For most of the modern era, the Republican party has been identified with a strong national defense. Through most of the Cold War, the GOP dominated the Democrats in polling on which of the two was to be trusted more on matters of the country’s security. And while Republicans’ reputation on defense suffered significantly in the 2000s, the party is recapturing much of its credibility on these issues with a public worried not only by the immediate threats of ISIS and Ebola but also by the palpable sense that the world is becoming a more unstable and dangerous place. With their message of the need for a potent military and the importance of a clear-eyed and resolute approach to threats, the new Republican majority in the Senate and the expanded majority in the House are well positioned to regain the national-security leadership mantle.
But this favorable political trend should not be taken as a reason for just doing more of the same. For while the Republicans are usually considered the more hawkish party, the deeper reason for their long-term ascendancy on defense issues is that voters have seen them as more serious in dealing with defense. Republicans have been most successful, in other words, when they have earned the reputation for being the more responsible party on defense — the sober experts on the matter — and not simply for always preferring the more hawkish course. Of course, being the more serious party has often meant being tougher on security issues than the Democrats. But the most successful Republican presidents have prevailed over their opponents — the Adlai Stevensons, George McGoverns, Walter Mondales, Michael Dukakises — by being seen as more trustworthy with the nation’s security rather than simply being bellicose. Republicans have been at their best when they have been seen as smart hawks rather than just reflexive ones.
This point has important implications for how Republicans should think and talk about defense today. This stems from the fact that the international landscape and particularly the trends in military technology are such that the nation needs a defense policy that goes beyond the “more, more, more” approach. This is not to say more defense spending is not in order — to the contrary, the nation’s defense budget should be increased after suffering several years of devastating sequester cuts. But we cannot simply funnel more money into defense without a clear strategy for how to spend it.
The trend lines for U.S. military advantages are not good, and in some cases they are downright awful. Unbeknownst to most Americans, potential opponents like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea have been “going to school” on the way the U.S. military does business and developing their militaries to undermine our military’s advantages. And they have been doing it quite well.
China, for instance, has been developing an increasingly formidable network of advanced missiles, submarines, aircraft, counter-space, and cyber capabilities, along with networks to link them together and make them smarter, all in the service of first blocking U.S. power projection into the western Pacific and eventually establishing Beijing’s preeminence in the region. Russia, meanwhile, has been modernizing its conventional forces to create a military capable of taking on NATO in Russia’s near abroad, protected by the shadow of Moscow’s daunting new nuclear force. North Korea has been plowing ahead in the effort to build nuclear weapons able to reach the United States as well as U.S. allies in Asia. And Iran has been building capabilities designed to make life much more difficult for U.S. forces in the Middle East. At the same time, the United States has been focused on stabilization operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and, more broadly, has mostly continued to build and posture its forces in the same ways they have been built and postured — exactly the ways our adversaries are preparing to undermine.
The upshot of all this is that U.S. military supremacy isn’t what it was ten, let alone twenty, years ago, particularly in Asia and Eastern Europe. Today, the United States faces a far more competitive battlefield should it have to square off against China or Russia, and a messier and less controlled one in the event of war with North Korea or even Iran.
This point is becoming increasingly accepted in defense circles. Defense experts at places like Washington’s Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments have been sounding the alarm on it for years, and now the Pentagon is starting to say the same thing. Even Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has gotten into the act. In a speech at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., in September, for instance, Hagel warned that “we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space — not to mention cyberspace — can no longer be taken for granted. . . . If we don’t take these challenges seriously, now, our military could arrive in a future combat theater facing an arsenal of advanced, disruptive technologies that thwart our technological advantages, limit our freedom of maneuver, and put American lives at risk.” In other words, U.S. conventional supremacy isn’t a given, and if our defense planners don’t get on top of this problem, we will be taking an enormous risk.
This is very bad news for a long-term, successful foreign policy based on American military superiority. At the same time, though, it creates a promising opportunity for Republicans and conservatives. The world is not, as many progressives have been predicting for the last 25 years, finished with major-power rivalry, nasty and recalcitrant regimes, and the threat of conflict. Not everything can be solved by increased understanding. Accordingly, the nation needs to be strong and tough in its security policies.
But the message cannot stop there. Rather, for Republicans to re-earn the trust of the nation on these issues, they need to be the party that offers the best — that is, the smartest — answers to these challenges. They need to offer a concrete platform that shows how the nation can regain and sustain its military lead, and thus be able to continue to support the global security architecture it has built and led since World War II.
