The nation’s defense establishment, after a decade of taking a rather passive approach to the world, has recognized that it needs to grow to meet a new generation of threats. The Army, the Navy, and now the Air Force have all called for significant increases in the size of their forces. But a rising chorus of critics rejects calls for increased capacity, suggesting that the real emphasis at this point should be on investment in new capabilities. Still other voices call for a return to fiscal constraint in defense spending after two years of significant increases in military budgets.
The Air Force would need to expand from 312 to 386 squadrons to meet its worldwide commitments, according to its secretary, Heather Wilson. That would mean a 24 percent increase in the size of the Air Force and would be roughly analogous to proposed increases in the size of the Navy, which seeks to grow from approximately 280 to 355 ships, and in the size of the Army, which seeks to grow its force from 465,000 to just over 500,000 soldiers. The move by the individual military services to grow their capacity is in keeping with the nation’s National Security and National Defense Strategies. Both recognize that the United States has entered into a new era of great-power competition with Russia, which seeks to rebuild a sphere of influence in Europe, and with China, which seeks nothing less than to return to its historical position as “the Middle Kingdom” and to replace the United States as the leader of the international system.
Some leading voices have argued that investments in the expanded capacities that come with larger force numbers would be misplaced and that the proper strategy at this point is to shift resources to the research and development of “genuinely new capabilities.” Still others, rejecting the numbers-based approach — 386 squadrons, 355 ships, 500,000 soldiers — as “bad for the safety of the nation,” argue that more attention should be given to the qualitative capabilities of the force. Potentially rising congressional leaders have stated that the nation can no longer afford to spend as much on defense as it currently does and that the joint force must of necessity get smaller and smarter. Such arguments involve strawmen assumptions that should be confronted and dealt with head-on.
First, it is possible to invest in additional capacity while modernizing the force. That appears to be the Air Force’s thinking reflected in its build plan, which includes the addition of the new penetrating B-21 stealth bomber and unmanned aerial vehicle squadrons, shifting the balance from older, legacy systems to newer platforms that will be better able to operate within modern anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) threat environments. The Air Force should reconsider its investment in additional fighter squadrons whose short range will prevent them from operating in theaters dominated by A2/AD systems. The Air Force should also find room for retaining the 20 B-2 stealth bombers that it currently plans to retire, as well as for expanding long-range, penetrating surveillance-strike capacity in other ways. However, neither the Navy nor the Army seems to be following the Air Force’s lead, as their build plans seem to rely excessively on legacy platforms that will likely have declining utility in future environments. The Navy could help itself by pursuing a mixed force of frigates networked with unmanned surface platforms to provide persistent presence; increasing the reach and survivability of the carrier air wing by integrating unmanned, long-range penetrating surveillance-strike aircraft into it as quickly as possible; developing a family of unmanned undersea vehicles; and increasing investments in survivable submarines loaded with long-range missiles for wartime power projection. The Army’s vision of its role in future warfare remains ill defined but should include an expansion of mobile rocket forces to conduct long-range land attack, anti-surface warfare, and air defense.
The idea that the size of the force is a bad metric for measuring its effectiveness bypasses the analysis underlying the argument that the force must be right-sized both to preserve the currently peaceful global international system and to retain the potential to win a future campaign against one or both of the rising great powers. If the United States is to preserve the peace, which has allowed for the current economic system to expand and thrive over the past 70 years, it must maintain forces forward, especially swiftly responsive and low-footprint naval and air-power forces, to demonstrate and protect American interests around the world. A 355-ship Navy, which has now been codified into law, represents the bare minimum required to maintain naval presence in those regions highlighted as vital to America’s national interests. A force smaller than 355 ships would eventually lead either to gaps in presence, resulting in the creation of spheres of influence, or a force that spent so much time forward-deployed that its training and material readiness would be compromised, resulting in accidents and collisions such as the Navy experienced in 2017.
The final strawman is a fiscal one: that there is no more money for defense and that defense spending must be cut to ensure the nation’s fiscal security. The fact is that, as a percentage of the nation’s gross domestic spending, the defense budget is approaching the low end of historical averages. Average defense spending during the Cold War (1947–89) was around 6.5 percent of GDP, which would equate to a defense budget of approximately $1.2 trillion today. By comparison, the current defense budget, $716 billion, represents less than 3.8 percent of the United States’ $19 trillion economy. On average, federal, state, and local taxes for individuals have increased over the past 90 years, and that the national debt has risen dramatically while defense spending (as a percentage of GDP) has fallen, it stands to reason that the nation’s fiscal crisis did not originate from within the defense budget. Given that the White House and the Pentagon have admitted that the nation is now in a strategic competition with two rising great powers, the solutions to the nation’s fiscal insolvency must be found outside an already strained Defense Department.
It is time to move beyond the strawman arguments and get down to a robust discussion of the right balance for our future force. Both the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy call for a balance between new capabilities and expanded capacity. The nation needs more ships, aircraft, and missiles, but some should come equipped with advanced weapons that leverage new technologies such as directed energy and hypersonic missiles. On a day-to-day basis, there is no need for an exquisite F-22 to target terrorists driving white Toyota pickups in the desert or for advanced ballistic-missile defense destroyers to do a freedom-of-navigation mission sailing past an illegal artificial island in the South China Sea. Cheaper low-tech attack aircraft or general-purpose frigates that can be bought in larger numbers can do these missions while higher-capability platforms such as B-21 Raider bombers and Virginia-class submarines are reserved and trained for a potential great-power war. What is needed are strong civilian leaders who envision and then drive a modernized force that is both larger and more capable. Strawmen will be swiftly be blown away in the winds of the great-power competition to come.