According to a recently released report by The Heritage Foundation, the condition of the U.S. military is “marginal.” The report claims that the U.S. military is “too small” and “too old.” Moreover, “the readiness that we have seen over the several years has been in dramatic decline, given the sorts of things we want the military to accomplish around the world.”
That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who believes we have “not been resourcing our military commensurate with what we ask our military to do.” Their assumption, that the U.S. military can and should inflict more force in order to keep international peace, is deeply flawed.
The Heritage report ranks Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and terrorist groups in the Middle East and Afghanistan as “high” threats to U.S. vital interests. But “vital interests” is too broadly defined here. And vital interests are not the same thing as U.S. national security, which should be the metric for determining U.S. military requirements.
In that regard, Russia—with its nuclear weapons inherited from the former Soviet Union—is currently the only country that is a true existential threat. However, the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal acts as a strong deterrent—just as it did during the Cold War. Similarly, China can also be deterred. And the far weaker, poorer North Korea—which has recently demonstrated long-range intercontinental ballistic missile capability that could reach parts of the continental United States—can be deterred. Despite his provocative rhetoric and actions, Kim Jong-un would have to be suicidal to actually launch a nuclear weapon at the U.S., knowing that the vastly superior U.S. strategic nuclear force could retaliate with utterly devastating effect. The same is also true for the mullahs in Tehran, if Iran ever acquires nuclear weapons and long-range delivery capability.
Moreover, Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran do not possess conventional military power projection capability that directly threatens the American homeland—which has an enviable geostrategic position of two vast oceans on its flanks and friendly neighbors to its north and south.
To the extent that Russia and other nation states pose a threat to the U.S., it is largely in shadowy cyber realm. And effectively dealing with the cyber threat is not the domain of soldiers, tanks, aircraft, ships, submarines, and missiles.
The Heritage Foundation is concerned that “Russia has maintained its active involvement in the conflict in Ukraine,” and “has been more assertive in the Baltic Sea region,” but neither of these are a direct threat to U.S. national security. And if our European NATO allies feel Russia is a threat—they are more than capable of countering Russia. Excluding the United States and Canada, NATO enjoys a near 2-to-1 advantage over Russia (total active duty military is about 1 million personnel—the army is just under half of that) with 1.8 million deployable military personnel. Furthermore, NATO’s European countries’ economies (a combined GDP of $18 trillion) eclipse Russia’s (about $1.3 trillion) by more than 10-to-1, and NATO Europe outspends Russia—more than $240 billion versus $69 billion—by a margin of more than 3-to-1 on defense.
The fact that our wealthy European allies don’t spend more on their own defense is largely because the U.S. subsidizes their security (the U.S. accounts for 22 percent of NATO’s budget).
With regard to China, Heritage worries about its provocative behavior, including “militarization of islands that it has built in highly disputed international waters of the South China Sea.” But these are man-made islands that are the equivalent of stationary aircraft carriers. And like Russia in Ukraine, they are not a direct threat to U.S. national security. Moreover, they are not an impediment to the flow of free trade—and could be easily destroyed if they were. But in an interconnected and interdependent economic world with China as both a global producer and consumer, Beijing has little incentive to constrain trade.
Similarly, Iran has little incentive close off the Straits of Hormuz to stop the flow of oil in the Persian Gulf since its economy is almost wholly dependent on oil exports as a source of revenue and economic survival.
And just as our European allies are rich enough to pay for their own defense, so are our allies in East Asia. Japan is the third largest economy in the world with $4.9 trillion gross domestic product or GDP. South Korea’s GDP is $1.4 trillion, the 11th largest in the world. Indeed, the combined economy of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia—all of whom have a stake in what happens in the South China Sea—is more than $9 trillion, which compares favorably to China’s $11.2 trillion economy.
Terrorism may be a threat to stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it is not an existential threat to U.S. national security. That is not to say that we can afford to ignore terrorism—rather, we must focus on the terrorist threat to America and not get distracted by any radical anywhere in the world. We need to place the terrorist threat—and our response to it—in perspective and apply the appropriate amount of resources to confront this challenge.
According to the Global Terrorism Index, lone wolf terrorism—which, since 2006, accounts for 98 percent of all deaths from terrorism in the United States—is the biggest threat in the U.S. That these are “homegrown” terrorists underscores the fact that killing would-be terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere does not inherently make us safer.
Moreover, Iraq and Afghanistan are exactly the kinds of missions we shouldn’t be asking the military to do. Afghanistan was initially a necessary response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks after the Taliban government refused to give up Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda leadership responsible for those attacks. But well before bin Laden was finally killed in May 2011, the initial counterterrorism campaign morphed into a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban, who were seen as a threat to the fledgling Karzai government in Kabul. As such, the U.S. military effort was no longer about going after those who were responsible for 9/11, but became a democratic nation-building mission.
And Iraq has been the mother of all nation-building missions. Neither are about defending America from direct threats to our national security. In fact, since the end of the Cold War, U.S. military force has been used at least a dozen times by five different administrations: Panama; the first Gulf War; Somalia; Haiti; Bosnia; missile strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan after al Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya; Kosovo; Afghanistan post-9/11; Iraq; drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; Libya; and Syria. But only once—the initial decision to take military action in Afghanistan—was it used as a result of a direct threat to U.S. national security.
The fiscal year 2018 budget request for the Department of Defense is $639.1 billion ($574.5 billion in the base budget and $64.6 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations). As a point of reference, at the height of the Cold War during the Reagan buildup, we were spending the equivalent of $600 billion in current dollars to deter and contain the Soviet Union. Rather than lamenting that we are not resourcing our military and claiming its status is marginal, we need to ask why—in a world without that threat or any equivalent threat—more than $600 billion in Pentagon spending isn’t enough. Instead of trying to manage every threat—regardless of severity or connection to Americans’ safety—we must adopt a more realistic strategy that provides for U.S. national security rather than pays for our wealthy allies’ defense. With a realist grand strategy, we could easily afford to rebuild, modernize, and make ready our military.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than twenty-five years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.