In the current political season, it’s the policy dog that isn’t barking.
Over the past several primary debates, candidates on both sides of the aisle have sparred at length over national security, offering contrasting — if still vague — strategies for dealing with Russia, the Islamic State and Iran, among other foreign policy challenges. But precious little attention has so far been paid to a more fundamental question: Does the U.S. military actually have the resources to adequately respond to today’s global threats?
The answer, at least at the moment, is a resounding “no.” As the Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength points out, the Marine Corps is the smallest it has been since the Korean War, and the number of active-duty combat ships in the Navy now falls below World War I levels. Simultaneously, the Army is at its lowest troop strength since before World War II, while the Air Force is presiding over a fleet of fighter aircraft that is steadily declining in both capability and readiness.
Undergirding these structural problems is a financial one. U.S. defense spending is now on track to hit its lowest ebb in the last half-century by the end of this decade. This trend is a product both of budgetary reductions under the Obama administration and caps on future defense spending contained in the sequestration provisions of the 2010 Budget Control Act.
Nor is this situation likely to change any time soon. The Obama’s administration’s latest defense budget request to Congress of $610 billion for fiscal 2017 is nearly $20 billion less than the one it proposed last year. Defense austerity, in other words, is still the order of the day.
Global threats to American interests, meanwhile, are expanding rapidly.
• In Europe, Russia’s asymmetric war against Ukraine has now entered its second year, while the possibility of further Russian aggression in Eastern Europe or the Baltics cannot be ruled out. Meanwhile, a new study conducted by the prestigious RAND Corp. has found that NATO currently lacks the funding and capabilities to adequately deter the Kremlin from further adventurism in other parts of the “post-Soviet space.”
• More than a year-and-a-half after its declaration of a “caliphate” in Iraq, the Islamic State terrorist group remains a potent force both there and in Syria, despite an extensive U.S. bombing campaign and Russia’s military intervention into the Syrian civil war. In fact, its reach is spreading, as manifested by new affiliates in Africa and the Middle East, and a new front that has been opened by the group in recent weeks in Libya.
• More and more, the Islamic State poses a direct threat to the U.S. homeland as well. A new study just released by the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee notes that the group’s “focus on external operations has risen significantly,” while its “number-one” target remains the United States. Indeed, according to the report, “[m]ore than one-third of ISIS-linked terror plots” cataloged to date “were aimed at the United States or its interests overseas.”
• In Asia, a rising China is increasingly challenging the prevailing regional status quo. China’s so-called “reclamation” efforts in the South China Sea entailing the building of artificial islands, and growing adventurism on the part of Beijing, is beginning to redraw the territorial map in its favor, and to the detriment of America’s allies there.
• After a half-decade of civil war, Syria has become the new Afghanistan: an incubator for a rising generation of jihadists from the Middle East and beyond. Those cadres, in turn, could soon menace the West as they begin to return home.
• Iran’s recent nuclear deal with the P5+1 powers has given it an unprecedented economic windfall of some $100 billion. That financial stimulus, in turn, is already being used by the Islamic Republic both to fund a major military modernization and to expand its already-extensive support for international terrorism.
The list goes on, but the implications are abundantly clear: America now faces an increasingly complex and volatile international environment. That should be a concern for virtually all of the current candidates for president, each of whom has championed the need for a revival of America’s global leadership. And yet, defense spending is currently insufficient to meet the mounting threats that now exist to U.S. interests.
Whoever becomes the next president will inherit a world of pressing foreign policy and national security problems. Addressing them will require more than simply new leadership. It demands a return to more robust defense.
• Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.