As I said in my first post in this series, the analysis that should be used is to determine our vital national interests, determine the capabilities of those that threaten those interests, and then determine the appropriate force structure necessary to defeat, if necessary, these potential enemies. In the last post, I focused on the determination of our vital national interests. In this post, I will focus on the evaluation of the threat. Just as is the case with the determination of our national interest, disputes about the threat can drive very different views of the appropriate defense budget.
I will start with three observations.
First, not all of the areas of our vital national interest present threats that require the development of significant military options. Since this Nation was founded, peace and stability in the Western Hemisphere has been a vital national interest. Yet, with only a few exceptions quite early in our history, we have not faced significant threats to this interest. This is why we did not build significant military capacity until we need to defend out interests elsewhere in the world. This remains true today. While we continue to have an vital interests in the region, we really don't face significant threats. The nations around us are either allies (Canada), non-threatening (most of Latin America) or too weak to be a threat (Cuba and Venezuela).
Second, threats to our vital national interests can change over time. Perhaps the best example is the fall of the Soviet Union. As a result of the fall of the USSR and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the threat to peace and stability in Europe was dramatically reduced. Russia no longer had the intention or ability to threaten Europe. And as recent events in the Ukraine have shown, this is changing once again. Russia has once again displayed aggressive intent--at least to non-NATO nations on its periphery and perhaps also to some former Warsaw Pact nations such as Latvia that do belong to NATO. It has also made investments in military technology that make it more of a military threat to Europe.
Third, in evaluating the threats to our national security, we can't just focus on the threat today. Since we are making investment decisions for weapon systems that will be deployed twenty years from now, we also need to take into account threats to our interests that we will face over a much longer time horizon--20 to 30 years. Here, China is a good example. China is investing significantly in modern technology that could make it a true peer competitor in 20 years. Accordingly, our evaluation needs to take into account the threat China presents to our interests 20 years from now, and not just now.
With this in mind, here are some cursory thoughts on the main threats that drive military spending:
Existential Threats: As a country we are fortunate in not facing many threats to our very national survival. Chinese aggression in Asia would be very bad for our future, but would not itself threaten our very survival. We do, of course, face one significant existential threat: nuclear war. At least for now, Russia (and perhaps China) are the only countries that present such a threat to the United States. Fortunately, the nuclear balance, reflected in the New Start limits on the Russian and American arsenals, have resulted in stability (based on deterrence). North Korea's development on the capability to launch a nuclear-armed ICBM that could reach the U.S. is not an existential threat, but it is still an extremely significant threat nonetheless.
Russia: Russia's military modernization and recent aggression in both Georgia and Ukraine are troubling,and need to be taken into account as we size our force, but the threat still remains significantly below Cold War levels. Nonetheless, our planning must include significant military assets to deter (and defeat, if deterrence fails) Russian aggression against NATO.
China: The biggest change to the threats we face concern China. The change is two-fold. First, China is making a massive investment in developing modern weapons that seek to match the U.S. While the U.S. has traditionally had a large technological advantage over China, this advantage is rapidly going away. Second, China is also becoming far more aggressive in asserting its power. China has always asserted sovereignty over the South China Sea. The change now is that it is now taking steps to enforce this view. Both changes threaten the peace in the region and directly threaten several of our allies in the region. It also threatens freedom of navigation in the region.
North Korea and Iran: North Korea and Iran are regional powers that have significant military capacity that they have recently asserted in their regions. Iran threatens navigation in the Arabian Gulf, and it is fighting proxy wars with several of our allies in the region. North Korea threatens South Korea and Japan, and is developing the capacity to strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon.
Terrorism: Much of the focus of our national security policy in recent years has been on Middle East-based terrorism. Given the metamorphic transformation of al Quida into several variants, the rise of ISIS, and the continued success of Taliban, this threat will likely remain well into the future. As we will discuss in a later post, however, the current military-focused approach to the problem may no longer be the appropriate solution.
There is much to criticize with my analysis above. Many analysts, for example, do not consider Iran a traditionally aggressive power, and view its aggressiveness in the region as reflecting a desire to protect minority Shi'a populations in the region. Others argue that Russia is merely asserting its power in the areas in which it has vital national interests (Eastern Europe) and that it is presenting little threat to core American interests. I take a different view, but these kinds of disputes are not academic--they will determine whether we view Russia and Iran presenting a threat to vital national interests that merit a defense spending response.
Defense Spending 101, Part 1: Don't Get Distracted By the Wrong Numbers
Defense Spending 101, Part 2: Determining Our National Interests
Defense Spending 101, Part 4: Sizing the Force to Meet the Threat