‘Crisis of national security’ demands increased defense spending

In the first week of December, President TrumpDonald John TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE tweeted that his most recent defense budget of $716 billion was “crazy.” He expressed certainty that future agreements with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping will “halt what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race.”

Days later, he asked Congress for a $750 billion defense budget for fiscal 2020, a 4.7 percent increase over the current year. Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisShanahan orders new restrictions on sharing of military operations with Congress: report Pentagon reporters left in dark as Iran tensions escalate Trump officials slow-walk president's order to cut off Central American aid: report MORE supported a $733 billion budget but, it seems, the president chose the larger amount as a hedge against the likelihood that a Democratic-controlled House will object. 

It is encouraging that he reconsidered. A reduction in U.S. defensive needs might be welcome but the impetus for it would have to originate in Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang, Tehran and with Islamic terrorists — something that is wholly unlikely.

While President Obama cut U.S. defense spending, Russia and China increased and modernized their militaries. They continue doing so today.

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According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPI), U.S. defense spending decreased by 13.3 percent from 2008 to 2016 while Beijing’s military budgets increased by 99.2 percent — hardly a race. Nor have the Trump administration’s two defense budgets contributed to an arms race; the bulk of U.S. defense increases have been spent on serious readiness problems caused by years of underfunding.

The administration’s effort to resolve those readiness problems is not complete. A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Dec. 12 found that only “30 percent of (ship) maintenance (has been) completed on time since fiscal year 2012 — leading to thousands of days that ships were unavailable for training and operations.” On the same day, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William Moran told the Senate that the attack submarine USS Boise will enter a shipyard in January following four years out of service; another two non-operational attack submarines are headed to dry dock. Attack subs are critical to U.S. maritime security; among other tasks, they can launch cruise missiles (as did USS Boise against Iraqi targets in 2003), defend carrier strike groups, protect ballistic missile subs, shadow enemy ballistic missile subs, and attack enemy warships or merchant shipping.

President Trump’s request for a budget that would permit U.S. defenses to do more than improve military readiness and start the flow of modern equipment to our forces is sensible. Domestic politics should not drown out what a bipartisan congressional commission reported in November. “Political dysfunction,” it stated, the failure “to enact timely (defense) appropriations,” and growing challenges to the U.S.-led international order have “created a crisis of national security.” The commission is right.

The number of hot spots around the world is growing. Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian patrol boats, a tug and their crews, in late November is a maritime continuation of the conflict between those two states that has troubling possibilities for escalation at sea and on land. The incident is less important for its immediate consequences than for the message it sends to China, which seeks to turn the South China Sea’s international waters into a territorial possession.

The large-scale military exercises that Moscow held with Beijing in September point to a 1930s-like axis. Just as Nixon and Kissinger viewed their 1972 opening to China as a strategic counterweight to the former USSR, Putin and Xi see their strategic friendship as helping to topple the U.S. as the world’s dominant power. 

The Baltic States — members of NATO — are a continuing object of Russian cyber-attacks, media lies fabricated to stir up ethnic Russians, intimidating naval exercises in the Baltic Sea and violations of Baltic airspace. The possibility of an armed Russian descent on the Baltic States is a real challenge to NATO.

Early in December, Israel attacked tunnels that the Iranian-supported terror organization Hezbollah built from Lebanon into Israel, to use as conduits to cut off and attack northern Israeli towns — surpassing the potential of Hezbollah’s growing rocket arsenal which will, eventually, be launched against the Jewish State.

Meanwhile, Iran tested a multiple-warhead ballistic missile. Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report Pentagon to present White House with plans to deploy up to 10K troops to Middle East: report Senate panel rejects requiring Congress sign off before Iran strike MORE condemned the test, but there were too many other events for anyone to notice the simultaneous Iranian claim that its missiles can reach U.S. bases in Afghanistan, the U.A.E. and Qatar.

All of this while political violence and military conflict continue in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

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The potential for armed challenges to the U.S. and its allies is global. The chance that serious escalation in any of today’s simmering conflicts could be contained is low. More likely, U.S. adversaries would exploit an outbreak of regional hostilities by initiating another conflict where the tinder was already smoking. As the National Strategy Defense Commission warned: “The United States is particularly at risk of being overwhelmed should its military be forced to fight on two or more fronts simultaneously.”

U.S. security policy should deter this from happening. The budget that the administration seems ready to propose will begin to modernize the U.S. military and address the gaps in all military services that impede our ability to deter war. 

There will be objections in Congress. Some Republicans are wary of growing government indebtedness; the Democrats’ tilt toward progressive positions will impede their ability to consider that the U.S. faces “a crisis of national security.”

Will Congress listen to the bipartisan commission it appointed? Can Americans and their representatives accept the hard-to-imagine possibility that oscillating defense spending diminishes the nation’s ability to deter re-emergent peer and near-peer competition, that the U.S. does indeed face a crisis in its defenses? Can legitimate national security concerns trump whatever members of Congress feel about President Trump? Do Republicans still believe the national government’s first responsibility is U.S. security? Do Democrats understand their constituents’ concern about the nation’s defenses? 

A recent public letter signed by a bipartisan group of 44 former senators urged current and future senators “to be steadfast and zealous guardians of our democracy by ensuring that partisanship or self-interest not replace national interest.”

President Ulysses Grant made a similar argument at the end of the acrimonious struggle over who would succeed him in 1876.  “If (Samuel ) Tilden was declared elected,” said Grant, “I intended to hand him over the reins and see him peacefully installed … I should have treated him as cordially as I did (Rutherford) Hayes, for the question of the Presidency was then neither personal nor political, but national.

The rebuilding of America’s defenses presents exactly the same question: As the international situation continues to deteriorate, will members of Congress place national interest above political or personal interest?

Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and director of its Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.