By: Jerry Hendrix – nationalreview.com – October 22, 2022
In the penultimate scene of this year’s theatrical hit Top Gun: Maverick, after Tom Cruise’s Maverick and his intrepid flight of attack pilots hit their target and climb out of the steep valley in which it was located, the commanding admiral, played by Jon Hamm, announces, “Now we’re in coffin corner,” and upon hearing those words, the heart of every aviator in the audience sinks.
“Coffin Corner” has a very specific meaning to flyers. It’s the place on any aircraft’s performance chart where g-forces, airspeed, and the weight of the aircraft work against each other, causing the aircraft to stall and become uncontrollable. It’s a position of profound vulnerability for any pilot. Even if they recover control of their aircraft, they will have lost altitude and velocity.
Over the past few days, for those who know what they are looking at, we have realized with stark clarity that the United States is now in a “coffin corner” of its own, facing a window of strategic vulnerability unlike any it has experienced in the past two generations.
On Tuesday, the conservative Heritage Foundation released its annual “Index of U.S. Military Strength.” For the first time in the near-decade-long history of the index, it rated the U.S. military as “weak.” Implicitly criticizing multiple administrations, Heritage’s analysts charged that U.S. military forces are under-strength, under-trained, and under-funded, and thus are not ready to meet the current challenges of great-power competition. Heritage highlighted in particular the small size and poor material condition of the U.S. Navy and Air Force, which will be critical in facing a potential conflict in the Asia–Pacific region.
Following on the heels of Heritage’s alarming study came the earnings report of the Lockheed-Martin corporation, the largest defense company in the world. In it, Lockheed CEO Jim Taiclet reported that the company had expanded its efforts to produce more High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) missile launchers. Twenty of the HIMARS have already been sent to Ukraine, and another 18 have been promised to that beleaguered nation, draining U.S. stocks of these launchers. Support for Ukraine has also drawn down the nation’s supplies of the Javelin anti-tank weapon and large-caliber artillery rounds. The implication of Lockheed’s earnings report is that it will take years for the U.S. to restore its inventories of these weapons to the levels at which they sat before Russia invaded Ukraine. The takeaway is that supplies of the weapons central to the American way of war, dependent as it is upon precision-guided munitions and asymmetric technological advantage, are low — and the nation no longer has the robust defense-industrial base necessary to rapidly replenish them.
As if Heritage’s alarm bells and Lockheed’s dispiriting earnings report weren’t bad enough, the Biden administration announced on Tuesday that it would withdraw another 15 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which was created following the 1973 OPEC oil embargo to provide the nation with enough oil to survive both internally and externally driven crises. Once those 15 million barrels are released, Biden will have withdrawn nearly 180 million barrels from the nearly 700-million-barrel reserve to offset the political pressures that accompanied the rising prices at the pump touched off by Executive Order 13990, which he signed on the day of his inauguration to decrease the nation’s dependency upon fossil fuels, promote green energy, and combat climate change. The nation no longer produces enough energy at home to meet its own needs, and disagreements with other oil-producing nations have tightened global supplies, increasing the average price per barrel. If war comes soon, we will not have the internal reserves to fight on our own, nor do we presently have the strong relationships with key oil producers such as Saudi Arabia that would guarantee supplies in a time of conflict.
Today, the United States faces an active threat in Europe, where our NATO allies have under-invested in their own defense for a generation, only to find Russia invading their next-door neighbor. Those allies are now depending upon us to strengthen NATO in the short term while they rebuild their own forces on the continent. Meanwhile, China, which under the leadership of Xi Jinping has committed genocide against the Uyghurs and viciously suppressed democracy in Hong Kong, is now casting its malevolent gaze upon our traditional ally and partner, Taiwan. Yet we have been starkly reminded that our military is too weak, our industrial base too atrophied, and our strategic reserves too emptied to meet these current threats.
In the past, we planned as a nation to be able to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously. Today, we find ourselves questioning if we could fight even one. Like the pilots in Top Gun: Maverick at the end of their attack run, we have struggled upward out of the valley only to find ourselves out of speed, energy, and maneuverability — and under attack from all sides. We are in a dangerous strategic “coffin corner” of our own making.
The nation needs to urgently come to grips with its strategic setting and make purposeful decisions on its path forward. We need to reinvigorate a defense-industrial base that has been allowed to atrophy, and we must once again rapidly grow our military as we did during the Reagan administration, bringing our defense budgets closer to the 4–4.5 percent of GDP levels that were last seen during the Cold War. Lastly, we need a national-security strategy that approaches the world in a strategically pragmatic fashion, because we no longer have the ability to be all things to all peoples in our foreign policy. The time for choosing is once again upon us, and we must make our own hard choices — or someone else will surely make them for us.
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