Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 17 February 2023


U.S. defense spending will have to go up. The Ukraine war shows why.

The Pentagon on March 2. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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Roger Zakheim, a former House Armed Services Committee deputy staff director, is a director of the Reagan Institute and a commissioner on the National Defense Strategy Commission.

Last February, the world witnessed a massive Russian military convoy driving down the road toward Kyiv. One year later, that convoy of armor and steel is no more. The Russian military failed to seize Kyiv, and Ukrainians are valiantly fighting to preserve their freedom and sovereignty, inspiring the United States and its allies to rally to their side. As the war enters its second year, and as Congress debates military funding, the United States must take care to heed the lessons that this war has — or should have — taught us.

First, it has shown that providing a country with military capabilities necessary to defend its territory will not necessarily lead to escalation or spillover. Quite the opposite. Western support for Ukraine has helped transform the battlefield. This support helped badly damage Russia’s military capabilities and force Russian President Vladimir Putin to pare back his military objectives (for now).

Second, while the war in Ukraine has revealed how technology is leveling the playing field between great powers and smaller countries, it has also shown the limits of those tools. Conventional forces still matter. Indeed, we are entering a new stage in the war, in which Ukraine will need tanks and other conventional offensive platforms to dislodge entrenched Russian forces and reclaim its sovereign territory.

This second lesson is crucial, and has implications beyond Ukraine’s borders. This lesson matters for the United States’ own defenses: investments in submarines, tanks, fighters, bombers, missiles and munitions cannot be sacrificed in favor of a future capabilities that do not yet exist. We need to sustain our conventional capabilities to prevail in today’s conflicts — and tomorrow’s.

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Opinion writers on the war in Ukraine
Post Opinions provides commentary on the war in Ukraine from columnists with expertise in foreign policy, voices on the ground in Ukraine and more.
Columnist David Ignatius covers foreign affairs. His columns have broken news on new developments around the war. He also answers questions from readers. Sign up to follow him.
Iuliia Mendel, a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, writes guest opinions from inside Ukraine. She has written about trauma, Ukraine’s “women warriors” and what it’s like for her fiance to go off to war.
Columnist Fareed Zakaria covers foreign affairs. His columns have reviewed the West’s strategy in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Josh Rogin covers foreign policy and national security. His columns have explored the geopolitical ramifications of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
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That brings us to a more alarming third lesson: Industrial capacity might be the United States’ Achilles’ heel as it implements its national defense strategy. Just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, in which products are made to meet only existing, immediate demand, might make business sense for big-box stores and their suppliers. But the war in Ukraine makes clear that using JIT manufacturing is a recipe for disaster on the battlefield. Whether it is building more Virginia-class submarines, increasing munitions production or scaling up missile and rocket inventory, “just in time” would mean “just out of time.” Equipment must be ready well before the threat is imminent.

With those lessons in mind, it is clear that realizing the objectives of our National Defense Strategy requires a builder’s mind-set. Now is the time to build a force capable of winning both today and tomorrow. There is remarkable continuity across the National Security Strategies released by the Trump and Biden administrations. They both called for greater U.S. leadership in three primary regions of the world: the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East. They sought to win the competition with China and Russia. They also sought to deter Iran, North Korea and terrorist groups.

The primary test for any modern defense strategy is whether it can deter an aggressor state. Will China be deterred from seizing control of Taiwan in its pursuit of hegemony in the Indo-Pacific? It is far from clear. China’s aggressive and provocative actions in the Taiwan Strait, and most recently over U.S. airspace, combined with its robust military modernization program, suggest Beijing might be considering such a move sooner rather than later.

Successfully implementing a strategy that is up to this test requires today’s defense spending levels to increase. Those levels are currently at just over 3 percent of gross domestic product, and according to my analysis, they would need to rise to around 5 percent of GDP. That is because we have to play catch up. Of the six administrations that followed President Ronald Reagan, all have been seduced by the temptation of claiming the post-Cold War peace dividend. While some have deployed forces abroad and funded those endeavors, none have committed to funding the military’s modernization.

The Biden administration has in the past parried concerns about being able to sustain support for Ukraine while steeling for a standoff in the Indo-Pacific by saying that we can “walk and chew gum at the same time.” To counter one cliche with another: “It’s time to put our money where our mouth is.” Increasing the defense budget is necessary not only to meet our existing commitments. It will also provide the capital necessary to upgrade and expand industrial capacity for unpredictable military contingencies.

As Congress debates how to manage spending amid debt ceiling negotiations, it should be mindful that cutting defense to 2022 spending levels — which amounts to about a 10 percent cut to the top line — would render the defense strategy envisioned by either Donald Trump or President Biden completely unachievable. We would fund our capability to lead in only one region, certainly not three. The lack of funds would reduce the U.S. military to nothing more than a regional power.

Instead, we should be focused on preserving American peace and prosperity by building and sustaining a U.S. military that maintains, what Reagan called, our “margin of safety” — the minimum force required to accomplish our strategic objectives.

It is hardly the most ambitious strategy: it does not seek military dominance everywhere at once, nor does it call for a force capable of winning two conflicts simultaneously. Rather, it is a strategy tailored to address the security needs of the dangerous world we are facing. That is the prudent approach after learning the difficult lessons of the past year.

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