President Obama is whistling past the graveyard of his foreign-policy failures. In his State of the Union address last night, he summarily dismissed “all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker.” “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period,” he said. “It’s not even close.” That is true, but even the strongest nation can get progressively weaker while threats multiply, as they have on Obama’s watch.
To support his argument, the president reminded his audience that “we spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.” Again, that is true, yet it’s also a statistic without context. It ignores the strategic rationale for having an incomparable military. Obama’s comparison leaves the false impression that as long as the U.S. is spending more than others, then the armed forces are in good condition. But they aren’t.
Comparing the U.S. defense budget with the rest of the top ten misses the point that our military serves a fundamentally different purpose from that of the armed forces of all other nations. (Incidentally, depending on how you count, the U.S. may spend more than only the next seven nations combined.) For China, Russia, Iran, and others, the primary purpose of armed force is to intimidate neighbors and punish nearby states that resist their influence. However, the United States is in the business of global leadership. We have to be prepared to fight terrorism and resist aggression in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
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Projecting power across the oceans is difficult and expensive. The United States has eleven aircraft carriers, while no other nation has more than one. The Nimitz-class carriers now in service cost about $9 billion (adjusted for inflation) a piece to build. Each one has crew of about 4,500 sailors and an air wing that typically consists of 44 F/A-18 fighters as well as an array of other types of planes and helicopters. The maintenance and training requirements for a cutting-edge force are demanding, and the Navy needs an inventory of eleven carriers to ensure that there will always be one cruising the waters of the Western Pacific while another patrols the Mideast.
The U.S. can spend far more than other countries on armed forces but still not be spending enough to meet the demands of its strategy.
For critics, the cost of keeping such a potent force on the front lines may seem excessive. Yet President Obama knows firsthand how valuable it can be. In the summer of 2014, when he ordered the first U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State, there were no planes within range of the intended targets. Within 30 hours, the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush arrived in the Persian Gulf, where its F/A-18s began to fly 20 to 30 sorties per day. For 54 days, there was no other source of American air power. The U.S. encountered a similar situation after 9/11. According to a recent report from the Hudson Institute, aircraft from three carriers “provides 72 percent of combat sorties in the early stages of the campaign when the United States did not have access to Central Asian airbases.”
Aircraft carriers provide only one example of the unique expeditionary capabilities paid for by our defense budget. We also have a Marine Corps that can rapidly deploy across the globe, even when it expects a hostile welcome. We have an Army that can sustain decisive land power in hostile environments. We have an Air Force that can dominate the skies anywhere.
At a major hearing last January, which preceded the submission of the president’s defense budget, General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff at the time, reported that “readiness has been degraded to its lowest level in 20 years. . . . Today we only have 33 percent of our brigades ready to the extent we would expect them to be if asked to fight.” The chief of naval operations at the time, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, said, “Our contingency response force, that’s what’s on call from the United States, is one-third of what it should be and what it needs to be.” The Air Force chief of staff, General Mark Welsh, said that if his airplanes were cars, “we currently have twelve fleets — twelve fleets of airplanes that qualify for antique license plates in the state of Virginia. We must modernize our Air Force.”The bottom line is that the U.S. can spend far more than other countries on armed forces but still not be spending enough to meet the demands of its strategy. For 70 years, presidents from both parties have pursued a strategy of countering threats before they become so potent that they threaten us here at home. It’s a strategy that has prevented major wars while spreading both freedom and prosperity. Barack Obama has embraced a variant of this strategy as well, yet in his State of the Union address he chose to obscure the fact that the military foundation for executing that strategy has begun to crumble on his watch.
— David Adesnik is policy director of The Foreign Policy Initiative.