I cannot remember a time when an incoming administration faced so many substantial threats to American national security. In 2014, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said: “To put it mildly, the world is a mess.” She was right, and the world has gotten a lot worse since then.
Everywhere, the risks to the United States are growing. From Europe to the South China Sea, from North Korea to the Middle East, America is threatened, by great powers (Russia and China), by aggressive and unbalanced rogue states (North Korea and Iran, primarily), and by subnational movements and in particular the spreading danger of Islamic jihadism.
All of these risks require the urgent attention of the new administration. But one issue transcends them all: the need to rebuild the American military.
The armed forces of the United States are the foundation of American national security. They perform two broad functions: They directly deter armed aggression, and they provide credibility, time and space for the tools of “soft power” to work. American diplomacy, alliances and economic power are the primary elements of our national influence, but they are only effective to the extent America is militarily strong.
The one indispensable element of superpower status is power, and the most defining and critical tool of power is hard power.
Yet the foundation of our national security is cracking, largely because the budget sequester three years ago cut a trillion dollars from defense spending over 10 years.
The defense budget is now at a level that cannot sustain American strength. The Navy has fewer ships than at any time since before World War I; the Army is sinking to its pre-WWII size, and the Air Force is smaller, and flying older aircraft, than at any time since the inception of the service. All of the services desperately need to recapitalize and modernize their inventories of equipment, including major weapons systems.
In addition, the satellite architecture, on which the civilian economy as well as the armed forces depend for communications, is aging and vulnerable, and the land-based leg of America’s nuclear triad — the Minutemen missiles in particular — are in crying need of modernization.
None of this is in serious dispute, and the implications of it are as bad as they seem. Sometimes a problem seems dangerous and difficult, but further examination shows that it can be solved more easily, and with less risk, than appeared on the surface.
That is not the case here. America is in danger, and there is no rabbit that can be pulled out of a hat to make everything all right. It will take a lot more money, spent a lot more wisely than money has been spent in the past, to rebuild American defenses.
For those who want a complete picture of the status of the armed forces, I recommend the Report of the National Defense Panel, which was issued in 2014. (https://www.usip.org/publications/national-defense-panel-releases-assessment-of-2014-quadrennial-defense-review)
To his credit, President Trump announced during his campaign an aggressive defense plan that, if executed, will rival the buildup of the Reagan years. To be sure, the new Pentagon leadership may well decide — once it has time to engage in real force planning — that more than what the president proposed is necessary. But certainly nothing less will suffice.
It will take the entirety of the president’s first term for his defense plan to begin shifting the balance of global power back in America’s direction. In the meantime, there will be a risk gap — a period in which adversaries will be tempted by both our current weakness, and the prospect of our growing strength, to aggress while there is still time.
Mr. Trump enters office with a lifetime of experience in negotiating and maneuvering in the face of risk. He will need all his skill, and a good bit of luck, to navigate the troubled waters that lie ahead.
• Sen. James Talent (R-MO) served in the House of Representatives (1993-2001) and U.S. Senate (2002-2007). He is senior fellow and director of the National Security 2020 Project at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at American Enterprise Institute.
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