Magazine | June 22, 2015, Issue

Indefensible Defense

We have sacrificed military preparedness and strength

Continual warfare in the Middle East, a nuclear Iran, electromagnetic-pulse weapons, emerging pathogens, and terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction variously threaten the United States, some with catastrophe on a scale we have not experienced since the Civil War. Nevertheless, these are phenomena that bloom and fade, and that, with redirection and augmentation of resources we possess, we are equipped to face, given the wit and will to do so.

But underlying the surface chaos that dominates the news cycle are the currents that lead to world war. In governance by tweet, these are insufficiently addressed for being insufficiently immediate. And yet, more than anything else, how we approach the strength of the American military, the nuclear calculus, China, and Russia will determine the security, prosperity, honor, and at long range even the sovereignty and existence of this country.

The American Way of War

Upon our will to provide for defense, all else rests. Without it, even the most brilliant innovations and trenchant strategies will not suffice. In one form or another, the American way of war and of the deterrence of war has always been reliance on surplus. Even as we barely survived the winter of Valley Forge, we enjoyed immense and forgiving strategic depth, the 3,000-mile barrier of the Atlantic, and the great forests that would later give birth to the Navy. In the Civil War, the North’s burgeoning industrial and demographic powers meshed with the infancy of America’s technological ascendance to presage superiority in mass industrial — and then scientific — 20th-century warfare. The way we fight is that we do not stint. Subtract the monumental preparations, cripple the defense industrial base, and we will fail to deter wars that we will then go on to lose.

Properly subservient, the military implements the postulate of current civil authority that we cannot afford the defense we need. This view, however, a commonplace of public opinion, is demonstrably false, and insensible of a number of things, not least the golden relation of economic growth and military power.

China, Japan as early as the Meiji, and Israel have consciously employed this golden relation to their advantage. In sum, rapid and sustained economic growth increases the marginal income of families and individuals beyond what is needed to survive, so that what under less favorable conditions would be a disproportionately high share of gross domestic product can be diverted to military purposes without threatening social cohesion and political stability. In just a few decades, the Meiji went from silks and swords to their modern battle fleet’s victory over Russia. Israel enjoyed the world’s fastest economic growth prior to the Six Day War of 1967, the results of which are well known. And in only 30 years, China has become a military superpower.

The way this works can best be understood in the Chinese example, which is now most pertinent. In 1988, China’s per capita GDP was $256, and its purchasing-power parity (PPP) military expenditure $5.78 billion. After average annual economic growth of 8.95 percent from 1988 to 2007, its per capita GDP was $2,539, nearly a tenfold rise, conducive to political stability, and its PPP military expenditure $122 billion, a 21-fold increase. This is the cardinal explanation of China’s rapidly advancing power.

Given a short-term assessment of our economy, we might find it intimidating, but it should not be. For whatever the cycles of its economy, the United States has long possessed and continues to possess the most potent combination the world has ever known of major population, massive GDP, and high marginal income. We have chosen to depart from customary and easily sustainable levels of defense spending not out of economic duress but only as a result of the ideological proclivities of most Democrats and growing factions within the Republican coalition. What, then, has been the norm, and why, contrary to the common wisdom, is it sustainable now?

From 1940 through 2000 — through wars, recessions, panics, and expansions — average annual American defense expenditure, as a proportion of GDP, was 8.5 percent — 13.3 percent in war and mobilization years, 9.4 percent under Democratic administrations, 7.3 percent under Republican, and, in the peacetime years, 5.7 percent. By contrast, the defense base-budget appropriation (excluding overseas contingency funding) for 2015 is 2.994252873 percent (just less, as if someone somewhere had set a limit, than 3 percent) of GDP. That is, roughly half the traditional outlays during peacetime. The resultant starvation leads not only to diminished immediate resources but to the slow erosion of the defense industrial base, which is so complex and would take so long to rebuild that, if it were lost, it could be lost forever.

Military expenditure need not wait on exceptionally high growth. Nor will it break the fisc. In 1931–40, average GDP was $77.5 billion, and average unemployment 19 percent. By 1944, GDP had risen 271 percent to $219 billion; unemployment was down to 1.2 percent, and real disposable income had doubled — despite the fact that by 1945 military expenditure was 40 percent of GDP and 86 percent of the federal budget. The material resources of the average family were a fraction of what they are now, and therefore the amount of national wealth devoted to public purposes was that much more a burden. No one is advocating 40 percent of GDP for defense, but certainly, as the world comes apart, we can do better than half of the long-established peacetime appropriations.

