The Landing Zone | 6.21.17
By Alan W. Dowd

Two years ago, as the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration really began to take its toll, Henry Kissinger identified the crux of the problem confronting Washington – and created by Washington – in this age of declining national security spending and mushrooming national security threats: “The United States should have a strategy-driven budget,” the dean of American statecraft explained, “not budget-driven strategy.”

Regrettably, Washington didn’t heed Kissinger’s advice. And so, hamstrung wars limped on in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan, threats metastasized in North Korea and Iran, Russia and China continued their mischief in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea, and Washington kept asking America’s military to do more with less.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wants to end all that. In a cogent policy paper titled “Restoring American Power,” the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee echoes Kissinger by noting, “For too long, we have allowed budget constraints to drive strategy. It is time to turn this around and return to the first-order question: What do we need our military to do for the nation?”

To unpack that question, McCain divides the globe into three threat environments.

“On the high end of the spectrum, the U.S. military must deter conflict with, and aggression by, Russia and China,” which “aspire to diminish U.S. influence and revise the world order in ways that are contrary to U.S. national interests.” In the middle of the spectrum, America’s military “must contain the malign influence of North Korea and Iran and prevent these states from destabilizing regional order.” (McCain offers a chilling quote from Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley to explain the importance of deterring Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Pyongyang: “The only thing more expensive than deterrence is actually fighting a war, and the only thing more expensive than fighting a war is fighting one and losing one.”) Finally, at the low end of the spectrum, the military “must prosecute an enduring global counterterrorism fight.”

The military has been straining to do all of this for too long without necessary resources from Congress and without essential strategy guidance from the White House. Instead, national security policymaking has “swung from retrenchment to overextension with a dearth of strategy, depleting our margin of global influence.”

Indeed, the era of budget-driven strategy has put spending priorities ahead of strategic interests and national-security needs. A strategy-driven defense budget, by contrast, would put strategy first, define America’s interests, and build a military to promote and protect those interests. As we have seen in the wake of sequestration, budget-driven strategy cuts indiscriminately, limits options and weakens the military. The examples are numerous and worrisome:

• Air Force commanders announced in March that they could run out of money to pay pilots to fly the last six weeks of this fiscal year.

• The Navy fleet numbers 275 ships; combatant commanders say they need 450 ships.

• Marine aviation squadrons are salvaging aircraft parts from museums to keep planes flying.

• As he tries to deter a resurgent and revisionist Russia, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, concedes, “We’ve only got 30,000 (soldiers). We’ve got to make it look and feel like 300,000.” In a similar vein, the Trump administration’s apparent sleight-of-hand with the Carl Vinson during the recent crisis in Korea – trying to make one carrier do the work of two or three – is an indication that the United States doesn’t have the carrier firepower it once had and still needs to coerce foes and reassure allies.

• When President Obama ordered warplanes from USS George H.W. Bush to blunt the ISIS advance in northern Iraq, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert admitted that “they stopped their sorties” over Afghanistan to do so.


Reversing what McCain describes as “budget-driven damage to our military” must be a national priority. But he concedes it won’t be cheap. He calls for some $430 billion in new spending over the next five years, above the Obama administration’s projections. This would translate into a base defense budget of $640.3 billion in fiscal 2018, $662.3 billion in fiscal 2019, $686.5 billion in fiscal 2020, $720.9 billion in fiscal 2021 and $740.5 billion in fiscal 2022.

That sounds like a lot of money. After all, $640.3 billion equals 16 percent of the $4 trillion federal budget and 3.5 percent of America’s $18 trillion GDP. But to put those raw numbers into perspective, consider these comparisons:

In 1943, the United States spent $66.6 billion on defense, representing 84.9 percent of federal spending and 36 percent of GDP. In 1950, it spent $13.7 billion on defense, representing 32.2 percent of federal outlays and 5 percent of GDP. In 1953, the United States spent $52.8 billion on defense, representing 69 percent of federal outlays and 13 percent of GDP. In 1960, it spent $48 billion on defense, representing 52.2 percent of federal outlays and 8.9 percent of GDP. In 1968, it spent $81.9 billion on defense, representing 46 percent of federal spending and 9 percent of GDP. In 1984, the United States spent $227 billion on defense, representing 26.7 percent of federal outlays and 5.8 percent of GDP. And in 1991, it spent $299 billion on defense, representing 23.9 percent of federal outlays and 4.9 percent of GDP.

Those years are chosen purposely. In 1991, the United States was fighting a war in Iraq and began an open-ended security commitment in the Gulf. (U.S. troops are fighting yet again in Iraq today, while continuing to protect Gulf allies.)

By 1984, the United States was mounting a vigorous, albeit belated, response to years of aggression and expansion by Moscow. (Putin is acting aggressively in Eastern Europe and has expanded Russian territory – by force – in Ukraine and Georgia.)

In 1968 and 1953, the United States was fighting pitched regional battles amidst a wider global war (as it is today in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia amidst the wider war on terror).

In 1950, the United States was coming to grips with containing a rising power. (Back then, it was Moscow; today, it’s Beijing.)

In 1943, the United States was waging a global war against a determined and fanatical foe bent on upending the global order. (Back then, it was fascists; todays, it’s jihadists.)

America’s national-security strategy was clear during World War II (defeat the Axis) and the Cold War (contain and deter the Soviet Empire). And those strategies determined America’s national-security budget for half a century.

What is the strategy today?

The past decade has seen the Bush administration wage a far-flung “global war on terror” and call for “ending tyranny in our world”; the Obama administration expunge “global war on terror” from government usage, declare “it’s time to turn the page” on war and “focus on nation-building here at home”; and the Trump administration endorse an “America First” foreign policy that evokes pre-World War II isolationism.

In short, a new national security consensus remains elusive. Perhaps “Restoring American Power” can serve as a way to start rebuilding that lost consensus, while rationalizing how much to spend on national defense.

Surely, the nation that toppled the Soviet Empire, contained world communism and destroyed the Axis can summon the resources and the will to ensure that China’s rise and Russia’s decline don’t lead to great-power war, to deter North Korea and contain Iran, to dismember ISIS and al-Qaida, and to defend the interests and ideals of the West.