Speaking at the Citadel, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush opined that the U.S. military was on a path toward “inferiority.” Of course, as my colleague Matthew Fay pointed out, it was somewhat unclear where the comparison was being made. The U.S. spent approximately $300 billion more than Russia and China combined in 2014. Other Republican candidates have also highlighted the “decline” of the U.S. military, and the national security risks such a decline poses. The reality of the situation is that, although the Department of Defense does have issues that need to be addressed, concerns about ‘inferiority’ have more to do with American self-image than military strength.
The U.S. continues to outspend the next seven largest defense countries in the world: China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom, India, and Germany. Of those seven, only two are considered peer rivals—China and Russia—and the remainder are allies. To put this into further context, China, the second biggest spender, spent around $200 billion on defense in 2014. The U.S. spent over $600 billion. China has been ramping up its defense spending over the past decade, but the question ought to be what they’re spending money on. In addition to spending almost three times as much, the U.S. continues to field superior, top-of-the-line equipment. When it comes to China and Russia, defense officials are most concerned with asymmetric warfare and cyber-theft, both of sensitive government information and private sector data. But the nature of asymmetric warfare is to undermine a superior power. By definition, China and Russia’s strategies place the U.S. in a dominant position.
Over the past decade, the U.S. has learned about weaknesses within its defense systems through years of hard conflict. By contrast, many of the threats (besides cyberspace) that defense officials argue are coming out of China and Russia have not been yet demonstrated, such as blue-water power projection. At the same time, China and Russia have problems of their own.
Some of Russia’s new, highly-touted cruise missiles recently missed Syria and landed in Iran. Russia’s economy is in a recession, and serious economic and demographic challenges lie ahead.
China’s economy has also slowed, and its economic wizards do not appear to have found the answer to restarting it. China’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea has pushed other Asian countries closer to the U.S., including Vietnam. Japan, a major U.S. ally, has strengthened its ties with Vietnam and the Philippines in response to China’s new assertiveness, and may join U.S. operations in the South China Sea as a show of force. The UN may even intervene in the situation, which could deal a blow to China’s prestige. China’s aggressiveness in the regions appears to be costing it soft power. China has grown its army and navy massively, but is still substantially less capable than America. China’s alleged recent cyber-warfare victories, do not necessarily show its superiority to the U.S. in cyberspace, but merely that the U.S. is a more computerized society, more vulnerable to this sort of attack. As China modernizes, the U.S. will have opportunities to respond with its own probably superior offensive cyber-capabilities.
The U.S. has been in weaker positions before and still come out ahead. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had massively superior conventional power in Europe. The U.S. had to find a non-conventional balancer (nuclear) to offset this superiority. In the Space Race, the U.S. started on the back foot and wound up getting to the moon first. For a long time, the U.S. also thought it was behind on the nuclear front as well—though this turned out to be a combination of American over-estimation of Soviet capability and Soviet misinformation.
Whatever the problems America’s military may have, a lack money and slipping supremacy aren’t among them. The bigger problems involve coordination with the private sector, reforming business practices at the Pentagon, spending money more efficiently, and aligning acquisitions with strategy. (Breaking Defense reported that the U.S. has superior electromagnetic technology, but no strategy for its use). These problems constrain the Department of Defense’s ability to manage risks and address threats. Without addressing them, any decisions to counter rising threats from other nations’ militaries will be stymied and/or mismanaged.