How to Rebuild Our Defense

“There are secondary uses for the military—such as assisting civil authorities in times of emergency or deterring enemies—that amplify other elements of national power such as diplomacy or economic initiatives; but above all else, America’s armed forces exist so that the U.S. can physically impose its will on an enemy and change the conditions of a threatening situation by force or the threat of force.”
—Introduction to the 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength


THE NEXT ADMINISTRATION WILL INHERIT a world that is increasingly uncertain of U.S. leadership: our adversaries not knowing whether to fear us and our allies not knowing whether they can rely on us.

The decline of our global leadership and military readiness has been caused by an inexcusable rejection of Western democratic values among the political elite, who hide behind the understandable war-weariness of many Americans while dismantling the forces that protect them.

A president who advocates American leadership “from behind” has produced a litany of policy blunders that serve only to make the world more dangerous. These blunders include pulling U.S. Navy vessels out of the South China Sea, rewarding Iran for its nuclear program, mishandling the revolutionary fiascos in Libya and Egypt, failing to check an imperial Russia, emboldening China, and responding ineffectually to the rise of the death-cult ISIS in Syria and Iraq. These policy mistakes have occurred amid an alarming drawdown of U.S. military capabilities. Theodore Roosevelt’s adage to “speak softly, and carry a big stick” has been perverted by an administration that speaks in mumbles and carries a flyswatter.

This situation can be quickly reversed. After 444 days, the Iranian hostage crisis was resolved on January 20, 1981—day one of the Reagan administration. A president’s character and resolve can be understood by our enemies far faster than the speed of executive orders.

As Winston Churchill did when he succeeded Neville Chamberlin, and as Ronald Reagan did when he succeeded Jimmy Carter, the man who succeeds Barack Obama can likewise choose strength over weakness, freedom over tyranny, and peace over chaos.

These are the policies he will need to do so.

Defend Vital U.S. Interests 
with a Strong Military

The nation’s ability to defend itself depends largely on the resources that it commits to that task. Reducing those resources on the theory that the world has achieved a new enlightenment that makes military aggression a thing of the past is to put at risk America’s vital interests.

The first of these vital interests is the protection of America and her citizens. Others include winning conflicts that threaten U.S. security and economic interests abroad and protecting freedom of movement on the seas.

An administration that is serious about leadership will be honest with the American people and with America’s allies about the threats to peace and vital U.S. interests around the world.

U.S. interests in trade, security, maintaining alliances, and cooperating with diplomatic partners are served by military capabilities with a global reach, as explained in The Heritage Foundation’s Solutions 2016:

The global order extending from the close of World War II, that has benefited more people in more places than at any other time in history, was made possible and sustained by the U.S., a clear example of the value of U.S. leadership in combating forces of disorder and repression. This leadership imposes a financial burden on the U.S. unlike any other country, but no other country can do what the U.S. has done nor benefit in ways the U.S. has.

A fully capable military must protect the homeland, but it will also have to meet the benchmark of handling two major regional contingencies—two battlefronts—simultaneously. Meeting this standard ensures that America can win a war anywhere in the world while simultaneously deterring opportunism on the part of any other major competitor. With the regrettable exception of the current administration, this measure has been the standard of every administration for over two decades, and it should certainly remain so in the next.

In addition, a new administration should seek to regain military stability in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe while keeping pace with emerging challenges in undersea, space, and cyber areas. Our armed forces must be able to defend and secure America’s borders and defeat other threats to the United States regardless of where they originate.

Instead of equipping the military for these responsibilities, however, between 2011 and 2015, Congress reduced the total defense budget by 25 percent. These cuts diminish the capacity, capability, and readiness of our armed forces. The Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of U.S. Military Strength determined the readiness of our Air Force and Marine Corps to be “marginal” and the Army’s readiness to be “weak.” The Index assesses the military this way:

[T]he current U.S. military force is capable of meeting the demands of a single major regional conflict while also attending to various presence and engagement activities—something it is doing now and has done for the past two decades—but that it would be very hard-pressed to do more and certainly would be ill-equipped to handle two nearly simultaneous major regional contingencies.

This assessment is no reflection on our brave men and women in uniform, but rather an indictment of a political class that is afraid to free resources for them by tackling the tough reforms that are needed in bloated entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The Heritage Foundation’s Federal Budget for 2017 calls for a base defense budget of $600 billion. Even this is below historical standards, but it is a bold step toward getting our nation’s defense back on track. The next federal budget will require both the close cooperation of Congress and the executive branch and the political will to reform domestic programs as discussed elsewhere in these pages.

