The Trump administration has inherited a military that, while engaged worldwide in defense of America’s interests, has been suffering from the combination of high operational tempo and the corrosive effects of sequestration.
One of its first priorities should be getting sequestration lifted. But a quick infusion of cash alone will be insufficient to restore American credibility, defeat our adversaries and prepare for the future.
The U.S. military clearly requires more resources if it is to continue to safeguard America’s national interests in an increasingly competitive international environment. Indeed, both the congressionally mandated 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel and the 2014 National Defense Panel achieved a bipartisan consensus that the Department of Defense needed more resources to protect American interests without undue risk. Seven years on from the first and three from the second, the gap between our means and the ends they serve has grown. As a result, the United States faces greater risk.
One source of risk is reduced readiness caused by sequestration. This has led to ships incapable of deploying and aircraft unable to fly. This, in turn, has harmed America’s credibility in the eyes of its allies and its competitors.
Beyond readiness, we face a growing need to modernize U.S. conventional and nuclear forces. The calculus that has governed defense planning for much of the Bush and Obama administrations was that we could afford to take additional risk in preparing for a high-intensity war in order to focus on counterinsurgency. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates frequently put it, we needed to focus on the wars of the present rather than the possible wars of the future.
That risk calculation needs to change. Whereas we have spent the last 15 years focused on counterinsurgency, we are now in a period characterized by the reality of great-power competition and the increasing possibility of great-power conflict.
China and Russia are acting aggressively, both in their own regions and increasingly beyond them. China is busy remaking the geography of the Western Pacific, but is also increasingly active in the Indian Ocean and Africa. Russia not only has used force against Georgia and Ukraine and threatened other neighbors, but is also waging a campaign in Syria. Moreover, both China and Russia have been investing in military capabilities that threaten America’s long-standing dominance in high-end conventional warfare.
In other words, the “wars of the future” may no longer lie that far in the future. Moreover, they are likely to differ considerably both from the great-power wars of the past, as well as the campaigns that we have been waging since the turn of the millennium.
That is not to say that battling radical Islamism will not continue to be an important priority. However, the capabilities that we need to wage that war are largely in hand. By contrast, over the past quarter century, we have neglected the means to deter, and if necessary wage, high-end warfare. These include not only today’s major weapon systems, but also potentially high-leverage capabilities, such as those being pursued as part of the so-called Third Offset Strategy.
Modernization needs to include our nuclear deterrent. Historically, when the United States has drawn down its conventional forces, as it did in the 1950s and after the Vietnam War, it came to rely increasingly upon its nuclear deterrent. In recent years, by contrast, the United States has both drawn down both its conventional and nuclear forces. Now both require modernization, to include theater nuclear weapons.
The tasks of improving readiness and modernizing the force will require additional resources beyond those permitted by the Budget Control Act. But more money will be insufficient to prepare us for the future. Much of the effort that is required is intellectual.
The last decade and a half have left an indelible mark on those of us who fought; we need to ensure that that experience does not blind us to the very different circumstances that we may face. That includes developing the intellectual capacity to think about the character and conduct of war in the 21st century and to develop strategies and operational concepts to bring our enduring strengths to bear against our competitors. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work are well equipped to meet these challenges.
• Thomas G. Mahnken, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. From 2006-2009, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning.
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