I ran the Pentagon under Trump and we need to fight like Reagan

President Joe Biden rightly argues that the world’s democracies are now pitted against a bloc of autocracies led by Beijing and Moscow. This strategic precept was the basis of the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy during my tenure. What we described then as Great Power Competition has evolved into outright conflict in Ukraine and increasing Chinese belligerence in Asia. Things could well get worse. 

Ronald Reagan faced a similar threat from the Soviet Union when he became president in 1981. His solution was to dramatically expand the defense budget to over 6% of GDP, modernize and grow the U.S. military, engage adversaries more boldly, and set forth a goal to “win” against Russia. Such clarity and commitment are missing today. 

Indeed, despite the escalating collaboration among the world’s authoritarians, the Defense Department’s budget is on track to reach its lowest ebb in decades. This makes no sense. The White House should match its spending to Biden’s rhetoric, if not to the threats themselves, if it wants the American people, our allies, and — maybe most importantly — our adversaries to take us seriously.  

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The U.S. is the most innovative country in the world. The Pentagon is working hard to capitalize on this advantage, but its own processes and bureaucracy hold it back. Moreover, congressional appropriators refuse to grant DOD the money and authorities needed to make smart decisions, from quick pivots to new tech with funding the military already has, to allowing multiyear procurements for any number of things the services know they need. 

These shortcomings create problems for the defense economy, too. The accumulation of these and other factors (such as annual funding delays) is profoundly impacting the nation’s ability to field the military we need, forcing the armed services to make tough and, in some cases unwise, decisions. 

For example, budget cuts have hampered the rejuvenation of the U.S. Army that I launched in 2018 and that the current administration continued. Despite successfully launching nearly two dozen modernization programs over the past six years, the Army is being forced to stop or slow some critical initiatives. 

In 2020, when the Navy had 297 warships, we proposed a plan to build and fund a future battle force of 500-plus manned and unmanned vessels to deter Chinese misbehavior. The centerpiece of this plan was to produce at least three nuclear attack subs – the greatest maritime advantage America has – each year for decades. 

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Today, however, the Navy’s ship count is lower and getting worse. The Navy can now construct fewer than two submarines annually, and the service recently proposed to build just one. This is hardly the way one deters the largest navy in the world.  

And the Air Force, also short on funds, continues to “divest to invest” as it fields the smallest fleet since the Cold War. Recently, the service said budget constraints will force it to reconsider its plans to build the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter — a new aircraft to replace the F-22 that will ensure the U.S. can retain overmatch against China and Russia. Further delays to this program, let alone scrapping it, risk putting the U.S. behind our adversaries in developing a sixth-generation fighter that will own the skies one day. 

Beyond significant warfighting platform challenges, the war in Ukraine has laid bare what wargames, particularly those oriented on the Taiwan Strait, have told us time and again: the U.S. has insufficient stockpiles of critical munitions and an inadequate defense industrial base to build them quickly, should America go to war against a major adversary. Solving these problems and sustaining the fix will take years of higher defense spending.  

Meanwhile, Beijing is surreptitiously spending nearly as much on defense as the U.S., though its capabilities are focused on the Indo-Pacific, making the Chinese military more daunting. If America is going to meet its global leadership responsibilities and deter communist aggression, then our defense outlays must dramatically increase.    

Some lawmakers have proposed that the U.S. spend at least 5% of GDP on defense. That’s a solid starting point. Fielding cutting-edge weapons and putting them in the hands of America’s warfighters has always been a winning formula for the U.S. But this approach is expensive and time-consuming. Yet we — and our allies, who must also spend much more — have no alternative or time to waste.  

The only thing more expensive than preventing war is fighting one, and losing one is far worse. While I am confident the U.S. would prevail in a great power conflict, it would be grisly and costly in more ways imaginable.  

That’s why we must return to Reagan’s dictum of “peace through strength” and muster the nation’s resources, ever mindful of the current debt and the burdens we place on American taxpayers, to ensure we can protect them and our interests against authoritarian regimes in the years ahead.

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