Policymakers in the White House and Congress are coming under criticism for rejecting the Navy’s plans to retire the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman just halfway through its projected service life. The Navy’s rationale in proposing early retirement for Truman is to save money and invest its finite resources into addressing urgent threats in the cyber domain, which makes good sense. The policymakers’ rationale in deciding to keep Truman sailing is to deal with emerging, longer-term threats in the South China Sea, Indo-Pacific and North Atlantic, which also makes good sense. There is a solution to this either-or dilemma, but it requires Congress and the White House coming together to build a new consensus on national security.
Before exploring that solution, we need to spend a moment discussing why the Navy is facing this dilemma.
The Department of the Navy (DON) identified the pressures and the stakes in a recent report on cybersecurity readiness. “We find the DON preparing to win some future kinetic battle, while it is losing the current global, counter-force, counter-value, cyber war,” the report concludes, adding that “failure to protect Navy and Marine Corps information systems and intellectual property is an existential threat to their existence.”
There’s the dilemma: invest in costly pieces of hardware like Truman to prepare for “some future kinetic battle,” or invest in new tools to face the here-and-now threats emanating from cyberspace.
There’s ample evidence that the Navy’s concerns about cyberspace are sound.
Gen. Robert Neller, outgoing commandant of the Marine Corps, bluntly concludes, “We’re at war right now in cyberspace. We’ve been at war for maybe a decade.”
Some Navy leaders are so concerned about the cyber threat that they are calling for creation of a “Navy cyber corps” comprised of “operationally-focused technical specialists and leaders.”
In his 2019 global threat assessment, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats reported that “Our adversaries and strategic competitors will increasingly use cyber capabilities – including cyber espionage, attack and influence – to seek political, economic and military advantage over the United States and its allies and partners.”
Of course, there’s also ample evidence that White House and congressional concerns about looming and emergent maritime threats are sound.
Russia’s air force has revived the dangerous Cold War-era practice of hounding, buzzing and even conducting mock strafing runs of U.S. warships. Its army has invaded Georgia and Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and menaced the Baltics and Poland. Its navy has captured Ukrainian warships in international waters, taken over the Sea of Azov, gained a strategic foothold in the Mediterranean (courtesy of Syria), slipped warships into the English Channel for provocative sail-throughs, and returned to the Atlantic with gusto. Senior Pentagon officials say Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic is “more than we've seen in 25 years.” That explains Washington’s decision to resurrect the Second Fleet.
As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg concludes, Russia is engaged in “a massive military buildup from the Arctic to the Mediterranean.”
China will soon deploy 73 attack submarines, 58 frigates, 34 destroyers, five ballistic-missile submarines and two aircraft carriers. The Pentagon reports China has a bristling missile arsenal with “the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the Western Pacific.” Already, China’s navy has proven its ability to fix, shadow and track U.S. aircraft carriers in the open seas. Chinese warships have meandered near Alaska’s coastline and violated U.S. territorial waters.
In the East China Sea, Chinese vessels are penetrating Japanese waters multiple times per month. In the South China Sea, Beijing has constructed 3,200 acres of illegal islands in international waters – deploying SAM batteries, anti-ship missiles and radar systems on some of the man-made islands. One of the instant islands features a 10,000-foot airstrip – long enough for bombers and fighter-interceptors. All told, Beijing now has 27 military outposts sprinkled across the tiny islands and atolls of the South China Sea, many of them on or encroaching upon waters and territories claimed by other nations.
All of this helps explain why Vice President Mike Pence, during a recent visit aboard Truman, announced, “We are not retiring the Truman. The USS Harry S. Truman is going to be giving them hell for many more years to come.”
The critics shot back immediately. A Time magazine analysis, for example, noted that keeping Truman in service “will cost the Navy more than $20 billion over the next two decades, much of which the service had planned to spend on new unmanned vessels and other advanced technologies.”
