“American Strength: Building 21st Century Defense Capabilities”
Remarks As Prepared For Delivery
The Willard Hotel
September 17, 2014
I join you today at a time of extraordinary upheaval around the world.
At the beginning of this year, many had never heard of ISIL – now the American people grieve the murder of two of our own journalists and the expanding arc of death and destruction across the Middle East at the hand of this terrorist group.
At the beginning of this year, many would have never guessed Russia would upend decades of regional balance and challenge European security – now we’ve seen a Russian invasion of Ukraine and innocent travelers murdered in the sky.
At the beginning of this year, few would have guessed this administration would abandon one of our closest allies in its time of need – now we’ve seen our president remain neutral while Hamas rained terror down on Israel.
And these are just three on a long list of global crises. Peaceful protestors in Venezuela continue to be met with violence from their own government, China continues its provocations in the South China Sea, innocent Syrians continue to be slaughtered at the whim of a tyrant – and the list goes on.
The American people watch these events unfold with growing concern. And today, a debate rages across the country, in the halls of Congress, and almost certainly among administration officials – but while the events fueling this debate are new, the debate itself is not.
Ever since the birth of our Republic, the proper strength of our military, and the proper application of that strength around the world, has been a point of contention among our people and our leaders.
There have always been those who argue that America shouldn’t concern herself with the affairs of the world – that what happens an ocean away bears little relevance to our people.
Thankfully, there have also always been those who disagree – who argue that foreign policy is domestic policy, that our people’s interests and safety require defense capabilities so robust that they deter aggression and violence before they take hold around the world.
George Washington was one such leader. When he delivered the first ever State of the Union address, he asserted the need for American Strength. “To be prepared for war,” he said, “is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
But many in Congress disagreed. They assumed our hard-won independence meant the threats of the Old World had finally become irrelevant – that domestic issues could at last occupy our full focus. So against Washington’s wishes, they cut our Navy’s funding, leading it to be decommissioned.
The consequence of this move was devastating, and the lesson it taught our nation still applies today.
At that time, America’s economy relied heavily on trade with Europe. But without a navy, our merchant vessels fell easy prey to a force of thievery and terror known as the Barbary Pirates.
Off the coasts of Africa and Europe, they attacked, killed, and enslaved our sailors. They plundered our ships and demanded exorbitant bribes, dealing a blow to our economy at home. But there was nothing we could do. America was defenseless.
Even after we re-commissioned our Navy and dispatched it across the Atlantic, it took two Barbary Wars and nearly 15 years to prove American Strength and secure safe passage for our ships.
America was dealt a hard lesson through this affair: we must be prepared for threats wherever they arise, because our nation is never isolated from the world. Tremors in global affairs can fracture the foundations of our domestic economy.
This was true then, when our connection to the world was limited to a slow procession of merchant ships. It is even truer today, when our people don’t need ships or even airplanes to do business with the world – they can do so from their living rooms with an iPad… or apparently now from the watch on their wrist!
Never before have our people and our economy been so connected to the world. What happens across the planet can have a greater impact on your family than what happens down the street.
But as it was in George Washington’s time, the proper approach to global threats remains a sharply debated topic. In recent years, many Americans have come to oppose significant military engagements overseas, which is understandable. Too many have lost a child or a parent or a friend in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they question whether the outcome has been worth it.
But as threats have risen in recent months, our people appear more willing to engage abroad. What is unfortunate is that too many leaders in both parties, including our president and some who aspire to be president, have shown they would rather wait for poll numbers to change than demonstrate the leadership necessary to shape them.
Instead of outlining the costs of inaction to our people months ago when they should have, they were content to take the political path of least resistance. They advocated leaving our allies to fend for themselves. They proposed massive reductions to defense spending. And they tried to convince Americans the world would be fine without our leadership, or worse, that America would be fine regardless of the chaos the world devolved into.
All the while, those who oppose America have grown bolder than ever – and today they oppose us with more than a mere fleet of pirate ships.
Proliferation of nuclear technology has already resulted in a destitute country like North Korea developing nuclear weapons, and Iran within reach of that goal. Cyber warfare is wielded by enemies large and small. Russia and China are undergoing historic military modernization efforts. Terrorist groups such as ISIL are taking on the characteristics of states and advancing violently toward regional control.
Those who wish us harm work day and night to develop new means of threatening us. To defend ourselves, we must be more vigilant than they are dangerous.
National defense is not an area where we can flip a switch when a need suddenly arises. It takes forethought to design and many years to build the capabilities we may need at a moment’s notice. So modernization, innovation, and training must be sustained priorities, even in times of relative peace.
