The best way for America to develop a consensus on what our defense and global security commitments should be is for Congress to have a lengthy series of posture hearings that delve deeply into these issues.
They could be jointly held by the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees from the two chambers, patterned after the set of posture hearings held in the early 1980’s by Congress to address a very similar set of security concerns.
Why do we need an extraordinary set of hearings? The new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, thinks the defense budget is already too high at $716 billion too high and US security commitments too great. The new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee says defense spending needs to be much higher — $750 billion to support the country’s security interests. So clearly Congress — and the electorate who chose them — is divided and need to find common ground.
Four key questions should be addressed.
What do we want our military to do? After all, the missions of our military are what we as a country through our elected officials decide they must do.
Do we want to ask our military to fight a fair fight or make sure they defeat our enemy’s quickly and with as little damage to non-combatants as possible? This requires giving our military the best tools with which to deter and defeat the bad guys. I short, let the other guys die for their country.
What role do our allies play? They are all part of this endeavor, and what we want to spend is connected to what our allies are now spending and what they pledge to spend in the future. After all, if we are going to emphasize the need for multi-lateral and joint operations with our allies, our allies must be ready and able to do the job.
What is the threat and how do we face it? Any threat assessment should be clear-eyed and pull no punches, even if in the final analysis we decide that a threat is not going to be addressed.
If we are going to significantly cut our defense spending, we have to be serious about what commitments we have made around the world and decide which ones we are going to stop doing. This must be done very carefully.
On the other hand, if the current National Security Strategy is the path ahead, it cannot be adopted without adding significant defense resources. This was the conclusion of the recent National Defense Strategy Commission:
“The security and well-being of the United States are at greater risk than at any time in decades. America’s military superiority—the hard-power backbone of its global influence and national security—has eroded to a dangerous degree. Rivals and adversaries are challenging the United States on many fronts and in many domains. America’s ability to defend its allies, its partners, and its own vital interests is increasingly in doubt. If the nation does not act promptly to remedy these circumstances, the consequences will be grave and lasting.
Giving up security interests can be a dangerous business. When Secretary of State Dean Acheson didn’t include the Republic of Korea in our “perimeter of defense” on January 12, 1950, almost exactly 69 years ago, war ensued months later.
Understandably, most Americans are rightly concerned with the length of our involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They want to win or get out. And they also know during this period defense spending went up considerably. Understandably, many wonder — wasn’t that enough?
True, we have spent hundreds of billions fighting these wars, but our military remains in many respects old and unsustainable. Why?
After the end of the Cold War the United States began nearly three decades of what retired Air Force Gen. Garret Harencak described as a “procurement holiday”. This was especially dangerous for our nuclear forces, but it included our conventional military across the board. We did modernize in part but most of that money was aimed at the counterinsurgency conflicts in which we were engaged. The modernization needed to deter the growing threat from peer and near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia did not occur.
Here is an interesting comparison. At the height of the “hollow military” inherited by President Reagan in 1981, the average age of Air Force aviation was 12 years. In 2017 the average age of Air Force aircraft was an ancient 28 years. Our tankers, airlift, strategic bombers and tactical aviation all need modernization.
Despite significant defense spending, readiness, sustainment and modernization still suffered. We ended C-17 production and now have a huge gap in our airlift capability. We cancelled the F-22 after 187 planes and bought only 20 B-2 strategic bombers, leaving us scrambling to fill a capacity and air superiority gap.
The United States federal government plans to spend some $4.41 trillion this year. Considering local and state spending as well, all government will spend $7.56 trillion in the current year, which amounts to $23,000 for every American. Defense spending is 9 percent of that, roughly $2,100 a year for every American.
The Congressional Budget Office now projects that revenue growth over the next 10 years will be a record $2.2 trillion, reaching $5.7 trillion by 2028. That’s more than enough to accommodate a robust defense budget and nearly double the revenue increase over the past decade.
However, the defense debate turns out, hopefully it will be based on a sober assessment of the threats we face and a willingness to support our military with the best technology. We have the resources to do the job and an informed debate will get us there the right way.
Peter Huessy, president of defense consulting firm GeoStrategic Analysis, is director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute.