More Spending Alone Won’t Fix the Pentagon’s Biggest Problem
Russia’s abhorrent invasion of Ukraine has led to an upswing in support for a larger U.S. defense budget. This is great. This is a good thing.
Some voices argue that it is possible for the U.S. to revert to a global military dominance approach, where armed forces are capable of simultaneously defeating even our most powerful enemies. It is similar to what the U.S. did in 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Higher defense spending may be necessary but it won’t eliminate the necessity for a strategy. Even significant increases in defense spending will not suffice to restore global military dominance enjoyed during an era of no great power rivals. This need is even more pronounced, as the defense budget proposal the Biden Administration just released marks only a 4% nominal—that is, not counting inflation—increase over last year’s enacted total. Instead, we need to reckon with the military version of what economists term “scarcity” and prioritize accordingly, focusing on China as our primary challenge.
Our inability to wage major wars against China and Russia within comparable timeframes is a consequence of our current military shortage. As a practical matter, we lack enough of the key capabilities—such as penetrating bombers, attack submarines, advanced munitions, and the right reconnaissance platforms—to defeat them both at the same time. We are not sure if we possess enough key capabilities, particularly to win against China, Taiwan, or any other country. These problems would be made worse by the fact we’d have to prepare for a war with Russia or China that could easily escalate to nuclear levels. We cannot expect either side to win a war until our forces are regenerated and retaken.
This is compounded by the growing Sino-Russian Entente. It suggests that both powers are more likely to collaborate their attacks on us to capitalize on our shortcomings. At the same time, we face other threats from North Korea, Iran, transnational terrorists, and possibly others—and they may also try to take advantage of our vulnerabilities.
China is growing rapidly and is causing us to face scarcity. Its economy is roughly half the size of ours, which continues to significantly increase its defense expenditures. Just this month Beijing announced that it would be increasing its military budget by a whopping 7%—yet again. Beijing’s spending is overwhelmingly focused on Asia, while ours is spread around. Moreover, standard tabulations of China’s military spending are almost certainly undercounts. Even so, China’s expenditure on its armed forces is by historical standards relatively low for a great power, suggesting that Beijing could increase it even further, and possibly do so relatively quickly. While this prospect shouldn’t stop us raising defense spending, we must remember that China may be able match or exceed the increased U.S. investment in Asia-related forces.
But China’s rise is not the only reason defense increases won’t relieve us of the need for a real strategy.
In order to stay ahead of the organic cost drivers for our armed forces, we will need significant increases in defense expenditures. The increase in cost pressures is due to a variety of factors including rising personnel expenses and the need to keep and recapitalize decades-old platforms that are failing. Also, past deferred modernization decisions have contributed to this trend. Prominent and reliable voices state that Defense Department requires at least 35% growth. above inflation—which has, of course, risen substantially in recent months—to resource even the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which called for sharp prioritization above all of the China challenge. This, coupled with China’s galloping military buildup, strongly suggests that far above 5% real growth would be required to do more than laid out in the 2018 Strategy, let alone pursue global military dominance.
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A second factor is the fact that it takes time for defense improvements to pay off. It can take many years to make ships, aircraft and munitions. And our defense industrial base is not what it once was; inconsistency and uncertainty in budgeting as well as the loss of domestic manufacturing capacity and engineering talent have weakened America’s industrial base. We are now able to build only three submarines each year. Some munitions take several years to make. The U.S. defense industries will need to rebuild or expand their production lines, regardless of increased spending. We will have to wait many years before we can pursue an even more ambitious strategy.
The third is that even though we may spend more money, there are good chances of inefficiently allocating it. We must address our naval, air and space forces’ deficiencies if we are to continue to be able to defeat aggression from our most powerful enemies. There are too many penetrating aircraft, attack submarines and air defense systems, as well as too few reconnaissance platforms. Also, we have not done enough to improve the effectiveness and resilience of our Western Pacific military forces. If there are spending increases, but much of the new money is used to buy more tanks, vulnerable surface ships, and expensive short-range aircraft, then those increases won’t help much in addressing China, no less multiple adversaries at the same time.
Fourth, our defense budget should be used to deal with China in Asia. This will limit our ability to dominate in other theatres. This is because we should spend more than merely a bare plausible minimum on China, particularly ensuring our forces are able to prevail in the Pentagon’s “pacing scenario”—Taiwan. The stakes of a war in the world’s most important region between the globe’s two superpowers are too great and the uncertainty of how such a great power war would unfold too profound.
