NDIA PERSPECTIVE DEFENSE DEPARTMENT
Tough Choices for Military, Political Leaders
The strategic environment has changed drastically since the Soviet Union’s fall and the rise of China. Our current National Security Strategy accurately defines the threats we face in emerging great power competition, as well as the steps needed to protect the nation. The dilemma, of course, is current operations to fight violent extremist organizations continue. So, moving forward, we have some very tough choices to make.
Making these choices requires us to accept some basic truths. First, our economy is foundational to our national power. Our deficit and debt threaten the economy and, therefore, national security. Entitlements and interest on the debt are the primary drivers of deficit spending, not the defense or domestic discretionary budgets.
Second, since World War II — and to an even greater extent since the end of the Cold War — the United States has served as the primary guarantor of world peace and security, creating conditions allowing prosperity to flourish in the United States and around the globe. If we withdraw from current engagements, China, Russia and other bad actors will fill the vacuum to the detriment of U.S. strategic interests.
Finally, as the military transforms while simultaneously trying to control defense spending, we encounter a natural tension between the defense industry that must produce shareholder value with acceptable profit margin and the government that wants to maximize capability and capacity with every taxpayer dollar.
The first step is determining whether the nation can muster the political will to address entitlements. Unfortunately, I am not optimistic. I think political leaders are capable of crafting tax reform, health care reform and continuing to grow the economy, which are all necessary to protect our economic strength. However, the current lack of bipartisanship threatens the ability to deliver real, required policy change on entitlements. I simply don’t see the political will to address this challenge to eliminate deficit spending and tackle long-term debt.
Absent political will, the Defense Department will see flat budgets with decreasing purchasing power due to inflation and rising personnel costs. This truth drives the department to make tough choices about priorities and risk, with clear articulation of where we will lead the world and what we will no longer do to make resources available for fielding required world class capabilities.
We must continue to lead in partnerships and alliances. We must sustain and even grow U.S. engagement around the globe. In many countries, the United States remains the “shining city on the hill.” So, across all elements of national power, we must continue to nurture and grow our friends, partners and allies, one of our asymmetric strengths compared to our competitors. We must strengthen those relationships and take full advantage of them; the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.
Sustaining and growing partnerships and alliances is one of the easier decisions. Far more difficult are choices between funding critical defense modernization versus sustaining capacity for current operations. We know adversaries have studied the “American way of War” for 25 years concentrating their efforts and resources on asymmetric capabilities to counter and defeat legacy systems and capabilities.
We must innovate and modernize to stay ahead while prioritizing unpredictability to ensure the nation remains on the right side of the adversarial cost curve. We must do this while remaining engaged around the globe. Tough choices between balancing modernized capability versus legacy capacity will define our ability to effectively counter the existing and emerging threats defined in the National Security Strategy.
The Defense Department and all of the services grapple with these tough choices. Last year, the Army moved tens of billions of dollars over the future years defense program to address great power competition. The Army also executed its largest reorganization in decades, establishing Army Futures Command solely to grow capability faster, more effectively and efficiently while maintaining sufficient land force capacity.
The Air Force will unveil similar choices in the fiscal year 2021 budget request. For example, the Air Force Digital Century Series fighter aircraft program and new Vanguard programs are the leading edge of changing the way the Air Force designs, builds and acquires capability.
The Navy and Marines are also tackling tough choices through distributed maritime operations and fleet Marine force/expeditionary advanced base operations concepts to counter adversaries while maintaining capacity for global presence.
Finally, Defense Secretary Mark Esper took his “Night Court” to the department’s “Fourth Estate,” to eliminate waste and redundancy to free-up resources for the pointy end of the spear. And, his team continues to work with Congress to prioritize acquisition reform to deliver game-changing technology to the warfighters “better, cheaper, faster.”
Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of time. Leaders in China, Russia and other competitor nations enjoy streamlined decision making, allowing rapid greenlighting of programs targeting areas where America lags technologically. We need leaders to recognize the need for decisive action to ensure the United States retains a competitive advantage diplomatically, informationally, militarily and economically.
Our National Security Strategy clearly defines areas where we must invest and offers methodologies for accepting near-term risk to achieve long-term objectives. We must work together to master the art and science of building the world’s best military with the right mix of capabilities and capacity. Failure to make required tough choices will ensure America falls behind peer competitors, with negative consequences for the nation and the world.
I am optimistic our talented defense leaders will make tough choices to ensure the military remains the best in the world.
Hawk Carlisle is president and CEO of NDIA.