The United States has lost its military edge to a dangerous degree and could potentially lose a war against China or Russia, according to a report released Wednesday by a bipartisan commission that Congress created to evaluate the Trump administration’s defense strategy.
The National Defense Strategy Commission, made up of former top Republican and Democratic officials selected by Congress, evaluated the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, which ordered a vast reshaping of the U.S. military to compete with Beijing and Moscow in an era of renewed great-power competition.
While endorsing the strategy’s aims, the commission warned that Washington isn’t moving fast enough or investing sufficiently to put the vision into practice, risking a further erosion of American military dominance that could become a national security emergency.
At the same time, according to the commission, China and Russia are seeking dominance in their regions and the ability to project military power globally, as their authoritarian governments pursue defense buildups aimed squarely at the United States.
“There is a strong fear of complacency, that people have become so used to the United States achieving what it wants in the world, to include militarily, that it isn’t heeding the warning signs,” said Kathleen H. Hicks, a former top Pentagon official during the Obama administration and one of the commissioners. “It’s the flashing red that we are trying to relay.”
The picture of the national security landscape that the 12-person commission sketched is a bleak one, in which an American military that has enjoyed undisputed dominance for decades is failing to receive the resources, innovation and prioritization its leaders need to outmuscle China and Russia in a race for military might reminiscent of the Cold War.
The military balance has shifted adversely for the United States in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, undermining the confidence of American allies and increasing the likelihood of military conflict, the commission found after reviewing classified documents, receiving Pentagon briefings and interviewing top defense officials.
“The U.S. military could suffer unacceptably high casualties and loss of major capital assets in its next conflict. It might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia,” the report said. “The United States is particularly at risk of being overwhelmed should its military be forced to fight on two or more fronts simultaneously.”
In its list of 32 recommendations, the commission urged the Pentagon to explain more clearly how it intends to defeat major-power rivals in competition and war. It assailed the strategy for relying at times on “questionable assumptions and weak analysis” and leaving “unanswered critical questions.”
Eric Edelman, a top Pentagon official during the Bush administration, who co-chaired the commission along with retired Admiral Gary Roughead, said the report wrestled with the consequences of years of ignored warnings about the erosion of American military might.
Russia and China have “learned from what we’ve done. They’ve learned from our success. And while we’ve been off doing a different kind of warfare, they’ve been prepared for a kind of warfare at the high end that we really haven’t engaged in for a very long time,” Edelman told Michael Morell, the former acting director of the CIA and a fellow member of the commission, during an episode of Morell’s podcast, “Intelligence Matters.”
Edelman said people had lost sight of how complicated the international security environment had become for the United States, and argued that for a lot of reasons the American public and Congress haven’t been as attentive to the urgency of the situation as they should be.
The commission said that despite a $716 billion American defense budget this year, which is four times the size of China’s and more than 10 times that of Russia, the effort to reshape the U.S. defense establishment to counter current threats is under-resourced. It recommended that Congress lift budget caps on defense spending in the next two years that in the past have hobbled the military’s ability to plan for the long term.
“It is beyond the scope of our work to identify the exact dollar amount required to fully fund the military’s needs,” the report concluded. “Yet available resources are clearly insufficient to fulfill the strategy’s ambitious goals, including that of ensuring that (the Defense Department) can defeat a major-power adversary while deterring other enemies simultaneously.”
The call for even more robust defense spending comes as the Democrats take over the House and seek rollbacks of key Pentagon programs. It also comes after the White House instructed the Pentagon to pare back its planned budget for the coming year by about 4.5 percent, or approximately $33 billion, after the federal deficit increased sharply following last year’s tax cut.
White House national security adviser John Bolton recently said he expected the defense budget to remain relatively flat in the coming years as the administration seeks to cut discretionary spending, and suggested the Pentagon would need to reshape the military with funds derived from cuts to other areas. It promises to be a dramatic shift after two years of increased defense spending and repeated statements by President Trump that he is rebuilding the American military like never before.
Money saved from planned Pentagon changes will prove insufficient to make the kind of investment the military needs to execute the new national defense strategy, the commission found. It also said Congress should look at the entire federal budget, including entitlement spending and tax revenue, to put the nation on more stable financial footing, rather than slash defense spending.
Critics of the report’s findings said the commission recommends catchall defense funding that is unrealistic given the current environment. One of the commission’s members, retired Army officer Andrew Krepinevich, wrote a dissent to the findings arguing that the commission failed to apply analytic rigor to its own recommendations even as it accused the Pentagon strategy of lacking analytic rigor.
“The commission rightly calls attention to the erosion of the American military’s conventional edge and the necessity for the country to understand the urgency of the problem,” said Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official under Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and who oversaw the strategy’s development. “But it doesn’t give due support and credit to the hard choices that Secretary Mattis made, which are crucial to solving this problem.”
To counter Russia and China, the commission said the Navy should expand its submarine fleet and sealift forces; the Air Force should introduce more reconnaissance platforms and stealth long-range fighters and bombers; and the Army should pursue more armor, long-range precision missiles and air-defense and logistical forces.
In its recommendations, the report advocated seeing through the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and putting a top Pentagon official in charge of developing additional air and missile defenses.
Another area of focus for the commission was innovation.
It described Pentagon acquisition programs as too risk-averse, and urged the Defense Department and Congress to create a new category of pilot programs aimed at “leap-ahead” technologies that could serve as breakthroughs to help retain American military dominance.
The report also resurfaced questions about the civilian-military divide that arose after Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, took over as defense secretary, thanks to a vote in Congress that waived a requirement for military officers to be out of uniform for 10 years before serving in that role.
In his nearly two years as secretary, Mattis has relied more on current and former military officers for expertise than his recent predecessors have.
Without singling out Mattis, the commission warned that “responsibility on key strategic and policy issues has increasingly migrated to the military,” and urged Congress to exercise oversight to “reverse the unhealthy trend in which decision-making is drifting increasingly toward the military on issues of national importance.”