It should come as no surprise to anyone that yesterday’s Republican presidential debate, coming as it did on the heels of the slaughters in Paris and San Bernardino, focused almost exclusively on dealing with the terrorist threat. It is difficult at this point to argue that either the Obama Administration’s military or intelligence strategies for dealing with global terrorism are working. Articulating a new strategy means threading the needles on such issues as the minimum U.S. ground presence in Iraq and Syria to beat ISIS, and how to balance privacy and security concerns with the need to improve intelligence collection.
Largely lost in the debate was the reality that this country faces even more serious threats to its security than that posed by Islamic terrorism. Even over the course of the five debates that have taken place so far, the threat from adversary nation states has grown. Russia has engaged in naked territorial aggression against its neighbors in Europe. It is massing forces and building new military facilities on its eastern, western and northern borders. It is modernizing its strategic nuclear forces and developing theater nuclear weapons in violation of international treaties. U.S. military leaders have testified that Russian advanced air defenses, including those being deployed in Syria, are creating exclusion zones that extend into NATO and allied territories. Russian leaders throw around the threat to use nuclear weapons like it was confetti.
China is changing the geo-political face of East Asia, creating large military facilities on what were pristine islands and coral shoals in order to dominate the South China Sea. Beijing is pursuing a comprehensive military modernization campaign intended to give it military superiority even beyond its region. A few weeks ago a Chinese attack submarine practiced a simulated cruise missile attack against the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier.
Not only Russia and China, but even lesser regional powers such as Iran are investing heavily in advanced military capabilities intended to counter U.S. military capabilities and even provide a war-winning advantage. All three of these countries are expanding their arsenals of ballistic and cruise missiles, unmanned aerial drones, electronic warfare systems and cyber weapons. The U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert Work, spoke recently about Russian and Chinese efforts to design and deploy entire units of autonomous systems, essentially war robots.
The United States is at risk of falling behind its major strategic threats, Russia and China. Even today, the Pentagon lacks the resources to effectively deter conventional conflict in both Europe and East Asia simultaneously. The conflict with ISIS is sucking critical resources, not just Special Forces but ISR systems, targeteers and advanced precision weapons, away from other places. We cannot even adequately surveil Russian operations along NATO’s eastern borders. Without major investments in new capabilities, U.S. forces will not be able to penetrate hostile air defenses, defend themselves and our allies against waves of ballistic and cruise missiles, protect military networks from cyber attack and defeat hostile ground forces.
One of the few times the subject of broader U.S. national security challenges came up was the question to Donald Trump on the nuclear TRIAD. As my colleague Loren Thompson has written in Forbes, the Pentagon is in the midst of a significant modernization effort for the TRIAD and our few remaining theater nuclear weapons. The Navy is beginning the vital program to design and build a new class of strategic ballistic missile-carrying submarines to replace the aging Ohio-class SSBNs. The Air Force just awarded Northrop Grumman a contract to build up to 100 long-range bombers expected to be dual capable of conventional and nuclear operations. Work is underway to refurbish our central theater nuclear weapon, the B-61 gravity bomb.
The Pentagon’s efforts to modernize its forces and respond to growing threats from Russia, China, Iran and others, is in danger of coming apart due to inadequate funding. A recent Congressional Research Service report warns that inadequate defense funding could put the Air Force’s top modernization programs, the F-35 fighter, KC-46 tanker and long-range bomber at risk. Budget difficulties also threaten the Navy’s long-term shipbuilding program. Critical programs to recapture the U.S. lead in space defense, electronic warfare and cyber operations are also at risk. There needs to be major increases in resources devoted to long-range weapons systems and what the Navy calls distributed lethality.
Senator Rand Paul calls the national debt the greatest threat to U.S. security. He is wrong. The greatest threat is from political leaders who fail to realize that this country and the international system as a whole are threatened by nations that want to dominate entire continents and redesign the international order to their advantage. The failure to invest today in capabilities that deter these prospective adversaries will lead to future conflicts with incalculable costs in treasure and American blood.
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