Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 3 June 2024

A Clarion Call for Rearmament

Sen. Wicker, ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, rolled out a report detailing why America’s military budget is inadequate for the “world in which we find ourselves.” America’s military isn’t equipped to deal with potential wars on two continents at once, much less the new threats in space and from artificial intelligence. Mr. Wicker proposes an additional $55 billion for the Pentagon in 2025, a total of $950 billion, as part of a new “generational investment.”

Mr. Biden talks about a world at risk from autocracies, but he acts like this is 1992 and the Soviet Union just collapsed. The world today is more like the late 1930s, as dictators build their militaries and form a new axis of animosity, while the American political class sleeps.

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China, Russia and Iran are working together against the West in multiple ways. China is providing Russia with enough smokeless powder to produce 80 million rounds of ammunition, and Vladimir Putin is returning the favor with joint naval patrols in the Pacific. Russia is furnishing combat training jets to Iran, which is instructing Russian troops on how to operate its drones to pummel Ukraine. North Korea provides missiles to Russia, which helps Pyongyang dodge United Nations sanctions.

For all the talking points that America spends more than its competitors, U.S. defense spending is slipping below 3% of the economy, heading toward 1930s territory. Beijing is spending far more than advertised on a military force clearly designed to defeat the U.S. in the Pacific. China’s real defense spending may approach $700 billion annually, by one recent estimate. Beijing pays its soldiers a fraction of what the U.S. pays its troops, so it can focus on buying ships and missiles. Its doctrine of close civilian and military cooperation is a force multiplier, especially in ship building and technology.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is still living off Ronald Reagan’s military buildup from the 1980s, and everything from fighters to the nuclear triad is wearing out at the same time. The Air Force needs to purchase 340 more aircraft above its current plans over the next five years to avoid what the Wicker paper rightly describes as a “death spiral,” with nearly 1,000 aircraft retirements planned over the next five years. The U.S. Navy will have to produce three attack submarines a year to deter Chinese aggression in the Taiwan Strait and grow the fleet from the oldest and smallest in 80 years.

The report suggests $7 billion to $10 billion annually for a decade to deepen munitions stocks that include antiship missiles, air-defense interceptors, torpedoes and cruise-missile rocket engines. The Pentagon has for years purchased some missiles at the minimum number needed to keep production lines open. The wars in Ukraine and Israel have exposed the inadequacy of the U.S. industrial base.

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Also urgent: Hardening U.S. Pacific bases and a missile defense for Guam and American bases in Japan. Ditto for building a pre-positioned arsenal in Taiwan on the model of U.S. weapons stored in Israel, and quickly expanding an archipelago of Pacific bases the U.S. last needed in World War II.

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Yes, we know, what about the deficit and debt? Some $55 billion for defense in 2025 is a fraction of what Congress has blown on social programs over the past three years. The Inflation Reduction Act alone is shoveling out subsidies that will total more than $1 trillion for a green energy subsidy-fest. Republicans should start a debate about priorities.

If Mr. Trump wants to pivot from his guilty verdict, he would be wise to stop focusing on his legal tormentors and start telling Americans what he would do in the next four years. He could pick up Mr. Wicker’s plan as a campaign theme and a contrast to Mr. Biden’s four consecutive years of proposed cuts in the military.

Rebuilding U.S. defenses is cheaper than defeat or pre-emptive surrender. “Behind all the numbers,” as Reagan put it selling his defense increase in 1983, “lies America’s ability to prevent the greatest of human tragedies and preserve our free way of life in a sometimes dangerous world.” The choice is whether to rebuild the military to restore our lost deterrence or face defeat in the war that may be coming.

Journal Editorial Report: The week's best and worst from Kyle Peterson, Bill McGurn and Dan Henninger. Image: LM Otero/Associated Press

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Appeared in the June 3, 2024, print edition as 'A Clarion Call for Rearmament'.

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