Asymmetric Dialogue

National security: You get what you pay for

Summary NDSC, a bipartisan, statutorily mandated group charged with “reviewing the current national defense strategy of the United States
The National Defense Strategy Commission (NDSC), a bipartisan, statutorily mandated group charged with “reviewing the current national defense strategy of the United States, including the assumptions, missions, force posture, force structure, and risks associated with the strategy,” is the source of some of the most reliable and informed analysis you’ll find on national security. Whether the president is a Democratic or a Republican, the NDSC has been a clear and consistent voice for adequately funding the military and aligning spending with policy objectives.


The USS Ronald Reagan, bottom, at Busan port for joint military exercises in Busan, South Korea, in 2007. (Lee Jin-man/AP)



Since an increase in defense spending is one of the concrete accomplishments of the administration, I figured the latest report would be a rave review of the well-regarded National Defense Authorization Act of 2017. Not quite.

The NDSC’s report is blunt in its diagnosis: There is a funding and strategy deficit that becomes more acute as our national security challenges increase:

We support its candid assessment of the strategic environment, the priority it places on preparing for major-power competition and conflict, its emphasis on the enduring value of U.S. alliances and partnerships, and its attention to issues of readiness and lethality. That said, we are concerned that the NDS too often rests on questionable assumptions and weak analysis, and it leaves unanswered critical questions regarding how the United States will meet the challenges of a more dangerous world. We believe that the NDS points the Department of Defense (DOD) and the country in the right direction, but it does not adequately explain how we should get there.

The NDS rightly stresses competition with China and Russia as the central dynamic in sizing, shaping, and employing U.S. forces, but it does not articulate clear approaches to succeeding in peacetime competition or wartime conflict against those rivals. Resource shortfalls, unanticipated force demands, unfilled capability gaps, and other risk factors threaten DOD’s ability to fulfill the central goals of the NDS, such as defeating one major-power rival while maintaining deterrence in other regions. As America confronts five major security challengers across at least three important geographic regions, and as unforeseen challenges are also likely to arise, this is a serious weakness. To meet those intensifying military challenges, DOD will require rapid, substantial improvements to its capabilities built on a foundation of compelling, relevant operational concepts.

In truth, this administration has not the attention span nor the seriousness to think through policy decisions and align resources. The president makes grand gestures to thrill his domestic policy base (Out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)! Summit with North Korea! Send troops to the border!) but lacks any coherent policy road-map; the result is a series of discrete gestures, many counterproductive or entirely wasteful, that have left us less effective and less influential than we were when President Trump entered office. Likewise, our military planning fails to match up means and ends.
As China’s military grows, Pentagon says U.S. forces ‘atrophied’

China is rapidly modernizing its forces in an attempt to match the U.S. might in Asia. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Among the NDS’s recommendations are: developing “plausible strategies and operational concepts that identify what the United States seeks to achieve and how it will prevail, and suggest measures of effectiveness to mark progress along the way” and “clarify ill-defined concepts like ‘expand the competitive space’; and increasing “investment in threatened industries that produce vital technology and components, and [consider] whether some selective disintegration with rivals—namely China—is necessary to avoid dangerous dependencies”; maintaining adequate forward-deployed forces and working with NATO to rebuild and enhance military capacity in Europe (and thereby deter a “revanchist” Russia).

The report also urges that we devote “a greater share of training and readiness efforts to the full range … of potential missions U.S. forces face, with particular—but not exclusive—emphasis on major-power rivals” and maintain “a larger force than [the Defense Department] has today if it is to meet the objectives of the strategy.” Some of the recommendations echo demands that have been made for years to develop a coherent cyber policy and to enhance military readiness by filling forces with “highly qualified individuals” rather than merely hiking pay for those we already have.

This is a hundred-plus pages of serious, meaty and complicated stuff — which one practically never hears from an administration chasing shiny objects and issuing ideological but irrelevant pronouncements on things such as the International Criminal Court or deploying the military for political purposes.

In their joint testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, the co-chairs of the NDSC, Eric S. Edelman and Gary Roughead, explained: “America’s traditional military advantages are eroding rapidly because of our rivals’ strategies and increasing capability and our complacency. The United States must restore the hard‐power strengths that buttress its foreign policy and the global environment. Doing so requires far greater coherency and urgency and a higher and more expeditious commitment of sources than the country has mustered to date.”

Edelman and Roughead also argued: “None of [the recommended] improvements are possible if we are unwilling to pay for them. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 was a welcome relief from budgetary austerity but it was only a first step. The recent announcement that the national security budget for Fiscal Year 2020 may decline from $716 billion to $700 billion is a step in the wrong direction. Sustained, timely real budgetary growth is needed to deliver the defense the American people expect and deserve.”

They don’t say it, but I will: At a time when we face growing military threats and there is no consensus to address entitlement spending, we need more revenue. Giving mammoth tax cuts to the rich and to corporations (with no sustainable benefit to the country at large) has bled the Treasury of resources needed to adequately defend the country and address real domestic needs (e.g. infrastructure).

The NDS makes a compelling case that we need more resources and more cogent thinking about national security. The latter requires a new president, but the former means we need a serious debate about whether we are willing to pay for an military advantage that has since World War II “ensured the defense and security of the United States and its allies and deterred or defeated aggression around the world and underpinned the freedom of the global commons.”