This is necessary to defend our civilian population, but also our troops. Those of us in policymaking roles are responsible for equipping them to have the best possible chance of a successful mission and a safe return home.
Providing for the common defense is the highest responsibility of our elected leaders. Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution assigns 17 separate duties to Congress. Six deal exclusively with the national defense — more than any other area.
So it should trouble all of us that our leaders have allowed the size of America’s military, the modernity of its equipment, and the extent of its readiness to decline sharply in recent years.
At the end of the Cold War, America’s military was an unmatchable force: well built, well equipped, and uncontestable in its strategic influence. This was largely due to a historic buildup by President Reagan.
Like Washington, Reagan viewed the construction of a strong military not as a preparation for aggression, but as an action to prevent aggression. In his words, “A truly successful army is one that, because of its strength and ability and dedication, will not be called upon to fight, for no one will dare to provoke it.”
Yet as the threat of the Cold War declined – mostly as a result of Reagan’s buildup – our nation’s appetite for investments in military power declined with it. This led to considerable cuts in the 1990s, which were made with the promise that modernization of our resources would remain a priority.
That was the promise. But the promise was broken.
During what many referred to as a “procurement holiday” under the Clinton administration, we both shrank the size of our armed forces and shifted away from modernizing our inventory. This happened just as emerging technologies were revolutionizing weapons capabilities around the world.
The result was that we failed to be prepared for the challenge that revealed itself on 9/11.
Now, make no mistake, America’s military has always remained unmatched. But as we focused less and less on modernization, our adversaries scrambled to shrink the gap in strength. To put it another way, as our team's defense got weaker, the offense of other teams in the league became stronger.
No single president, no single party, and no single Congress has been solely at fault. But a striking shift has occurred at the hands of our current president.
The trend of declining American Strength had been largely incidental among previous administrations, but now it is an active priority. Previous presidents had merely taken their foot off the gas pedal of American Strength, but President Obama has stomped on the brake.
When he delivered his first inaugural address, instead of reassuring our allies, he spoke directly to America’s enemies, indicating willingness – even eagerness – to change our nation’s posture toward them. He said, “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Yet after taking office, he didn’t wait for our enemies to change their posture before changing ours. Even as they clenched their fists tighter and tighter – continuing to threaten, target, even kill Americans – this administration was busy stripping parts from the engine of American strength.
First came defense cuts of $487 billion over ten years. Then, adding insult to injury, the savings found in the defense budget were redirected to already bloated domestic programs.
Secretary Gates wrote in his memoirs about the extent to which he was forced to cut costs, saying, “[N]o other department had done anything comparable – even proportionally.”
This was followed by tens of billions more in defense cuts each year through sequestration, despite the warnings of three Secretaries of Defense and our entire military leadership.
All in all, inflation-adjusted defense spending has declined 21 percent since 2010. Even if we discount the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has still declined a dangerous 12 percent.
The result of these cuts borders on frightening.
The Army is set to be reduced to pre-World War II levels. The Navy is at pre-WWI levels. And our Air Force has the smallest and oldest combat force in its history.
Some argue our equipment is more capable, so our force doesn’t need to be as large. But the world is still the same size. Even the most advanced combat aircraft, ship, or soldier can only be in one place at a time.
Our force reductions have been felt throughout the world – by our friends and our enemies. They have presented not just a crisis of readiness for America, but also a perilous strategic weakness.
Our adversaries are emboldened by what they perceive as our diminished military presence. Look at the way Putin has scoffed at the president’s modest attempts to impose sanctions. Or at the way Assad declined to take America’s threats seriously, used chemical weapons on his own people, and still remains in power.
The president’s foreign policy was once a failure – now it is simply non-existent. From Libya to Syria to Egypt to Ukraine, this administration simply shrugs as threats fester. When the administration does act, it fails to communicate any consistent rationale for military use.
Worst of all, the president’s foreign policy has let down the American people. It has done more than leave them vulnerable – it has dented their faith in the promise and power of the American ideal. The pride they once took in our global leadership has withered into uncertainty. The hope that America could fix international crises has turned to hope that we will stop making them worse.
This is largely because President Obama has failed the first test of leadership as Commander in Chief: outlining a clear and principled doctrine to our people.
Resulting events around the world have made it clear what a 21st century foreign policy doctrine should not look like. As for what it should look like, he’s left the question for others to answer.
So today I’d like to outline an alternative consisting of three objectives.
First, we must recognize that in this globalized world, conflict breeds economic disruption. If a band of pirates were able to wreak havoc on our economy in the late 18th century, then ISIL, a nuclear Iran, an aggressive China or a resurgent Russia can certainly do so in the 21st. We must boldly oppose efforts by other nations to infringe upon the freedom of international waters, airspace, cyberspace, and outer space.
