their rebalance to Asia.
This reallocation will not come from the military itself. There is an uneasy truce among the service’s uniformed leaders over the division of funding. Change will need to come from civilian leaders, either in Congress or in the Pentagon, at the level of the secretary of defense or the service secretaries, who recognize that China is the primary threat, with Russia a distant second.
In sizing and shaping the air and naval forces, we must be cognizant of the investments that China has made in anti-access sensors and missiles and of what those investments portend for our current infrastructure. Our supercarriers, with their short-range (500- to 600-mile) air wings, have been rendered largely ineffective by Chinese 900-mile carrier-killer missiles, and naval aviation has been unwilling to evolve its air wings to bring long-range penetrating attack aircraft back to the carriers. This has placed the burden of responsibility on submarines carrying long-range attack missiles — Tomahawk cruise missiles today but hypersonic Conventional Prompt Strike missiles tomorrow. Navy planning should prioritize these submarines by, among other things, building additional Columbia-class subs as conventional guided-missile boats rather than as strategic-deterrent ballistic-missile subs. The Navy will still need to do peacetime-presence surface operations to attempt to maintain the peace, but this mission can be most economically accomplished by destroyers and the new frigates the Navy is beginning to build. These types should represent a new hi-lo mix for the fleet going into the 2030s and beyond.
To accomplish this fleet expansion, with the addition of unmanned surface and subsurface vessels, the nation will need a larger defense-industrial base. Beginning with the Eisenhower administration, the government’s policy was to build resiliency and redundancy into the nation’s industrial base to ensure multiple competitive sources of supply for the DOD. That policy ended in 1993, when William Perry, the Clinton administration’s deputy secretary of defense, convened the “Last Supper” meeting of leaders of the nation’s major defense companies to encourage them to merge their businesses. That may have reduced short-term costs, but the long-term effect has been crippling and must be reversed.
The Marine Corps, for its part, should continue the reforms of its commandant, General David Berger. He is in the process of redesigning the Corps for the first time since the 1930s, into a more agile force that can spread out across the archipelagic waters of the Indo-Pacific region to interdict the enemy on land and at sea. Berger’s design also allows Marines to reconcentrate forces quickly and as needed to form an effective light-infantry attack force. The Marine Corps need not grow so much as continue to modernize its combat kit to match the new threat environment and the concept of operations that would be required while operating with allies that have smaller, constabulary militaries, within range of Chinese missiles.
The Air Force needs to recognize that its shift away from the long-range bomber that occurred during the Vietnam era must be reversed. While the F-15 Strike Eagles and new F-35A Lightning IIs represent superb fighter-attack designs, they are dependent on large tankers to extend their range, and such tankers will be highly vulnerable to China’s new long-range fighters with their extended-range air-to-air missiles. The Air Force should prioritize its new long-range penetrating bomber. Currently the Air Force plans to buy only 100 of the B-21 Raider bombers, but sustained-campaign requirements could demand double that number, especially as the 20 remaining B-2 Spirit stealth bombers age. Every effort should be made to modernize and retain these older bombers as the new B-21s enter service. Overall, the balance of spending within the USAF’s budget should seek to grow the bomber force while slightly reducing numbers of shorter-range tactical fighter-attack aircraft, which will retain roles on the European continent and elsewhere.
The Space Force must grow significantly as the economic and military competition with China expands outward from low-earth and medium-earth orbits toward cislunar space. Commercial investments and the economic potential in this region could expand in value to as much as a trillion dollars in the coming decades, and the military protective flag must follow vulnerable commercial trade. The Space Force must continue its shift from large individual satellites toward a greater number of smaller constellations of platforms. This new military service has only 8,000 personnel, but as the importance of possible space conflict grows — earth-to-space, space-to-earth, earth-to-earth-via-space, and soon, space-to-space attacks — new investments in capabilities, platforms, and personnel will follow.
Last, we will need a larger cyber force to confront the challenges of this highly classified contested domain that is already experiencing hot-war conditions.
History compels us to recognize that there is no such thing as a perpetual peace. Man is flawed and will not be perfected this side of heaven. America’s current adversaries seek first to destabilize and then to dismember the liberal-democratic international order. They know that the United States is the primary obstacle to their ambitions, and they are building the strength to attack America and its allies.
It will be necessary to raise defense spending back to Cold War levels. Recognizing that the defense-industrial base could not absorb those levels of funding immediately, we should iteratively increase the top line of the DOD budget by 3–5 percent above inflation each year for the foreseeable future while purposefully guiding the growth of a new industrial base. These industries should be set to work building a larger military, but one that is different in its balance of forces and capabilities. Naval, air, and space power, along with cyber capabilities, should be increased and directed at the growing Chinese threat. Land power should be maintained but shifted in its focus back to Europe and Russia. Older platforms and capabilities with declining relevance should be shed, but not in a “divest to invest” manner. With expanding budgets, we can modernize and grow simultaneously, in a serious, deliberate manner. The times and threats demand seriousness. Our long vacation from strategic reality has ended.
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