Our Emerging Defense Challenges and Worldwide Threats

Image Credit: U.S. Navy | Flickr

Our next president will take office as the United States confronts the most diverse and complex array of global security challenges since the end of the Second World War.

Great power competition — once thought a casualty of the ‘end of history’ — has returned as Russia and China have each challenged the rules-based order that is the foundation of our security and prosperity.

Rogue states like North Korea and Iran are undermining regional stability while developing advanced military capabilities that threaten the United States and our allies.

Radical Islamist terrorism continues to pose a challenging threat to our security at home and to our interests abroad. And the chaos that has spread across the Middle East — and on which our terrorist enemies thrive — has torn apart nations; destroyed families; killed hundreds of thousands of men, women and children; and sent millions more running for their lives. But today, President Obama will deliver a speech in Florida touting his counterterrorism successes. Yet even a glimpse at the chaos enveloping the Middle East and spreading throughout the world reveals the delusion and the sophistry of this president and his failed policies.

In short, when our next president is inaugurated just six weeks from now, he will look out on a world on fire and have several consequential strategic choices to make: how to address Russian or Chinese aggression; how to confront threats from North Korea; whether to alter our relationship with Iran; how to improve and quicken our campaign against ISIL; how to counter the instability radiating from Syria; how to ensure victory in the war in Afghanistan. And I could go on.

Our next president will not have the benefit of time and cautious deliberation to set a new strategic course for the nation. That work begins with a series of decisions that will present themselves immediately on Day One. That’s why it is so important to get these right from the outset.

As we ponder these strategic questions, we must also consider our military posture around the world. We must decide the appropriate military presence in Europe and reverse reductions made by the Obama administration under the assumption that Russia was a partner. We also need fresh look at further steps to enhance U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

We need to uphold our commitments to allies and partners, including by finally providing lethal assistance to Ukraine and standing by the opposition in Syria.

We need to push back against the spread of Iranian malign influence in the Middle East. This starts in Iraq, where the eventual liberation of Mosul will intensify the sectarian struggle for power and identity.

And we need to finally give our troops in Afghanistan what they need to succeed: permanent and flexible authorities to engage the enemy and troop levels based on security conditions on the ground.

Here at home, we need to return to a strategy-based defense budget. Our next president would need more than $100 billion over and above the Budget Control Act caps just to execute our current defense strategy — which is insufficient, since it predates Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ISIL’s rampage across Syria and Iraq.

This will require our next president to negotiate a broad bipartisan budget agreement that brings an end to the dangerous and misguided Budget Control Act. Such an agreement has eluded President Obama and the Congress not because of disagreements on defense policy, but because we have lacked the political will to prioritize defense.

Since the election, many have discussed domestic priorities, including reviewing Obamacare, increasing infrastructure spending, and implementing tax cuts. But there can be no greater priority than preserving and increasing America’s position of strength and military advantage in the face of increasing global dangers. That Rebuilding our military must be a political priority, not just a talking point.

We must not only provide stable and increased defense budgets, but the next president’s administration must also implement reforms to the nation’s defense. This will include changes to the defense enterprise passed by the Congress over the last two years. I am proud of the work we have done on modernizing military retirement, improving military healthcare, reforming defense acquisition, trimming Pentagon bureaucracy, and more.

But the ultimate success of these reforms will depend on years of faithful implementation and dedicated follow-through by the Department of Defense.

The president-elect’s selection of General James Mattis to serve as Secretary is an encouraging sign in this regard. But there are dozens of senior civilian and military nominations still come. And it will be the job of this committee and the full Senate to provide advice and consent these nominations. We will be watching closely to see what choices the next president makes.

I encourage the next president to be bold. We need innovators for the future, not imitators of the past. We need thinkers open to new ideas, not functionaries wedded to old ways. We need people who understand the bureaucracy, but will not be captured by it. Put simply, to ensure the success of defense reform, we need reformers throughout the leadership of the Department of Defense.

Finally, our next president needs to repair the relationship between the executive and legislative branches.

The constitutional mandate to provide for the common defense is one the president and the Congress share together. This is not a defect, but the design of our Founders. To deter adversaries, defeat our enemies, fix our defense budget, and implement critical reforms to our defense enterprise, the executive and legislative branches must work together as coequals.

We need our next president, our next secretary of defense, and those elected to the next Congress to uphold this essential constitutional principle. The American people and the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces deserve and expect nothing less.

Delivered as the opening statement on December 6, 2016, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on emerging defense challenges and worldwide threats. Witnesses present included:

  • “General Jack Keane, Chairman of the Institute for the Study of War and former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army;
  • “Mr. Shawn Brimley, Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security; and
  • “Dr. Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Project on International Order and Strategy.