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The President, not Congress, Should Lead the Defense Reset

The passage of the Fiscal Year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) last month offers an opportunity to reassess the future of the U.S. defense program in the context of how the U.S. should plan, program, and budget for defense throughout the period of the Great Power Competition. The willingness of Congress, for a second consecutive year, to increase defense spending by tens of billions of dollars above the President’s Budget clearly demonstrates that the political will exists in the country, through our elected representatives, to support a much more robust U.S. defense posture than the one envisioned in the President’s Budget submissions of the past two years.

The need to develop a new approach to U.S. defense planning that is far more robust than that of the past two budget cycles was dramatically underscored in calendar year 2022 by the changed security and threat environment caused by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and China’s increasing belligerence throughout the Indo-Pacific region and, in particular, toward Taiwan.  This new and evolving security landscape promises to dramatically alter U.S. defense planning, programming, and resource priorities for years to come.

Russia’s aggression is not simply an existential threat to Ukraine, it is the first great security challenge of this new era – one that the U.S. and the West simply cannot afford to lose. The recent Ukrainian counteroffensive demonstrates the efficacy of a more offensive-oriented war posture for Kyiv. The U.S. and its NATO allies should commit to providing continued military support to Ukraine for the long haul – throughout the remainder of 2023 – and toward the objective of helping Ukraine achieve its goals of freedom, territorial integrity, and full sovereignty. The liberation of Crimea and significant parts of the Donbas in 2023 are reasonable goals, but these cannot be achieved without the provision of more offensive capability to Ukraine.

Ukraine needs weaponry that can provide it the capability to conduct combined arms, air, and ground operations across multiple regions. The recent U.S. announcement of $2.5 billion in Presidential Drawdown authority for security assistance to Ukraine is encouraging, but the U.S. will need to continue such transfers throughout calendar year 2023. The U.S. should accelerate transfers of surface-to-air missiles (e.g., Patriot, NASAMS), infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers (e.g., Bradleys, Strykers), and more battlefield munitions.  Thankfully, much of this is now occurring, after months of unnecessary delay. The UK and Poland are strong partners in the effort.  The Ukrainians will continue to need multiple launch rocket systems and long-range strike weapons; this should include the transfer of the long-range U.S. ATACMS for deep strike capability. NATO should consider provision of attack helicopters and tactical aircraft with advanced air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities. Finally, the Ukrainians can effectively use German Leopards and French light tanks; the U.S. should take the lead and break the logjam over the tank transfer issue by also providing a limited number of M-1 tanks (long-term Marine Corps plans under Force Design 2030 project a divestment of their M-1s).

China’s growing challenge to a free and open Indo-Pacific requires a resolute and determined defense resource strategy that provides fundamental, long-term changes to resource distribution and operational planning throughout the Indo-Pacific theater. The recent U.S.-Japanese defense and security cooperation initiatives are a welcome first step, including initiatives to upgrade Tokyo’s counterstrike capabilities and consideration of joint command-and-control arrangements. As we transition toward a larger force posture in the Indo-Pacific, and also distributed architectures, communications, logistics, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance networks, the U.S. and its regional partners will require additional resources for force capability, capacity, and readiness upgrades. Areas of emphasis should include naval, maritime, and air forces (including unmanned underwater vehicles), ballistic missile defense, hypersonic weaponry, small satellite surveillance technology, leveraging artificial intelligence and robotics, and an integrated defense architecture for Guam. The U.S. must support and encourage its friends and allies throughout the region, including those of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. Finally, the Administration should take the initiative and firmly commit to rebuilding the U.S. Navy, toward the goal of a 350-ship force (both manned and unmanned) and redirect Navy studies toward the industrial base and personnel management issues associated with that decision. The commitment to doing so must come from the Commander-in-Chief.

While congressional actions of the past two years to increase defense spending are indeed welcome, additional reflection is in order before deciding that this is the best way for America to seek permanently to change its defense posture. Presidential leadership is always the key component to any successful “defense reset.” The FY24 President’s Budget and FY25 planning process will provide better vehicles to conduct a serious defense reset and enable the Department of Defense (DoD) and its industry partners to take the initiative to address the capability, capacity, and readiness changes that need to be taken during the Great Power Competition. The U.S. defense program has lagged in the years since the Budget Control Act of 2011, varying between negative and modest real growth, with inflation now also a serious problem. The FY23-27 defense program would have perpetuated suboptimal defense growth far below the rate of inflation – a situation deemed unacceptable by Congress.

By definition, negative real growth will be inadequate to meet the challenges posed by China and Russia in the future security environment we now face.  Continuation of negative real growth would bend, if not break, U.S. defense strategy at precisely the wrong time – as China continued its Indo-Pacific build-up and Russia conducted an aggressive war against Ukraine. A sustained program of defense real growth is a clear necessity and should be fully justified by the Administration to both Congress and the American people.

The two best historical examples of presidential defense leadership are those of Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. FDR, in the face of Nazi and Japanese aggression in Europe and the Far East, rallied the country in 1940-41 to a major defense build-up and advanced Lend-Lease, the Destroyer Deal, and Selective Service, all despite lingering American isolationism. Roosevelt prepared the country for the long haul, and along with Churchill led the Allied Powers to victory in World War II. In his first year as President, Ronald Reagan proposed a major supplemental defense appropriation for FY 1981, achieved a $35 billion boost for FY 1982 ($56 billion in $FY23), initiated a strategic nuclear force modernization program, and advanced a 15-carrier, 600-ship Navy under the leadership of its Secretary, John Lehman. The U.S. defense budget doubled over a five-year period. Identical actions such as these are not needed today, but they underscore an important point – there is no substitute for strong presidential leadership in the conduct of defense and foreign affairs. Strong presidential leadership is needed once again.

Far more focus and attention on defense are needed from the Biden Administration and the entire executive branch. The Commander-in-Chief should direct the National Security Council and Office of Management and Budget to oversee, defend, and publicly communicate the need for an expanded defense program. This, by definition, must go far beyond issuing the national security, defense, and military strategies. For as the late military strategist Bernard Brodie noted, “Strategy Wears a Dollar Sign.” The President and his national security team should seize the moment and explain to the country the need for an expanded defense program in this more threatening era of Great Power Competition. Congress itself cannot provide the requisite leadership – it is far too divided, with too many competing epicenters of power, and isolationist wings resident within both political parties. Moreover, efficiency in defense spending can be best realized if the Department of Defense (DoD) and the military user community work the requisite changes through the planning, programming, and budgeting process, rather than relying long-term on congressional add-ons, many of which will lie outside of DoD’s top defense priorities or may be coming at an inappropriate juncture in the planning cycle.

To increase defense spending responsibly, the U.S. needs an extended-year, long-range plan from the executive branch – one that would annually increase defense spending above the rate of inflation within the range of additions Congress has shown it is willing to support over the past two budget cycles – roughly $30-45 billion. Quick fixes, such as one-year, $100 billion add-ons, and exhortations to grow defense up to 5% of GDP are not what is needed.  Instead, there must be a long-term commitment to defense real growth that can provide stability and predictability to both the military departments and the U.S. defense industry. To those who say it cannot be done, I would argue that it has been done before – the examples of the Reagan and Bush 43 administrations prove it.

Critical areas of emphasis should include Navy shipbuilding, tactical aviation and land power modernization, recruitment and retention, revitalization of the defense technology base, and strategic nuclear force and ballistic missile defense modernization. To meet the Biden Administration’s expanded set of U.S. commitments to Europe – the deployment of an additional 20,000 troops, the establishment of a permanent V Corps headquarters in Poland, enhanced rotational deployments of armor, aviation, air defense, and special operations units, along with additional training and exercises – additional resources will also be required to implement this critical set of initiatives.  Significantly, it will take years to rebuild a U.S. Navy fleet cut nearly in half since the end of the Cold War. The commitment to rebuild it must come from the Commander-in-Chief.

The domestic challenges to such a defense reset are significant. The U.S. economy is experiencing high inflation, and the federal budget is projected to have $1 trillion deficits or higher over the next ten years. Interest on the public debt has exploded, and annual interest on the debt is projected to surpass defense by FY29. The U.S. must get its fiscal house in order, address inflation, and get focused on its real, long-term defense requirements. To delay simply invites more difficult defense management problems for future Presidents and Congresses down the road, just as the defense and security elements of the Great Power Competition begin to build and intensify.

There is no valid reason why President Biden could not seek a major increase to defense as did FDR and Reagan. The time to move out is now, before the scope of the problem magnifies even further. Defense spending should be increased to meet the challenges of the Great Power Competition – and can be done so with determined presidential leadership.

Dr. Wayne Schroeder is an Adjunct Professor at The Institute of World Politics and Marymount University, and Fleet Seminar Professor at the U.S. Naval War College. He is also a member of the Board of Advisors at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council. He was Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Resource Planning and Management) and a Professional Staff Member with the U.S. Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. The views expressed herein are his own and should not be construed to be those of the institutions with which he is affiliated.

IWP Course on Defense Strategy, Planning and Budgeting