A wise and highly-respected reader and friend queried me about a recent column (Guns vs. Butter, Oct. 22). He pointed out that the United States spends more on national defense than the next eleven countries combined (China, India, Russia, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Australia), according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. He noted that in 2020, the U.S. reportedly spent $778 billion on defense while China spent about $252 billion and that while China may have more ships than our navy does, the bulk of them are coastal patrol types and include only two aircraft carriers (two more are under construction and more are planned) compared to our 11. They also have far fewer cruisers and destroyers than we do (but more are planned).
In asking why we needed more, he suggested that perhaps increasing the defense budget was not the best solution but rather spending it more wisely was. It’s a fair point and no doubt we could spend it more wisely. I recently wrote that we may have forgotten how to build warships, citing among other things, the problems with the littoral combat ships (LCSs) leading to their early retirement and the delays in getting the aircraft carrier Gerald Ford ready for deployment.
Navies in particular, however, should not be sized, structured or funded by comparing them to other navies including those of potential adversaries. Rather these factors should be based on the missions, responsibilities and challenges we expect them to deal with successfully and which may differ significantly, especially in the case of ours and China’s. A future conflict with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia, North Korea or Iran is not likely to be decided by major sea battles between fleets such as in World War II in the Pacific. An armed conflict with the PRC, should there be one, would probably be very different from past conflicts and involve non-traditional warfare such as cyberwarfare, autonomous systems and possibly even biowarfare. It could be over in a short time or drag on, perhaps without resolution.
The National Counterintelligence and Security Center’s Michael Orlando, whom I quoted in that column, has said that artificial intelligence, quantum computing, semiconductors, biotechnology and autonomous systems are now the drivers of both economic and military growth and losing world leadership in these fields could mean losing our role as the world’s dominant superpower. A much larger navy will, an any event be required in any such conflict in order to project power, protect vital shipping and provide logistical support over vast ocean spaces and possibly to blockade China’s numerous seaports.
We need a larger navy than China’s also because we are essentially an island nation bounded by three oceans with island territories, bases, troops and other vital assets accessible by ocean throughout the world. China, on the other hand, has a single coastline facing a single ocean and can concentrate and support its naval forces without having to first deploy them halfway around the world. We probably don’t know for certain how much the PRC is spending on defense and its heavily-subsidized defense industries but you can be pretty sure its what the ruling communist party wants to spend and it’s now abundantly clear it’s not just for homeland defense or the invasion of Taiwan.
China’s successful testing of hypersonic missiles greatly changes the nature and degree of the threat and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Mark Milley, has described this development as a Sputnik moment. The best way to avoid an armed conflict with the PRC is to deter it through strength as we did in leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. That requires convincing the PRC’s communist rulers that they cannot win such a conflict and whatever the outcome we will survive and prevail and that it would devastate China’s economy. It would cause immense suffering to its restive population and certainly end its grip on power, the retention of which is the leadership’s top priority.
To convince Beijing will require a much larger and wiser-spent investment in defense on our part, including long-overdue improvements to the infrastructure essential to both our economy and our defense. Whatever that would cost would be cheaper by far than fighting a war. So how much is enough? I once asked a friend and insurance guru, “How much do I need to spend on insurance?” His response was, “Before I can answer that, you need to tell me how much you can afford to lose.”
Reasonable people can differ over what we can afford for new or increased entitlements or whether we can afford any more at all, given the fact that social security, Medicare and Medicaid are on track to run out of money. Reasonable people can also disagree over how much we need to spend on defense. But everyone should agree that we can’t afford to lose a war. That reality should inform your answer to the first two questions.