Although it’s hard to predict what the world will look like ten or twenty years from now, we can say with certainty that it will be even more dangerous than it is today and that the existing threats to US national security – Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, etc. – will grow even worse over time.
That being the case, it is time to completely cancel and reverse the sequestration of the US defense budget, to fund the US military properly, and to think what capabilities (and thus weapon systems, as well as skills for personnel) will it need in the future.
These capabilities cannot be chosen in a vacuum; they need to be oriented towards defeating the potential adversaries of the US: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and the various terrorist organizations they support.
#1: Nuclear deterrence; and #2, ballistic missile defense
The biggest threat to US national security by far is that of a nuclear, chemical, biological, or ballistic missile attack by a peer adversary (Russia, China) or a rogue state (North Korea, Iran), because the consequences of failing to deter and prevent such an attack would be far graver than any other kind of attack. Even one nuclear warhead detonating over an American city or major military base would be worse than the sinking of 10 US warships.
Russia alone has 434 ICBMs, 251 intercontinental bombers, and 13 ballistic missile subs. The submarines alone can deliver over 2,000 warheads to the CONUS, while its ICBMs can deliver 1,684. China also has a large nuclear arsenal: between 1,600 and 3,000 warheads, as well as at least 87 ICBMs, 120-160 strategic bombers, and 6 ballistic missile subs. China can deliver hundreds of warheads to the US, and would gladly nuke American cities and major military bases if it could get away with it without American retaliation, as official Chinese media have recently noted. Deterring these adversaries, and providing a nuclear umbrella to over 30 allies of the US, requires a large nuclear arsenal; a small one will not suffice.
As for ballistic missiles, over 30 countries possess them today, and these missiles’ accuracy, range, and payload – especially in China’s Iran’s, and North Korea’s case – is growing fast.
Accordingly, defending against these threats must be the US government’s #1 priority. This requires maintaining the US nuclear arsenal at NO LESS than its current size and modernizing all three legs of the nuclear triad (bombers, ICBMs, submarines) as well as the supporting plutonium- and uranium-producing facilities.
Additionally, it requires deploying a comprehensive missile defense system to protect the homeland and US bases overseas from ballistic missile attack. If you can’t protect the homeland, you are out of the power-projection game, period.
#3: Long-range strike
Although ballistic missiles and their payloads are a significant threat in and of themselves, they are but a part of America’s adversaries anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) arsenals of weapons designed to keep the US military out of crucial world regions (such as the Pacific Rim and the Middle East) – to prevent the US military from even being present, let alone operating and winning battles, there.
Ballistic (and cruise) missiles, as well as enemy strike aircraft, pose a large threat to US forward bases abroad, including in those regions (and to American carrier battle groups) – and the US is currently heavily dependend on these. The US must therefore dramatically reduce its dependence on overseas bases (and on theater-range platforms operating from them, such as tactical strike aircraft) and begin to quickly develop and deploy a family of long-range strike systems.
These must include a stealthy long-range bomber, a new tanker, conventional prompt global strike (CPGS) weapons (preferrably missiles), the Virginia Payload Module for Virginia class submarines, and stealthy-long range jammer and naval strike aircraft (preferrably unmanned).
The centerpiece of this must be the long-range strike bomber, of which at least 100, and preferrably 200 or more, should be built.
#4: Anti-submarine warfare
America’s potential adversaries around the world all operate a large number of submarines. Russia has 43, China has 63-64, and Iran has at least three. North Korea operates a large fleet of midget submarines that could perform suicide, intelligence, or commando infiltration/exfiltration missions. Russia’s, China’s, and Iran’s submarines can launch a wide range of weapons, including, and most worryingly, SS-N-27 Sizzler anti-ship missiles.
Yet, the USN’s anti-sub warfare capabilities have declined dramatically since 9/11. All S-3 Viking ASW aircraft have been retired, the number and condition of P-3 Orions has declined badly, and P-8 Poseidons are just beignning to tnter service. USN personnel’s skills have also plummeted. In recent years, the USN has held ASW exercises with numerous allied nations bringing their quiet diesel-electric subs to bear. The USN FAILED to find these subs in EACH exercise.
If those exercises had been real combat, all USN aircraft carriers would’ve been at the bottom of the sea right now.
ASW must start being treated as a priority, not as an afterthought. More submarines and more P-8 aircraft must be built, P-3 Orions’ service lives must be extended or zero-timed, enough spares should be brought in from AMARC, and USN personnel must be trained properly in ASW.
China alone has about 100,000 naval mines; North Korea, Iran, and Russia have further thousands. Iran could easily close the Strait of Hormuz simply by mining it. Yet, demining has been an afterthought for the USN until recently, with the US relying on allies to do most of the work.
As a result, the much smaller French Navy has only two demining vessels fewer (11) than the USN (13), and the (also much smaller) UK Royal Navy has 15 – more than the USN! While the US should continue to ensure that allies continue to provide these crucial assets when need be, it also needs its own, proper demining ship fleet with personnel specialized in this kind of work. This would be cheap, and could easily be paid for by cancelling the LCS program.
#6: Air superiority
Air superiority is and will continue to be crucial for winning wars. If you don’t control the skies, you’ll lose. Additionally, it is much better to kill the archer than the arrows – to shoot down a missile-launching plane than try to intercept the missiles.
To do that, the USAF needs a dedicated air superiority platform. The best choice by far would be resuming F-22 Raptor production, prematurely terminated for purely political purposes 2009 at a paltry 187 aircraft. Alternatively, the USAF could procure several hundred F-15SE Silent Eagles, a new variant of the F-15 Eagle. This (and all other capabilities listed herein) could easily paid for by cancelling the ridiculous, egregiously over budget F-35 Junk Strike Fighter program. Additionally, the USAF should train with, and fly simulated combat against, Su-30 operators such as India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, as this is the mainstay fighter of the Russian and Chinese air force.
Because the sequester will likely remain the law for several years to come, and thus resources will be ever more scarce, the DOD won’t be able to get everything it wants or needs. Tradeoffs are inevitable.
It is therefore important to make the right tradeoffs – to maintain and even increase investments in the crucial capabilities, weapon systems, and human skills listed above, while scaling back those that will be less relevant in future threat environments. Nuclear deterrence must remain the first priority, because the nuclear threat to the US and its allies will only grow in the years and decades ahead, but several other key capabilities also receive priority status to prevail over the most dangerous threats of the 21st century.