American defense needs a renaissance. After a decade of budget cutbacks — and now amid rapid inflation — our military is stagnating. Meanwhile, our adversaries are leaping ahead in weapons technology like never before. Having entered the 21st century unrivaled, our armed forces now find themselves without the resources needed to fight and win a two-front war.
Many would balk at the mere mention of such a conflict, but the reality is that such a scenario is increasingly plausible. Thirty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, we have entered a new kind of Cold War. China and a resurgent Russia both seek to erode American power. The former, led by Xi Jinping, boasts a rapidly growing military that includes the world’s largest navy by ship count. The latter, under Vladimir Putin, has launched the largest land war in Europe since World War II.
It is against this grim backdrop that we must chart the future of American military power.
Fortunately, history offers numerous examples that can inform our thinking. The United States has already waged and won several extended geopolitical contests in the past, and events now require that we rise to the occasion again. We should start by recommitting to President Reagan’s proposition, “We win, they lose,” and by ensuring that our competitive strategies in defense, diplomacy, and elsewhere are geared toward protecting the next American century.
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Historical comparisons have their limits, but there are undeniable parallels between the Cold War and our security environment today. In 1981, President Reagan entered office on the heels of a massive Soviet defense buildup that put Moscow — in the words of Ford secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld — on a path toward “true superpower status.” Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s defense secretary, later observed that this expansion put the Soviets “practically ahead of us in every category.” Soviet military growth culminated in Moscow’s 1979 invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, which lasted for nearly a decade.
There is no doubt China is on a similar expansionist path today — the main difference being that China has exceeded the old Soviet war machine in industrial capacity. The result has been China’s remarkable military rise over the last decade.
U.S. defense planners have noted this dramatic rise. Admiral Charles Richard, who leads U.S. Strategic Command, described China’s nuclear-arms buildup as “breathtaking,” with new missile fields, radars, and satellites popping up regularly. A key milestone in Chinese advancement came last summer with the successful testing of hypersonic missiles — a massive technological leap that some called a “Sputnik moment.” In addition, China has invested heavily in shipbuilding in recent decades, expanding its Navy to 355 ships, surpassing the U.S. Navy’s 297. Beyond its borders, China has built militarized islands and is setting up bases from Cambodia to Djibouti. Admiral Phil Davidson, former chief of Indo-Pacific Command, last year predicted China would invade Taiwan by 2027. As China now responds to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit with intensified military exercises, some analysts expect China to move even sooner.
Unfortunately, much as in 1980, as America’s adversaries appear to be on the rise, American credibility is waning. President Biden’s bungled exit from Afghanistan, his failure to deter war in Ukraine, and his hat-in-hand petitions to OPEC for oil have projected weakness. President Biden’s advisers have pushed for climate-change cooperation with China even as Beijing turns increasingly imperialistic. Biden and his advisers continue to send mixed messages about Taiwan while the administration’s stated policy of “integrated deterrence” leads to naval decline. Iran is racing toward a nuclear weapon, and President Biden’s response has been months of fruitless talks to return to a failed deal. As the failures of the president’s foreign-policy agenda become obvious, the need for serious readjustment becomes all the more urgent.
President Biden’s response to world events increasingly shows that he seems to have forgotten that deterrence requires a formidable fighting force and the will to use it. During the Cold War, stability was built on effective deterrence. This remains true today. Any renewal of America’s standing will begin with a revival of American hard power. The organizing principle of this endeavor must be President Reagan’s old wisdom: “peace through strength.”
This path to recovery by the means of a defense buildup starts with aligning our priorities to the challenge of a two-front war. Beijing has not only built up its military but also declared its intent to use it in the pursuit of hegemony in the Pacific. Our first priority in competing with China must be to regain our military edge. We need a military that can fight and win a Pacific war while still offering credible deterrence on the other side of the world. Such a capability is the surest guarantee of preventing an armed conflict with China and of denying Beijing its strategic aims. Across the Atlantic, the U.S. must focus on strengthening NATO’s eastern front and supporting the infrastructure necessary to ward off an imperialist Russian advance.
There is a blueprint for this realignment. Technological breakthroughs in ballistic missiles, made lethal by the long reach of Strategic Air Command, proved decisive in the Cold War’s early military balance. Reagan historian Will Inboden notes that by the 1980s, U.S. investments in intercontinental ballistic missiles and space-based missile programs left Soviet defense initiatives in the dust.
Reagan’s shipbuilding surge was a game-changer as well. In the 1980s, the U.S. Navy swelled to nearly 600 ships, which allowed the U.S. to apply pressure to the Soviet fleet and contain it around the Eurasian landmass. Frequent naval exercises also forced the Soviet Navy’s hand into revealing new tactics and previously unknown weaknesses. As President Reagan’s Navy secretary John Lehman would later write, it “sent a message to the Soviets that there was a new game in town, and delivered it with something like a two-by-four.”
