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Video: U.S. Defense Priorities and Budgeting

Dakota L. Wood October 14, 2020
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Event Date: October 14, 2020


Too many American policymakers have lost the sense of how big the defense budget must be to field the military required to deter potential aggressors or defeat actual ones. One reason for the forgetfulness, said Dakota Wood, Heritage Foundation senior research fellow on defense programs, told a Jewish Policy Center webinar on October 14 has been the global war on terrorism.

Wood, a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, and his colleagues at Heritage have examined the economic strength that helped enable America to lead its NATO allies in defeating the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact satellites in the Cold War. They found “the numbers really matter.”

During the Cold War U.S. defense spending averaged five percent of gross domestic product annually. Today, facing an expansionist China determinedly modernizing and enlarging its military; an opportunistic Russia; nuclear-armed North Korea and a terrorism-supporting, nuclear weapons-seeking Iran instead of the Soviet bloc, an American defense budget at five percent of GDP would total $1 trillion. But “people choke on [current military funding] of $700 million or $750 million,” said Wood, senior editor of Heritage’s “Index of U.S. Military Strength.”

Further, until the war against Islamist terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaeda destruction of New York City’s World Trade Center and attack on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., U.S. strategy assumed the ability to fight and win two major conflicts simultaneously. After 9/11, Wood said, the United States scaled down fighting smaller, technologically less sophisticated terrorist enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq. These adversaries deployed no navy, no air force and possessed no ability to disrupt global American deployments.

Partly as a result, today the United States likely could fight and win one major conflict, “but it would take everything we have and longer” than expected.

“People don’t understand how old our military equipment is,” he added. “The average U.S. Air Force fighter plane is 30 years old, the average for more than half the surface ships in the Navy is 20 years or older.”

Meanwhile, the size of the U.S. Army has shrunk from 770,000 near the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s to under 480,000 troops today. The Marine Corps has dropped from 27 infantry battalions (roughly 750 Marines per battalion) to 24.

From a peak of 594 ships in 1987, the U.S. Navy now has 297 on active duty Wood said. “Our navy is trying to operate in many parts of the world,” he noted. But no more than 100 or so vessels are on patrol at any one time. The rest are in port for maintenance, beginning sea duty or returning from it.

They face the People’s Liberation Army Navy of about 350 vessels, many of them modern, all of them concentrated near China or in Indo-Pacific waters, Wood said. The Pentagon has called for a building program also to provide a 350-ship navy, but that will take decades and an industrial base the United States no longer possesses.

The country is “digging ourselves out of a very deep hole,” he stressed. For example, right now the United States has only one final assembly plant for the new F-35 fighter plane, only one for the military’s main battle tank. There is no shipyard “surge capacity” for naval construction either.

There are potential positives, Wood said. “We’re doing much better under [President Donald] Trump.” Alarm bells were ringing about military readiness when former Defense Secretary James Mattis took office, he stated. Maintenance backlogs have been reduced and “combat readiness is much better than three years ago.” Still, more needs to be done.

China has military equipment as good as that of the United States in some areas, but given America’s long, current experience gained on a variety of battlefields, probably not a similar ability to use it. “The Chinese know this.”

Another plus is that during the Trump administration and expansion of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to produce oil and natural gas, the United States has gained energy independence, Wood noted.

But while the defense department has come to recognize China as an adversary and potential enemy, not merely a competitor, many in the private sector want to sell to a global market in which the Chinese economy ranks as second largest. “Look at China’s influence in Hollywood [on movies like Disney Studio’s Mulan] and the NBA [National Basketball Association,” Wood said. [China provides the league a huge television market; in return, some team managements and players have stifled criticism of Beijing’s human rights abuses.]

“China has been stealing from us for the past 20 years and more … and most of this is cutting-edge technological developments in the private sector,” he said. “To the extent we have tens of thousands of Chinese students studying in our best universities under top professors … to take that knowledge home to China, or burrow into U.S. industries” Beijing “saves all that money from research and development … and spends it on the final products.”

Public pressure on elected politicians and corporate executives is necessary to offset China’s influence, Wood said.

Large as China looms in U.S. strategic planning, there’s more to the world. During the Cold War the United States and its allies could focus on the Soviet challenge in Europe. Now potential threats span much of the globe, Wood noted.

Modern technology can enable smaller units to operate more efficiently, he said. But the smaller-scale war against terrorism, lasting nearly a generation, induced something like amnesia regarding “what it took to play ‘big-ball.’” he added. Cyber-warfare, hypersonic missiles and other advances in military technology don’t obviate the requirement of sufficient numbers of forces to gain and hold strategic territory, and quite possibly in multiple locations worldwide.

“Technologists are always excited at the possibilities,” he acknowledged. Artificial intelligence, advanced electrical batteries that would reduce or eliminate the need for bulky and potentially vulnerable shipments of oil, and other advances often are billed as game-changers. Nonetheless, they always arrive much later than forecast, at greater cost, and don’t necessarily permit reductions in personnel, Wood said. An unmanned aerial vehicle or drone provides infantry with more precise, real-time intelligence, but requires its own operators, base maintenance and so on.

The result? According to Wood, “today we have a [defense] budget three-fourths the size it needs to be” and, given Washington’s global commitments and alliances, “a force two-thirds the size it needs to be.”

Diplomacy and free-market capitalism are much to be preferred when dealing with international relations and world trade, respectively, Wood said. However, “we’ve found we can’t have such good relations without military strength” for ourselves, to reassure allies and draw neutral nations toward us.

The defense budget and size of the U.S. military are not the only things smaller proportionately or quantitatively since the Cold War or war on terrorism, Wood pointed out. America’s allies, particularly in NATO, aren’t what they used to be.

Britannia once ruled the seas, but “the British Royal Navy today has 17 surface combatant” ships, he said. Germany has had to subcontract training its military helicopter pilots to civilian firms. Berlin’s biggest trading partner is China, Russia is its major energy supplier and would become even more predominant if the nearly-completed Nordstream natural gas pipeline—opposed by the United States—is completed.

America’s Cold War allies field much smaller militaries across the board, according to Wood. Still, if burden-sharing is less likely in terms of troops and equipment, transferring  support with intelligence, communications and other functions may be helpful, he said.

As for the all-volunteer military, “when we do bring in bright, young, capable people to the U.S. military … the team-building that occurs is outstanding.” Wood said.  “I’m always optimistic” about America’s ability to meet its challenges. “I’m just concerned about how painful it is to get there.”