America’s military superiority “has eroded to a dangerous degree,” leaving the national security “at greater risk than at any time in decades,” a bipartisan commission warned Wednesday in a congressionally mandated report.
The National Defense Strategy Commission, made up of 12 Republican and Democratic national security experts selected by Congress, was tasked with evaluating the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), released last January, which seeks to restructure the military, with a particular focus on preparing to meet renewed challenges from China and Russia in addition to threats from Iran, North Korea and radical terrorist groups.
The panel endorsed the new strategy and its emphasis on future competition and conflict with those rising powers. But it warned that the strategy “too often rests on questionable assumptions and weak analysis, and it leaves unanswered critical questions regarding how the United States will meet the challenges of a more dangerous world.”
Rising risks: America’s ability to defend itself, its allies and its interests “is increasingly in doubt,” the report says. Shifting regional military balances in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East are undermining the confidence of U.S. allies and emboldening adversaries, raising the likelihood of military conflict.
“The U.S. military could suffer unacceptably high casualties and loss of major capital assets in its next conflict. It might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia. The United States is particularly at risk of being overwhelmed should its military be forced to fight on two or more fronts simultaneously,” the panel warns. Resource shortfalls and other factors also threaten the military’s ability to meet other goals, such as being able to defeat a major power while maintaining deterrence in other parts of the globe.
Big budget questions: The commission says that, despite a $716 billion overall defense budget — “four times the size of China’s and more than 10 times that of Russia,” The Washington Post notes — the military “unequivocally” does not have the resources it needs to carry out the new National Defense Strategy. And it says that money saved by planned Pentagon reforms won’t be enough to properly fund the new approach.
“It is beyond the scope of our work to identify the exact dollar amount required to fully fund the military’s needs,” the report says. “Yet available resources are clearly insufficient to fulfill the strategy’s ambitious goals, including that of ensuring that DOD can defeat a major-power adversary while deterring other enemies simultaneously. The available resources are also insufficient to undertake essential nuclear and conventional modernization simultaneously and rectify accumulated readiness shortfalls. America is very near the point of strategic insolvency, where its ‘means’ are badly out of alignment with its ‘ends.’”
The panel blamed political dysfunction, defense spending cuts imposed under the Budget Control Act of 2011 and uncertainty resulting from lawmakers repeated failure to enact timely annual appropriations. And it said that, while the increased defense spending approved by Congress as part of a bipartisan two-year budget deal is a good first step, the lack of longer-term budget growth and continuing threat of chaotic and unpredictable budgeting all could hobble the new strategy.
“Without additional resources, and without greater stability and predictability in how those resources are provided, the Department will be unable to fulfill the ambition of the NDS or create and preserve U.S. military advantages in the years to come,” the report says. “There must be greater urgency and seriousness in funding national defense.”
The recommendations: The commission called on Congress to again lift budget caps for fiscal 2020 and 2021 and increase the base defense budget by an average of 3 percent to 5 percent a year above inflation. The panel also said Congress should transfer overseas contingency operations funds — money set aside for wars and other operations — back to the base budget, and it recommended that lawmakers provide the military with more funding certainty by producing multi-year defense budget agreements.
“Above all, Congress must fix a broken funding process that wreaks havoc on readiness and the defense program, and avoid the temptation of viewing defense cuts as the solution to the nation’s fiscal problems,” the report says. “Those problems must be addressed through a holistic approach that scrutinizes the entire federal budget—especially mandatory spending— as well as taxes to set the nation on a firmer financial footing.”
The call for increased defense spending comes as a new Congress arrives in Washington and prepares for some likely battles over the 2020 budget — and it comes after the White House, faced with rapidly rising deficits, last month ordered a modest cut to the overall defense budget for the next fiscal year.