Politics & Policy

A 21st-Century Military

Third Marine Regiment infantry during training at Twentynine Palms, Calif. (USMC)
A five-point plan to prepare for future threats

As the American people have watched crises unfold across the globe this year, many now conclude that America cannot afford to continue President Obama’s policy of ignoring global threats. I agree wholeheartedly with these Americans.

What is unfortunate is that too many leaders in both parties, including our president and some who aspire to be president, have shown they would rather wait for poll numbers to change than demonstrate the leadership necessary to shape them.

Instead of outlining the costs of inaction to our people months ago when they should have, they tried to convince Americans that the world would be fine without our leadership, or, worse, that America would be fine regardless of the chaos the world devolved into. All the while, those who oppose America work day and night to develop new means of threatening us.

To defend ourselves, we must be more vigilant than our enemies are dangerous. National defense is not an area where we can flip a switch when a need suddenly arises. It takes forethought to design and build the capabilities we may need at a moment’s notice.

So it should trouble all of us that our leaders have allowed the size of America’s military, the modernity of its equipment, and the extent of its readiness to decline sharply in recent years.

Our readiness crisis has been growing for some time, but it has gotten particularly bad under President Obama. Whereas previous presidents had merely taken their foot off the gas pedal of American strength, President Obama has stomped on the brake.

The results of his massive cuts to military spending — which have decreased our defense budget by 21 percent since 2010 — border on frightening. Our armed forces are being reduced to some of the lowest levels of strength in their history.

This may have gone largely unnoticed in America, but it sure hasn’t among our adversaries. China, in particular, is sprinting up behind us, rapidly closing the gap in readiness and strength, and now America must run faster than ever just to maintain our current level of superiority.

To reverse this trend, we must demonstrate a strength in defense capabilities that, as President Reagan once envisioned, leaves our enemies unwilling to provoke us. But times have changed since Reagan’s historic buildup. A strong national defense in the 21st century will require a defense agenda built for this century.

This modernization agenda should focus on five key areas.

The first is our Navy. A 1993 review of our military outlined the minimum force structure necessary to meet basic threats and found that our Navy should consist of about 345 ships. Yet today we have just 289 ships. At a minimum, we should return to the Gates budget’s plan for 323 ships, or perhaps even more.

The second focus is our Air Force, which will need better intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities at the theater and strategic levels, a new tanker fleet, and a next-generation bomber capable of both conventional and nuclear missions.

The third focus should be our ground troops. The men and women who serve in our armed forces stand on the front lines of freedom. Yet by cutting their forces, we have only compounded the challenge of their missions. We need to reverse plans to reduce the Marine Corps and the Army below their pre-9/11 end-strengths of 182,000 and 490,000 respectively.

Fourth, we must focus on intelligence capabilities. When our intelligence community is fully resourced, it is better positioned to identify potential threats before our citizens are put at risk. When we cease collecting on legitimate targets, we reduce our awareness. The men and women of the intelligence community are our front line of defense. Let’s empower them to do their jobs by renewing our commitment to a sensible intelligence budget.

And fifth, we must reform our standards of care, personnel policies, and benefits for our armed forces. Right now, to get a pension through military service, you need to serve at least 20 years, which is unheard of in the private sector. We should explore ways to reform our benefit structures for future service members, even if they don’t make it to 20 years of service.

In addition to these modernization efforts, which are just a few of the ones I have proposed, we must also invest in innovation. The future of warfare will not only feature new weapons and equipment, it will also feature entirely new fields of battle, including the cyber realm and outer space. Our military’s reliance on these new fields — and the focus our enemies are placing on them — clearly demonstrate that what used to be science fiction is now as real as it gets.

These are only a few of the reforms I have proposed to help bring our armed forces into the 21st century. Whatever threats we may face going forward, we know one thing for certain: America cannot avoid its role as a global leader. Other nations must step forward to help us defend the global economy, but no other nation has the ability to lead the way if we fail to do so.

The proposals I outlined will allow us to protect our people and interests. They will ensure that America’s light shines on, into the face of whatever evil looks our way this century, and that our armed forces — their bravery and skill unmatched — are equipped to meet the growing and changing forces that never cease to threaten our people, our allies, and our sacred principles of freedom and opportunity for all.

— Marco Rubio is a Republican U.S. senator from Florida. This article is adapted from a speech he delivered on September 17.

Marco Rubio is the senior U.S. senator from Florida. He is the acting chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

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