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On Point

Retaining America's 'Hard Power'


by Austin Bay
February 28, 2017

Secretary of Defense James Mattis made reviving the U.S. Army his priority project. That meant he was going to give it the budget dollars it needs to be the Army America needs.

A lot of people with real expertise in the complexities of national defense agreed with him, but that's no surprise. Jim Mattis himself ranks as one of America's foremost national security thinkers.

Over the last decade, the Army has taken the brunt of Defense Department cutbacks and reductions. Last fall, the Heritage Foundation issued its "2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength." That study rated the Army's condition as "Weak." Heritage rated the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and strategic nuclear forces as "Marginal."

Let's agree a rating scheme such as this is highly simplified. However, Heritage supported its ratings with analysis. The intellectual support didn't stop members of the instant critic crowd from opining that the world's mightiest military establishment couldn't be weak or marginal.

Well, it could be, if you pay attention to the raison d'etre for military forces: threats to the U.S. itself and its vital interests. Heritage included ratings of threats to U.S. vital interests. Recognition or perception of threat should drive defense preparations (to include budgeting) and operations. I write "should" because the slow decline of U.S. military power during the Obama Administration coexisted with increasingly belligerent threats to U.S. vital interest.

Heritage rated North Korea's threat to U.S. interests as Severe. I'm sure somewhere on Facebook there is a sad and disconnected mind who'll dispute that assessment. Reality says otherwise. North Korea recently fired a radically improved solid-fuel ballistic missile. Its nuclear weapons program continues unabated. Kim Jong Un's recent assassination of his half-brother simply underlines North Korea's growing threat in the kind of cold-blooded headline even magazine entertainment editors can comprehend.

Heritage rated the threats posed by Russia, China and Afghanistan-Pakistan Terrorism as "high." Russia is probing NATO's eastern flank. China's South China Sea island-manufacturing campaign is slow imperialism at the expense of China's neighbors and freedom of the seas. Af-Pak terrorism received the rating because it could potentially spark an Indo-Pakistani war. That could-be conflagration doesn't receive a lot of chatter time on cable television, but it would set South and Central Asia aflame. It could lead to a nuclear exchange, since India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons.

Let's try and avoid a nuclear exchange on the sub-Continent. All of us should want to avoid a war in East Asia triggered by North Korean insanity. China, Japan and South Korea are all major economic contributors to the global economy. China's economic interests are one reason there's hope its territorial aggression can be curbed by diplomacy supported by verifiable military capabilities and the will to use them.

That last sentence returns us to the subject of this column: U.S. military capabilities. Soft power has its limits when it runs into the steel will of a hardened adversary. Soft power and big talk is a clown act. Exhibit One is the Obama Administration and its "Syrian red line." The Assad dictatorship ignored it.

U.S. soft power works when backed by "hard" military capabilities. An adversary must also believe that the U.S. president will use those military capabilities.

The Trump Administration proposes to increase the defense budget by some $55 billion -- roughly a 10 percent increase. The budget increase alone would fulfill a Donald Trump campaign promise "to build up the military." Ronald Reagan increased the defense budget by a similar margin in 1981. He was a peacetime president. The Obama Administration has left the Trump Administration with three low-grade wars, a shadow war in Ukraine and an escalating confrontation in North Korea.

I have trouble saying Donald Trump is a peacetime president. If you evaluate the threats and the international disarray Obama left, the defense budget increase is probably short nine or 10 billion dollars.

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