Therefore, it is important to spend sufficient time on China. Thank you Confident that Beijing could not subordinate any U.S. allies or Taiwan, we are optimistic. This means that we need to hedge our bets by building Both Chinese preemption is less likely to affect long-range strike capability resilient forward-deployed forces, not only to build redundancy into our plans but also to impose dilemmas on Beijing’s planning and galvanize allied efforts. This means that Asia should receive a larger share of our defense budget increases than most people realize. It will limit our ability to achieve multi-theater dominance.
Fourth, it’s important to recognize that there is no simple way to restore military supremacy worldwide. The reality is that military investments in today’s environment are less multipurpose or fungible than some contend. We aren’t preparing to fight simultaneous wars against North Korea and 1990s Iraq. Instead, we plan on using swing forces like bombers and tankers as necessary between conflicts in order to fix any deficiencies that might occur. We deal with powerful countries. In this context, our military investments are much more often zero-sum—they Do You can trade against one another.
Partly this is due to probable attrition. We must be cautious when planning for war against China and Russia. This means that we have to assume significant losses in our forces, especially in key war-winning abilities. Critical systems such as B-2 stealth bombers and attack submarines, along with aircraft carriers, would all be destroyed. In addition, critical munitions, including long-range antiship missiles and air-attack-air-launched rockets, would also be lost. Such losses would, if we did not have adequate stocks of replacements, make us highly vulnerable in a second—let alone third—theater, possibly for years given the timelines required for replenishing these forces.
Also, even the most resilient forces are less likely to remain in place for specific conflicts or regions. This limits their ability to adapt. It is because fighting a war against China or Russia will be very different from, for example, defeating Iraq’s military in 2003. Fighting a great power would almost certainly be much tougher and take a considerably longer time in its critical phases—much more a matter of a hard slog simply to prevail in the conventional military contest than a quick shock and awe campaign. It would be a terrible idea to need to pull out critical units from an ongoing conflict in order to move on to another. This is a very real dynamic: Germany decided to pull forces from the Western Front in summer 1914 to deal with Russia, and this may have made the difference between victory and stalemate—indeed, ultimately Germany’s defeat.
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Forces like surface and attack vessels, as well as submarines, may be unable to physically move between the theaters within their respective timeframes. Critical fights that occur in parallel timeframes like in 1914 or the Second World War may result in key systems not being able to travel fast enough between the theaters. Our opponents might also hinder the movement of forces, limiting their ability to transfer them from one theater to the next. This means that we will need to purchase more war-winning capability in order to combat two simultaneous major power wars. This is why it takes more money to address the possibility of concurrent conflicts with China and Russia as well other threats, such as Iran or North Korea.
All of these factors are a warning sign that it is impossible to expect us to return to military dominance. This is all without even addressing the question whether Americans, regardless of their strategic merits, would support higher military spending or whether large increases in this area are prudent given our economic situation.
The nation needs to have a strategy and a prioritization that clearly identifies where money, effort, or will is being spent. The strategy must prioritize the inability to defeat China. It should also allow us to improve our nuclear deterrent, and support our counterterrorism efforts. We should also ensure that we are able to contribute less to NATO Europe’s defense against Russia while our European allies take primary responsibility for their conventional defense.
Some might argue that Russia’s apparently poor performance in Ukraine suggests that it does not pose such a military threat, and thus that global military dominance is a reasonable goal. It is not true. First, we should be cautious about forecasting Russia’s demise; even if it is blunted in Ukraine, history suggests that we should assume Russia will invest in restoring its military power. It is also likely that Russia will fight NATO and the U.S. in a completely different manner than how it fought against Ukraine. It is important to not ignore the Russian military threat. More fundamentally, though, if Russia’s military threat is less than we thought and is likely to be diminished at least for several years as it recapitalizes its armed forces, then it is all the more prudent for us to prioritize China in Asia. Meantime, Europe is finally stepping up to arms itself, making a much greater European role in NATO’s defense a more attainable goal. Even though prioritizing Asia makes sense in dire situations, this is now easier to achieve.
It is the best course of action for our country to spend more on defense. We should be realistic about the fact that it won’t solve all problems. We cannot just overpower the threats that face us with more resources. This situation calls for a clearly defined strategy to prioritize China and for it to be executed.
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