The Pentagon unveiled its latest National Defense Strategy in January. The NDS very much was the product of the experience and thinking of Secretary of Defense and former Marine Gen. Jim Mattis.
Mattis has a unique understanding of both the practice and study of war, including multiple combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and a personal professional library of over 10,000 books.
To fund the NDS, Congress will appropriate nearly $1.5 trillion over the next two years. That money is sorely needed to overcome the stress of nearly 17 years of high-tempo combat operations and insufficient resources to keep the current force ready and capable of conducting all its difficult and dangerous assignments. To their credit, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been extremely candid and outspoken in warning about the declining condition of the U.S. military.
But the dangers are three-fold. First, this surge of spending will not last. Nor is it sufficient to redress all the past problems of readiness and the need to modernize the military with new weapons systems, let alone grow it. However, the Pentagon leadership knows that asking Congress for even more money or complaining that the increases may not be enough is politically impracticable if not destructive.
Second, in calling for a force that is more “lethal, agile and resilient” and able to fight and win in highly contested battlegrounds in land, sea, air, space and cyber, without long term, sustained increases in defense spending, this plan will be unaffordable.
Third, the administration has cemented its plans in its National Security Strategy and the NDS. Changing in mid-stream likewise is a political bridge too far. Under these circumstances, what can be done?
The Pentagon needs to repair the damage done to the force as noted above. The bulk of the spending increases must tend to that very daunting task. The force can be made more lethal, agile and resilient. However, thinking must start now about what happens when budgets become more constrained and even cut as interest payments on the national debt will require across-the-board reductions in spending.
The NDS has set out a few ways to accomplish this. The other lines of action in the NDS are greater reliance on allies and friends and making major reforms in process to ensure that every defense dollar is spent with maximum effectiveness and efficiency. However, alternative strategic thinking is also vital.
What concerns defense planners most is the improvement in defense capability being made by the two most serious strategic competitors to the United States and its allies — Russia and China. Both are embarking on developing anti-access area denial (A2AD) defenses designed to prevent enemy forces from military operations in proximity to their borders. The Pentagon is proposing to field forces capable of defeating these A2AD defenses. That, however, is likely to prove far more costly than future defense budgets will allow.
What is needed is a strategy to contain Russian and Chinese military forces to home waters and borders. This strategy must be discussed with friends and allies as a long-term and less costly alternative. In essence, the metaphor is a “Porcupine Defense,” with sharp military quills that would make any attempts to “break out ” beyond respective borders painful. And here geography, whether in Europe where Russia is “surrounded” by NATO allies or in the Pacific where the “first island chain” from the tip of Alaska to the Tonkin Gulf form natural barriers to Chinese expansion is on our side.
Concurrently, reform must be a high priority. The reality is that the Pentagon has undergone countless attempts at reform and conducted even more studies on making the department more efficient. None has really ever worked.
The only pragmatic solution is to focus on the nightmarish number of federal and defense acquisition regulations. In fact, it is a wonder that the Pentagon can function at all with the burdens of excessive rules and regulations, understanding that a certain number are essential to ensure proper oversight. Streamlining and codifying these vast tomes is certainly achievable and practical.
Relations with Russia are at a low point and are likely to worsen. The prospect of a trade war with China looms. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran is on life support and may well be abrogated by this administration. And negotiations with North Korea are at best uncertain.
For American and Western security, with war raging in Syria and Ukraine and the Islamic State still not defeated, upticks in defense spending are very welcome. But make no mistake. Without examining other strategic options; making better use of allies and friends; and making real reform in how we provide for the common defense, do not count on the world becoming a safer place.
Harlan Ullman’s latest book is “Anatomy of Failure — Why America Loses the Wars It Starts.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman