The U.S. spends approximately $600 billion annually on defense — accounting for one-third of global defense spending. Our two nearest competitors are China, spending about $146 billion and Russia spending $66 billion. How is it, then, that both Russia and China can challenge U.S. power?

The U.S. spends about $120 billion on defense procurement each year, most of which is for resupply or new equipment. The price of new equipment continues to soar, and the services have all indulged in weapons that are overpriced and offer only incremental improvements. The Navy invested in the littoral combat ship when it really needed a new generation of guided-missile destroyers. The Air Force's $1-1.5 trillion F-35 is a still just a bet.

Updating and/or properly protecting vital equipment and troops are key, but spending on spare parts and depot-level maintenance has had low priority, and repair lines are long. The Army's armor force does not have active protection, which is vital to force survivability on the modern battlefield. Our allies don't either. The Russians do.

U.S. and allied ground- and sea-based air defenses rely on systems that are quite old — the Patriot dates back to 1969. While it has been modernized, getting it deployed on the battlefield is no small task, and the system — even upgraded — can be fooled or jammed as well as easily targeted. On the other hand, in a continental war, NATO aircraft would be facing formidable Russian air defense in depth.  

During the NATO expansion into Central Europe, which the U.S. energetically supported, no one asked: "How can we afford to defend these countries given that our overall military readiness is so degraded?" Or: "What contribution will these new NATO members make to defend themselves and the alliance?" 

NATO is unprepared to defend the Baltic states, and the Baltic states are unprepared to defend themselves. They are essentially protected by defense welfare, and welfare is not easily supplied.

We know the deficiencies, but it is no small matter to rebuild American and NATO capabilities. A few rules might help:

  • Avoid quagmires; when you find yourself in one, get out. There is no articulated end game in Afghanistan that makes continuing use of American forces there sensible. More troops might prop up the Kabul government for a while, but to what end? Iraq, now dominated by Shia interests linked to Iran, is not a strategic success. There are those who want the U.S. to do more in Yemen, and to arm and train the Ukrainians. To what end?
  • Upgrade existing systems. The first American priority should be ensuring the equipment we presently have is fully functional and has the latest technology inserted wherever possible. There is a wide range of land equipment that needs to be upgraded — air and missile defenses first. The Air Force should wait before committing to large numbers of the F-35, and the Navy’s $4.5 billion/copy Zumwalt destroyer is not affordable.
  • Insist on a "Cost of Mission" assessment before committing forces. There are crises that do not allow for reflection, but most of the actions the U.S. has been engaged in for the past 20 or more years allowed time to estimate the cost in equipment and personnel.
  • Rebuild the alliance. In the 1990s, NATO countries liquidated much of their war-fighting capabilities. In 1991, Germany operated 2,125 Leopard 2 tanks. To reduce maintenance costs, 90 percent of the inventory was sold, donated or scrapped. The remaining 250 Leopard 2 tanks — older and lacking active protection systems — are not enough to defend Germany, let alone support the Baltic states. Since 1991, the Netherlands’ defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has decreased by approximately half. Still-pending force reductions in the U.K. led one British newspaper to say that the defense cuts "would mean the smallest Army since the 1770s, when Britain lost the American colonies."
  • But do not expand it. NATO has been pushing to expand. There was a push for Ukraine and now one to entice neutral Sweden and Finland into the alliance. While Sweden and Finland have serious military capabilities, especially air power, expanding NATO is a poke in the eye to Russia without the broad ability to back it up.

The United States and its NATO partners need a new plan. The first order of business is strengthening existing military capabilities, planning for equipment to meet real contingencies, setting focused targets for systems and technology most needed to maintain the peace, and setting realistic targets for defense spending.  

With a plan in place and responsibilities ordered, the U.S. and NATO countries can begin the process of restoring the deterrent capabilities of the most successful peacetime alliance in history.

Stephen D. Bryen is a senior fellow with the American Center for Democracy.  Shoshana Bryen is the senior director of the Jewish Policy Center.