In short, the spending parameters Washington has given the Pentagon have forced the Navy and its sister branches to choose between defending against here-and-now threats and over-the-horizon threats.
That brings us to the most sensible solution to this either-or dilemma: Perhaps policymakers should give the Pentagon the resources to do both. Put another way, if China and Russia continue to edge the world toward Cold War 2.0, it’s time for Congress and the White House to contemplate shifting defense outlays back up to Cold War levels.
Before his passing in 2018, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pointed out that we are asking our military to do more with less. Indeed, America’s military is waging an open-ended global war on terror; engaging in proxy conflicts, nation-building efforts and counterinsurgency operations around the world; containing Iran and North Korea; defending more allies in Europe and Asia than ever before; policing the old domains of land, sea, air and space as well as the new domain of cyberspace; and deterring not one but two near-peer competitors.
Yet today’s defense outlays (as a percentage of GDP and federal spending) are nowhere close to what they were during the Cold War. In fact, for most of the Cold War (setting aside the very high levels of defense spending in the early 1950s), Americans spent between 5 and 9 percent of GDP on defense. Today, we invest just 3.5 percent of GDP in defense.
McCain’s answer was to increase defense spending over several years, with a goal of $740.5 billion by fiscal 2022. That sounds like – and indeed is – a lot of money. The $717 billion earmarked for defense this year, for example, equals about 16 percent of the federal budget and 3.5 percent of GDP. But to put those numbers into perspective, consider these comparisons:
• In 1953, the United States committed 69 percent of federal outlays and 14 percent of GDP to defense.
• In 1968, the United States invested 46 percent of federal spending and 9 percent of GDP in defense.
• In 1984, the United States spent 26.7 percent of federal outlays and 5.9 percent of GDP on defense.
Defense is a juicy target for deficit hawks and for those who want to expand domestic programs. But defense is not the cause of our fiscal woes. As Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, has observed, “The growth in the budget right now is in mandatory programs and particularly in health care costs ... That is what is driving the federal deficit. It is not defense.” King knows that defense as a share of federal spending is down from 21 percent as recently as 2009.
As to domestic programs – which are consuming ever more of the nation’s tax dollars, while the Pentagon’s piece of the pie continues to shrink – defense should never be viewed as a piggybank for other programs. Instead, we need to come to the realization that there can be no social security, economic security, income security or health security without national security. A good and great nation like ours should absolutely provide a safety net where it’s most needed. But that safety net cannot grow so large or so expensive that it consumes resources needed for the common defense and other essential functions of government.
In 2010, a bipartisan federal commission appointed by President Obama provided a road map beyond the fiscal crunch caused by runaway domestic spending. Known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission, it proposed creating a special committee empowered to trim 2 percent from discretionary spending annually, eliminating tax loopholes and broadening the tax base, cutting congressional and White House budgets by 15 percent, freezing pay for Members of Congress and other civilian federal employees, reducing the federal workforce through attrition, ending Medicare-Medicaid dual eligibility, updating the way civil-service pensions are calculated, and gradually increasing the Social Security retirement age by indexing it to life-expectancy. The plan would slash the deficit; keep federal spending at or below the historical average of 21 percent of GDP; ensure long-term solvency for Social Security; and steadily reduce the debt to 40 percent of GDP. It would also ensure that we have the resources needed to defend our nation and deter our enemies. Yet President Obama refused to endorse the commission’s recommendations, and Congress never acted on them.
Returning defense to a Cold War footing would require farsighted leadership, a new consensus in Washington, shared sacrifice and smarter spending on domestic programs. That’s a tall order in today’s polarized political environment. But given what’s happening around us – Russia rearming and redrawing Europe’s map, China turning itself into a global power and annexing vast swaths of the open seas, jihadists laying siege to civilization, Iran expanding its malign influence, North Korea testing missiles, hostile states and stateless groups using cyberspace to undermine our institutions, steal our wealth and weaken our defenses – we simply cannot keep asking our military to choose either aircraft carriers or cyber-defenses.