The U.S. is locked in a struggle for mastery of Eurasia that began in the 2010s and emerged into the clear after Russia’s assault on Ukraine. In the long term, Russia seeks to swallow Ukraine and then assault NATO directly. It has increased its military budget by 70% since 2021, and now spends 40% of public outlays on defense.
China, meanwhile, hopes to take Taiwan and then dominate the Indo-Pacific, but clearly that is not the limit of its strategic or operational goals. China has increased defense spending by 7% a year since the Cold War’s end, not accounting for budgetary opacity, fictive accounting, and dual-use policy. Iranian defense expenditures are even murkier, but it has created a world-leading expeditionary-proxy-enabling force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, that sustained years of combat operations in Syria and Iraq.
From a dearth of strategy to an undersized force, inferior logistics, and an insufficient industrial base, the U.S. is not keeping up with a world that has become more dangerous, volatile, and exposed to a major-power conflict. The U.S. today spends around 3.5% of its GDP on defense, a share equivalent to that of the late 1990s, when the challenges were vastly different. Budget growth is long overdue.
The next administration, Republican or Democrat, should implement an unprecedented peacetime expansion of the defense budget, bringing military resourcing in-line with American security. A baseline of $1.6 trillion, or 6-8% of GDP, is a reasonable starting point, coupled with a program that culturally prepares the military for war.
The U.S.’s strategic objective is to deter major wars insofar as possible because it is prepared to win them if necessary. This requires both a force capable of fighting an expeditionary war against a Eurasian rival at large scale, along with rapidly deployable forces for smaller conflicts, and an industrial system that can sustain the U.S. and its allies in combat. Indeed, if the U.S. can deter major power war for long enough—and win enough small wars and peripheral conflicts through direct or indirect involvement—it can outlast the Moscow-Beijing-Tehran axis, whose economic woes will eventually constrain them.
More resources would provide four sorely needed capability overhauls to the U.S. military.
First, greater defense spending to exploit the ongoing revolution in military affairs exemplified by the Department of Defense’s push for unmanned systems would be pointless without extensive pruning of the bureaucracy and contracting modifications. The Replicator initiative is an interesting start, meant to provide the DOD with hundreds of thousands of drones on a short timeline. But it lacks a coherent procurement authority or consistent funding.
The DOD needs to align with the young, innovative, aggressive, and fast scientists and engineers of our industrial and informational base. The way forward is to resolve both issues through a multibillion funding increase over the next five years and an industrial strategy and contracting modifications that enabled smaller producers to compete for cash.
Second, a major increase to the Navy’s shipbuilding account would ensure the Navy can fund a fleet expansion and deliver the Columbia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. The Columbia program will overrun costs by around 20%. The Navy’s shipbuilding and maintenance accounts are already insufficient to keep the fleet’s numbers static. As a result, the service will decommission two carriers, the Nimitz and the Eisenhower, in 2026-2027, before the new Enterprise reaches the fleet. The Navy’s plan to rapidly procure Constellation-class frigates, and thereby bolster its aging surface fleet and replace the littoral combat ship, is also behind schedule. Future ships in class will certainly exceed the $900 million projected price tag.
Read the rest at Barron’s.
Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.