Capstones: Deterrence in a Dangerous World

November 2021

Congress has passed a stopgap bill to fund the Defense Department until December, as the House and Senate wrangle over how much to allocate to the Pentagon in FY2022. The House has approved a $740-billion base defense budget; Senate leaders are leaning toward about $10 billion above that. In short, Congress is eyeing around three-quarters of a trillion dollars in defense spending—in long form: 750,000,000,000. That looks like a lot of money. But looks can be deceiving.

Dangerous and Complex

Before getting into how deceiving that number is, those of us who advocate for large defense budgets in order to deter rational foes, defeat those foes that aren’t rational, and address other threats to the national interest have a responsibility to identify those threats and foes. This is, regrettably, a simple exercise in 2021.

Xi Jinping’s China has built the world’s largest navy; massively expanded its nuclear arsenal and nuclear strike capabilities; exploded military spending by 517 percent (since 2000); claimed a vast swath of the South China Sea and erected illegal, militarized islands to back up those claims; unleashed though incompetence or intent a crippling global pandemic; used technology and money to expand its insidious influence over American culture and education; conducted a relentless cybersiege of the Free World; interfered in free elections abroad and constructed an Orwellian surveillance state at home; increased its suppression and mistreatment of Christians; engaged in genocide against Uighur Muslims; launched unprovoked military attacks against India in the Himalayan border region; absorbed Hong Kong in violation of international treaties; and increased its menacing pressure on Taiwan, with nearly 200 sorties into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone in October alone. Indeed, it was just weeks ago that Xi declared, “Resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China.”

In short, Xi’s China has the intent and the capability—military, technological, industrial, economic—to challenge the U.S. across every domain. Critics of the seemingly-large U.S. defense budget counter that China spends a fraction of what America spends on defense. The reality is that China hides its defense spending in a range of other programs and initiatives, invests very little relative to the U.S. on personnel, steals much of the technology the U.S. spends billions developing, and is largely focusing its mushrooming military budget on one geographic region.

The good news is that Xi’s China—like the Soviet Union during Cold War I—is rational and can be deterred. The bad news is that Xi’s China isn’t the only authoritarian regime with the means and motives to threaten America and its democratic allies.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has waged wars to annex parts of democratic Ukraine and occupy parts of democratic Georgia; conducted cyberwar against NATO member Estonia; armed Taliban forces waging war against U.S. and NATO personnel operating under UN mandate; hacked and attacked the U.S. power grid; unleashed intelligence agencies and cyber-pirates to wreak havoc inside Free World economies and sway public opinion via manipulation of media; used chemical weapons abroad and smothered dissent at home; violated arms treaties; propped up regimes that gas and starve their people; conducted massive and destabilizing snap military exercises; and unveiled military doctrines pledging the use of force “to ensure the protection of [Russian] citizens outside the Russian Federation” and threatening preemptive use of nuclear weapons to somehow deescalate a conflict. Given that there are five million Russians in Ukraine and a million in the Baltics—and that Putin’s “escalate to deescalate” doctrine would lead to a global nuclear holocaust—this is a recipe for something much more dangerous and much more complicated than Cold War I. But again, the good news is that Putin respects deterrent military strength.

That may not be the case with Iran’s rulers, who continue their drive to build a nuclear bomb, continue to foment revolution in neighboring countries, continue to interfere with international shipping in the Gulf, continue to attack commercial and military vessels, and continue to directly target and threaten the United States. The terrorists who run Iran have the blood of 603 American troops on their hands, recently planned an attack on Ft. McNair in Washington, D.C., and plotted assassinations of a U.S. general and a Saudi diplomat on U.S. soil.

The Taliban has retaken power in Afghanistan—not a comforting thought given what happened the last time the Taliban ruled that forever-broken country. Al-Qaeda has a presence in 21 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. A resurgent ISIS has already struck the U.S. inside Afghanistan.

Add to this list North Korea, with its growing nuclear arsenal and unpredictable leadership; a raging “wildfire of terrorism” across Africa, which is scarred by the reemergence of ISIS; an outbreak of failed and failing states in our own hemisphere; and Hezbollah’s 130,000 rockets—and we have what Gen. James Mattis calls “the most complex and demanding” international situation in many decades.

