Sen. Wicker: Money alone won’t fix our military

by Harlan Ullman, opinion contributor - 06/03/24 1:30 PM ET

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) has sounded the general quarters alarm about the dangerous state of the U.S. military.  

In a New York Times op-ed last week, Wicker declared “America’s Military is Not Prepared for War — or Peace.” In a longer document, Wicker has rolled out his plan called “21st Century Peace Through Strength: A Generational Investment in the U.S. Military” to reverse what he sees as a crisis in defense.

But is Wicker correct? Is the U.S. military as unprepared as Wicker alleges? And is spending more money the solution? 

After all, if history is a guide, over the past decade and despite increases in defense spending, the size of the active-duty military has declined. How then is the spiral of spending more and getting less going to be reversed?

The Wicker plan would add $55 billion to the 2025 defense budget and grow annual defense spending to 5 percent of GDP during the next five to seven years. The Navy would expand to 357 ships over the next decade and the Air Force would add another 340 aircraft by decade’s end. The plan specifies 19 key areas for more defense spending. 

An examination of the Wicker Plan shows three crucial components are missing in action.  

First, there is no overarching military strategy provided as the foundation for this buildup. Second, no evidence has been presented to show that this larger force is affordable, would be more effective than the current force or would reverse this spending/force size mismatch. Third, given the failure to man the current force, the report is silent on how sufficient people can be recruited and retained in this larger military.

By default, Wicker must assume that the current National Defense Strategy remains in place. That strategy aims to compete and deter, and if war arises, to defeat or prevail over enemies headed by China and Russia. 

But how to compete is not defined. And if the aim is to deter, where have China or Russia (or the Houthis and Hamas) been deterred? Also, as the main powers have admitted, thermonuclear war cannot be fought and cannot be won.

As for affordability, the Wicker Plan does not mention the effects of uncontrolled annual real cost growth for every item defense requires, from people to precision weapons to pencils, of 5-7 percent. Add 3-5 percent for inflation. With an annual defense budget of $900 billion, another $70-100 billion is needed just to stay even. Wicker’s request is for about half that and will not sustain the current force.

Further, with growing annual deficits and a $35 billion debt, from where is the extra money for defense coming if spending is to reach 5 percent of GDP or $1.3-5 trillion? The answer is nowhere.

Despite the benefits of recruiting and retaining service members, the DoD cannot make the numbers to sustain an active-duty force of 1.3 million. People are crucial. And we lack a plan to deal with this most critical of issues. Indeed, nowhere among the items noted in the plan are recruiting and retaining mentioned. 

The specifics of the plan include:

  • Rebuilding the Arsenal of Democracy
  • Surging Support for Taiwan and the Philippines, Work with South Korea & Japan
  • Strengthening U.S. Capability in Europe
  • creating new Vectors of Competition in Africa and Southern Commands
  • Reviving Homeland Defense Budget for border deployments and expand Joint Task Force North (JTF-N) 
  • Restoring U.S. Navy Supremacy, Fleet Readiness
  • Correcting the U.S. Air Force ‘Death Spiral’
  • Countering Chinese “Strategic Breakout” in Space with U.S. Space Force
  • Modernizing Cyber Command & Special Operations Command
  • Providing comprehensive Support for Nuclear Modernization, Air & Missile Defense
  • Modernizing Defense Infrastructure

The fundamental shortcoming is that no priorities are set to determine the importance of each. “Rebuilding the Arsenal of Democracy” and “Modernize Defense Infrastructure,” for example, are open-ended without identifying aims or objectives to be met. This is not a serious plan but more a defense shopping list.

Unless or until the Wicker Plan addresses these critiques, it cannot assure that the U.S. will ever be prepared for war or peace.

Harlan Ullman is a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of the “shock and awe” military doctrine. His 12th book, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD:  How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large,” is available on Amazon. He can be reached on Twitter @harlankullman.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of FRA.

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