Shifting the Focus of National Defense

Congress cannot just be “spectators” to national security; they must actively support it as the first duty of the Federal government. “Let me be clear,” said Mattis, “As hard as the last 16 years of war have been, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the U.S. military than the combined impact of the Budget Control Act’s defense spending caps [known as sequester], worsened by operating in 10 of the last 11 years under continuing resolutions of varied and unpredictable duration.”

By William R. Hawkins l February 20, 2018

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, speaks, accompanied by Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Paul J. Selva, during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018 in Washington. Mattis says the administration’s new nuclear strategy pays the right amount of attention to arms control, even as it focuses on strengthening the nuclear force. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Trump Administration has recently released two major policy documents: the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The two are closely linked because the NDS sees the return of great power competition with Russia and China as the central future threat. Both rival powers have nuclear weapons, and American strategic systems must be kept up to date and credible to deter any escalation to all-out war.

On February 6, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) held a “>hearing on both national security documents. The only two witnesses were Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, a retired four star Marine Corps general, and Air Force General Paul J. Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It would be hard to find two men more knowledgeable about the state of today’s armed forces and what they will need to meet the rising challenges of a contentious world. For purposes of this essay, Mattis’ presentation on policy and strategy will receive more attention than Gen. Selva’s discussion of the military details.

Secretary Mattis made explicit the change in strategic focus from what it has been since the end of the Cold War when many thought a “new world order” had again brought “peace in our time.” President Bill Clinton cut the military in the belief that “for the first time in history, the major powers are no longer competing for territory.” After the 9/11 attacks, the threat was deemed to be at the low end of the spectrum; terrorist groups. In 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served in both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations said, “any major weapons program, in order to remain viable, will have to show some utility and relevance to…irregular campaigns.” Yet, such one-dimensional thinking would endanger America’s strategic superiority against the most dangerous threats—rival major and regional powers with the national resources to expand their international influence. And some of these resources have gone to support the expansion of terrorist groups into proxy insurgent armies with territorial ambitions.

“We recognize great power competition is once again a reality. We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorism but in our new defense strategy, great power competition—not terrorism—is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.” Mattis told the HASC. He argued, “Nations as different as China and Russia have chosen to be strategic competitors. They seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models and pursue veto power over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions. Rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran persist in taking outlaw actions that undermine and threaten regional and global stability. Despite our successes to date against ISIS’s physical caliphate, violent extremist organizations continue to sow hatred, incite violence and murder innocents.” The U.S. must be prepared to fight across the conflict spectrum.

Mattis laid out three lines of actions to be taken to restore America’s competitive military edge: build a more lethal force; strengthen traditional alliances while building new partnerships; and, reform the Department’s business practices for performance and affordability. “The nation must field sufficient, capable forces to deter conflict. If deterrence fails, we must win,” declared the SecDef.

In terms of increasing “lethality” Mattis argued, “We cannot expect success fighting tomorrow’s conflicts with yesterday’s weapons and equipment.” The forthcoming 2019 Defense Budget will include greater investments in space and cyber, nuclear deterrent forces, missile defense, advanced autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, and professional military education. “We will prioritize rebuilding readiness, while modernizing our existing force. We are also changing our forces’ posture to prioritize readiness for warfighting in major combat, making us strategically predictable for our allies and operationally unpredictable for any adversary,” Mattis said.

Though many critics still claim that President Donald Trump’s “America First” nationalism means isolationism, Mattis declared that view to be false. Drawing on his own long experience, he argued, “I fought many times, but I never fought in a solely American formation; it was always alongside foreign troops. As Winston Churchill said, ‘the only thing harder than fighting with allies is fighting without them.’ We are stronger when we stand together, and our military will be designed, trained and ready to fight alongside allies. History is clear—nations with allies thrive.”

What has drawn the most attention from liberal critics is the plan to modernize and redesign America’s nuclear arsenal. President Obama dreamed of a world without nukes, but Russia and China kept moving ahead with new nuclear systems and rogue states like Iran and North Korea are seeking them as well. Mattis provided the committee with a chart showing the new systems America’s two great power rivals have deployed just since 2010. The U.S. must respond. Plans are underway to produce new land-based missiles to replace the 400 Minuteman III missiles, the new B-21 strategic bomber, and the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine to replace older Ohio-class submarines. This massive rebuilding program may take 30 years or longer. Mattis also called for redeploying nuclear cruise missiles on Navy warships, which were removed at the end of the Cold War.

