In February of 2018, the Heritage Foundation released its Special Report on the National Defense Authorization Act. The report puts forth the Heritage Foundation’s 2019 NDAA recommendations, which focuses on “rebuilding” the military and making it more efficient. While the report is well written and contains some common sense ideas, it lacks innovation, decisiveness, and urgency to accomplish strategic priorities. Unfortunately for us, by the time the actual NDAA bill passed in May of 2018, it mirrored the lethargic, gimmicky nature of the report produced by the leading conservative think tank. In a series of 72 recommendations – it becomes a testament to the static, echo chamber-like nature of American defense strategy.
Recommendation 1 suggests a 10% increase in defense spending in order to “signal to both internal and external audiences that the United States is committed to rebuilding its forces” and “addressing the public signs of erosion”. Words are the means to meaning, and it is telling that the Heritage Foundation doesn’t want more military spending in order to create an unrivaled military, but rather to provide a public façade that it is strong. While the increase is certainly ambitious, we must examine where the Heritage Foundation recommends the money be spent in order to ascertain it’s effectiveness. For the context of this analysis, we will identify the chief strategic objective of the United States as maintaining military superiority over Russia and China, and will examine all recommendations through that context. Recommendation 2 supports properly funding Overseas Contingency Operations, which is extra money used to support America’s current wars. These wars have no strategic value to America in the framework written above, and have actually advanced our adversaries’ influence such as Iran’s newfound influence in Iraq. Rather than support properly funding OCO operations, the Heritage Foundation should have recommended cutting OCO spending, which would allow more funds to be allocated to strategic initiatives and redress our foreign policy mistakes.
In a similar vein, Recommendations 3-31 primarily focus on increasing the current end strength of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force (with the chief exceptions being 19, 22). Current end strength increases can be summed into the following buckets: troop increases and purchases of currently built vehicles, ships, planes and equipment. The problem with that strategy is that as more platforms and troops are added, the cost of sustaining them increases too. Thus, the proposed military expansion will require a larger proportion of future budgets to maintain those increased levels. Not a particularly advantageous strategy, when the effects of a bloated military are already eating away at today’s budget. Additionally, while the gimmicky phrase of “rebuilding” the military sounds satisfying, it ignores the larger strategic context of the defense situation. What is the strategic value of 50 more ships or 100,000 troops against adversaries with hypersonic missiles that can prevent the deployment and use of those platforms and troops? While several recommendations do support funding for next generation platforms, they fall drastically short in addressing the inherent problems with developing these new platforms. Recommendation 7 is eye opening in that the Heritage Foundation proposes that the Army should “move past it’s intent to pursue vaguely described ‘next generation combat vehicles’ and ‘Future Vertical Lift’ aircraft and instead precisely define its requirements to move into analysis of alternatives”. Essentially, this recommendation can be summarized as “give up and try again”. To top off the gimmicky nature of their proposal, they suggest that the Army’s recent announcement of cross-functional teams should help facilitate that goal. Meanwhile, when it comes to how developing next generation technology actually works, they did not advocate for increased R&D funding to accelerate capabilities which can actually be funded, or even requiring the defense contractors who fulfill the Army’s stated requirements to increase their R&D funding. For a final lesson in futility, they support a “rapid pursuit of a next generation tank”, which will provide an expensive target to cheap Russian drones and anti-tank missiles.
Apart from the obvious flaws outlined above, there were some other areas of concern. Recommendation 35 is a whole hearted advocacy for increasing R&D funding for high energy lasers, which the Heritage Foundation has correctly identified as a game changing weapon capability. However, that begets the question, of 72 recommendations, why is only one potential military technology being so rigorously advocated? Why not threat agnostic defense capabilities, which can protect ships and planes from every possible weapon attack? Why not electronic warfare which can asymmetrically cripple economies and militaries without endangering human life? In this case, the problem with the Heritage Foundations special report stems not from what it proposes, but what it fails to propose. Recommendation 62 is interesting because it proposes that “Congress ought to continue developing a layered, comprehensive missile defense system”, while acknowledging that “the US continues to lag behind the ballistic missile threat”. The paradox here is that by acknowledging the program’s current failures and proposing that the US continue its current approach, the Heritage Foundation ensures that the decisive actions needed to reverse the situation will not be taken. Examples of actual solutions would be increasing R&D spending, reallocating talent from the public and private sectors to capitalize on already available resources, and incentivizing technological cooperation rather than financial competition between defense companies.
However, amongst all the criticism, there are several recommendations, which should be immediately implemented. Recommendation 50 suggests allowing the DoD to rollover unused funds every fiscal year if they fail to spend it. Currently, if the DoD fails to spend its annual budget, the funds evaporate, and they must request new fund next year. Eliminating this budgeting flaw will enable the DoD to design budgets for entire programs from the start, which will incentivize long-term thinking. Recommendation 63 designates the Secretary for the Air Force as the Executive Agent for Space Acquisition. While an optimal strategy may be standing up an entire space based military branch, centralizing the responsibility and decision-making authority at this time is a profound improvement. Finally, Recommendation 67 encourages the DoD and other government agencies to take advantage of private sector talent with technical expertise. One such example is the Pentagon’s Hackathon competition, led by leaders from Facebook, Microsoft and Google, where individuals compete to identify weaknesses in the DoD’s Cyber defenses. In a world where crushing regulation and perverse profit incentives have gutted the defense industry’ innovative capabilities, efficiently leveraging private talent is a necessary strategy to stay afloat.
Despite the prestigious nature of the Heritage Foundation and its army of associates with polished resumes, their Special Report on America’s National Defense strategy is deeply flawed. It fails to recognize the primary threats of China and Russia, and furthermore compounds that error by supporting massive spending increases into areas that are devoid of strategic value in defeating those adversaries. When it comes to truly “rebuilding” our military, it is paramount to recognize that blindly increasing troop levels and platform counts will financially burden budgets in the future. Only reforms that spur R&D investment, enable efficiency, and foster decisive action in line with our strategic objectives will truly rebuild the efficacy of the American military.