US National Security Strategy and Its Impact on Defense Spending

Special Guests: Michael O'Hanlon

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This week on Facing the Future, we got an assessment of U.S. national security strategy and its potential impact on defense spending from Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. O’Hanlon has served in an advisory capacity for both the U.S. Department of Defense and the CIA. His latest  paper, soon to be published, discusses what Pentagon spending levels should be given the current nature of national security threats and challenges. Concord Coalition policy director Tori Gorman and communications director Av Harris joined me for that conversation. 

Later in the program, Tori joined Steve Robinson and me to discuss how slight changes to just a few economic assumptions can have a substantial impact on the long-term outlook for the federal budget, according to new analysis released by the Congressional Budget Office.  

When it comes to current U.S. national security challenges and global hot spots of course the first situation we think of is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is a conflict that has cost thousands of lives on both sides, created millions of refugees in Europe, and has led to environmental disasters – with the threat of nuclear weapons being used looming in the background. So far, the Biden Administration has committed nearly $80 billion in assistance for Ukraine, most of it military hardware and ammunition. While O’Hanlon has plenty of critiques for the way President Biden and his team (as well as other administrations) handled the lead up to the Russian invasion, he mostly approves of the way the current administration has managed the crisis and supported Ukraine without dragging the U.S. or NATO into direct military conflict with a nuclear armed Russia. But, he says, that may not be enough to force the Russian army out of all the Ukrainian territory it has occupied.

“I’m afraid that stalemate is the word that comes to my mind more than any other,” said O’Hanlon. “We’re all watching the sluggish Ukrainian counter-offensive and the effort to win back the 17% or 18% of Ukrainian territory that Russia still occupies. And, unfortunately, the Russians – like the rest of us – have known this was coming for a long time and has prepared World War I style minefields, barrier zones, and trench lines. In this era of smart phones, satellites, and high precision targeting, this war looks to me more like WWI and the Western Front than it does anything else. I think it’s going real slowly and it will continue to. In the United States debate, we tend to put a lot on the decisions not yet to send F-16s or ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) to Ukraine. I would support sending those weapons, but I wouldn’t expect it to make a huge difference even there. Because it’s the extent, the density, and the lethality of those Russian front line positions now backed up by some 300,000 Russian infantry along the line from Crimea up to the Donbas. So it’s going to be tough sledding.”

O’Hanlon predicts the war will continue into 2024, unless there is some major political breakthrough. Meanwhile, there is an important question of how much longer the political commitment in the U.S. and among NATO allies to arming Ukraine to fight the Russian invasion will continue.   

“How long can and should we do this if all we’re doing is essentially reinforcing stalemate?” said O’Hanlon. “Does it make sense at some point to say to President Zelensky: ‘God bless you, we love you, the Russians have stolen your land. You should get it back, but you’re not going to be able to get it all back on the battlefield. We’re going to have to at some point accept ceasefire lines, and we’re going to have to let this be a long-term political project, to wait perhaps for a new leader in the Kremlin, maybe it’s a 20 or 30 year project. And the world will never forget that the Crimea region, the Donbas region and the areas in between are Ukrainian. And we will never rest, our successors will never rest, until we get that land back. We can’t promise you if or when we get it all back, but it’s not going to be on the battlefield. You’re going to have to accept a strategy that acknowledges that.’ That is the debate I expect to happen next year.” 

The other major national security challenge the U.S. faces is how to respond to the growing economic and military power of China, and whether American policy should look at China as an adversary in a new Cold War, or as a healthy competitor we need to engage with. O’Hanlon says high tensions with China could result in military conflict, which is something neither country can afford. 

“When I look at the trajectory for the Chinese economy, I don’t think it’s inevitable that they will become the dominant global superpower even economically,” said O’Hanlon. “They’ve got big problems with their economy, with their banking system, with their public sector firms and now the assault on independence and entrepreneurship that’s affecting some of their big private companies, with their aging population, now 1.4 billion but already starting to decline. Workforce already has declined and by the end of the century, they could be down to just 800 million people. To manage that kind of a population decline of potentially 40% in two generations is going to put enormous strain on their economy and their pension and social security systems, and they’re going to have even bigger problems than we do. China’s growth rate is already down to the 3-4% range, which is a number a lot of countries would kill for, but it doesn’t spell an inevitability about their rise. I think we’re looking at roughly mid 21st century or even sooner, eventually you’ll have two superpowers, but we’re the superpower that has all the friends.”   

O’Hanlon says one key to maintaining stability in Asia is stronger economic and military ties between the U.S. and India, which the Biden administration has been pursuing. O’Hanlon says you can see China policy reflected in the current budget for the Defense Department, which he says he is reasonably happy with. 

“The Pentagon is focused on China as it calls the most consequential strategic competitor, that’s a little clunky, but it’s better than calling China the enemy or the adversary,” said O’Hanlon. “We do have to take very seriously the technological, logistical, and geographical challenges of dealing with the second most powerful military in a location that’s difficult for us, because of the geography and the relatively sparse and few number of allies. So we’re really trying to concentrate a lot of the modernization efforts of the American military on dispersing our base network in the Pacific, on building more resilient and redundant kinds of bases or launching pads for various kinds of potential military attack, for hardening and dispersing satellite fleets, for beefing up military logistics, and pre-stationing supplies, and just being ready for different kinds of scenarios. With the goal of course of preventing and deterring them, not actually fighting them. I think the Pentagon has done a reasonably good job of that, while at the same time recognizing that we in the United States don’t have the luxury of overly fixating on just one problem.”

Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL in Concord N.H., and it is also available via podcast. Join us as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.

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