The next president must begin to rebuild America’s military.
The current force is too small; its equipment—largely the legacy of the Reagan-era build-up—is too old; and it is not trained or ready for a large or long fight. The military services are in danger of losing their best, brightest, and most battle-tested people: the “all-volunteer force” marks a moral compact between the American public and the small number of Americans who risk their lives to keep the rest of us safe. That compact requires us not only to care for the wounded, the widows, and the retired but also to provide those who would go in harm’s way with the means for victory. When we fail to do so, it breaks faith with those in uniform.
This failure also endangers America. Even in the current hothouse media environment, it is impossible to miss what the decline of US military power means for the world, in Europe, in East Asia, and most especially across the greater Middle East. Things are falling apart as the American center cannot hold.
This report shows a way forward. Grounded in a traditional understanding of our national security goals and strategy, the path is clear. Defense planning for the next administration must:
Adopt a “three-theater” force construct.
To remain a global power, the United States must preserve a favorable balance of military power in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. Deterring further Russian and Chinese aggression requires forces that are powerful and constantly present, and securing our interests in the Middle East requires not just presence but also an effort to reverse the rising tide of our many adversaries: Iran, ISIS, and al Qaeda and its associates. America cannot lead the world by “pivoting” among these theaters nor by retreating to the continental United States.
Increase its military capacity.
Since the end of the Cold War, US forces have been unrelentingly deployed. After 9/11, they were not sufficient to successfully conduct campaigns simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite a massive mobilization of reserve component troops, an increase, though tardy, in active-duty numbers, and innovative employment of Navy and Air Force leaders in ground missions. Neither the rapid introduction of new equipment such as the massive mine-resistant vehicles nor the renaissance in counterinsurgency operations could make up for the lack of forces. The United States needs a force sufficient for a three-theater posture.
Introduce new capabilities urgently.
Programs to transform the military or to offset the new weaponry now fielded by adversaries have been a disaster; the failure to modernize across the force since the 1980s now leaves the US military without the great technological advantages that allowed it to “shock and awe” its enemies and conduct decisive operations with very few casualties. The Pentagon must be allowed to buy what it can quickly and economically and begin to build what it needs within the next decade.
Increase and sustain defense budgets.
The defense spending cuts of the early Obama years and the further reductions mandated by the Budget Control Act have merely accelerated a pattern of defense divestment that began a generation ago. The damage is too great to repair within the course of a single administration. A “two-target” investment strategy is required: first, return military budgets to the level set by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his original 2012 budget, and second, gradually build up to an affordable floor of 4 percent of gross domestic product that would sustain the kind of military America needs.
Sound defense planning demands a long-term perspective, resting not on what changes—threats and technologies—but on what remains constant—American security interests and political principles. Since 1945, the one constant of international politics has been the military power of the United States. Our next commander-in-chief must rebuild America’s military power.