It is important to remember that this growth in capability required a significant increase in defense spending. Between 1982 and 1986, defense programs received around 6 percent of GDP. The Senate Armed Services Committee has heard repeatedly from defense experts that the U.S. should spend 5 to 8 percent of GDP on defense for the foreseeable future to keep pace with China and other threats. President Biden does not seem to understand this. He has consistently proposed less than 3.5 percent of GDP for defense. Congress jettisoned the President’s meager top-line last year in favor of a substantially higher number, and we are preparing to do so again in FY2023. Smart defense planning would dictate a spending increase to 5 percent of GDP at minimum to thwart our military’s atrophy.
How this money should be spent is another matter. In the broadest sense, we should strive to close gaps in technology — such as in artificial intelligence and anti-satellite weapons — and convert our existing advantages into overwhelming superiority. We also need to ramp up shipbuilding to meet our statutory policy of 355 ships, a policy that I have championed.
These additional investments should be sustained across administrations. Regrettably, years of shifting goalposts from the Department of Defense, in shipbuilding and other key industries, has gutted American industrial capacity. Providing long-term certainty to manufacturers across the board, enabling them to invest in their facilities and hire and train highly skilled workers, will be essential.
A U.S. defense buildup today would likely be welcomed by allies around the world. As historian Hal Brands has noted, allies tend to follow America’s lead in the realm of defense spending, so larger budgets from Washington could encourage our allies to follow suit. In light of increased Russian and Chinese aggression, our allies are increasingly prioritizing defense. Numerous NATO member states are boosting their defense budgets across the board. In this context, it is encouraging to see so many leaders of free nations — such as Britain’s Ben Wallace and Liz Truss, Poland’s Andrzej Duda, and Japan’s Fumio Kishida — pairing a message of military rearmament with the need to protect democracy and freedom. Increased investments from international partners would strengthen NATO as well as new and promising partnerships like the Quad and AUKUS.
Such international cooperation should also take on a moral and rhetorical dimension. Freedom remains our most potent advantage in this great-power competition. The triumph of the West over the Soviet Union was fundamentally a win for freedom over despotism. Like Reagan, we should take every opportunity to assert the moral high ground against unjust systems of government. China is uniquely ripe for such criticism. Despite its impressive material gains, China is struggling to maintain many of its partnerships as one regional power after another gets burned by Beijing. Openly confronting the Chinese Communist Party for its rank illiberalism should be integral to American strategy. The more allies we can bring into the chorus, the better.
But this will require a fundamental restoration of American self-confidence. Part of the genius of Reagan’s defense buildup was that it helped restore a rightful sense of American pride. In the years after the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, our nation had been plagued by “Vietnam syndrome,” a deep dread of overseas military involvements and a sense of doubt about America’s role in the world. Reagan turned the page on that sort of defeatism. He rejected talk of an American “malaise” and reminded us that America is an unparalleled force for good in the world, even the “last best hope of mankind.”
Our service members desperately need such a morale boost from their commander in chief. “Afghanistan syndrome,” as we might call it today, has been devastating for troop morale. Chronic underfunding and growing demands have left service members stretched thin and overworked, resulting in a series of naval and air accidents and a growing burnout rate. Additionally, the spread of toxic gender and race ideologies has damaged unit cohesion among the enlisted and within our military academies, potentially jeopardizing the future leadership of our armed forces. Any viable defense strategy for the years ahead will need to reverse these trends. Congress and the president need to work together to improve quality of life for our troops and to root out corrosive ideologies that are creeping into the services.
Despite many of our divisions in Washington, this ambitious project to revitalize American national defense has bipartisan potential. The Senate Armed Services Committee remains one of the strongest places in Congress for bipartisanship. The Senate recently boosted the president’s FY2023 Pentagon top-line by $45 billion, again with bipartisan support. Similar measures are being debated in the House and enjoy bipartisan support. Carrying that momentum forward for years to come will not just be good strategically but will solidify an emerging consensus on defense issues in Congress.
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In December 1982, President Reagan stood on the shining deck of the newly recommissioned USS New Jersey, a battleship that had seen action in every major American conflict since World War II.
“The call has been sounded,” Reagan said with the star-spangled banner streaming behind him. “America needs the battleship once again to provide firepower for the defense of freedom and, above all, to maintain the peace. She will truly fulfill her mission if her firepower never has to be used.” The New Jersey quickly became a leading vessel in the Pacific fleet, standing watch as the Soviet Union collapsed.
Just as occurred on the New Jersey some 40 years ago, the call to defend freedom has been sounded once again.
What the world needs is good, old-fashioned, American hard power. We should start rebuilding it.
This op-ed originally appeared in National Review.