More Spending Alone Won’t Fix the Pentagon’s Biggest Problem

11 minute read
Colby is a principal at The Marathon Initiative. He is the author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict from Yale University Press.

Russia’s abhorrent invasion of Ukraine has led to an upswing in support for a larger U.S. defense budget. This is good. If the U.S. is to credibly underwrite a sensible national security strategy in an era of great power rivalry, the nation needs to spend more on its military.

Some prominent voices are going beyond just pushing for more spending on defense, though, to argue that the U.S. can and therefore should re-adopt an approach of global military dominance, with armed forces able to simultaneously defeat even our most powerful adversaries. This is akin to the policy that the U.S. pursued in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While, higher defense spending is necessary, though, it will not relieve us of the need for a clear strategy, because even significant such increases will not be sufficient to restore the global military dominance we enjoyed in an era without great power rivals. This need is even more pronounced, as the defense budget proposal the Biden Administration just released marks only a 4% nominal—that is, not counting inflation—increase over last year’s enacted total. Instead, we need to reckon with the military version of what economists term “scarcity” and prioritize accordingly, focusing on China as our primary challenge.

The military scarcity we now face is most acute and consequential in our ability to fight major wars with China and Russia in anything like concurrent timeframes. As a practical matter, we lack enough of the key capabilities—such as penetrating bombers, attack submarines, advanced munitions, and the right reconnaissance platforms—to defeat them both at the same time. There are serious questions whether we have enough of some of these key capabilities even to beat one of them, especially China over, for instance, Taiwan. And the fact that we would have to plan that any such war with China or Russia could very well escalate to the nuclear level would only exacerbate these challenges. This means that, if we get in a war with one, we cannot reasonably expect to prevail against the other until we regenerate and reposture our forces.

This problem is made more pointed by the deepening Sino-Russian entente, which suggests these two powers will be more likely to coordinate their attacks to capitalize on our deficiencies. At the same time, we face other threats from North Korea, Iran, transnational terrorists, and possibly others—and they may also try to take advantage of our vulnerabilities.

At its root, the reason for the scarcity we face is the rise of China, an economy now roughly the size of our own that continues to substantially increase defense spending. Just this month Beijing announced that it would be increasing its military budget by a whopping 7%—yet again. Beijing’s spending is overwhelmingly focused on Asia, while ours is spread around. Moreover, standard tabulations of China’s military spending are almost certainly undercounts. Even so, China’s expenditure on its armed forces is by historical standards relatively low for a great power, suggesting that Beijing could increase it even further, and possibly do so relatively quickly. This prospect should not stop us from raising defense spending but we should keep in mind that we are dealing with an economy that may well be able to match or even exceed increased U.S. investments in forces for Asia.

But China’s rise is not the only reason defense increases won’t relieve us of the need for a real strategy.

First, significant increases in defense spending will be necessary just to keep ahead of organic cost drivers in our armed forces. Upward cost pressures are a product of a range of factors, including increasing personnel expenses, the need to maintain and recapitalize decades-old aging platforms, and past decisions to defer modernization. Consequently, prominent and credible voices have stated that the Defense Department needs at least 3-5% growth above inflation—which has, of course, risen substantially in recent months—to resource even the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which called for sharp prioritization above all of the China challenge. This, coupled with China’s galloping military buildup, strongly suggests that far above 5% real growth would be required to do more than laid out in the 2018 Strategy, let alone pursue global military dominance.

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Second, defense increases will take time to bear fruit. Ships, aircraft, and even munitions can take years to produce. And our defense industrial base is not what it once was; inconsistency and uncertainty in budgeting as well as the loss of domestic manufacturing capacity and engineering talent have weakened America’s industrial base. As a result, we are able to construct at most three submarines per year. Even some munitions can take years to build. As a result, it will take time for U.S. defense industry to restart or expand production lines even with increased spending. This means we will find it very difficult to pursue a much more ambitious strategy for many years, if not longer.

Third, even if we spend more, history suggests there is a good chance much of that spending will be inefficiently allocated. The deficiencies we need to address to maintain our ability to deter, no less defeat, aggression by our most powerful adversaries are especially in our air, space, and naval forces. We have too few penetrating bombers, attack submarines, advanced munitions, air defense, and reconnaissance platforms, and have done too little to make our forces in the Western Pacific more resilient and effective. If there are spending increases, but much of the new money is used to buy more tanks, vulnerable surface ships, and expensive short-range aircraft, then those increases won’t help much in addressing China, no less multiple adversaries at the same time.

Fourth, we need to spend a higher fraction of our defense budget on dealing with China in Asia, limiting our ability to pursue dominance in other theaters. This is because we should spend more than merely a bare plausible minimum on China, particularly ensuring our forces are able to prevail in the Pentagon’s “pacing scenario”—Taiwan. The stakes of a war in the world’s most important region between the globe’s two superpowers are too great and the uncertainty of how such a great power war would unfold too profound.

