The current struggles in Washington over the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act, increases or decreases in overseas contingency operations spending, busting or keeping budget caps and the duration of any continuing resolution make for great theater and a lot of press copy. But they are all irrelevant. Even if the budget were passed on time, signed into law and included the maximum proposed spending levels, the resulting infusion of resources would do no more than staunch the Pentagon’s bleeding. Proposed budget increases would support current procurement programs but not investments in additional capacity and advanced capabilities.
It is no longer sufficient to halt the drawdown. Senior Pentagon officials are on record as saying that this nation has lost its advantage in military technology. It is frankly inferior to other major powers in such areas as air and missile defense, long-range conventional strike, electronic warfare, cyber and indirect fires on land. Quantitative inferiority and qualitative parity vis-à-vis adversaries in multiple theaters is, in the event of a major conflict, a recipe for disaster.
What the United States requires is a serious, substantial and perhaps decade long program of rearmament.
It may already be too late. Most of our prospective adversaries took advantage of our preoccupation with fighting terrorism to invest in capabilities not just to match the U.S. military, but exceed it in a number of critical areas. China has deployed a bristling arsenal of theater ballistic and cruise missiles, including so-called carrier and Guam killers, which could render U.S. military operations in the Western Pacific suicidal. Beijing has also invested in robust offensive space warfare and cyber capabilities to render U.S. and allied forces deaf, dumb and blind. Massive and continuing investments in naval forces, advanced fighters and extremely lethal air defenses make China today a formidable potential adversary.
With a smaller industrial base and relatively weak economy, Russia has nonetheless managed an impressive reorganization of its military and qualitative rearmament. Investments in advanced air defenses, cruise and ballistic missiles, modern ground combat vehicles, artillery and electronic warfare have turned the Russian military into a capable, albeit relatively small, force. In recent years Russia has conducted large-scale combined arms military exercises that dwarf any that NATO has done in two decades. Russia’s deployment of air, ground and naval forces to Syria underscores how much better the Kremlin’s military has become.
The United States has allowed its nuclear deterrent to atrophy even as China, Russia and North Korea have expanded and modernized their nuclear arsenals. Within a decade, Iran could do the same. With no new nuclear arrows in its quiver, how will Washington respond to Moscow’s clear violation of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty? What about the threat from no fewer than four nuclear-armed adversaries?
The lessons of the 1930s are instructive here. The Allies began serious efforts to rearm years before war broke out. For example, Great Britain began its rearmament in 1934 with a major expansion of the Royal Air Force. One of RAF’s major challenges was to balance the generation of near-term capacity in the form of older, aircraft, largely biplanes and twin engine bombers, with the need for capability in the form of modern mono-wing aircraft such as the Hurricane and Spitfire and long-range four-engine bombers. The Chain Home radar net that proved Great Britain’s salvation against the Luftwaffe was not started until 1935. Successive naval appropriations went to the construction of new battleships and aircraft carriers, but an insufficient number of destroyers and patrol craft. Rearmament of the British Army was hampered by a misunderstanding of the nature of modern warfare and R&D failures in the areas of armored vehicles, anti-tank weapons and infantry weapons as well as by the limits of the supporting industrial base.
France faced a similar problem. It sharply increased defense spending between 1935 and 1940, building the Maginot Line, creating its first armored divisions and deploying high-end combat aircraft. In the end, however, Britain and France did not move swiftly enough to rearm. Even though the Allies on the Western Front in 1940 deployed more tanks than the Wehrmacht and had aircraft individually superior to those of the Luftwaffe, they were caught in the midst of their rearmament program and thus suffered catastrophic defeats. Fortunately, Allied resistance to German and Japanese aggression helped provide the U.S. the necessary breathing space to begin its rearmament program.
It is time for U.S. leaders to recognize not only that the downsizing of the military has gone too far, but that what is required is both a buildup for current forces and a substantial investment in a range of new capabilities. Some already have. Back in 2012, the Republican presidential candidate warned of the threat posed by a resurgent Russia and the need to build up the U.S. Navy. In the second presidential debate, Carly Fiorina proposed specific increases in the number of Navy ships and submarines, Army brigade combat teams and Air Force squadrons. The American Enterprise Institute just published a study that recommends building up to a three war military, one capable of securing American interests and deterring aggressions simultaneously in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
As Lincoln reminded us: “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” Unless the U.S. deterrent is unassailable, war is coming. If the United States is to protect its overseas interests, friends, allies, the global commons and the homeland from aggression, it is time to begin to rearm. It may already be too late.
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