Winston Churchill summarized the theme of his seminal history of World War II as “[h]ow the English-speaking peoples through their unwisdom, carelessness, and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm.”
His first volume, The Gathering Storm, recounted many instances of failure among the leading figures of the 1930s to appreciate the growing danger of Hitler’s rise to power. Churchill’s history highlighted how the good intentions and virtuous character of Britain, France, and the United States hindered them from taking actions that could very well have prevented a war that claimed the lives of some 60 million people. He marveled at
[how] easily the tragedy of the Second World War could have been prevented; how the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous; … how counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger; how the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s-eye of disaster.
In 2011, the United States faced a federal budget crisis. The government had hit its debt ceiling, yet needed to accommodate a mounting annual budget deficit. The two major political parties were at an impasse on how to authorize more debt while somehow slowing the annual growth in federal spending.
Enter the Budget Control Act of 2011. It was intended to incentivize the parties to reduce federal budget growth by legislating mandatory cuts so painful — to the country’s security, in particular — that the parties would find some compromise in their positions that would allow them to avoid such harsh consequences. The effort to compromise failed, and the cuts became law, drastically reducing spending on defense through the early 2020s. Meanwhile, operational employment of the military was kept at high levels, accelerating the consumption and degradation of equipment, supplies, and people.
Unable to pay for the large force needed to sustain operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and a variety of commitments around the world, the military shrank in size but saw little reduction in its workload. In fact, it started consuming itself, deferring maintenance and modernization to pay for current readiness and the immediate expenses of fuel, ammunition, and replacement of equipment lost in combat operations. As the fewer people, units, and equipment prematurely aged, the delayed arrival of replacement items worsened the material condition of the force, exacerbated further by the lack of funding for repair parts and maintenance personnel.
The military is now in a death spiral: too small for its workload; underfunded to repair and replace the equipment it is rapidly wearing out; ill-served by obsolescent critical infrastructure at its ports, bases, and airfields, and increasingly unready for the rigors and scope of a major conventional conflict should the United States find itself drawn into one, which has happened every 20 years or so with frightful regularity since the Civil War.
Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, until recently the vice chief of staff of the Army, has testified that only “one-third of our BCTs [brigade combat teams], one-fourth of our combat aviation brigades, and half of our division headquarters” are considered ready. Currently, of the Army’s 31 brigade combat teams only three would be available to immediately deploy to a conflict. As recently as 2012, the Army had 45 brigade combat teams and nearly the entire Army was involved in the rotational base supporting combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The U.S. Air Force is 24 percent short of the fighters it needs. It is also short 1,000 pilots and over 3,000 maintainers. Only four of its 32 combat-coded squadrons are ready to execute all wartime missions. Prior to 1991, the Air Force purchased more than 500 aircraft a year to offset platforms aging out of its inventory. Since then it has averaged fewer than 100 per year, and the operational tempo has only gotten worse.
The Marine Corps “is insufficiently manned, trained and equipped across the depth of the force to operate in an ever-evolving operational environment,” according to Gen. Glenn Walters, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. Only 41 percent of the Corps’ aviation platforms are considered flyable.
At only 276 combatants, the Navy has two-thirds the ships it did near the end of the Cold War. It now has the smallest battle fleet since before World War I. Of its 18 classes of ships, only seven are currently in production. The recent spate of ship collisions and a grounding imply problems in basic ship-handling skills.
Meanwhile, China has increased its spending on defense over 650 percent since the early 1990s. Beijing is rapidly building a blue-water navy and fielding a fifth-generation stealth fighter to compete with America’s F-22.
Russia continues to occupy Ukraine and to actively support separatist rebels carving out territory in the southeast of the country. It has salvaged the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and actively threatens NATO members in the north of Europe.
North Korea has become a nuclear power and is closing in on its goal of possessing missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads to any spot on the planet. It can already hit the United States. Iran sustains its support of terror groups such as Hizballah and has worked to undermine effective governance in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen. An assortment of odious terrorist groups continues to ravage portions of the Middle East and Africa.
Yet like France and Britain in the 1930s, the United States has neglected to keep its military strong enough to confront regimes threatening the peace and security of the free world and of America itself.
Churchill repeatedly warned his countrymen of the dangers of complacency, misguided priorities, and weakness of will, of the foolishness to see the world and major competitors as being anything other than what they truly are. While praising the virtues and spirit of moderation that defined the English-speaking peoples of his day, he also urged them to recognize the necessity of having the courage to take timely action when dangers threatened and clearly visible trends in an eroding ability to provide for their common defense were leading toward disaster.
A similar state of affairs afflicts the United States today. To the extent America intervenes in the affairs of others, it is because the United States has been attacked first, an ally is in dire need of assistance, or an enemy threatens broader regional stability.
Americans and their elected representatives in Congress consistently prefer to focus on matters at home. In their zeal to achieve a peaceful, easy life for all, they have consistently pushed to increase spending on all manner of domestic interests from healthcare to education, subsidized crop insurance, and alternative energy options, even as they’ve expanded federal benefits to an increased percentage of our number. But these have increasingly come at the cost of providing for the nation’s defense, arguably the preeminent responsibility and obligation of the federal government.
Churchill recognized that a nation’s priorities in spending must align with its security interests and that a failure to do so — combined with an unwillingness to make corrections in the face of clear danger — reveal a loss of will, courage, and clear-eyed thinking.
Some in America do recognize these dangers and, like Churchill, have the wisdom and courage to sound the alarm. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has been quite blunt, saying:
[N]othing has done more damage to the readiness of our armed forces than the continuing resolutions that stop us from taking initiative, than the lack of budgetary predictability … I bring this up because if we don’t get budgetary predictability, if we don’t remove the defense caps, then we’re questioning whether or not America has the ability to survive. It’s that simple.
A few others — Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), among them — have been equally plainspoken. But many more of their colleagues need to join them. The Heritage Foundation is doing its part to inform the discussion with its Index of U.S. Military Strength, among other efforts, but more needs to be done to raise awareness of worsening shortfalls in the ability of the U.S. military to protect national security interests.
The United States stands at a crossroads. Its decision on whether its investment in defense will be commensurate with its security and economic interests will dictate whether it continues to lead the free world as the preeminent global power or cedes it place to hungrier, more confident powers that do not share our values or interests.
Dakota L. Wood is the senior research fellow for defense programs in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense and the editor of the “2018 Index of U.S. Military Strength.”