Second, we need to have moral clarity regarding what we stand for and why. This means reinforcing our alliances. It means resisting efforts by rising and resurgent powers to subjugate their neighbors. It means being unabashed in our support for the spread of economic and political freedom.
Third, we need American Strength. This is what I will focus the bulk of my remarks on today. It’s an idea that stems from a simple truth: the world is at its safest when America is at its strongest.
America under this president has simply not been at its strongest. Waiting for our adversaries to unclench their fists so we can shake their hands has not proven a responsible or effective strategy. The “Don’t do stupid stuff” approach has proven self-contradictory.
We must instead demonstrate a strength in defense capabilities that, as President Reagan envisioned, leaves our enemies unwilling to provoke us.
But times have changed since Reagan’s historic buildup. A strong national defense in the 21st century will require a defense agenda built for the 21st century – one that ensures the superiority of our technological advances, armed forces, and intelligence capabilities.
This begins with a willingness to allocate an appropriate amount of money toward our defense needs.
Make no mistake, the fiscal challenges facing our nation are daunting. In fact, I believe one of the greatest risks to our national security is our federal debt. But it’s important to remember that defense spending is not the primary driver of that debt.
Defense makes up only about 16 percent of the federal budget and continues to decline. Social Security and Medicare, on the other hand, comprise a staggering 37 percent and rising. This is why I’ve proposed ways to reform these important entitlement programs to make them sustainable.
Our military must also be mindful of budgetary realities, but it is not the place to take costly short cuts. In fact, every time we try to cut a dollar, it seems to cost us three more just to make up for it. This is because the successes of all our nation’s initiatives depend on the safety of our people and the ability of our global economy to function dependably.
In 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates outlined a budget for Fiscal Year 2012 that was forward thinking, strategy-driven, yet also fiscally sustainable. I agree with the bipartisan National Defense Panel’s recommendation that we should, at a minimum, “return as soon as possible” to the Gates’ FY2012 budget baseline, which we are on track to be around $1 trillion short of through FY2022.
To get moving in this direction, I urge the president to make a request to Congress for additional funding for our military above the amount he requested in February.
Getting back on track toward a defense budget based on strategy, not math – as Secretary Gates once put it – will allow us to achieve our two vital objectives for national defense: modernization and innovation.
Modernization means making sure America’s military is on the cutting edge today; innovation means making sure we remain there tomorrow. Modernization is step one, because before we worry about preparing for the future, we have to ensure we survive the present.
A force size that reflects current global realities is an essential step toward modernization. Yet as we’ve discussed, our armed forces are presently stuck at World War I and World War II levels. This means we haven’t just failed to modernize – in some cases, particularly force levels, we’ve actually regressed.
This may have gone largely unnoticed in America, but it sure hasn’t among our adversaries. 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. For the first time ever, we are reacting to China’s advances in capabilities rather than having China react to ours.
To reverse this, our modernization efforts must be swift, decisive, and focused on five key areas.
First, our Navy.
Just in the last few months, we’ve seen the importance of naval superiority. We’ve deployed cruisers and destroyers to the Black Sea. We’ve used a carrier to conduct strikes against ISIL and ensure all options are on the table as we negotiate with Iran. And that says nothing of the Navy’s daily work to maintain freedom of navigation, which allows global commerce to take place.
The Bottom-Up review of 1993, which outlined the minimum force structure necessary to meet basic threats, recommended our Navy consist of about 345 ships. That was the minimum they recommended in 1993: a time of relative peace. But today, the Navy has only 289 ships and is on a path to 260 or less.
The National Defense Panel was correct to recommend we return to the Gates budget’s plan for 323 ships, or perhaps more if threats in Asia and the Middle East continue to mount. We should also ensure that the carrier fleet remains at 11 and potentially raise it to 12, as well as examine what would be required to forward deploy a second carrier to the Pacific.
Additionally, the Navy must fully fund their requirement to strategically disperse the carrier fleet on the East Coast to protect our capital ships, and ensure two nuclear capable homeports with quick access to the Mediterranean, Latin America and the Persian Gulf.
Our Navy cruisers have been subjected to unprecedented cuts under recent Obama budgets. Of our 22 current cruisers, 11 are scheduled to have their operating status reduced. We need to reverse this immediately.
Matters below the ocean’s surface also require our attention. Our submarine fleet is declining while China’s is advancing. We currently have 55 attack submarines, but that could fall as low as 41 by 2030. We need to build at least two Virginia class submarines each year and ensure funding for the Ohio replacement program.
