This past weekend marked the annual Reagan National Defense Forum, held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. It was the first Forum since the Republicans took control of the White House and both houses of Congress. In the past, the Forum has facilitated vibrant discussion among leaders in the national-security community, and this year was no different. The panels and speakers included a bipartisan mix of administration, congressional, analytical, and retired military leaders. Virtually every panel offered a headline worthy of comment. Insights ranged from Representative Mike Gallagher’s allusion to Halford Mackinder’s early-20th-century World Island theory to General John Hyten’s new thought that there is no “war in space. There is only war, and space is one of the domains in which it will be fought.”
One of the themes that emerged throughout the day was that there is very little peace in the world. Former secretary of defense and CIA director Leon Panetta observed that he had never seen so many flash points in the world at the same time. Various speakers called out Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and, more broadly, radical Islamic terrorism as threats to the peace and security of the United States. Retired General Jack Keane bluntly stated that China was trying to dominate its region without firing a shot, and Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, the current national-security adviser to President Trump, candidly called out North Korea, with its investments in intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads, as a clear and present danger to the United States.
McMaster’s luncheon address was arguably the high point of the day, with national news channels breaking into their regular schedule to cover it. The general offered hints as to the contents of the Trump administration’s much-anticipated national-security strategy. In a clear swipe at the Obama administration’s “lead from behind” approach, McMaster stated that President Trump and his team were focused on “recovering the strategic initiative.” He alluded to actions that could be taken in the diplomatic, economic, and military arenas. McMaster, who has a Ph.D. and a reputation for incisive thought, suggested that the new national-security strategy would seek to balance strategic ends with the nation’s ways and means rather than simply present the banal bumper stickers that have constituted recent strategies of both Republican and Democrat administrations.
Space emerged as a major topic of conversation. At a panel that included General Hyten, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, and Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee, there was a vigorous debate between Wilson and Rogers, with Hyten stuck uncomfortably between them. Rogers asserted that space is being rapidly militarized, with competitor nations making huge investments in attempts to catch up to and overtake the United States in a domain it has long dominated, and that the Air Force, as a bureaucratic entity, was stifling the evolution of the nation’s space forces. Wilson pushed back vigorously, stating that the Air Force was manned by a superb cadre of space professionals and that the service had dramatically increased its budgetary investments in space. Rogers said that the Air Force needed to create within itself a Space Corps, which would be analogous to the Marine Corps within the Department of the Navy. Such a corps would have independence in the development of its budget, forces, operations, and strategy. Hyten inserted himself carefully into the conversation, all the while highlighting that space was already a domain in which a strong competition between great powers was occurring. The space conversation, though lively, was ultimately a debate without a conclusion.
Budgets and force readiness were the dual themes that ran throughout the day. Everyone, except Representative Adam Smith (D., Calif.), bemoaned Congress’s inability to overturn the 2011 Budget Control Act. Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer observed that the nearly endless string of continuing resolutions that has characterized the post–Budget Control Act era had cost the Navy and Marine Corps over $4 billion in stop-and-start expenses. Despite a broad consensus among attendees, it was clear that internal disputes with “fiscal hawks” who viewed rising deficits as significant national-security threats in and of themselves were going to block any Republican attempts to do away with the Budget Control Act in the near future. There was a palpable sense of frustration in the room, especially among the Republican members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. Despite having a Republican president who wants a larger military, and majorities in the House and the Senate, there was no real sense of energy or forward movement on strengthening the nation’s defense.
Force readiness was the other bogeyman in the room, with speakers from McMaster to former Obama appointee Kathleen Hicks highlighting the need to invest in readiness and modernization. Readiness and modernization, the latter in the form of investments in new “offsetting” capabilities, seem to represent the major hurdles that the Department of Defense needs to clear before it can begin to grow the force. Both seem to suggest false choices, as no real dollar amount has been advanced to answer the question of how much it would cost to achieve high “readiness,” and investments in modernization can coexist with investments in growing the force by following a traditional acquisition strategy consisting of a “high-low” mix. The desire by some to pursue only those high-end capabilities that are viewed as essential to winning the next great-power war carries with it the potential to diminish the day-to-day force that is critical to preserving the peace.
In the end, this year’s Reagan National Defense Forum highlighted the fact that the new administration, despite some irregularities in its strategic messaging, is attempting to reverse the passive strategic course of the past and to chart once again a more assertive role both both here on earth and out in space. However, problems within the legislative budgetary process are threatening to hamper these efforts and could further erode the United States’ position on the global stage. Lastly, there was a general sense of ennui throughout the Forum, a persistent intrusion of the overused boilerplate answers to longstanding problems in various panels, and few conversations containing innovative ideas or an energetic sense of forward motion. Actors within the defense community, and even within the Republican party itself, still seem pitted against each other. At the end of the day, as I stood next to Ronald Reagan’s grave while the sun set behind the western foothills he loved, I came away with the sense that somehow the nation’s defense community was beset by challenges and had accepted just standing still. Reagan would not be pleased.