Russia and the United States are flying missions on the edges of each other’s territory at the fastest pace in a generation. Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers have repeatedly approached U.S. airspace near Alaska, causing F-22s to scramble, and U.S. bombers and intelligence aircraft have similarly shown their prowess over northern Europe and the Pacific. Russian instigation also rattles its neighbors.
On the other side of the planet, China continues to press territorial claims in skirmishes and standoffs all along its southern flank. China faced off with India and Bhutan, on land, over border claims in June, and in the South China Sea, continues to build up man-made islands in a bid to extend its perimeter beyond international norms. To China, the entire sea is sovereign territory.
Taking on China will require superior air, space, and cyber forces. Conventional land and naval forces need not apply.
China’s increasingly brutal treatment of ethnic Uyghurs, including forced sterilization and imprisonment in concentration camps, was classified as genocide in a recent report from the Jamestown Foundation. Its tightening stranglehold on Hong Kong, meanwhile, demonstrates the “One Country, Two Systems” policy—in place since 1997—is shrinking away.
In Taiwan, they can only be wondering: Can the U.S. be relied on in the face of Chinese expansion and aggression? Likewise, a free and unfettered Europe depends largely on America’s commitment to its NATO allies in the face of Russian instigation.
Regardless of your domestic politics, protecting our allies and deterring our rivals remains central to American interests both at home and abroad. U.S. strategy depends on the ability to deter competitors, with credible force, from trying to have their way with neighbors. China may not fear Taiwan, but it does fear a conflict with the United States—at least for now.
Republicans and Democrats agree on funding defense—at least the experts do. The House Armed Services Committee approved its version of the 2021 defense policy bill by a 56-0 vote, and the Senate Armed Services Committee approved its version also by a very a wide margin. But it is among the non-experts that cracks appear in this apparent unity of vision.
The trillions of dollars invested to cushion the blows of COVID-19 have ballooned the budget deficit this year to more than $2 trillion and our overall national debt to more than $20 trillion. Near-zero interest rates today make that debt burden relatively manageable, but our deflated economy will produce less tax revenue to pay those bills. Interest rates, and inflation won’t remain at historic lows forever.
Hence, the knives are out and those who’d carve up and redirect the defense budget for other purposes are honing the blades. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) offered a resolution in June to cut $350 billion from defense spending “to reduce the priority given to war in our foreign policy … while using the funds to increase our diplomatic capacity and for domestic programs.”
Eleven think tanks and advocacy groups lined up to laud the proposal, among them Public Citizen, the Center for International Policy, and Veterans for Peace. Yes, these are the usual suspects demanding the usual cuts, but make no mistake: At a time in our nation’s history when calls to “defund the police” are netting real results—the New York City Council agreed to a $1 billion cut to its police force—it’s not ludicrous to think that serious people would do serious damage to our national defense.
With only a couple of exceptions, defense spending has risen annually for roughly two decades. Expensive ground-centric wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria have taken their toll. It is natural for taxpayers and legislators to want to ratchet down that spending now to fund other priorities; it is beyond their intuition to understand that our military is now depleted and ill-suited to take on peer competitors in potential future conflicts.
The fact that our Air Force is now the smallest and oldest it has ever been is common knowledge only to those in the know. Joe Public is oblivious, and even less aware of what the U.S. will face should it ever need to engage in combat with the People’s Republic of China.
Taking on China will require superior air, space, and cyber forces. Conventional land and naval forces need not apply. While the cry “where are the carriers” might have defined potential combat with China a generation ago, that is no longer the case. Aircraft carriers, the pride of the Navy fleet, remain among the most visible symbols of American military power. But in combat with China they will instead be our most visible targets—and greatest symbols of U.S. vulnerability. Too big to hide and too slow to escape, they will be held at bay—or sunk at will—by hypersonic guided missiles, destroyed before they get close enough to become effective.
Instead, it will be the United States’ low observable assets that reign supreme in conflicts with other great powers. Stealth fighters and bombers that can strike deep in enemy territory without being detected; spacecraft that can track and queue potential targets and threats from the vantage of the gods; and cyber operators that can paralyze adversaries’ intelligence and communications networks with strategic effect are all critical to deter future wars—and to win them should it come to that.
No wonder, then, that the Navy and Army are trying to develop long-range strike weapons to seek relevancy in such a fight. Unable to get within 1,000 miles of their targets, they want new capabilities to enable them to engage. They forget why we have a joint force: It’s not to divvy up missions to ensure that everyone gets a piece of the action, but rather to match the right solution to the problem. No one would call on a B-2 bomber to eliminate a terrorist streaking across the desert in a pickup truck, because an MQ-9 Reaper will do the job well for a fraction of the cost. Likewise, it makes little sense for the Army to acquire a capability for which the Air Force is inherently better suited.
The national security budget is ultimately an insurance policy. We buy down risks in some areas and accept it in others. Were budgets infinite, we would afford duplicative capabilities. Since they are not, logic must prevail.
To deter and, when necessary, fight and win peer conflicts, America must invest in those capabilities that deliver the greatest effect for the lowest cost. Against China and Russia, that means investing in our Air and Space Forces.