Deter Our Enemies and 
Reassure Our Allies

Even the best prepared military, however, cannot determine whether it will meet the world stage on favorable or antagonistic terms, with clear goals or a muddled vision. Articulating a coherent foreign policy is the president’s responsibility.

An administration that is serious about leadership will be honest with the American people and with America’s allies about the threats to peace and vital U.S. interests around the world. Broadly speaking, there are five threats: Islamist terrorism, a Russia that threatens stability in Europe, a China that is trying to expand its hegemony over the Asia-Pacific region, and the rogue nations of Iran and North Korea.

Simply naming these threats and publicly committing to clear strategies to deal with each of them will do more to further understanding at home and cement American leadership abroad than has been accomplished by the last eight years of American statecraft.

This clarity should not be limited to our enemies and adversaries. Unlike the United Nations, which acts as a pulpit for anti-American dictators and a platform for the grievances of failing states, the action-oriented members of NATO deserve our continued support, especially in the face of Russian imperialism in Crimea.

Every major theater is home to nations with cultural, economic, and democratic ties of friendship with the United States. They are worthy of our constant recognition and support.

Israel is our greatest ally in the Middle East and deserves to be treated as such. We can start by consulting its leaders before negotiating treaties with neighbors who plot their destruction, like Iran. Any Middle Eastern nation that rejects violent extremism and demonstrates a willingness to cooperate with the United States also merits our respect and consideration.

The United Kingdom is our anchor in Europe, all the more so on the eve of a “Brexit” from the European Union. Far from damaging itself, the United Kingdom stands to reclaim sovereignty and ensure solvency that so many nations on the continent have lost. Through trade deals and diplomatic support, we must stand by them.

Japan and South Korea are twin U.S. anchors in Asia, endangered by Chinese and North Korean pressure. A stronger quadrilateral alliance that includes the United States, Japan, Australia, and India is indispensable to countering these threats and protecting our allies.

For the sake of our friends, to deter our enemies, and to restore the confidence of the American people, President Trump should close the clarity gap in our foreign policy.

Our position in the world will be strengthened just as much—and in far less time—by the character and rhetoric of the next administration as by any trade policy or treaty. For the sake of our friends, to deter our enemies, and to restore the confidence of the American people, President Trump should close the clarity gap in our foreign policy.

Lead, Not Police, the World

As a generation comes to maturity in the wake of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, many Americans rightly doubt the ability of the United States to fix troubled regions or cultivate the growth of democratic norms in different cultures.

At the same time, we have seen the result of a strategy of half-measures. Charging into regime-change operations without a clear plan for the day after an odious regime falls has been followed by abandoning commitments too quickly. Such missteps have given rise to the killers of ISIS, an Iraq and Syria plunged into chaos, and the Libyan civil war. They were born of a naiveté that shirks the weight of responsibility with bombs and proxies—a drone’s-eye view of international conflict. It is the worst of both worlds, combining the destabilizing effects of invasion without the commitment to assist in fixing what was broken and the irresponsibility of non-intervention when dangers are gathering in the absence of order.

If the next generation is to see effective but minimal use of our military power, both Congress and President Trump must use coercive force only in protection of vital U.S. interests and reject nation-building. They must recognize America’s unique role as a global superpower committed to the stability that brings prosperity while rejecting the role of world policeman that meddles in the sovereign affairs of other countries.

Several guidelines are essential to achieving this goal. First, a prosperous world is a peaceful one. Spreading economic freedom at home and promoting it abroad, is a preemptive strike against the conditions that can erupt into violence. In the main, it is easier for murderous ideologues to recruit the impoverished and disaffected than it is for them to recruit the well-off and enfranchised.

This prosperity comes from organic economic growth, something the United States can facilitate but not grant or impose. Too often, our leaders employ foreign aid as a Band-Aid for deeper societal problems in developing countries. This tragedy of compassion is compounded when aid goes to tyrants, enabling them to use the charity of democratic nations to prolong their power or fund their wars at the expense of their starving subjects. The next administration must ensure that not a single taxpayer dollar is directed to governments that oppose the United States or oppress their own people.

