It’s impossible not to see that the relatively benign security environment of the early post-Cold War years has given way to an increasingly dangerous world. Today, there is a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington that America’s armed forces need help, and that the defense budget cuts caused by sequestration must be undone. Despite this, policymakers and politicians alike have lacked a clear roadmap for responding to this new reality.  

Until now. In a new report, “To Rebuild America’s Military,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies defense team proposes a detailed, comprehensive strategy to correct the current course and enable the next administration to rebuild America’s military. 

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A sound defense plan begins by understanding the purpose of the armed forces: protection of the vital, transcendent interests of the United States. America’s military strength maintains the peace by deterring aggression against the United States. It also supports other tools of national influence, such as diplomacy, economic power, and intelligence. 

Such a plan must also provide a framework for building the force. What size should the armed forces be? What should they be shaped to do?  

The military’s highest goal is to deter—to prevent both aggression and war. To accomplish this goal, the official policy has been that the military needed to be big enough to fight and win two regional conflicts simultaneously. 

In reality, the armed forces have rarely been sustained at this level. As a result, U.S. forces have been overworked and spread thin across the world. 

Today, the two-region standard no longer suffices. When risks are not managed at an early stage, they grow; today, the United States faces serious threats in Europe, the Pacific, and the Middle East.

To control these threats, the next administration will have to adopt a three-theater approach to determine the size and shape of the U.S. military. 

The United States must now deter Russian and Chinese aggression while securing American interests in the Middle East. America is no longer able to pivot away from one region to focus on another. 

A one-size-fits-all force is also not the answer. Every service has a special role to play in each of those three theaters. Firepower and rapid response may be needed in one case, while long-term presence may be the only answer somewhere else.

To fulfill varied and multiple roles and requirements, U.S. forces should not be homogeneous. No military element should be overemphasized at the expense of others. 

To undo decades of decay, American political leadership will need to rebuild the military’s capacity by boosting the size of the Army to 600,000 soldiers, returning the Marine Corps to 200,000 Marines, expanding the Air Force's F-22 stealth fighter fleet to 450 jets, and enabling the Navy to support a fleet of 323 to 346 ships. 

In addition, the inventory of the military has been neglected for decades. For example, the workhorse of the Air Force bomber fleet, the B-52, is 50 years old. 

The equipment of each of the services must be modernized through the acceleration of current procurement programs, rapid deployment of new systems, and selective investments in next-generation technologies. 

These problems cannot be fixed overnight. Long-term, sustained investments in the armed forces will be necessary. 

The first step—the first order of business for the next president—is to end sequestration for the Pentagon. In 2014, the bipartisan National Defense Panel recommended that defense spending return to the 2012 budget levels proposed by then secretary of defense Robert Gates. Rebuilding America’s military for a three-theater standard requires a substantial budgetary commitment.

This report is the beginning of a national discussion, not an end. Presidential candidates, Congress, and military leaders should develop their own plans to restore American military strength and repair the foundation for peace and security in the United States before the inauguration of the next president in 15 months.  

There is a price to leadership and strength, and after the Cold War many in America grew tired of paying it. But there is a price to weakness too, and Americans today are growing weary of paying that price. They are running out of patience with cyberattacks on our homeland, the kidnapping and killing of our citizens, the slaughter and oppression of innocents in the Middle East, the spread of nuclear weapons to fanatical regimes, and the arrogance of Chinese, Russian, and Iranian dictators who threaten us and our allies and prophesy our downfall. 

American resurgence is primed to occur. It can’t come soon enough. When it does, the country’s armed forces will be the foundation of peace and security, as they have for decades. 

Our servicemen and women are the best in the world. “To Rebuild America’s Military” provides a plan for ensuring that there are enough of them to defend their country, and that they have what they need to accomplish their missions.

Talent served in the Senate from 2002 to 2007, and in the House from 1993 to 2001. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he directs the National Security 2020 Project at The Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.