The West’s response to Ukraine is a reminder that economic and financial sanctions can be powerful, and so can soft power and moral umbrage. Yet what is happening on the ground this week also reminds us that there is no substitute for hard power – for having the men and equipment to deter and, if need be, defeat a foreign adversary.
Russia’s aggression underscores the possibility that the United States will at some point find itself waging simultaneous wars in Europe and Asia, defending NATO, and avoiding a Chinese attack on Taiwan or elsewhere. Currently, our forces may not be enough to win a fight against a so-called competitor, let alone two.
This isn’t just alarmist: it’s a lesson that experts are already worrying about. RAND Corporation researcher David Ochmanek said in 2019 that in war games between the United States – a/k/a “blue forces” – and China and Russia, “blue gets given the ass”.
The National Defense Strategy Commission explained how a fight between the United States and these adversaries would be different from a war against terrorist insurgents or a weak government in the Middle East. “These two nations,” he noted, “possess precision strike capabilities, integrated air defenses, cruise and ballistic missiles, advanced cyber warfare and anti-satellite capabilities, significant air and naval forces. and nuclear weapons – a suite of advanced capabilities hitherto possessed only by the United States.
It would be one thing if Russia and China were friendly nations developing increasingly advanced armies – Finland or Canada with area denial capabilities. Both have clearly expressed their revanchist ambitions. Russia has acted on them with a war of aggression which has included nuclear slashes.
The United States is about to face the most threatening security environment since the Cold War, if it has not already. It is time for US defense spending to reflect the severity of the threat and be guided by real-world strategic considerations rather than internal Beltway fiscal policies.
This does not mean handing over a blank check to the Pentagon. Of course, the Ministry of Defense should still be forced to make choices among priorities and be pushed to reform its inefficient practices. But a country that just spent $4.5 trillion on Covid and had a fiscal deficit of nearly $1 trillion in times of peace and prosperity in 2019 cannot claim to lack the resources to pay for it. an essential governmental responsibility of ensuring the common defence.
The Budget Restraint Act of 2011 – the budget deal cut by Barack Obama and Congressional Republicans – gave us a sequestration that squeezed the defense budget, at the same time as repeated ongoing resolutions added a layer of chaos to any attempt at rational planning. Preparation took a hit, as did modernization.
Trump Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a determined enemy of the BCA, said that “no enemy on the ground has done so much to undermine the readiness of the United States military as the impact combination of BCA defense spending caps, compounded by operating for 10 of the last 11 years under continuous resolutions of variable and unpredictable duration.
During these years, the Army and Navy shrank to their lowest final strength, or number of active duty personnel, since before World War II, and the Air Force shrunk the smallest it has been since its creation in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Increased spending in the early years of the Trump administration relieved some pressure, but was hardly transformative. Then, in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, spending actually went down in real terms.
Mattis had recommended increasing the budget by 3% to 5% above inflation each year, a figure which, with inflation at 7%, now seems much higher. We are, however, well below Cold War spending levels and have significant room for growth. Defense spending reached almost 7% of GDP during Reagan’s defense buildup, and has been around 3.5% in recent years.
We shouldn’t just keep spending on the same things we do now. The goal should be to adapt to new threats, including adversaries who can hit us from a distance with the smart weapons that were once our own calling card.
The army does not necessarily need to be bigger. It needs different tools, including many more anti-aircraft and anti-missile capabilities to protect its bases and tank brigades, and more will need to be deployed in Europe to be close to the Russian threat.
The Air Force should emphasize long-range stealth aircraft to stay out of enemy missile range and be able to get past enemy air defenses.
The navy will have to be much larger, rather 500 ships than the current 296. It will be in the lead in a conflict with China and will have to operate over vast distances in the Pacific. The chief of naval operations recently stated that such a force would have to have large traditional assets, including 12 aircraft carriers, but also a less vulnerable and more difficult to detect element composed of 70 attack submarines, a dozen ballistic missile submarines and 150 unmanned ships.
The Navy’s shipyards, currently failing to cope with the task of repairing our submarines, desperately need modernization if there is any hope of sustaining such a fleet.
We must press for our long-range, high-precision missiles to continue to advance technologically and ensure we have the surge capacity needed to replenish supply in a crisis.
The nuclear force must be modernized, both the triad of bombers, ICBMs and submarines, as well as the underlying infrastructure.
Finally, we must focus on innovation in cutting-edge areas such as space, cyber, artificial intelligence and directed energy, which would have been associated with science fiction but which could tilt balance in a future war.
It is no shock that we are witnessing the return of great power competition. This has been the norm throughout human history and analyst forecasts for some time. The Trump administration’s 2018 national defense strategy made it a priority. Yet Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which was so brazen, makes the return of high-stakes geopolitics particularly brutal and threatening. We have to adjust accordingly.
Abraham Lincoln said it well in an 1862 message to Congress: “As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” And, we add, when we make sure we don’t lose our advantage over our opponents, we spend again.