National Security & Defense

A Sobering New Report on the State of Our Military

Flight operations board USS Carl Vinson in the South China Sea, March 2018. (Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Matthew Granito/US Navy)
Our men and women in uniform remain the best in the world at what they do, but they desperately need help from appropriators in Congress.

An important report was recently issued by the National Defense Strategy Commission (NDSC), a bipartisan group of defense experts created by Congress to review the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy (NDS). The report commends the NDS but criticizes the Pentagon for failing to explain how its goals will be achieved, especially given what it calls America’s “strategic insolvency,” the sad state of affairs in which our “means are badly out of alignment with [our] ends.”

The report begins by identifying the growing global threats to the United States, chiefly from great powers such as China and Russia but also from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea as well as various networks of Islamic terrorists. It then documents what no one can honestly deny: that the armed forces are falling behind their adversaries in crucial capabilities and thereby losing the ability to deter aggression at an acceptable cost.

Perhaps the greatest service the NDSC has performed is showing what American weakness means in concrete terms. The report presents five scenarios involving possible military confrontations between the United States and its various competitors and estimates the probable outcomes, based on relative capabilities in various theaters.

The results shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the way the balance of power on the ground has changed, especially in Asia and Eastern Europe: America does not fare well.

In 2024, China undertakes a surprise attack to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence. As Chinese forces launch air and missile attacks, cripple the Taiwanese Navy, and conduct amphibious landings, it becomes clear that decisive U.S. intervention will be required. Unfortunately, America can no longer mount such an intervention at acceptable cost. China’s missile, air, surface, and undersea capabilities have continued to grow as U.S. defense spending has stagnated. Large parts of the Western Pacific have become “no-go” zones for U.S. forces. The Pentagon informs the President that America could probably defeat China in a long war, if the full might of the nation was mobilized. Yet it would lose huge numbers of ships and aircraft, as well as thousands of lives, in the effort, in addition to suffering severe economic disruptions—all with no guarantee of having decisive impact before Taiwan was overrun. Allowing Taiwan to be absorbed by the mainland would represent a crushing blow to America’s credibility and regional position. But avoiding that outcome would now require absorbing horrendous losses.

The highest-order mission of America’s armed forces is to manage risk to the nation’s vital national interests in a way that prevents both aggression against those interests and escalating armed conflict. In other words, the Pentagon must be strong enough to deter all serious risks at the same time, or at least to contain them in a way that protects the homeland and the sovereign rights of the United States, without resorting to means that trigger a devastating general war.

Forcing a president of the United States to choose between radical military escalation or forfeiting America’s vital interests is the definition of strategic defeat. Yet as the report shows, that is where we are. The five scenarios the NDSC presents are not imagined to be far off in the future. In fact, four of the five are set, quite plausibly, before the end of the next presidential administration.

So the problem is no longer just that the trend lines are bad. The problem is that the trend lines have already crossed. We as a nation are on the wrong side of the balance of power in regions of the world where we have vital interests, where adversaries have already have already engaged in successful aggression, and where we are the chief obstacle to their further ambitions. Our government is continuing to pursue a policy of deterrence, when in decisive respects we have demonstrably lost the power to deter.

The report makes a number of recommendations for Congress and the Pentagon to consider as they try to rebuild the strength of the armed forces, but the bottom line is this: Though America’s men and women in uniform remain the best in the world, they need more of everything — more frigates, aircraft carriers, submarines, sealift, and destroyers for the Navy; more new-generation fighters, bombers, tankers, trainers, and cargo aircraft for the Air Force; more and better armored vehicles, tanks, artillery, close-air support, amphibious ships, and landing craft for the Army and Marines; robust cutting-edge technology for Cyber Command and Special Operations Command; new and hardened satellites supported by a fully manned Space Force; a modernized and expanded nuclear arsenal; and robust stockpiles of precision ammunition and missiles to support deployed personnel around the world.

That’s all going to take money, lots of it, fed into the fragile defense–industrial base as quickly as possible. And even then, it may be too late. Power is the product of capability and intention, and while intention can be changed quickly, capability can’t. You can’t flip a switch and produce a 350-ship Navy. But we’ll never produce one unless we start building in earnest, and while the report makes clear that more money isn’t the only necessary thing, it’s still the sine qua non of everything else.

The budget deal earlier this year was a good start: It added close to $100 billion to the topline defense budget over two years. But that was nowhere near enough to make up even for the effect of the defense sequester that began in 2013, much less for all the hard fighting and underfunding in the two decades prior to that. And now, the Trump administration is signaling that it will actually propose a slight decrease in the defense budget for FY 2020.

What seems to be happening is exactly what I warned against earlier this year. Our leaders don’t want to raise taxes or reduce the growth rate of entitlement programs, but they don’t like expanding the deficit either, so the Pentagon will cooperate by proposing a budget that makes America’s balance sheet look better in the near term but inevitably fails to meet the armed forces’ vital procurement and modernization needs.

So the recapitalization can will be kicked down the road once more, as it has been kicked down the road again and again since the end of the Cold War. Only there is precious little road left. Our adversaries, who have always resented American influence in their regions of the world and are less and less intimidated by the successes of our armed forces in the increasingly distant past, have become powerful. Our weakness is tempting them to believe that we won’t fight at all, and nothing could be more dangerous than that.

I am an incurable optimist where this great country is concerned. I believe, as Bismarck is reputed to have said, that “God protects fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.” But I do wonder: How long will He continue to immunize us from the foreseeable consequences of not using the great reservoirs of strength He’s given us to defend ourselves?

Jim Talent — Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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