Today, the Hoover Institution Press releases Defense Budgeting for a Safer World: The Experts Speak. This book analyzes, and seeks to strengthen, the nation’s ability to deal with: threats to our national security; a comprehensive national-security strategy; military procurement, technology, and innovation; personnel, talent acquisition, and management; and reform of the politics of defense budgeting.

The defense budget provides the resources and authorities for the military to deter aggression and, if necessary, defeat aggressors. Its adequacy and composition reflect America’s priorities in dealing with threats to our national security, which are growing in potential severity and spreading throughout the world. Yet the defense budget has experienced wild fluctuations in recent years, from sequester starvation to sizable increases of uncertain duration. Worse yet, it has often been subject to significant delays beyond the start of the fiscal year.

The belief that the world has become increasingly dangerous has been a staple in national-security circles for some time. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spread awareness of this harsh reality to the broader public. Adding Chinese president Xi Jinping’s increasing assertiveness, especially toward Taiwan but also far beyond; continued terrorist threats from multiple corners; North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests; Iran’s coming ever closer to acquiring nuclear-weapon capability and continued sponsoring of terrorism, as evidenced now by Hamas’s attacks on Israel and the regional reactions; risks in the cyber and space domains; and of course the potential of an “unknown unknown” military conflict leaves America’s geopolitical strategy and military preparedness stretched and challenged.

The Navy cannot send ships it does not have to keep sea lanes open. The Army cannot deploy troops it has been unable to recruit, train, and equip. Ditto for the capacity of the Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Space Force, and, if necessary, the Reserves and National Guard. And for each of the services, in cooperation with the private sector, rapidly developing and deploying technology and recapitalizing and equipping with surge capacity have become urgent priorities—for which we have not been adequately preparing. As former chairman of the Joint Chiefs and secretary of state Colin Powell summarized, “Show me your budget, and I’ll show you your strategy.”

Democracies usually underinvest in their militaries during peacetime, if history is any guide. And so, the great military advantage over potential adversaries we have enjoyed for decades is shrinking. Adversaries have been strengthening their military capabilities, often with sophisticated technology and directly focused on potential conflict with the United States. Our threat evaluation and strategy must be built on this unfortunate reality. At the same time, as former defense secretary and CIA director Bob Gates says, “When it comes to predicting future conflicts . . . and what will be needed, we need a lot more humility.”

Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen concurs: “We’re pretty lousy at predicting where we’ll go . . . the kind of warfare we’ll be in.” My Hoover colleague and former defense secretary Jim Mattis points out: “I have never fought anywhere I expected to in all my years.” My Hoover colleague and former national security adviser H. R. McMaster says: “We have a perfect record in predicting future wars: zero percent.”

The essays, panel presentations, and discussions in this new volume, featuring contributions from many of the nation’s leading experts, address concerns such as these.

Collective wisdom on security

This book brings together and interweaves the main contemporary topics in national-security budgeting. These include the geopolitical, military, and fiscal context for defense budget reforms; the threats the nation faces and might face; the strategies necessary to enable effective actions to deal with those threats; and the technology, recapitalization, and innovation challenges the services face and the opportunities for better harnessing new technologies.

Also covered are personnel strengths and weaknesses, from recruiting to training and retaining the active-duty force; to the best mix of active-duty and reserve personnel and private contractors, including highly technical talent. There are also overviews of reform possibilities, the checkered history of previous reform attempts, and a discussion of the politics of enacting defense budgets that are adequate, flexible, and incentivized enough to do the job without the undue burden of non-core-mission spending that crowds out mission-critical imperatives.

Fiscal issues loom ever larger: the growing national debt, the rapidly approaching insolvency of Social Security and Medicare, and the dilemma those budgetary pressures will create for making the necessary investments in defense. In its effort to right-size the defense budget, the Pentagon and Congress will need to do a much better job of using resources for the things the military needs to do. Not just more bucks, but more bang for the buck.

Our allies are key to our overall strategy and its execution. Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice stresses the vital role allies play in protecting our—and their—national security through the fusion of intelligence, diplomacy, and the military. As Jim Mattis states, the “only thing worse than going to war with allies is going to war without them.”

We have encountered many people who believe they need to know more about national security and defense budgeting but seek help in cobbling together a comprehensive view from disparate places and sources. In a poll jointly coordinated last year by the Hoover Institution’s Tennenbaum Program for Fact-Based Policy and YouGov, respondents ranked national security and the defense budget as among the five most important public policy topics (out of the fifteen surveyed) about which they would most value more objective information.

We hope that bringing these commentaries and analyses from leading experts together in one place can serve that purpose, adding to the significant individual insights and independent value that each brings. Their collective wisdom should prove valuable not just to those in the national-security community and those interacting with it directly but also to those who would benefit from deeper knowledge on these issues in dealing with the economy, the budget, politics, and international relations as citizens and voters.

And we note reasons for cautious optimism on the task of right-sizing the budget’s adequacy, flexibility, and accountability.

Threats and opportunities

The perspectives, concerns, ideas, and solutions offered by these leading experts form a comprehensive, readily accessible overview of the major interrelated issues in defense budgeting upon which America’s national security and the prospects for a safer world depend. On some issues, there is a range of disagreement—for example, on the time frame within which China might attempt a military takeover of Taiwan, or the need to expand active-duty personnel and weapons systems, by how much, and for which services.

But on most issues, there is general widespread, if importantly nuanced, agreement among these experts, most of whom have served in key leadership positions, encompassing administrations of both major political parties.

The experts who contributed to Defense Budgeting for a Safer World agree on these major points:

• The geopolitical environment is increasingly dangerous and complex.

• Adversaries are devoting ever-greater resources to closing the military gap with the United States in their respective theaters of interest, so we must contend with multiple adversaries in multiple theaters.

• It is important to better coordinate with allies.

• Greater adequacy, flexibility, and accountability are needed in the defense budget.

• It is urgent that we strengthen the defense industrial base while investing in modernization to replace aging systems and equipment.

• We can and should better integrate commercial technology, and more rapidly, in the acquisition process.

• We need more flexible, incentive-based reforms to better recruit, train, promote, and retain people, including those with advanced technical and business skills.

• There is considerable opportunity for reforms to lead to efficiencies and to reductions of non-Pentagon-core-mission spending. These will help free up resources for necessary topline funding.

• And finally, there is a vital need to better educate the public on the role that its investment of tax dollars in defense plays in enabling the military, along with intelligence and diplomacy, to keep America safe, free, and prosperous.

There are many opportunities and options for reform to strengthen the security of the United States and the world by combining efficiency, realignment of priorities, and greater flexibility with the additional spending necessary to do the job. Whether the nation has the political will to seize the best of them, with the urgency required, remains an open question. In the face of an ever more dangerous world, our national security in the coming years depends on doing so. We hope the papers and presentations by leading experts in this volume will serve as a valuable resource in that effort.

The volume and the conference on which it is based are products of the Hoover Institution's Tennenbaum Program for Fact-Based Policy.

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