Mattis and the NPR also want nuclear warheads that are smaller than what is deployed today. “It’s to make certain that no one thinks that they could use a low-yield weapon and put us in a position where we could only respond with a high-yield weapon, with the supposition that maybe we would not.” This is primarily a response to Russia’s deployment of small nukes. It has long been known that Russia has placed more emphasis on “tactical” nuclear weapons because they are no longer able to field large conventional forces. Moscow’s economic and population base is much smaller than that of the disintegrated Soviet Union. Mattis made clear that these reforms were still meant to deter escalation and prevent a nuclear war; not start one.

Mattis in his prepared statement did not go beyond how to reform the conduct of business at the Pentagon, which was unfortunate because a protracted competition with other major powers, especially with fast-growing China, means reforming wider economic policies to strengthen the nation’s defense industrial base. At a HASC hearing January 30 on “Readying the U.S. Military for Future Warfare” Thomas G. Mahnken, President and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, stated, “We need a defense industrial base, and a national security innovation base, that is capable of supporting protracted operations.” Jim Thomas, Principle and Co-Founder of the Telemus Group and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, argued, “Our defense industrial base, however, is ill-suited for such a conflict. While the United States and its close allies have, in the aggregate, excess capacity for shipbuilding and aircraft manufacturing, they have grossly inadequate industrial capacity for precision munitions, trusted foundries for microelectronics, and advanced sensor production to support a large-scale and likely protracted war against one or more great powers.”

Both men also called attention to the economic threat posed by China. Thomas noted, “China’s military challenge is driven largely by the wealth it has generated as an economic powerhouse and used to acquire formidable full-spectrum military capabilities for righting what it perceives as a century of foreign humiliation.” The U.S. has contributed to China’s rise by allowing nominally American corporations to transfer large amounts of technology, capital and managerial skills to Beijing, whose industrial expansion has been supported by massive trade surpluses. Indeed, over the last twenty years, the U.S. has sent China over $4 trillion dollars via the trade deficit alone.

On one critical economic issue, Mattis did echo the concern of Mahnken and Thomas: the transfer of technology to China. On the threat posed by China’s desire to buy American companies to obtain technology, Mattis said he supports legislation that would strengthen Federal government controls over such acquisitions. Gen. Selva agreed with him, calling for a stronger role for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS).

Where the military lacks allies is not overseas, but in the Congress. Mattis put it bluntly, “I regret that without sustained, predictable appropriations, my presence here today wastes your time, because no strategy can survive without the funding necessary to resource it. We all know America can afford survival.” After all, the U.S. has the world’s largest, most advanced economy. It does not lack the means to maintain its primacy in world politics; it just lacks the political will to match the ambitions of those leading Russia and China.

Mattis tellingly noted, “Congress mandated this National Defense Strategy—the first one in a decade—then shut down the government the day of its release. Today, we are again operating under a disruptive continuing resolution.” Continuing resolutions are the result of Congress, including the Republican majority, failing to do its work on its most essential function: approving budgets for the various departments of government. Of the 12 regular annual appropriations bills, the House has only passed three (one of which was Defense), while the Senate has passed none.

“Let me be clear,” said Mattis, “As hard as the last 16 years of war have been, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the U.S. military than the combined impact of the Budget Control Act’s defense spending caps [known as sequester], worsened by operating in 10 of the last 11 years under continuing resolutions of varied and unpredictable duration.”

The two-year budget passed by large bi-partisan majorities in the early hours of February 9 is a step forward, as it lifts the sequester limits on defense, calling for a $165 billion increase over the next two years. But it does not appropriate any of this money, only authorizes it. Actually, the deal only extends the current level of federal funding until March 23. Congressional appropriators will have to draft the details of the longer-term plan, which will have to be voted on again in both chambers.

Like President Ronald Reagan had to do to obtain support for the military buildup that won the Cold War, President Trump will have to buy Democratic votes with increased spending in other areas. Liberals see the military as just another special interest to be horse-traded, not a national interest to be supported on its merits. So, whether the armed forces get what they need to face the return of Great Power competition is still in doubt in Congress.

Congress cannot just be “spectators” to national security; they must actively support it as the first duty of the Federal government. This is an example that shows why mature political systems evolve toward executive authority; legislative bodies always prove to be factious and unreliable.

William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the Conservative-Online-Journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.