National Security & Defense

Say No to Defense Cuts

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan under way in the South China Sea, August 2018. (Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Kaila V. Peters/US Navy)
Without sufficient hard power, the use of sanctions and other tools could result in increased threats to the homeland.

Three key players are stepping up to protect the vital effort under way to rebuild America’s armed forces.

First, Senator Jim Inhofe and Congressman Mac Thornberry (incoming and outgoing chairman of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, respectively) published a piece in the Wall Street Journal blasting the idea of a cut in the defense budget.

Then over the weekend, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis cited the WSJ piece in arguing that the effort to restore American strength should not be sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction. And in testimony to the defense subcommittee last week, Mattis said, “We all know here today that America can afford survival.”

Mattis was not overstating what is at stake. The threats to America’s vital interests are growing in every major global theater. I’m not talking about the danger of regional instability that temporarily depresses the stock market. I’m talking about the possibility of a devastating EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack on the homeland or aggression by a great power against the sovereign right of the United States to move, trade, and travel on the same terms as other countries in sea, air, space, and cyberspace.

To take one example: The Chinese have asserted the rights of a hegemon in the East and South China Seas. They have turned pristine coral reefs there into artificial islands and turned the islands into military bases. They are signaling, by word and deed, the intent to treat their near seas as Chinese territory.

More than 50 percent of the world’s shipping moves through those waters. Does anyone believe that, if Beijing consolidates its control, it will resist the temptation to dictate the terms of commerce in its near seas in order to capture markets and enhance the economic growth on which the legitimacy of the regime depends?

Dealing with these growing threats is by no means only a question of restoring the military power of the United States. Other tools — such as the Trump administration’s trade policy — are also important. But it is crucial to understand that without the power to deter military aggression, the other tools will not have the time, space, and strength to work.

In fact, in the absence of sufficient hard power, use of other tools could actually increase the danger, because it would confirm to the aggressors that the United States was their adversary while tempting them to use the military option to advance their ambitions. That, at least in part, explains Vladimir Putin’s recent naked aggression against Ukraine: Putin is upset about Western sanctions and is expressing his displeasure by forcibly changing the facts on the ground, where the balance of power favors Russia.

The risk of opportunistic aggression is even greater where the Chinese are concerned, because their enormous military buildup has given them a decided military advantage in the Western Pacific. I’m all for the economic and diplomatic offensive that the Trump administration is waging against Beijing, but it runs the risk of convincing Xi Jinping to pursue his “China Dream” through outright aggression. And if he does, he’ll be a lot smarter about it than the Japanese were in December 1941.

We all understand the deficit concerns that are driving the latest moves to reduce defense spending. But that’s exactly what got us into this mess. For the past 20 years, and especially during the defense sequester, Washington has tried to reduce its short-term deficits by underfunding the armed forces, while at the same time ignoring the long-term structural budget issues that really are driving the government toward bankruptcy.

For both Republicans and Democrats, cutting defense is a lot easier than raising taxes or reducing the growth rate of the entitlement programs. But it has devastated the armed forces while enabling the political authorities to postpone confronting the growing shortfall between what the government collects and what it spends on Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. The result is that today America is neither solvent nor secure.

That’s the message that Mattis, Inhofe, and Thornberry are sending. Their jobs require them to live, every day and up close, with the gathering storm that is threatening our country. They know that the armed forces are the indispensable foundation of any effort to restore a margin of safety. They also know what most Americans don’t: that our servicemen and women, good as they are, do not have the numbers, inventory, and technological superiority they need to carry out their missions at an acceptable level of risk.

I don’t begrudge President Trump the frustration he no doubt feels with the fiscal demands of his program to rebuild the armed forces. He is trying to clean up a mess he did not create, and it’s taking more time, and a lot more money, than he would like. The defense-budget increases passed earlier this year were a good start, but as I said at the time, they were never going to be enough.

In short, the president cannot take his hand off the throttle now: He must fight to sustain and build on the increases in defense spending he has achieved thus far. His secretary of defense, and his allies in the Congress, need his continued strong support.

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

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