The second focus for our modernization efforts should be our Air Force, which tomorrow celebrates its 67th anniversary.
As I mentioned earlier, it is currently the smallest and most outdated it has ever been. Just two days ago, the Air Force Chief of Staff said, and I quote, “airplanes are falling apart … They’re just flat [out] too old.”
For this to happen now is terrible timing, since a reluctance to utilize ground forces means our reliance on air power is increasing.
As we speak, Russia and China are hard at work on fifth generation fighters, which will likely be exported to other countries, while America’s F-35 program – our best shot at maintaining air superiority since the F-22 was canceled – has run into unnecessary setbacks. As it is our only fifth generation fighter in production, this program is too important to abandon.
Our Air Force will also need better ISR capabilities at the theater and strategic levels, a new tanker fleet, and a next generation bomber capable of both conventional and nuclear missions.
It’s essential that our Navy and Air Force have what they need, because they don’t just service the blue parts of the earth – the sea and sky – they provide vital support to our Army and Marine Corps members stationed in countries around the world.
This brings me to our third focus for modernization: our ground troops.
The men and women who serve in our armed forces stand on the front lines of freedom. They are a force to defend our people, but also a humanitarian force. For example, the 3,000 troops being deployed to Africa as we speak to confront the scourge of Ebola.
And it is their families at home – moms and dads, spouses and children – who spend sleepless nights worrying. We owe it to them to make our troops the best equipped, best trained and most modern fighting force possible. Yet by cutting forces, we have only compounded the challenge of their missions.
Recent reductions to our Army and Marine Corps have risen from the dangerous illusion that America will never again have significant ground forces in combat. But as we’ve learned in Iraq, declaring wars over does not end them. Even as we continue to draw down in Afghanistan, for instance, we need a sizable force if we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of Iraq.
We need to reverse plans to reduce the Marine Corps and the Army below their pre-9/11 end-strengths of 182,000 and 490,000 respectively.
That said, we know our ground forces are not a panacea. They are most effective when used to pave the way for a comprehensive strategy, including involvement from our partners. A modernization effort for our ground forces must include strengthening our partnerships with nations that share our interests.
Partnerships with other nations can reduce the sacrifices required of our troops – but there is another, even more effective means of doing so.
One that involves our fourth focus for modernization: our intelligence capabilities.
When our intelligence community is fully resourced, it is better positioned to identify potential threats before a single one of our troops or citizens is put at risk. Unfortunately, our intelligence capabilities have been badly damaged under this president, and will have to be rebuilt.
When our capabilities are exposed by leaks from within the administration and from traitors like Edward Snowden, we are endangered. When we cease collecting on legitimate targets, we reduce our awareness.
The men and women of the Intelligence Community are our front line of defense. Let’s empower them to do their jobs by renewing our commitment to a sensible intelligence budget.
Whether our discreet intelligence officers or our heroes on the front lines of battle, the needs of every man and woman who defends this country should be of paramount concern to us all – and that includes their needs after their service.
Our fifth and final focus for modernization must be our standards of care, personnel policies, and benefits for our armed forces.
I’ve been proud to help lead the effort in the Senate for accountability from the Department of Veterans Affairs. But more needs to be done. We need deeper accountability and more choices for veterans. And for our men and women returning home from the battlefield, we need to make sure they have the best possible care available – not just for the visible wounds but also the wounds we cannot see.
In the civilian workforce, career patterns and expectations about work are changing, but the military personnel system has failed to adapt accordingly. Our personnel policies must be geared toward recruiting and retaining the best and brightest.
Right now, to get a pension through military service, you need to serve at least twenty years. That is unheard of in the private sector. We should explore ways to reform our benefit structures for future service members so they have more options, even if they don’t make it to twenty years of service.
We also face the difficult fact that a rising portion of the defense budget is going toward personnel costs. We must address this to ensure that we don’t end up with a military like some of our European allies, with plenty of personnel but no ability to train or equip them.
I look forward to hearing the recommendations of the bipartisan commission currently examining this challenge, but I think we need to make this about more than just reducing benefits. Instead, we need a broader reform effort that makes military service more rewarding by offering additional choices for career paths and specializations.
Modernization is essential to ensuring we prevail on the battlefield today, but there is a second goal to focus on if we are to succeed on the battlefield of tomorrow, and that’s innovation.
The brilliant minds at the helm of Research and Development for our armed forces are tasked with keeping us a step ahead of technological advances. But due to a lack of funding, the U.S. has begun to fall behind the R&D cycles of other competitors, especially China.