The Nuclear Calculus

Other than restoring military outlays to historically responsible levels, the starkest and most neglected challenge to American national security is that of the nuclear calculus. Rogue, slightly pre-nuclear states such as Iran are a far more volatile and immediate concern, but, given sufficient resolve, they can and should be suppressed by force. But established nuclear powers are a different matter, which a single example illustrates.

During the Cold War, the possibility existed of a tripartite arms competition. The Soviet Union was arming not only against the United States but against China. Thus, although it might achieve equilibrium with the U.S., the USSR would forge ahead with an eye to China, potentially stimulating the U.S. to address the resulting imbalance, which would in turn stimulate the USSR, ad infinitum.

This is analogous to the three-body problem in physics, which, in regard to determining the disturbances of one of the bodies in relation to the principal body that are caused by the third, states that no general solution is possible. Although we were alert to the inherent instability of a tripartite arms competition, it did not materialize. Again, analogously, note that in the three-body problem no general solution is possible. Particular solutions are possible, however, when the mass of one of the bodies (such as a spacecraft) is de minimis. Stability in that case is preserved. And during the Cold War, China’s military power was sufficiently de minimis not to disturb the fundamental balance.

Now we do have a three-body problem, but though it is the gravest threat to the United States since nuclear competition with the Soviet Union, it is invisible to our leadership. To understand it, keep in mind that the administration’s deep nuclear reductions are based on the false premise of sufficiency: that is, that X number of warheads will inflict enough damage to deter an adversary from nuclear war or brinkmanship.

But we don’t define sufficiency, the adversary does. The definition of “sufficiency” depends on culture, doctrine, the beliefs and mental state of its decision makers, the stakes involved, concepts of survivability, historical experience, stress, chance, the tendency to gamble, etc. — and these are variables whose value in any particular case we cannot always know. Furthermore, in a monumental dereliction of duty, we have attempted to define sufficiency only in regard to Russia, as if China, the third body, does not even exist.

But it certainly does, with a nuclear-weapons infrastructure housed and in part deployed in 3,000 miles of tunnels opaque to American intelligence. China can manufacture as many warheads and delivery vehicles as it wishes, all sheltered out of sight.

At present, we deploy 1,585 warheads on (by 2018) 700 delivery vehicles. Counter-force (i.e., weapons and delivery systems) as opposed to counter-value (cities, population, industry) targets that an enemy would have to destroy to cripple us are our four or five submarines at sea, two sub bases, three bomber bases, and 450 missile silos. We have no launch on warning, meaning that no American missile is guaranteed to escape an enemy first strike, and China possesses 65 attack submarines that could be assigned to track, trap, and kill our four to five “boomers” (ballistic-missile submarines) at sea.

Were China to hold 6,000 warheads in its tunnels (we once had more than 30,000, so this is not a stretch), and were two-thirds to reach their targets, it could put four warheads on each target and still have 2,000 left for a second strike, on counter-value targets. That would negate the threat of even our counter-value retaliation (counter-force retaliation being impossible, given the numerical imbalance and that many of China’s missiles are road- and rail-mobile) — especially in view of sufficiency calculations based on the very different population and infrastructure concentrations of China and the United States.

The U.S. is 81 percent urban and suburban; China, 53 percent. To use per capita GDP as a measure of economic complexity: The U.S. is at $53,350, China at $6,600. In other words, because China can inflict more damage per warhead on the U.S. than the U.S. can inflict upon China, the counter-value threat that China poses to the U.S. is amplified beyond any potential advantages or disadvantages in numbers of warheads.

What would or could an American president do if such a scenario came to pass? Or if, what is more likely, the adversary during a confrontation or limited war revealed its hidden assets and resorted to brinkmanship? The answer is that the president would and could do nothing but surrender. The United States would be pushed back, most of our threatened allies would of necessity follow the stronger horse, and the world would undergo an immense transformation. We would find ourselves in a position we have not experienced in the more than 100 years since the United States became an inviolable great power.

What then is the solution, given that a buildup of nuclear arms or even of a ballistic-missile defense is at present politically impossible? First, we need a public clarification of the danger, which is not likely from an administration that appears to be proudly oblivious of both history and defense. (Those who state that they can fundamentally remake whole countries believe so only because they are practiced in ignoring reality.) Second, from the next president, a strong and urgent initiative to include China in a nuclear-arms-control regime with real, non-Iranian-style verification. That should be acceptable across the American political spectrum, and flattering to China, which enjoys flattery. Were China to refuse, we could immediately begin a modulated buildup, offensive and defensive, which might elicit a more constructive response. If not, we’ve been there before, in the 45 years of cold war. One way or another, it is urgent that we take into account the lack of Chinese nuclear transparency.

