September 18, 2014

Keeping America's Military Lead: A Front Opens in Congress

By Elbridge Colby

Along with many of us at CNAS, I have been seeking to draw attention to the growing challenges to U.S. military superiority and the consequent need for the country to focus more intently on modernizing the nation’s military to maintain our strategic advantages. In a speech to the John Hay Initiative yesterday, Senator Marco Rubio struck many of the same notes, pointing to the increasing threats to U.S. military advantage and arguing for a renewed focus on defense modernization and innovation. This is a major step forward for this important cause, as Rubio’s endorsement of the effort represents a significant political upgrade for an effort that, while it enjoys substantial growing support among defense officials and experts, has had few champions on Capitol Hill – from where, it is worth remembering, dollars ultimately flow. 

As Rubio laid out, the combination of budget cuts, constraints on efficient defense management, and, most importantly, the impressive advances in military power made by Russia, China, and other potential adversaries of the United States have led to a “declin[e in relative] American strength.” Echoing statements by senior Department of Defense officials like Robert Work and Frank Kendall, Rubio observed that “China, in particular, is sprinting up behind us, rapidly closing the gap in readiness and strength, and now America must run faster than ever just to maintain our current level of superiority.” The Senator rightly argued that this is a major problem; that we need to “ensure the superiority of our technological advances, armed forces, and intelligence capabilities”; and that this requires some significant changes in the way our nation approaches its defense.

While Rubio called for an expansion in the numbers of platforms available to the military services, the most interesting and innovative parts of his remarks were those focused on encouraging a greater focus on “modernization and innovation.” Ensuring an adequate number of ships and aircraft is certainly important, but the ultimate metric of whether the U.S. military is satisfactory for the nation’s needs is whether it is, as a whole, qualitatively better than any adversary – in other words, that it can best an opponent. Given the growing challenges to U.S. military advantage from a range of plausible adversaries, however, meeting this demanding criterion will require that the United States keep (and in some cases regain) its lead in military technology in areas like space, cyberspace, and cutting-edge and over the horizon systems such as unmanned and autonomous drones, robotics, and the like.

This is why Rubio’s focus on redoubling our national focus on defense innovation and modernization is so encouraging. While this need has received a growing amount of attention among defense officials and wonks, it has rarely percolated out to major congressional figures like Rubio. That the nationally prominent Senator from Florida did pay so much heed to addressing this problem makes this speech worth special attention, because it is only once figures like Rubio and his colleagues are seized with this deepening problem that it stands a real chance of being seriously confronted.  

Elbridge Colby is the Robert M. Gates Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.