Percentages and Threats

In short, if the U.S. wants to prevent Taiwan, the South China Sea, Ukraine and the Baltics from going the way of Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Crimea, the Donbas, Abkhazia and South Ossetia; if the U.S. wants the benefits of open seas and open communications systems; if the U.S. wants to maintain some semblance of international order; if the U.S. wants to avoid another 9/11; if the U.S. wants to prevent Cold War II from turning hot, then the U.S. needs to make sustained and significant investments in deterrent military strength. Given the yo-yo effect of sequestration, our investment in defense has not been sustained in recent years. And given the nature of the threats arrayed against us, our investment in defense is not particularly significant.

No matter how big $750 billion looks on paper or in pixels, the reality is that it represents just 11 percent of federal outlays and just 3.2 percent of GDP. To put those numbers in perspective: A decade ago, Americans were investing 20 percent of federal outlays and 4.7 percent of GDP in defense. The world is far more dangerous, “complex and demanding” today than it was then—and as the debacle in Afghanistan illustrates, it’s getting worse.

In 1943, the U.S. allocated 84.9 percent of federal outlays and 37 percent of GDP to defense. In 1953, the U.S. allocated 69 percent of federal outlays and 14 percent of GDP to defense. In 1968, the U.S. allocated 46 percent of federal outlays and 9 percent of GDP to defense. In 1984, the U.S. allocated 26.7 percent of federal outlays and 5.9 percent of GDP to defense.

These years are chosen purposely. In 1984, the U.S. was mounting a vigorous response to a decade of unanswered aggression and expansion by Moscow. (Today, Xi is seizing islands and sealanes far beyond his borders, menacing Taiwan, militarizing the South China Sea and fielding a military designed to push the U.S. out of the Western Pacific, while Putin threatens Northern and Eastern Europe, occupies sovereign nations, and expands Russian territory by force.)

In 1968, the U.S. was fighting pitched regional battles amidst a wider global conflict known as the Cold War (as it is today in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Africa and Afghanistan amidst a wider global conflict once known as the war on terror).

In 1953, the U.S. was coming to grips with containing a rising military-economic-ideological peer power. (Back then, it was Moscow; today, it’s Beijing.)

In 1943, the U.S. was at war against a constellation of enemies bent on erasing free government and upending the global order. (Back then, it was fascists; today, it’s business-suit autocrats and jihadists.)

Indeed, the world wars serve as a reminder that investing in defense is far less costly—in treasure and blood—than gambling on “narrow margins” and “offering temptations to a trial of strength,” as Churchill warned in that brief interregnum between World War II and Cold War I.

  • In the eight years before entering World War I, the United States devoted an average of 0.7 percent of GDP to defense. During the war, the U.S. spent an average of 16.1 percent of GDP on defense—and sacrificed 116,516 dead to turn back the Central Powers.
  • In the decade before entering World War II, the United States spent an average of 1.1 percent of GDP on defense. During the war, the U.S. spent an average of 27 percent of GDP on defense—and sacrificed 405,399 lives defeating the Axis.
  • During Cold War I, by contrast, Washington spent an average of 7 percent of GDP on defense. Those investments didn’t end all wars, but they did deter the Soviets and prevent World War III.

Percentages and threats—not raw dollars—are what matter when defending the defense budget. As the threats increase, so must the percentages, which explains why congressional leaders are bolstering President Joe Biden’s $715-billion request. Given the voracious return of inflation, the Biden defense budget would have flatlined defense spending.

Of course, given that we are in what Henry Kissinger calls “foothills of a Cold War,” even the congressional base budget of around $750 billion isn’t adequate. That figure represents about 3.2 percent of GDP. The average during Cold War I was more than twice that.

This downward pressure on the defense budget is a function of the massive amounts devoured by domestic programs in recent years: $1.8 trillion aimed at navigating the Great Recession, $2.59 trillion in in 2020 in response to the pandemic, another $1.9 trillion in emergency relief and stimulus in 2021, $1 trillion for infrastructure, $5 trillion more planned for newer and bigger social safety-net programs.

“Americans like security,” as Niall Ferguson concludes in his book Colossus. “But they like Social Security more than they like national security.”

What we tend to forget is that the former depends on the latter.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose. A version of this essay appeared in Providence.


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