China and Conventional War

North Korea is both a “fleet in being” (a military force with which one has to reckon even if it lies dormant) for use by China against the U.S., and itself an intractable problem to which the only and incomplete answer is to strengthen conventional forces on the Korean Peninsula and put in place a North American ballistic-missile defense many times stronger than currently envisioned. China is a weightier though less volatile challenge, but at least it is sane. The new Middle Kingdom will attempt to lock Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia, and Australasia into its orbit. In a transaction-rich, highly interdependent world, unchallenged domination of Asia might lead to an international system in which China was the single pole.

We are in the early stages of this now, as China spreads its influence globally and aggressively lays claims to territories and seas on its periphery. That this is so is attributable both to China’s rise and to America’s retreat. Though the military capacity, naval and otherwise, of the Pacific “core” — the U.S., Japan, and Australia, with Vietnam in aid (South Korea is neutralized by the North) — is at the moment superior to China’s, the steady trends of the previous two and a half decades point to parity in the near future and Chinese superiority thereafter. Even now, the tyranny of distance gives an offsetting advantage to China in its own neighborhood.

Unconvinced of American exceptionalism and the legitimacy of America’s interests in the world, the president is overbearing at home and weak abroad. He rushes to appease countries far weaker than China is now or will be. One can only hope that when we are faced with real, threatening power, the weak force within the American polity will not produce the kind of quislings that the Left usually condemns as servants of imperialism. It need not be so.

To wit — and it is important to note that the ability to win wars is more than equally the ability to deter and obviate them — in any U.S.–Chinese conflict other than the catastrophic situation outlined above, the nuclear calculus would render the homelands of both parties (though not our overseas bases) out of bounds. Action would most probably be confined to the sea and the air, with the possibility of island-based war as in World War II. In patiently accumulating small but outrageous conquests of reefs, rocks, and imaginary zones of air defense, China’s methodology is more carefully incremental than Putin’s. But given its culture and character, China is more prone to prideful, explosive outbursts that could quickly lead to a war at sea.

And to China the most appealing prize is the South China Sea, to which its claim would be analogous to the United States’ claiming the Caribbean all the way to the north rim of South America. Historically significant to China, the South China Sea is a commercial artery of the first importance, a promising source of offshore oil, and the naval arena contiguous to China that is most remote from the U.S. and its Pacific bases, and accessible only through a series of defensible choke points.

If China continues incremental seizures unchecked — and the more it has seized, the more it has seen that we do not react — it will have achieved its flatly declared, Obama-invisible objective without contradiction. If American resistance is in the offing, when China deems its rapidly developing naval technology sufficiently mature, it can, given its 100 major shipyards, surge production of naval vessels, as we did in the Second World War, whereas, given that we have only six major shipyards, we cannot.

Forty percent of the U.S. Navy, now less than half the size it was at the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, is due to remain in the Atlantic after the under-resourced pivot to the Pacific. By spiking the Panama Canal (both ends of which are under Chinese management) and stationing its five nuclear-powered attack submarines as a blocking force at the southern capes of Africa and South America, China could virtually cut the U.S. Navy in half at the outset of hostilities. With its 60 other, non-nuclear, attack submarines, it could stand guard below the surface at the South China Sea choke points and also attempt to sever our sea lines of communication in the western Pacific, especially as we have allowed our capacity for anti-submarine warfare to degenerate.

American naval forces that made it into the South China Sea would then have to contend with anti-ship ballistic missiles, swarms of missile and small attack craft, China’s major surface combatants, and a thousand land-based aircraft. Improperly hardened and distant American island air bases and “lily pad” temporary staging points (if offered by cowed allies) would suffer attack by bombers and a barrage of China’s intermediate-range missiles. To seal the result, China might bribe and encourage North Korea to embark upon an invasion of, or at least an incursion into, the South, thereby splitting into two fronts American forces already made woefully inadequate by geography, neglect, and lack of strategic vision. In the absence of credible opposing force, the very feasibility of such a scenario is unfortunately the chief reason China might pursue it.

But there is a remedy. As stated before, the Pacific “core” order of battle is superior to China’s. To deter or, in the worst case, battle China, we must rebuild our naval and air forces far beyond their current levels, and construct new, properly hardened bases as well as hardening those already in existence. That means securing them not in the Hurricane Katrina style of preparing for a category-5 event by installing category-3 defenses, but by making provision for defenses of category 6 or 7. All such measures should be calibrated to match or exceed the rate of growth in China’s military.

Though there are drawbacks to fighting at great remove, the nature of potential conflict in the Western Pacific favors the U.S., for, rather than continental warfare, the sea and the air have long been our forte. And the ability to maneuver and quickly shift fronts on and under the sea and in the air can turn our challenge of worldwide multiple fronts into a more limited but still vexing and unfamiliar problem for an opponent.

