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The United States is Not Serious: The Unraveling of World Order
Vermilion Tower: Thoughts of the Week
Washington now faces the possibility of two regional wars in two different theaters or US combatant commands (COCOMs): The Ukraine War in EUCOM and the rapidly escalating Israel-Palestine War in CENTCOM.
While these conflicts have so far remained regional, the US now peers into the dangerous possible future of a world at war. It is almost certain that the DoD (as currently funded and structured) is unable to fully support both Ukraine and Israel (if these wars drag on as the Israeli War escalates) while also being prepared to support Taiwan.
There will be many commentators identifying that the global situation is the prelude to an emergency. There will also be many commentators declaring that Congress and the President need to come together in order to establish a bipartisan foundation for a new or at least modified approach to national security strategy and funding.
Both points are correct and the first order of business is to adjust the DoD’s departmental level planning construct. In our last “Vermilion Tower/Thoughts of the Week” article we touched on the fact that USINDOPACOM force structure / force posture is lacking. This is simply the symptom of a larger problem. The current DoD is not funded to deter and if necessary prevail in two near-simultaneous major combat operations in two different theaters. The requirement to fight and win in two near-simultaneous major combat operations (MCOs) was explicitly dropped in 2012, but the idea had been building for some time before that.
From the New York Times in 2009: “...fears have faded that the United States may actually have to fight, say, Russia and North Korea, or China and Iran, at the same time.” The Obama administration unfortunately read the tea leaves incorrectly and changed the planning policy in 2012:
“Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s new strategic guidance, unveiled Thursday, moves in this direction, stating that the future U.S. military “will be capable of defeating a major act of aggression in one theater while denying the objectives of — or imposing unacceptable costs on — an opportunistic aggressor in a second theater.” Panetta and President Obama are right to reduce the requirements for a second possible war, which in this era would probably not be a ground war in any case.”
Of course hindsight is 20/20. It is clear now that President Obama and Secretary Panetta got it wrong. The US is already embroiled in efforts to deny enemy objectives and message the imposition of unacceptable costs in Europe. Now it may have to do the same in the Middle East. Ideally Israel’s near certain future military action will be limited and effective, but the US cannot be sure of this nor can it count on yet another regional conflict not breaking out.
With the 2 MCO planning construct abandoned, defense spending now only accounts for about 12 to 14% of all federal spending, and is at a near nadir in terms of % of US GDP:
* In the graph above, the 2020 figure is actuality slightly higher at 3.7%, while the 2023 figure is roughly ~3.1%
It should be obvious to any experienced practitioner in the national security field that dedicating roughly the same size of the economy to defense as the halcyon days of the 1990s makes zero sense. If anything, the floor should start around 4.5% of GDP (1979’s figure), clearly somewhere close to the absolute minimum it took to deter another peer adversary far poorer than China, the Soviet Union. Congress will need courage prioritizing Defense spending and cutting benefit and entitlement programs.
Defense spending as a percentage of GDP is a good metric because today’s pacing threat is a nation state with an economy currently relatively larger than anything Washington has faced in the history of the US with the exception of Great Britain. Measuring defense’s drag against GDP show’s both what is likely effective and what is likely excess levels of funding (above 5.7%, the height of the Reagan buildup).
It is a calm calculation of adversary and enemy capability along with affordability that should determine the US defense budget, not political predictions, domestic bargaining, appeasement, or misguided ideology.