What should such a defense platform look like? The first step is to stop the financial bleeding at the Defense Department after several years of harsh budget cuts, cuts that have been implemented almost as if to maximize the damage to American military might. In response, Republicans must start advocating a higher defense-budget topline. This will require removing the sequestration caps and building a new Five-Year Defense Program (FYDP) budget based on the military we really need in the light of a more unstable and perilous world, not the one we are required to live with under sequestration. How the new Senate majority works with the Republican House to address this problem will be the defining issue of Republican national-security leadership in 2015.
But while Republicans should maintain an emphasis on a larger defense budget, they must also throw their political weight behind a policy of defense reform, one that involves fundamentally changing the way the Pentagon has done business for a long time. We need to acknowledge that we cannot continue investing money in the same type of joint force that we have been procuring since the 1980s. Simply building a fancy new tank, a better destroyer, or a more capable fighter — without carefully figuring out how they will contribute to actually prevailing against the warfighting regimes of the future — will play right into the hands of those preparing to counter our military advantages. Countries like China and Russia have been working assiduously to figure out precisely how to knock out our aircraft carriers, fighters and bombers, space satellites, and the like. We need, therefore, to get back a step ahead of them in how we build, posture, and operate our military.
At the strategic level, then, Republicans should embrace concepts like the Pentagon’s promising new “offset” initiative. A big part of this means thinking in terms of finding ways to outsmart the often savvy strategists in China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, even if that means breaking with our old ways of doing business. Conservatives should take the lead in pointing to the needs not only for military effectiveness in our defense procurement and posture but also for investments that force our adversaries to waste and misallocate money.
Accordingly, we need to exploit disruptive new technologies like unmanned and autonomous systems in air, on land, and at sea. The force of the future, for example, might rely far more on long-loitering, long-ranging, expendable, and plentiful smart drones rather than a smaller number of more expensive, shorter-range, shorter-duration, and precious manned aircraft. We should also look more at disruptive opportunities like directed-energy and rail guns for missile defense, technologies that put us on the right side of the cost-exchange ratio.
This reform agenda will also require adopting a new mix of innovative technological, conceptual, and doctrinal approaches. Given the geographic advantages countries like China and Iran enjoy, coupled with the diffusion of precision guided munitions that allow these countries to hold at risk airfields and bases in their regions, we will need to prioritize technologies that can operate with greater range, persistence, and stealth. This strategy should include, among other things, procuring large numbers of new Long-Range Strike Bombers (LRS-B), land- and carrier-based stealthy unmanned strike and reconnaissance vehicles, additional Virginia-class submarines and the Virginia Payload Module (VPM), unmanned underwater-vehicle platforms, and modern munitions with range and survivability. Together with a more resilient basing structure in the Indo-Pacific and the Persian Gulf, these capabilities would allow the U.S. to retain its ability to project power into the anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) defensive umbrellas of our adversaries. Together, this posture offers not only great promise in terms of military effectiveness but also advantage to us in the long-term strategic competition with our rivals, since these kinds of investments would force our adversaries to spend less efficiently and effectively.
Republicans should also think and talk disruptively at the strategic level. The GOP should take a strong stand in favor of modernizing our nuclear force and adapting it in the light of the challenges to our conventional superiority and the worrying advances Russia, China, and North Korea have been making on their nuclear capabilities. In addition, the GOP should urge that the nation take a closer look at the utility of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty — not just in the context of Russia’s serious violations of the pact, but also in the light of the military balance with China, and whether we still benefit from forgoing INF-accountable ground-based missiles (those with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers). As a start, the Pentagon should study the utility of systems currently banned by the INF for potential use by the United States in the light of the growing A2/AD challenges to U.S. power-projection capabilities around the world.
This “smart hawk” approach will not be without controversy. Breaking with past ways of doing business in the service of focusing the nation’s defense efforts on maintaining our military advantages will mean taking on a variety of strong interests. But this also presents an excellent opportunity for Republicans, who have positioned themselves well with their messages about the need to spend the taxpayers’ money effectively, to reform unsustainable entitlement arrangements, and to face up to the realities of a dangerous world. More to the point, failing to adopt this approach will open up the party to the charge that it is not serious about the nation’s security, a charge Republicans and conservatives should not be willing to countenance. If nothing else, such an approach stands the best chance of actually making the nation stronger and more secure — and that should be reason enough.
— Elbridge Colby is the Robert M. Gates Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Eric Sayers is the Defense Policy Advisor to a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee. The views above are theirs alone.