When President Trump signed the 2018 omnibus spending bill, he committed the nation to a two-year, $1.416 trillion defense-spending plan, but his signature did not answer the larger question that has been hanging over the defense debate: Should the nation invest in increased lethal capabilities — that is, more technical solutions such as stealth aircraft and more precise intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance systems — or expand capacity, otherwise known as growing the force? The new national-security strategy issued by the White House in December and the national-defense strategy released by the Pentagon in January both endorse building capacity — increasing the number of personnel and ships, aircraft, and vehicles overall — as a strategic goal, although the Pentagon document is muted in its phrasing.
However, capabilities proponents, from both the right and the left, make arguments, from fiscal and technology perspectives, that it is no longer possible or necessary to maintain large numbers of troops, tanks, aircraft, and ships in the active force. They advocate instead a smaller but more lethal force centered around advanced capabilities. Voices from the expanded-capacity school argue that a generation of investment in exquisite capabilities has resulted in a diminished force that is too small to maintain the peace or win a war. They advocate significantly increased defense budgets, such as the one just approved, and a larger overall force that includes a bigger Army, Air Force, and Navy.
These approaches — increased capabilities and expanded capacity — appear greatly at odds with each other and draw on dissimilar assumptions regarding the global security environment. Each deserves an honest, objective examination. Is some balance between the two approaches possible?
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