Just as dedicating resources to bad actors is senseless, so is ceding U.S. sovereignty to a treaty, doctrine, or international body. Solutions 2016 observes:

The agenda of domestic and international advocates of arms control and disarmament includes pressuring the U.S. to ratify treaties that would harm our national security, including the Protocol Banning Autonomous Weapons, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Strictures like the U.N. Arms Trade treaty and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine establish norms that either obligate the United States to intervene in certain conflicts or restrict it from preparing adequately for others. A wise administration will realize that war, if unavoidable, is to be guided by the U.S. Constitution, U.S. law, and the conscience of the American people.

Modernize the Nuclear Arsenal 
and Upgrade Missile Defenses

If America’s course is to avoid war whenever possible, then the arms she bears should be able to deter aggression and neutralize the weapons of our enemies without the need for full-scale conflict. This requires a defense strategy that values both nuclear deterrence and missile defense.

Thirty-three years ago, President Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative to the American people with this vision in mind. At the time, technologies like kinetic satellite projectiles, laser weapons, and other space-based platforms were just being coaxed from the realm of science fiction into science reality.

Unfortunately, the promise of global integrated missile defense was abandoned at the beginning of the Clinton administration, prompted by misplaced pacifism and excused by the arrogant assumption that the United States would never face another existential threat like the one posed by the Soviet Union.

In recent years, the American nuclear arsenal has suffered from similar attitudes, which have led to degraded capabilities and delayed modernization. The Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of U.S. Military Strength assessed the arsenal as “marginal”:

Though modernization programs for warheads and delivery systems are quite uncertain, the infrastructure supporting nuclear programs is aged, and nuclear test readiness has revealed troubling problems within the forces, those weak spots are offset by strong delivery platform reliability and allies who remain confident in the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

Although the Soviet Union sits on the ash heap of history, the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction has yet to join it fully. In an era when a ballistic missile fired anywhere in the world can reach American soil in 33 minutes, it is imperative that the next administration dedicate itself both to comprehensive missile defense and to sustaining America’s nuclear triad: bombers, land-based ICBMs, and submarine-based SLBMs.

In addition to committing to modernization of the nuclear arsenal, President Trump should reject arms control treaties like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that weaken us, and the Senate should withhold its consent to their ratifications.

The next administration can also rebuild a program advancing space-based missile defenses. As Reagan told Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev: “The genie is already out of the bottle. Offensive weapons can be built again. Therefore I propose creating protection for the world for future generations, when you and I will no longer be here.”

We cannot be content to meet the lowest denominator of threat or to leave a flank unprotected out of false charity toward our lesser enemies. We should not aim merely to match rogue nations like Iran, North Korea, and other evil regimes across the globe: We must overmatch them.

Stop Using National Defense to 
Conduct Social Experiments

Our military is meant to provide for the common defense, and its policies and practices as determined by the executive branch should further only this vital function. Extraneous goals distract from this mission and can lessen combat effectiveness. Unfortunately, this reality was not evident to the Obama administration, which considers the Pentagon a testing ground for progressive social experiments.

Policies that mandate fashionable energy practices and technologies put effectiveness and reliability second to faddish political causes, wasting scarce resources in an already cash-strapped military. In addition, military budgeting through the National Defense Authorization Act has routinely been held hostage to force passage of unrelated domestic funding legislation. President Trump must hold military strength above political concerns.

Moreover, it is unacceptable for individuals and families within the military to be denied the religious liberties that other Americans enjoy just because they happen to have devoted their lives to the service of our country. This is exactly what is happening when chaplains and other officers are disciplined for appealing to faith in day-to-day life, either on base or in the field.

Indoctrination sessions on racial privilege and “microaggressions” force the adoption of academic fantasies by our fighting men and women. Radical, grievance-based instruction erodes troop cohesion while promoting a distorted view of our country—one that no American should be forced to fund with his or her tax dollars.

In order to protect America and her citizens, President Trump should refrain from imposing politically correct policies on the military, and Congress should refuse to fund any such policies.

You can find more information on how to rebuild America’s national defenses in the following publications from The Heritage Foundation:

The 2017 Index of U.S. Military Strength, Dakota Wood, ed., November 22, 2016;

Solutions 2016, January 2016;

The Budget Book: 106 Ways to Reduce the Size and Scope of Government, Brad Watson, Laura Trueman, and Rachel Greszler, eds., February 2015.