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A Response from Paul Lettow

This is an apt moment to examine the Biden Administration’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the U.S. defense budget. The administration delivered its classified NDS to Congress on March 28, 2022, but evidently will not produce an unclassified version until it releases its National Security Strategy (NSS), ETA unknown. The NSS should have preceded the NDS. But it has been delayed—reportedly so the White House can rewrite it in light of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and its unfolding aftermath.[1] Looming months from now is a potential change in control of one or both houses of Congress, while conservatives are in the midst of a period of contesting ideas, policies, and personalities that is playing out across primaries, congressional committees, and think tanks.

This is a time of change and consequence. Herewith an attempt—in the spirit of the Reagan Institute Strategy Group—to help guide conservatives on national security and defense strategy, both in internal debates and in pressuring the Biden Administration to promulgate and pursue effective strategy. It builds on similar efforts from the Forum for American Leadership.[2]

The United States must wage a long-term competition, peacefully and successfully, primarily with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and also with a Putin-led Russia. We must focus on proactively shaping the environment in which the leaderships of those two countries operate, deterring their decision-makers from pursuing potentially catastrophic choices in the near term and compelling them to pursue courses of action more in line with U.S. interests over the long term. That necessitates altering their calculations so as to foreclose them from near-term military adventurism. Now and for the foreseeable future, it means drawing on and playing to U.S. advantages and strengths, and—not to be forgotten or underappreciated—identifying and ruthlessly exploiting those regimes’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities across all of the domains and arenas of competition.

U.S. hard power—military and economic power—underpins and enables U.S. advantages in those competitions, from the strength of our alliance and partnerships to the attractiveness of our values. This cannot be overstated, and we must remind our friends in the Biden Administration and in the current majority in Congress of it constantly. When U.S. hard power, including and especially military power, is on the rise absolutely and relatively, the power and efficacy of our alliances, the potency of our diplomacy, and the perceived risks and costs by adversaries of attacking or countering our interests are all on the upswing, as well.

The strategic moment, with the PRC threatening Taiwan and elsewhere and Russia having invaded Ukraine, demands a clear focus on building U.S. hard power, quickly and with an eye toward current and long-term capabilities. We should do everything we can to encourage the Biden Administration to see this as a moment comparable to 1950 or 1979, when the Truman and Carter Administrations, respectively, made course corrections and sought significantly increased defense spending, which successive administrations and Congresses worked to sustain over the long haul.

One of the most important steps we can take now to preserve peace and prevail in strategic competition is to provide immediate, real, and sustained increases in the defense budget and to encourage our allies and friends to do the same. The NSS and NDS should prescribe immediate increases in defense spending of at least 5 percent growth above inflation, a number already cited by Senator McConnell. They should underscore the need for sustained, bipartisan support for increased defense spending to meet and overcome the growing threats to U.S. security. That must be prioritized over other choices.

The United States should also focus on getting combatant commanders the capabilities they need to deter aggression in their respective theaters; encouraging far stronger and complementary capabilities from allies and partners and expanding combined exercises with them; and expediting arms deliveries to threatened democracies.

The United States must prioritize meeting the challenge from the PRC, first in the Indo-Pacific.

o   We must act urgently to deter the PRC from using force against Taiwan or elsewhere. That means arming and preparing our allies and partners, especially Taiwan, against the threat from the PRC, and our possessing the ability to reinforce them quickly and to attrite rapidly the PRC’s attacking assets.

o   The United States faces the urgent necessity of enhancing readiness and increasing combat capability and capacity in the near term, while simultaneously accelerating innovation and developing new concepts of operation. Both of those steps are essential. They cannot be achieved without defense budgets that stay well ahead of inflation.

o   Priority areas for investment include capabilities that would allow us to counter the PRC’s naval and air forces quickly: long-range fires, anti-ship missiles, submarines, smart mines, and unmanned vehicles; air and missile defense in the region; and air battle management capabilities.

o   Essential to these tasks is continuing to build on integrated joint and combined operations and forward basing with allies and partners.

We also have vital, enduring interests in Europe and the Middle East. U.S. security rests on the foundation of a favorable balance of power in each region. If we fail to secure those interests, the world will be more dangerous—that is, more likely to result in wars—and less conducive to allowing Americans to thrive.

Preventing the domination or destabilization of Europe and the Middle East will help, not hurt, in meeting the comprehensive challenge posed by the PRC. Preserving peace and stability in those regions is necessary to achieve our objectives against the PRC, which seeks to exercise global power and influence. Failing to do so will backfire, making competition with the PRC more difficult to pursue and win: we will end up spending more time, resources, and attention quelling crises after they arise rather than heading them off before they begin. Our posture will and should be tailored to each region, with allies and partners in each case being encouraged to spend, cooperate, and more in ways that complement and reinforce their defense—and ours.

Two final notes:

First, Mackenzie Eaglen’s paper properly emphasizes just how much of what we call defense spending is not actually devoted to developing and procuring the sinews of military power. That is mirrored in the broader disaster of U.S. government spending, which is being swamped by spending on entitlements and interest on the federal debt. These trends are not inevitable. Indeed, they will not last, because they cannot last; we will face a crisis, perhaps a cascade of crises, that will force us to change course, and to do so when the stakes and the pain of the course correction will be much higher than they would be now. Our children and grandchildren will ask us tough questions about when we decided to stop being selfish and afraid and actually confronted the spending problems we knew threatened us and them. A good answer would be: Now.

Second, it is self-evident that our efforts over much of the last 30 years to facilitate the economic rise of the PRC and thereby turn it into a responsible international actor have backfired. At long last—after playing an essential role in creating the comprehensive strength of the principal adversary that now threatens us and after its “unlimited partner” Putin has invaded countries friendly to us—the dangers, even the absurdity, of the United States and our allies and friends relying on them for crucial resources, materials, supplies, and goods should be clear. If an immediate decoupling from Russia has proven disruptive, the consequences of doing so with the PRC amidst an escalating crisis would be far greater.

Despite short-term adjustment costs, we must thus begin a planned and proactive strategic, economic decoupling from the PRC to avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of a hasty and reactive fracture amidst a future crisis. The NSS and NDS should set out that strategically necessary course forthrightly, and all of us—in and out of government or the private sector—should pay heed and take action.

[1] Peter Martin and Jennifer Jacobs, “Putin's Invasion of Ukraine Forces Biden to Rewrite US Security Plan,” (Bloomberg, June 3, 2022),

[2] Forum for American Leadership, “National Defense Strategy,”