Accordingly, we should spend enough on dealing with China to be very confident we could successfully deny Beijing the ability to subordinate a U.S. ally or Taiwan. In practical terms, this means we should hedge by constructing both long-range strike capabilities less vulnerable to Chinese preemption and resilient forward-deployed forces, not only to build redundancy into our plans but also to impose dilemmas on Beijing’s planning and galvanize allied efforts. The upshot of this is that a greater portion of any defense spending increases should go to Asia than many realize, constraining our ability to pursue multi-theater dominance.

Fifth, we also need to acknowledge that there are no easy routes to restoring global military dominance. The reality is that military investments in today’s environment are less multipurpose or fungible than some contend. Fundamentally, we are not preparing for, say, simultaneous wars against 1990s Iraq and North Korea, over whom our armed forces would dominate, swinging forces such as bombers, tankers, and carriers as needed between the conflicts to address whatever deficiencies might arise. Rather, we are dealing with great powers. In this context, our military investments are much more often zero-sum—they do trade off against each other.

This is partially because of probable attrition. If we are to be prudent in planning for a war with China or Russia, we must assume that our forces would take significant losses, including in the key war-winning capabilities needed to prevail and where our scarcity is most acute. Vital systems like B-2 stealth bombers, attack submarines, satellites, and possibly even aircraft carriers would be lost and critical munitions like long-range anti-ship missiles and land-attack air-launched missiles expended in considerable numbers. Such losses would, if we did not have adequate stocks of replacements, make us highly vulnerable in a second—let alone third—theater, possibly for years given the timelines required for replenishing these forces.

It is also because even those forces that do survive are more likely to be fixed in a given region or for a particular conflict, limiting their flexibility. This is at root because a war with a China or Russia would be a much different affair than, say, defeating the Iraqi military in 2003. Fighting a great power would almost certainly be much tougher and take a considerably longer time in its critical phases—much more a matter of a hard slog simply to prevail in the conventional military contest than a quick shock and awe campaign. In such a context, we would not want to have to remove critical forces from one unfinished fight to go to deal with another conflict. This is a very real dynamic: Germany decided to pull forces from the Western Front in summer 1914 to deal with Russia, and this may have made the difference between victory and stalemate—indeed, ultimately Germany’s defeat.

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Furthermore, forces like attack submarines and surface vessels may not be physically able to transition between theaters in the relevant timeframes. If critical fights happen in concurrent timeframes, as was the case in 1914 and again in the Second World War, key systems may not be able to move fast enough between theaters. And the transit of any forces might well be inhibited by the actions of our opponents, further limiting our ability to swing them between theaters. The upshot of this is that, in order to be able to fight two concurrent major power wars, we would need to buy much more than just one set of major war-winning capabilities. This means a much greater expense is required to deal with the potential for concurrent conflicts with both China and Russia, let alone other threats like Iran and North Korea.

Together, these factors mean we cannot expect to just spend our way back to global military dominance. And this is without mentioning the looming question of whether Americans would, regardless of the strategic merits of such expenditure, support much higher spending on the military, or whether massive increases are advisable in light of our macroeconomic situation.

In light of these reasons, the nation requires a strategy, a clear prioritization of where we put our money, effort, and will. Our strategy should prioritize being able to deny China, our greatest challenge by far, the ability to subordinate Taiwan or another U.S. ally in Asia, while enabling us also to modernize our nuclear deterrent and sustain our counterterrorism efforts. Concurrently, we should ensure an ability to materially contribute in a more limited way to an effective defense of NATO Europe against Russia, even as our European allies assume primary responsibility for their own conventional defense.

Some might argue that Russia’s apparently poor performance in Ukraine suggests that it does not pose such a military threat, and thus that global military dominance is a reasonable goal. This is unfounded. First, we should be cautious about forecasting Russia’s demise; even if it is blunted in Ukraine, history suggests that we should assume Russia will invest in restoring its military power. Moreover, it is likely that Russia would fight the U.S. and NATO in a different way than it has fought against Ukraine. We should not discount the Russian military threat. More fundamentally, though, if Russia’s military threat is less than we thought and is likely to be diminished at least for several years as it recapitalizes its armed forces, then it is all the more prudent for us to prioritize China in Asia. Meantime, Europe is finally stepping up to arms itself, making a much greater European role in NATO’s defense a more attainable goal. Thus, while prioritizing Asia would make sense even under more dire circumstances, we can now do so with more confidence.

Spending more on defense is the right course for the country. But we should not delude ourselves: it will not be a panacea. The fact is that we cannot simply overwhelm the range of threats we face with additional resources. In this situation, we need a clear strategy prioritizing China, and we need to implement it.

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