Our military still relies on war-fighting systems developed in the 1980s, like the Apache attack helicopter, the Bradley fighting vehicle, the Abrams tank, and the Patriot air-defense system. They may have been outfitted with new cutting edge armor and hardware upgrades, but the bones of today’s ground-combat arsenal look remarkably similar to what President Reagan commissioned 30 years ago.
Meanwhile, the future of warfare is here in the form of new classes of submarines, faster and more discreet stealth drones, and robotic tools capable of reducing human presence in battle.
America has the best, brightest and most innovative minds in the world, but without a steady stream of resources to military R&D, our troops will be left with hand-me-downs. And unless we maintain an adequate defense industrial base, we won’t be able to produce the products that R&D develops.
There are also procurement lessons to be learned from programs such as the F-35. The Pentagon must ensure that expensive errors and mission creep are avoided while holding private sector contractors to account.
But the future of warfare will not only feature new weapons and equipment. It will feature entirely new fields of battle: first and foremost, the cyber realm.
The FBI has warned that cyber-attacks are fast becoming the primary domestic threat to the United States. Our cyber superiority has been dwindling for the last decade, and now the U.S. needs to make up for lost time. Enemies should be just as afraid to hack into our servers as they are to lob bombs at our cities.
In addition to the cyber realm, we must innovate in the new battlefield of space. What was the stuff of science fiction just decades ago is now as real as it gets.
Our military increasingly relies on space assets for command, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. It is critical that we modernize our assets to improve resiliency and maintain freedom of navigation, just as we have on the seas, because some nations are now attempting to militarize space. For example, China tested an anti-satellite missile in July.
To further protect against such threats, we need to invest in missile defense by speeding up the deployment of interceptors in Europe and establishing a third site here in the U.S. We must partner with friendly nations such as Israel and continue developing technologies such as directed energy.
Finally, we need to fully fund nuclear modernization efforts to stay well ahead of nations such as Pakistan, Russia, and China. The reductions advocated by President Obama should not proceed unless as part of a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.
Let me close by saying that one of my greatest honors as a United States Senator is working with our men and women in uniform. From Florida – which is home to over twenty military installations – to Afghanistan to Japan, from the front lines of warfare to the waiting lines of the VA, I’ve gotten to represent the interests of the men and women who form the muscle of American Strength.
I’ve heard their stories. Witnessed the sacrifices they and their families make. Seen the pain in the eyes of families who have lost loved ones. And walked through the cemeteries where our fallen now rest.
But I’ve also seen the fruits of these sacrifices.
I’ve talked to Filipino Typhoon survivors who knew that an American carrier over the horizon meant food, water, and survival.
I’ve talked to Japanese and South Koreans who knew that an enduring U.S. presence had allowed their nations to prosper.
I’ve talked to Europeans convinced that America’s role as a security guarantor had prevented conflict on what had been a blood-soaked continent for centuries.
I’ve spoken to entrepreneurs and business leaders in our own country who have created thousands of American jobs because of the peace and security our military has ensured for the global marketplace.
But increasingly in recent years, I’ve also met those who wonder whether the United States remains dedicated to the objectives of a safe and stable world.
These doubts could not come at a more significant moment in global affairs.
Seeds of unrest have been sown around the world. Rising and resurgent powers are blustering and testing the boundaries of geo-political order. Leaders of unstable and aggressive nations are devoting unprecedented resources toward their militaries. Depraved jihadists are gaining in strength and influence, the twisted minds of their leaders brimming with dreams of spreading terror to America.
Our history has shown time and again – from Washington’s era, to that day of infamy in 1941, to the shadow of terror that fell on us 13 years ago – that ignoring threats such as these is as impossible as it is unwise.
America cannot avoid its role as a global leader. We are a global hub – a central point for travel, commerce, economic production, and international culture. People from all over the world pass through our nation every day, and our own citizens stretch out across the globe to travel and conduct business.
But we also know America cannot be tasked with protecting the global economy on our own. It will take an international order of free nations with free economies to do so. Other nations must step forward, but no other nation has the ability to organize or lead such a coalition if we fail to do so.
The world needs American Strength just as much as our people and our economy do. No other nation can deter global conflict by its presence alone. No other nation can offer the security and benevolence that America can. No other nation can be trusted to defend peace and advance liberty.
The proposals I have outlined today will allow us to achieve these objectives. They will ensure that America’s light shines on, into the face of whatever evil looks our way this century. And that our armed forces – their bravery and skill unmatched – are equipped to meet the growing and changing forces that never cease to threaten our people, our allies, and our sacred principles of freedom and opportunity for all.