The National Defense Strategy Commission, a bipartisan panel mandated by Congress to evaluate our defense, recently issued its final report. It concluded that due to an erosion of American military superiority, “The security and well being of the United States are at greater risk than at any time in decades.” The report warned, “If the nation does not act promptly to remedy these circumstances, the consequences will be grave and lasting.” In other words, this crisis requires urgent action in Washington.
Ever since 9/11 and until more recently, the Defense Department has not received the timely or sufficient funding required to support operations, maintain readiness, and modernize American forces. As a result, the Pentagon has consistently been forced to postpone modernization to prioritize the preparedness of units immediately scheduled to deploy.
Meanwhile, China and Russia have worked to modernize their nuclear and conventional forces and expanded their capabilities. They now operate against us and our allies in increasingly contested areas such as out in space and cyber domains. They employ asymmetrical forms of economic, informational, and legal warfare to deplete American strength. Their goal is to exploit perceived American vulnerabilities. They ultimately seek to undermine the international order led by the United States that restrains aggressors while encouraging both political and economic freedom.
Washington has struggled to mount an effective response. American military superiority has deteriorated or vanished in significant defense capabilities, and the balance of power in strategic locations such as Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific has shifted to the benefit of our rivals and adversaries, thereby increasing the possibility of conflict. This crisis certainly did not develop overnight, and recovering will require more than a decade. A sustained effort to address this crisis will require bipartisan national security consensus that endures across successive administrations. Unfortunately, the United States is far more divided today than it has been in years. But there are three principles that can serve as the foundation of a renewed national security consensus.
First, our robust system of American alliances represents an incomparable strategic asset we must nurture and strengthen rather than abandon. The administration is correct to pressure our allies to shoulder their fair share of the defense burden, and we should expect disagreements to emerge among allies. Nonetheless, maintaining strong American alliances helps deter aggression, prevent wars, reduces the burden on our military, and secures national interests. As Winston Churchill said, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.”
Second, the security and prosperity of the American people during this century will require the United States to negotiate with China and Russia from a position of strength. When adversaries doubt the capabilities of the United States, they are more likely to undertake provocative actions. Our leaders in Washington must bolster both our military and political power in order to increase the perceived and actual costs that are associated with challenging our core American interests. We must strive to resolve our differences diplomatically, yet success is unlikely without the leverage provided by credible American alliances and unquestioned military power.
Finally, there needs to be a solid commitment to providing the Defense Department with timely and sufficient funding. With broad bipartisan support, Congress and the administration have started to repair the damage inflicted by years of insufficient funding and habitual reliance on continuing resolutions. The $686 billion in 2019 funding for the Pentagon represents a significant increase over the 2017 level. Importantly, the Defense Department also received this funding promptly, beginning the fiscal year with an enacted appropriation for the first time in far too long.
The key now is to sustain this progress. The National Defense Strategy Commission recommended funding growth of 3 percent to 5 percent above inflation for at least five years. With more funding, the Pentagon can continue to implement our defense priorities. It can upgrade the capacity, capability, lethality, readiness, and modernization of our military. Increased funding would enable expanded training opportunities for our troops, as well as more exercises with our allies. It would also enable essential investments in important technologies such as autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, directed energy, and hypersonic missiles.
Without increased funding, all of this becomes far more difficult. A failure to adequately fund our American defense strategy would increase the chances our troops will find themselves in a great power conflict in the coming years that could be difficult to win. It is our obligation to give our troops the resources they need to implement the strategy they have been ordered to support. This principle should indeed overcome partisanship.
The threats we confront are as daunting as we have seen in decades. The great power competition is the overarching challenge, yet we also must deal with Iran, North Korea, and terrorism. With a renewed bipartisan national security consensus focused on strong alliances, a coherent strategy, and sufficient resources, we can build the both the military and political power needed to secure the United States for decades to come.
Kelly Ayotte served as United States senator from New Hampshire. She is now a member of the board of advisers for the Center on Military and Political Power with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Bradley Bowman is a former Senate staffer who served as an Army officer and taught at West Point. He is now senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.