National Review Online

U.S. Military Primacy: Worth Sacrificing For

National Review Online

Senior Fellow and Trustee

Advocates of cuts in U.S. military programs, including President Obama’s Deficit Reduction Commission, argue that the defense budget must be reduced along with all other U.S. programs because of the dangerously increasing government debt and the current bleak economic picture. The Commission recommends the elimination of $100 billion from the defense budget — more than 25 percent of which cuts would have an effect on acquisitions and research.

But such demands duck a fundamental question: whether the consequences of the U.S.’s no longer being the world’s preeminent military force are acceptable. If the answer is “yes,” we will have one kind of future as a nation among nations. If the answer is “no,” we will have another. In my view, programs designed to maintain military primacy should be exempt from cuts even when other items in the budget are not.

What do I mean by U.S. “military primacy”? A good working definition is ”a situation in which U.S. capabilities are so superior that they discourage or deter adversaries from taking action they might otherwise take to the detriment of U.S. interests.” Ideally, the deterrent effect would be so good that the U.S. would never have to actually deploy its military might. It also means that, if the adversary took a risk and acted anyway, the U.S. military could defeat it. The more clear it is at the outset that U.S. military capability is more than a match for the adversary’s force, the greater the likelihood of discouraging or deterring the adversary’s action.

How can we see into a future without U.S. military primacy? One place that points the way is the past. The absence of U.S. military primacy played a large role in North Korea’s invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950. In 1945, the U.S. had 40,000 soldiers in in South Korea. By 1950, there were a mere 472 there. Consistent with the drawdown, Secretary of State Dean Acheson did not include Korea in a January 1950 speech in which he enumerated countries that the U.S. would defend.

Kim Il Sung concluded that the U.S. would not interfere with his plan to unify the peninsula by force. He persuaded Stalin and Mao of that view, secured their promises of support, and invaded the South. Hundreds of thousands died in the conflict. The U.S. suffered 33,746 combat deaths and 128,650 total dead and wounded. In economic terms, the war cost $67 billion in 1953 dollars, equal to $535 billion in 2008 dollars. Once the Korean War started, the U.S. defense budget was quadrupled.

In evaluating whether U.S. military programs can be eliminated without imperiling military primacy, it is necessary first to consider what potential adversaries are saying and doing and how their actions will affect the U.S. Two countries of enormous importance in this regard are Russia and China.

While our relations with Russia today are not as hostile as they were with the Soviet Union (thankfully), Russia’s reassertion of rights in territories the Soviet Union once occupied is worrisome. Russian air-force fighters already are comparable to the U.S. mainstay, the F15. Russia is developing fighter aircraft comparable to our now-incomparable F22 (production of which has been terminated to save money), and it is continuing to develop nuclear-weapon and other military capabilities explicitly intended to be superior to ours and to defeat us in any conflict.

China long has made territorial claims on the regions surrounding it. Some of these are in areas in the western Pacific claimed by other countries. Others are in what the U.S. regards as international waters. It is no secret that China is aggressively building a blue-water navy, has F15-comparable fighters in its own air force, and already is testing an F22-comparable aircraft that will be deployed in very few years. Moreover, the ships, aircraft, missiles, and space and cyber capabilities China is developing, like those of the Russians, are explicitly being designed to defeat U.S. air, naval, and space military capabilities.

These facts are significant. They demonstrate elements of U.S. primacy from the perspective of Russia and China, showing what U.S. military resources they regard as impeding their plans. They also show that Russia and China believe there is a significant possibility that they will want to use military force to achieve an objective contrary to U.S. interests.

As was the case in Korea in 1953, U.S. military weakness in the late 1930s eased the way for Nazi aggression and invited Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. At that time, the U.S. military was not remotely prepared for the war. Had the U.S. not been as isolationist and had it spent what was necessary in the 1920s and 1930s to assure itself of military primacy, perhaps Japan and Germany would not have started what became World War II, a war in which 70 million people, including 405,399 Americans, died, and which cost us $337 billion in early-1940s dollars.

There is no way to predict with confidence whether Russia or China will use the military power it is developing to resolve differences with other countries, although there is ample evidence that each may. But we can be sure that, if a U.S. interest is involved — Japan or Taiwan, for example — both would consider the U.S.’s military capability before initiating a major military operation. If that happens, what would we do? Would we capitulate to our adversary’s demands, whatever they may be? Would we deploy our military forces in the hope of prevailing? If our military forces prevail, how would we feel about the human and economic costs we suffered in the conflict? Perhaps this scenario was what Defense Secretary Robert Gates had in mind last month when he told the co-chairs of the Deficit Reduction Commission that a 10 percent cut in the defense budget would be a “catastrophe.”

“If you want peace, prepare for war.” That advice, which dates back to the time of the Roman Empire, applies today. The U.S. has preserved its political and economic freedom, and the political and economic freedom of its friends, by maintaining military primacy since the 1950s. We must continue to do so.