Now May We Defend Ourselves?

Column: Senator Roger Wicker's landmark plan to rebuild America's defenses

Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping (Sputnik/Sergei Bobylev/Pool via Reuters)
May 31, 2024

Senator Roger Wicker has an urgent warning: America is at risk of losing a war with another great power. The Mississippi Republican, who sits as ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, paints a dark picture of the global threat landscape. Senior military leaders tell him that our under-resourced and overtaxed military is not prepared for the challenge. "We struggle to build and maintain ships, our fighter jet fleet is dangerously small, and our military infrastructure is outdated," Wicker wrote in a widely circulated New York Times op-ed this week.

Wicker's solution is a "generational investment in the U.S. military" that he calls "21st Century Peace Through Strength." He would spend an additional $55 billion on defense in the coming fiscal year and raise overall defense spending from just under 3 percent of the U.S. economy to 5 percent by the end of this decade.

Under Wicker's plan, the Pentagon would maximize its joint-force capabilities. The Navy would grow to 357 ships. The number of Air Force fighter jets would massively increase. More dollars would be spent on submarines and sub pens. "The plan," Wicker wrote in the op-ed, "would also replenish the Air Force tanker and training fleets, accelerate the modernization of the Army and Marine Corps, and invest in joint capabilities that are all too often forgotten, including logistics and munitions."

The money can't arrive soon enough. Not since World War II has the international scene been as dangerous. Last year, there were 183 active conflicts across the globe, the highest total in 30 years. An axis of Eurasian autocrats endangers individual liberty, free exchange, and consensual government on multiple fronts. Russia fights Ukraine. Iran attacks Israel directly and through proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis. North Korea launches missiles and satellites. And China threatens both Taiwan and the Philippines.

These are not isolated fights. The overriding goal is displacing the United States as guarantor of international order. Where once rogue states individually probed and prodded U.S. alliances, looking for fissures to exploit and holes in which to burrow, the axis of autocrats works together. Russia provides the brute force. China delivers financing and technology. Iran and North Korea supply drones and missiles. The arc of war begins in Ukraine and extends south-southeast through Israel and the Red Sea before bending in the Indian Ocean and traveling north-northeast through Taiwan in the South China Sea.

The level of coordination is unprecedented. Since he took power in 2012, China's Xi Jinping has met with Russia's Vladimir Putin some 43 times. In 2022, on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Xi and Putin inked a "no limits" partnership and celebrated, in Xi's words, the coming "great changes in the world not seen in a century." When Putin paid a state visit to Beijing two weeks ago, the two men physically embraced. The Russian autocrat's trip coincided with his forces nearing the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Not long after Putin returned home, Chinese vessels surrounded Taiwan in a huge invasion drill.

Deterrence has failed. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea act with impunity, confident that President Joe Biden will acquiesce in or react incompetently to their misdeeds. In this environment, where Biden's passivity and ineptitude entice aggression, there is no painless way to restore America's edge. We will have to pay in either blood or treasure.

I choose treasure. Better to avoid direct intervention by scaring your enemies with overwhelming strength than to fight them directly at the cost of American lives. The way to avoid a ruinous global war is through a concerted strategy that revitalizes our conventional and strategic warmaking capacity, speaks boldly and frequently about the threat that the axis of autocrats poses to our freedom, security, and way of life, enhances our technological prowess, and launches an ideological-political offensive aimed at opening spaces for political alternatives within the adversary regimes.

That is why the Wicker plan, while costly, is preferable to the status quo. The chaos you see in the world today is the bad return on decades of privileging welfare over national security. The problem may not have started with Biden, but he's done nothing to address it. On the contrary: He's made things worse. His requested defense budgets have been so paltry that bipartisan majorities in Congress routinely up size them. Inflation eats away at the purchasing power of these nominal gains. The military is left scrambling.

Yes, Congress faces fiscal constraints. Entitlement programs are on autopilot. Green subsidies are out of control. Interest on the debt crowds out spending of all kinds. But there would be no greater blow to the national prospect, financial and otherwise, than a military defeat that shattered confidence in America. The Wicker plan is also a test for the "reprioritization" school of national populist Republicans: If China truly is the overriding threat, then they should have no qualms with backing a defense buildup of this magnitude.

Last month's bipartisan vote for military aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan was a crucial endorsement of American leadership and defense of freedom worldwide. Congress should build on that success by adopting Wicker's proposal. He would have us pursue a time-tested means of national revival: a towering defense industrial base, technological innovation, patriotic renewal, and deterrence through superior lethality.

Mitch McConnell is on board. Other Republicans—and more than a few Democrats—will be, too. And they better move fast. Time is not on our side.