In nuclear, conventional, and economic potential, China is our rival and — if we continue to neglect the balances that keep the peace — our enemy. China must be convinced simultaneously of our pacific intentions and our massive military power. At present, it is impressed only by the former.


Thinking with breathtaking naïveté that history had ended and Europe had seen the end of war, NATO let slip the very capacity of deterrence that had made possible the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself. Those who stayed sober predicted even in the early Nineties the apparatchik-led Russian revanche that we now see. A little less peace dividend and a little more probity might have landed us in a different place, but now Russia invades independent states and, with a resource-dependent, unstable economy, recklessly falls back upon its increasingly modernized nuclear arsenal as the chief instrument of its foreign relations.

With a nuclear umbrella to shield his incremental aggressions, Putin delights in concentration of force, speed, and control of the center (which, in military strategy as in chess, by relegating an opponent to the periphery divides his formations and deprives them of synergy). Whereas he is aware that the NATO order of battle is superior to his own — roughly (numbers and definitions change day by day), in regular manpower, by a ratio of 2.66 to 1; in combat aircraft, 3.05 to 1; in ICBMs and SLBMs, 1.71 to 1; in attack submarines, 1.8 to 1; and in principal surface combatants, 5.38 to 1 — he knows as well that NATO is divided, atomized, and politically and militarily devolving. He sees how much it has been taxed as it has fought out of area, that its principal military power lies beyond the Atlantic, and that its populations are weakened, demoralized, and led by technocrats and academics whose mother’s milk is appeasement.

All he need do is look at the Arab–Israeli wars to understand that, despite an unfavorable balance of forces, coherence and daring can overcome incoherence, division, and hesitation. He has knocked the West off balance, forcing it to counter Russia’s conventional military operations and nuclear saber-rattling (or, at its current intensity, saber-jiggling) with powerful but still only economic and banking sanctions. The danger is that without the ability to wield correspondingly soft powers, Russia will increase its reliance on hard powers. Western sanctions may bring Russia to terms, or force it to desperate measures. This is an unstable dynamic directly attributable to the inexplicable absence in the diplomatic equation of the West’s military potential — the very instrument that, without firing a shot in Europe, won the Cold War.

Collectively, the NATO economies weigh in at roughly $30 trillion per annum, to Russia’s $2 trillion and fading. The most powerful counter to Russia’s use of its military (of which displays in Georgia, the Crimea, and eastern Ukraine are but the experimental tendrils) is to challenge it to an arms competition, implicitly asking, in the best American idiom, “Remember last time? How’s that workin’ out for you?” Quite simply, as has been proven by experience, if Russia pushes west and with military means threatens the international order, the vastly superior economic power of the Atlantic Alliance cannot content itself with economic measures alone.

Though they may lessen as dangers increase, the centrifugality and political disarray in NATO will not disappear. But even without full-blown augmentation of its forces, NATO’s military posture can be adjusted to address problems of coordination, division, and the softness of its strategic center.

With the U.S. as the traditional main pillar, NATO should reinforce and integrate its core (the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, and Italy), moving major echelons to France and Germany, and then shifting them east or west, like a ship’s stabilizer, according to variations in Russian pressure, with continual rotations to the periphery, in strengths and numbers calibrated according to the same standard. Maximum effectiveness would depend upon the long-overdue rejuvenation of Western militaries, matching at least the rate of increase in Russian military allocations. If not, Russia, like China, will conclude that it can escape counter-pressure and deterrence simply via more-rapid military growth and the attendant change in the correlation of forces. This is the principle by which Russia and China are operating now. If it is not opposed, they will succeed.

Everything thus far recommended arises from current patterns and trends that seem likely to continue. But because all projection is imperfect, note that of the measures described above the most important is to have a surplus of means and equipment — a rich variety, redundancy, and reserve of systems that in peacetime might be judged duplicative and unneeded but that in the face of the unexpected can be braided into the new instruments and new strategies necessary for victory and survival.

And everything thus far recommended may be beyond the mental horizons of the bureaucrats, academics, and unlettered politicians who have made American foreign and defense policy a shambles and a wreck. But look where they have brought us. And consider that, if carefully prepared, the kind of approach presented here would not have been shocking at all to Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Churchill, Truman, Eisenhower, or even George H. W. Bush, all of whom knew how to fight a war and how not to. And in knowing war and preparing for it, the greatest achievement is in deterring and obviating it. Statesmen used to understand this. It is time they do so again.

– Mr. Helprin, author of Winter’s Tale and A Soldier of the Great War, is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, a defense consultant, and a veteran of military service in the Middle East.

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