Opinion writer

Sen. John McCain. (Emmanuel Lozano/The Arizona Republic via Associated Press)

On Monday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) issued a white paper, “Restoring American Power,” on defense spending. “This white paper details what I believe will be necessary to achieve these goals: repeal of the Budget Control Act, a $640 billion base defense budget in fiscal year 2018, innovation for the future, and an end to business as usual at the Pentagon,” he said in a statement accompanying release of the paper. “Rebuilding our military will not be cheap — $430 billion above current defense plans over the next five years. But the cost of inaction is worse: we will irreparably damage our military’s ability to deter aggression and conflict. We owe it to our men and women in uniform to chart a better course.”

We will hear more about the specifics and whether $640 billion — or $620 billion or $680 billion or some other number — represents the amount we need to align our military budget with our defense needs. National security gurus who have been recommending a buildup were pleased upon initial inspection, crediting McCain with plucking good ideas from a variety of think tanks and making certain that we will spend in ways that meet new threats and competitors.

More interesting than the dollar amounts was McCain’s analysis of our defense needs:

For seven decades, America has played a unique role in the world. We have led a global effort to maintain an international order and a balance of power that have expanded security, prosperity, and freedom. This has required all elements of our national influence—diplomacy, alliances, trade, values, and most importantly, a strong U.S. military that can project power globally to deter war and, when necessary, defeat America’s adversaries. We have done this for a simple reason: It benefits America most of all. It is in our national interest.

We are now at a tipping point. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has often swung from retrenchment to overextension with a dearth of strategy, depleting our margin of global influence. We now face, at once, a persistent war against terrorist enemies and a new era of great power competition. The wide margin for error that America once enjoyed is gone.

He blames a set of flawed assumptions by the prior administration (e.g., Russian reset, “strategic patience” with North Korea), but he does not spare Congress from responsibility for the Budget Control Act and ensuing sequester. The result of the BCA, he says, has been a series of “coping mechanisms,” budget gimmicks if you will, to add money here and there as Congress did with the Overseas Contingencies Operations fund. Despite choking discretionary spending, the debt has ballooned under the BCA because it did not touch the driver of the debt, entitlements. Rather than reduce the debt, we’ve increased it and savaged national security in the process. “This law must be repealed outright so we can budget for the true costs of our national defense,” McCain writes. “Many of those costs are hiding in plain sight, in the form of broken future spending caps, unrealistic cost growth assumptions, and the abuse of OCO. This adds up to more than $300 billion in existing defense costs above the remaining four years of BCA caps, just to pay for the military we have, doing nothing more than it is doing right now, which is insufficient.”

What’s the plan? McCain writes:

The threats we face call not for one uniform defense strategy, but rather an integrated set of strategies, tailored and differentiated to our greatest threats. On the high end of the spectrum, the U.S. military must deter conflict with, and aggression by, Russia and China while conducting long-term great power competitions that possess clear military dimensions, often occurring below the threshold of war. In the middle of the spectrum, the U.S. military must contain the malign influence of North Korea and Iran and prevent these states from destabilizing regional order. And on the low end of the spectrum, the U.S. military must prosecute an enduring, global counterterrorism fight that may grow in size and scope, despite our best efforts to prevent it.

This stands in stark contrast to the president-elect who does not seem to recognize any threat from Russia and often talks solely about the Islamic State when discussing threats to the United States. Before detailing specific proposals, McCain outlines two goals: Modernizing and increasing capacity. Put succinctly, we don’t have enough personnel or enough equipment, and the equipment we do have is out-of-date.

McCain has often been tough on the Pentagon on fraud, waste and abuse. He notes many reforms, including in the area of acquisition, have been undertaken and need to be expanded upon. The public and even some politicians however do not appreciate that we cannot pay for what we need simply by eliminating fraud. waste and abuse. We should cut out and reform spending wherever possible but the reforms are likely to yield savings in the hundreds of millions while our needs are in the hundreds of billions. As defense authorization makes its way through the Congress, McCain and others would do well to highlight the reforms underway and to recommend others that are needed, perhaps setting a dollar goal, with the savings plowed back into necessary upgrades and expansion.

McCain concludes, “The budget increase advocated for in this paper is a lot of money, but we must be clear about the cost of doing nothing: Our military’s ability to deter conflict will continue to weaken. And should we find ourselves in conflict, our nation will be forced to send young Americans into battle without sufficient training or equipment to fight a war that will take longer, be larger, cost more, and ultimately claim more American lives than it otherwise would have.” He will have enthusiastic supporters in the person of past defense secretaries who have all raised the issue of insufficient military funding. Between those respected figures and soon-to-be confirmed Jim Mattis (who was passed out of committee on a 26 to 1 vote) McCain may finally get what he has been after — to drive a stake through the BCA and get the budget for the military we need to confront the multiple threats we face.