Rethinking a modern military during a pandemic
© Greg Nash

The United States leads in defense budgets by a wide margin, accounting for 38 percent of the globe’s total defense spending. The defensive umbrella extends all over the world with little benefit to the security of the homeland. Pressing threats such as global health and climate change are changing the notion of what national security means—and these threats have no clear military solution. The rate of U.S. military spending was unsustainable long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Continuing to divert a large amount of resources towards pre-COVID-19 military threats siphons funds away from where they are needed most: economic recovery. The pandemic’s economic impact is a sobering reminder of President Eisenhower’s warning on military spending, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Inflating the Pentagon’s budget further only weakens other institutions that could make positive contributions to America’s security and well-being. To illustrate the tradeoff between additional military spending and public health, the F-35’s $144 million per aircraft price tag could purchase some 2,800 ventilators. Military power is still important for preventing or responding to some threats, but these challenges should be narrowly defined.

Persistent budget pathologies impede innovation. The Department of Defense, for example, abuses its Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding stream by including items in the spending category that are not related to overseas combat missions as the fund is intended. Since 9/11 Congress appropriated $2 trillion through OCO. This allows the Pentagon to skirt legally mandated budget caps; the OCO funding line alone would make it the fourth largest government agency. The DoD reprograms carefully allocated budget lines against legislative intent, recently stripping billions from the department’s base improvement funds to build a wall with Mexico that no one else will fund.

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On top of these challenges, the structure of the military requires overhaul. We are long past the time when manpower was the key facet of U.S. military strength, now we need a lean and agile fighting force. The United States should also stop investing in old and outdated systems that do not meet the requirements for modern battle. Premier new systems, such as the F-35 fighter program (the Pentagon had requested $11.4 billion to buy 79 F-35s next year) do not meet design goals due to either structural flaws or bureaucratic malfeasance. The Air Force should focus on improving readiness, training, and retention so it can shift away from its recent pattern of doing less with more money.

Ending the forever wars in the Middle East and shifting the Army's priorities toward long-range offense and short-range defense will enable the service to get smaller without sacrificing effectiveness. Investing in new long-range weapons platforms and mobile missile defense will give the ground service the defensive capabilities it needs to survive as other countries develop their own precision strike capabilities.

The U.S. Navy needs to re-think its strategic objectives and shape the force accordingly. COVID-19's economic fallout will make it impossible to achieve the legally mandated 355-ship navy by 2030. The Columbia-class nuclear missile submarine program is useful as a nuclear deterrent, but it will eat up a large share of the service’s shipbuilding budget and potentially crowd out funding for other ships. A distributed fleet architecture based on smaller manned warships, such as frigates, plus a new class of unmanned surface and subsurface vessels, are best suited for meeting future challenges.

The U.S. Marine Corps has a head start on the other services when it comes to finding innovative solutions to their pressing challenges. The service recently released its 2030 force design, which sacrifices several legacy platforms like helicopters and tanks to move the service toward new capabilities like unmanned vehicles and mobile, anti-ship missile systems. The Marines will be in a much better position to fight effectively on future battlefields with a lighter, more agile force.

Finally, America’s approach to strategic deterrence also deserves a fresh look. Our current, overly broad definition of strategic deterrence encourages the creation of a nuclear arsenal that prioritizes flexible response options that are both expensive and excessive for preserving strategic deterrence.

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The United States is ramping up a nuclear modernization plan that could cost well over $1 trillion over 30 years. The fiscal impact of COVID-19 ought to renew serious debate in Congress about which modernization efforts are necessary, given budget cuts on the horizon. Nuclear modernization should not be discarded entirely, but delaying some programs and reducing others would be prudent steps. One such modernization effort that could be scaled back is the B61-12 nuclear bomb. Malfunctioning parts recently added $600-$700 million on top of the bomb’s $9.4 billion expected total cost. Moreover, the modernization plan calls for a new air-launched nuclear cruise missile that U.S. aircraft could launch at long range from their target, making the B61-12 superfluous.

A global health crisis should communicate the need for drastic changes, including how we define threats and what we consider to be normal. The U.S. defense budget was never normal nor built for the defense of the homeland. The time is now to divest from age-old ideas of military strength built on manpower and endless spending.

Brandon Valeriano is the Bren Chair of Military Innovation at the Marine Corps University and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, where Eric Gomez is director of defense policy studies. They are co-authors of “Building a Modern Military: The Force Meets Geopolitical Realities.”