Without predictable funding and realistic concepts of operations, the National Defense Strategy doesn’t meet the challenges of a rising China expanding in the Indo-Pacific and an aggressive Russia in Eastern Europe, the co-chairmen of the panel reviewing the document warned the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
From the start of the hearing, longtime diplomat Eric Edelman and retired Adm. Gary Roughead said a $733-billion defense budget was “a baseline” or a “floor” – not the ideal goal – to maintain readiness and modernize conventional and nuclear forces, but already there are troubling signs on the financial horizon.
With the new guidance from the Office of Management and Budget setting defense spending at $700 billion for Fiscal Year 2020, there “is the prospect of moving in the wrong direction,” Edelman said, adding that commission members after meeting with administration and defense budget officers were “very disturbed that they were planning flat budgets.” Adding to the budget pressure is new concerns over rising deficits from a tax cut earlier this year, increased debt payments and congressionally-set spending caps that may remain in place for the next two years.
The commission recommended defense spending levels that rise 3 to 5 percent per year above inflation to build back readiness and modernize.
“We find ourselves in a position that didn’t happen overnight” with readiness problems that range from ship and aircraft maintenance to training cancellations to delays in modernization of weapons to replacing dated infrastructure, Roughead added. He said the last time the nation made a commitment to modernizing its military forces – conventional and nuclear – was in the 1980s.
Both co-chairs told the committee that years of continuing resolutions rather than actual budgets and the overhanging threat of sequestration worsened the readiness problem and pushed modernization investment too far into the future.
Aside from the budget concerns, Edelman said he worried about the content of the strategy as well. He noted the strategy paper didn’t examine a very real possibility: Russia and China “ganging up” on U.S. forces, or the two top U.S. threats acting independently to create crises in different parts of the globe at the same time, or one of the two starting a war and either Iran or North Korea taking advantage of the situation.
Edelman noted that kind of scenario wasn’t really addressed. “Frankly, we didn’t get very good answers” to the question about what the United States would do in those cases.
He added, “it was not realistic” that a scenario such as two simultaneous crises couldn’t occur; if that happened, “it would require total national mobilization,” and “we haven’t really done this” since World War II.
Equally or more concerning to the commission was the absence of a concept of operations for “gray zone” aggression or confrontations short of conflict. These types of events have already occurred, such as the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, aggressive Chinese behavior against ships conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, China’s continuing cyber thefts and more.
The two co-chairs were also dissatisfied with how the strategy seeks to mitigate risk.
Edelman, who previously served as an undersecretary of defense for policy, said that Pentagon and other national security officials told him they were willing “take more risk in the Middle East” to free up manpower and equipment for potential conflict with Russia or China if needed, but they were not on the same page as to what specifically that meant.
“We got different answers from different people,” Edelman said, noting that some meant accepting risk against the Islamic State, some meant in the ongoing fight in Afghanistan, and others still meant in potential conflict with Iran.
Roughead, a former chief of naval operations, said there was unaddressed risk simply in the fact that the world has changed and many military assumptions have not. For too long “we’ve taken our eye off” what it means to confront a peer challenger and allowed assumptions to override reality, he said. Chief among the assumptions is that the U.S. will be operating in uncontested airspace, which the U.S. has enjoyed in the Middle East since the first Gulf War in the early 1990s.
Roughead also offered as an example that Russia and China “have the luxury of concentrating on their region,” whereas the United States seeks to be a global power relying on allies and partners to exercise influence. With massed forces in Russian and Chinese areas of influence, though, those two countries can behave aggressively and conduct disinformation campaigns.
The United States has “not been working in these complex environments” for years, Roughead said, because of other commitments. “We did not get to a line-by-line analysis” of what to do in those situations when Defense officials were asked by the NDS Commission how the Pentagon would proceed in different kinds of crises.
“What a lot [of officials inside the Pentagon] didn’t understand was how big a shift that is” from 17 years of counter-terrorism operations, Edelman said. Those years were also a time when China and Russia invested in across-the-board modernization of their forces, drawing on what they learned from American military operations from the end of the Cold War to now and how to counter U.S. strengths.
Both said the number-one priority for defense spending was modernizing all three parts of the nuclear triad, to include investing in the personnel operating those systems, updating command and control, and fixing or replacing installation infrastructure and laboratories.
Edelman acknowledged several times the Air Force’s chief of staff and the Navy’s chief of naval of operations “are also under pressure to develop conventional forces” at the same time as they try to modernize their nuclear capabilities. For example, the cost of building Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarines puts at risk the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding budget. The shipbuilding budget was the topic for a Tuesday afternoon Senate subcommittee hearing.
Advances in artificial intelligence, cyber and possible successes in more powerful lasers and hypersonic weapons doesn’t mean conventional forces should be ignored, Edelman and Roughead said.
“The fear is we will do both [try to modernize conventional and nuclear forces] badly,” Edelman added.