Democratic presidential candidates shouldn’t give in to demand they slash defense spending

Photo of the Pentagon
Editor's note:

Democrats should avoid the temptation to move in the kind of McGovern-like anti-defense directions that doomed the party to political setbacks starting in the 1970s—and that would allow Donald Trump to run on a Reagan-like platform of being the main candidate who favors a strong national defense, argue Michael O’Hanlon and Frank Rose. This piece originally appeared in USA Today.

As more than 20 Democratic presidential candidates seek to distinguish themselves from not only Donald Trump but each other, pressure is growing from the left of the political spectrum to take dramatically different positions from the president on matters of national security. A coalition of activist groups is now pushing candidates to pledge to cut the annual national defense budget, which President Trump wants to increase to $750 billion in 2020, by $200 billion. Such cuts would take the defense budget well below its typical levels under President Obama, which were in the low $600-billions range in his second term, and bring military spending back towards the levels that prevailed in the halcyon days of the 1990s when the world was a calmer and less threatening place.

A vigorous debate on defense is welcome, and those who want to raise fundamental questions about America’s role in the world including in the long war against terrorists have every right to do so. But a $200 billion cut is too much for a world with threats like today’s revanchist Russia, rising China, activist Iran, and nuclearizing North Korea.  Democrats should avoid the temptation to move in the kind of McGovern-like anti-defense directions that doomed the party to political setbacks starting in the 1970s — and that would allow Donald Trump to run on a Reagan-like platform of being the main candidate who favors a strong national defense. Worse yet, such a platform could encourage the likes of Kim Jong-Un, as well as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, to smell American weakness and sense opportunity if a Democrat elected with an agenda to pull back from the world winds up in the White House.

So instead of slashing defense budgets by nearly 30 percent, and demanding things like an immediate end to the relatively modest U.S. military force levels now deployed in the Middle East, as well as pursuit of an unrealistic arms control agenda, Democrats should look for more targeted ways to distinguish themselves from Trump on matters of national security. Doing so may not liberate $200 billion for domestic investments as some would like. But it might free up several tens of billions of dollars that could be used to strengthen the nation at home without lowering our collective guard abroad.

Specific ideas for Democrats to use

Here are some of the specific ideas Democrats — and any Republicans who wish to challenge the president on defense budget matters — could usefully bring to the nation’s attention. We do not necessarily both endorse each and every one. But they are the kinds of targeted, specific proposals that can save real money, and advance America’s overall military strength, without creating big political or strategic vulnerabilities for a candidate espousing them:

  • Purchase fewer F-35 combat aircraft than the nearly 2,500 the Air Force, Navy and Marines now collectively plan. The F-35 is a good plane, but is probably not needed in the numbers now forecast, and may be diverting us from more pressing aviation needs such as an expanded bomber force and development of long-range unmanned attack aircraft flying off aircraft carriers.
  • Emphasize modernizing and improving the readiness of the Department of Defense’s existing force structure. But don’t try to grow Navy and Air Force by 25% each, as the Trump plan envisions.
  • Instead, try to do things like working with allies to develop more innovative and efficient ways of maintaining forward naval presence overseas (for example, with different ship rotation policies and more forward homeporting of ships).
  • Modernize our strategic nuclear forces, most notably through acquisition of a new ballistic-missile submarine and the B21 bomber and improved nuclear command and control. Also endorse a nuclear triad, but debate and perhaps slow or scale back other parts of Pentagon’s and Department of Energy’s nuclear plans. Emphasize practical arms control ideas like extension of New START.
  • Improve missile defense systems, including space-based sensors — but do so without putting weapons in space.
  • Emphasize continued strong military compensation while reforming military health care system and closing unneeded bases.
  • Increase interoperability and cooperation with allies to allow them to play a larger role in enhancing our collective security.
  • While maintaining resoluteness and vigilance in matters of national security policy, look for realistic opportunities to defuse tensions with the threatening nations mentioned above. This will not, of course, be easy, however. It should not be seen as an alternative to military preparedness, but a complement.

By getting into such admittedly technical military subjects, Democrats will also avoid the kind of sweeping statements that Republicans have often used to portray them as insufficiently committed to America’s armed forces in the past. They will demonstrate their knowledge and seriousness about U.S. defense policy. That is the right way to save some money, avoid conceding the national security high ground to President Trump — and protect the nation and its allies effectively in a dangerous world, once the party returns to the White House.