US needs to change the way it invests in defense if it wants to compete with rising rivals

The Pentagon logo is seen behind the podium in the briefing room at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., January 8, 2020. REUTERS/Al Drago/File Photo

Key takeaway: Successive years of stagnant defense spending levels and the prospect of lasting economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic could threaten to leave the United States handicapped in its growing military competition with rising powers China and Russia. According to Michèle Flournoy, former US undersecretary of defense for policy at the Department of Defense (DoD), if the United States does not significantly invest in new and emerging capabilities, as well as research and development (R&D), “over the next decade, the US risks losing its military technological edge [and] losing the ability to confidently deter China, Russia, other powers.”

US Representative Michael Turner (R-OH), who joined Flournoy in an Atlantic Council Elections 2020 event on August 26, further warned that China and Russia “are not just becoming adventuresome. They have already modernized” and could soon “be able to exceed what we have” in terms of modernized military equipment.

In this event, introduced by Deputy Director of Forward Defense Clementine Starling, and moderated by Atlantic Council Senior Vice President and Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security Director Barry Pavel, both Turner and Flournoy argued that the United States needs to rethink the way it invests in its military capabilities if Washington wants to effectively deter its rising rivals. Here’s a look at what they said:

United States has fallen behind its rivals on modernization:

  • The impact of sequestration: Turner explained that the United States has fallen behind Russia and China’s modernization efforts due to the focus on the War on Terror, which “cannibalized” defense resources, and the effect of sequestration in freezing additional defense investments. The United States is now trying “both to get back to modernization, backfill the effects of sequestration” and retain the basic military functions of mobilization and mobility, Turner said.
  • Moscow and Beijing exploiting US weaknesses: While focus on Washington was divided between competing priorities, China and Russia have “gone to school on the US military,” Flournoy explained, spending “the last twenty, thirty years investing in asymmetric counters to our strengths.” This progress means that Washington is now “going to have to exceed what their [China and Russia’s] capabilities are,” Turner argued, if the United States hopes to “hold them at bay.”

Increased investment amid continued budget constraints

  • Defense spending sends a signal: Turner’s top priority going forward is “to defend the topline for the overall defense budget,” suggesting that initial projections show that spending needs “growth of three to five percent over the next several years to be able to accomplish modernization and ensuring that we are committed to the plans that we have in place.” While this money may be hard to find amid the growing financial cost of the coronavirus pandemic, he argued that continued investment is “going to be the biggest signal to our adversaries on whether or not America is going to remain a strong power in this great power competition.”
  • Don’t just match Russia and China though: Flournoy cautioned, however, that the United States “shouldn’t be thinking symmetrically,” when it comes to countering China and Russia’s growing military capabilities. Rather than trying to match them “plane for plane, tank for tank, [or] ship for ship,” the DoD should aim to “use our tremendous capacity for innovation to come at them asymmetrically, to undermine their strengths, [and] to exploit their vulnerabilities.”
  • Ingenuity to be found in private sector: Turner agreed, adding that the United States has “to be inventive, we have to look to ingenuity for how we exceed [Russia and China’s] capabilities.” He argued that much of this innovation can be found in the private sector and the DoD should change their approach to how they work with the marketplace. Rather than coming up with new capabilities and then going to companies to bid on production, Turner suggested that US officials “look at the marketplace and see what capabilities are already out there,” and see how these technologies could be adapted for military use.
  • Tradeoffs needed: With competing domestic and international priorities, both Turner and Flournoy conceded that increased investments in some areas will require cuts in others. “There is only so much and there will have to be tradeoffs,” Turner said, lamenting that the United States is “in this unenviable position of having to invest in readiness, invest in training, to catch up on modernization that we had on the books.” Flournoy argued that defense officials will need to judge the point at which investments in new modernization projects are worth abandoning the procurement of a conventional system, such as a ship or airplane.

Agility requires working with Congress:

  • Learning to embrace risk: In order to unlock the “kind of agile development and the leveraging of the commercial cutting edge technology that is out there and bring it into the defense realm,” Flournoy argued, defense officials are going to have to build “a higher risk tolerance” in their operations. Defense officials have often been reluctant to take chances, she explained, because the acquisition process is focused on being “extremely risk adverse, to focus on keeping programs on cost [and] on schedule.”
  • Bring Congress to the table: In order to get over this reluctance, Flournoy advocated for “much more of an open partnership…between the [Defense] Department and Congress” which is often the most outspoken in criticism of costly Pentagon projects. If Congress can explicitly “allow the Department to acquire some experimental technology” so that they can do testing, it could save money over the long run by determining its value before committing to a multi-year production project, she argued.
  • Ability to fail: Turner agreed, saying that Congress needs to “encourage ingenuity that will allow failures so that we can find the answer” to unlocking new technologies. While Congressional oversight is certainly needed to avoid wasteful spending, there is “an approach to oversight that would allow Congress to partner with the Department to allow [a] kind of agility” needed to spur innovation, Flournoy said.

Competition beyond the battlefield

  • American power starts at home: Flournoy also maintained that China and Russia’s competition with the United States is not just about military assets. She explained that both countries “have invested in propagating a narrative of US decline,” taking advantage of the United States’ difficulty in containing the coronavirus pandemic, tackling systemic racism, and economic uncertainty. The “first thing we have to do is show that we are not in decline, that we are a resilient country, and we are taking the steps that we need to get the pandemic under control [and] to recover economically,” she said.
  • Don’t forget allies: The United States also needs “to be showing up more strongly diplomatically around the world, we need to be showing up and leading and communicating [that] we have interests, we have allies, and we are willing to stand by them and defend them,” Flournoy argued. Turner agreed, adding that “part of our overall deterrence planning has to be deter any threats to our allies.”
  • Transparency is key: Turner stressed that a main way the United States can help harness the power of its allies to confront the threat from China and Russia is to become more open with US partners about what these adversaries are doing. Turner explained that US officials often keep information about Russian and Chinese military activities “classified because we are so worried about means, methods, and techniques or someone knowing what we know, that we forget to tell everybody what we know.” Flournoy also said the United States should continue to use transparency to “out” the disinformation narratives of Beijing and Moscow. “The best way to counter some of this meddling, this propaganda is with facts and truth and openness,” she argued.