America has just had an historic election, one that could and probably will change the direction of our national security paradigm. Will America continue to rebuild its defenses, strengthen our military services (in numbers and equipment), or return again to the fantasy that we don’t need all that expensive security “stuff” anymore because the world is an enlightened place now?
Most experts, regardless of orientation, believe President-elect Joe Biden’s defense policy will be different. A good look at a potential Biden plan was given by surrogate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who offered this vision in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs. To be pointed, political dreams should not drive national security decision-making. Sadly, that may be just what Biden has in mind.
According to the article, there are innumerable points or programs that could end up on the chopping block, either severely cut or fully eliminated; these include the nuclear triad, aircraft carriers, heavy ground forces and a ton of general-force structure. This piece is too short to address them all, so let’s look at two: the fifth-generation F-35 fighter plane and our national Ballistic Missile Defense System.
The F-35 is the only fully operational fifth-gen fighter really in the mix today. It can operate in the most sophisticated air combat environment and has the flexibility to accomplish all the missions required in war to support our strategies and protect our forces. It started out as a slow-running and very expensive program.
Clinton makes these points but then dismisses the F-35 as a legacy program that should be dropped. The truth is that after this inauspicious start, the F-35 picked up enormous steam. Operational issues and concerns have been successfully resolved, production numbers have sped up to meet the demand by all services, and importantly the per-aircraft costs of both production and maintenance/usage has dropped below anyone’s most optimistic guesses. So why would anyone call for the program to be dropped?
At a time when near-peer competitors are rising — just the type of scenario that screams for a fully deployed and operational world-class fifth-gen fighter — she posits that we should switch paths. Clinton calls for putting all our eggs in one basket, and one that is still conceptual, the B-21 Raider. This bomber is still in development, and no one knows how long it will take to field and deploy it.
The B-21 is a fine idea, and without a doubt we need a next-gen bomber, but to say we can dump the F-35 because it is not really needed is delusional. The F-35 is just now hitting its sweet spot of cost and production, as well as having proved itself in actual deployments. America needs the F-35 today. We cannot wait two or five or 10 years for security anchored on the dubious premise that all we need going forward are bombers.
She also seems to forget that strategic bombers alone have never been “enough.” They need to be protected to be truly effective, and they are not flexible enough to do all the tasks needed without fighter augmentation. Fantasy tends to forget history.
The same fanciful mindset is calling for the curtailment of improvements in our ballistic missile defense infrastructure. At a time when multiple serious enemies are openly ramping up their ballistic missile attack capabilities, why on Earth would we stop improving our defenses against them?
Our Ballistic Missile Defense System is not perfect, but it gives the U.S. today a measure of legitimate and needed defense and deterrence against Russian, Chinese, Iranian and North Korean designs harming America. We badly need the Next-Generation Interceptor and upgraded radars to stay on track with research, development and deployment to increase that capability. Stopping now to lean on impotent arms control efforts as our “shield” is the height of foolishness and naivete on a level of former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s at Munich.
Again, Biden is likely to be convinced to go this route.
It does not matter if the purpose is to better use the money “saved” by killing today’s security to build for a mythical tomorrow, or if they really want to (once again) starve defense programs to push money into pet domestic projects. In either case, the price for such foolishness will be American security and ultimately lives. We need the F-35 to continue on its present positive trajectory, and we need the Next-Generation Interceptors to keep our Ballistic Missile Defense System as robust as possible.
Reject fantasy, protect America. A “national security reckoning” should not be allowed to feed America pipe dreams concerning national security. We need adult practicality, not childish fantasy and empty promises.
Steven P. Bucci is a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He previously served as a U.S. Army Special Forces officer and is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense. The Heritage Foundation takes no funding from any government. It does take donations from corporate entities, which average about 4 percent of their total funding in any given year. The think tank reports it does not take a position based on donations, nor do donors have editorial input..