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Address: If You Want Peace, Prepare for War—U.S. Military Pre-Eminence and Why it Matters

Jack David

Thank you for inviting me to speak this evening. Rutgers College, as it was then named, and the Delta Upsilon chapter at Rutgers, were good to me in important formative years of my life. So, the thought of “giving back” is an appealing one to me. And when Steve Yost contacted me to ask me to speak tonight, I was immediately receptive. I hope my remarks will provoke you to think in new ways about serious issues of concern to all of us. If so, maybe my remarks will qualify as giving something back to Rutgers and DU.

When Steve first spoke with me about tonight, I asked him what he and the others organizing the good time we’re having tonight would like me to talk about. He said they had no particular subject in mind. He suggested talking about any college and DU war stories I recall. I’m not good at telling war stories or jokes. I wouldn’t make a good raconteur or entertainer. But he also suggested that it would be interesting to hear about North Korea or Iran and threats presented by their nuclear capabilities. Of course, he suggested that subject because, when I served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction and Negotiations Policy, I advised the Secretary of Defense and participated in the National Security Council process about how U.S. policy should deal with North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear and missile activities and aspirations.

Although I did not take Steve’s specific suggestion and won’t speak about North Korea and Iran directly, I did take the spirit of his suggestion. I’m going to speak about a very important U.S. national security subject. The subject I will address is how U.S. citizens have benefited from supporting a preeminent U.S. military capability and how a world where the U.S. is not militarily preeminent would be more dangerous and hurtful to our interests.

U.S. well being and world peace and security have been assured since 1945, the end of World War II, by the preeminence of U.S. military and economic power. Our preeminent military power played the essential role in assuring that peace and security.

U.S. military preeminence has enabled us to nourish and grow a liberal, peaceful international order over the last 75 years. Three principal features of this order are dispute resolution between countries being undertaken mostly by discussion rather than armed conflict, freedom of all to use international waters, and increasing recognition that free men, free markets and the rule of law is the most certain path to prosperity. The recent events in Ukraine provide some indication of the extent to which that order has eroded.

We Americans have an enormous stake in maintaining the international order we’ve helped establish. International trade has grown enormously as a result of it, as has our own prosperity. According to the Commerce Department, goods exports supported 7.3 million jobs in 2012 and services exports supported 2.5 million jobs in 2012.” So, our exports alone supported 9.8 million jobs at home in 2012. Of course, imports too benefited us, providing U.S. consumers with many goods which we otherwise couldn’t obtain or would have been more costly. It’s fair to say that the liberal, peaceful international order our military pre-eminence has maintained constitutes a vital interest of all of us. Trade and prosperity are directly attributable to it.

As then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2011:

“…free trade and open markets are powerful tools to improve living standards worldwide. They do create new jobs. They open up new economic opportunities, raise standards of living, and lead to the kind of win-win solutions that bring people and countries closer together.”

The post WWII liberal, peaceful international order has brought prosperity to us and it also has helped raise living standards for others. It has been of enormous benefit to many other countries, including the U.S.’s top trading partners. For example, it has enabled Japan, Germany and South Korea to rise from war torn or impoverished in 1945 to rich countries in 2014.

U.S. military pre-eminence has created, sustained and nourished the conditions allowing all of us and our friends and allies to prosper and remain secure. A virtually invincible U.S. Navy and a U.S. Air Force that has been able to deny operational air space to adversaries has discouraged potential aggressors in Europe and in Asia. Consider this astounding fact: Because of the dominance of U.S. air power, no U.S. soldier has been killed by enemy air power since 1953.

It is no wonder that so many of the U.S.’s top trading partners and other countries have wanted defense alliances with the U.S. Treaties and agreements giving partners a call on the support of U.S. military might for their defense today exist with more than 30 countries, including several with former communist satellites of the Soviet Union. And these have helped maintain a more peaceful and stable world with all its benefits in trade and prosperity.

The U.S. has derived additional benefits from its military preeminence and the desire of partners to be under the U.S. defense umbrella. Our partners’ favorable dispositions toward us doubtless helped the U.S. in the following additional ways: in trade discussions with defense partners, in their treatment of U.S. citizens, in alerting us to threats to our interests as well as theirs, in sympathetically receiving special requests for support or cooperation on specific matters or votes in international bodies, and, in recent years, in ferreting out and eradicating Islamist terrorists and their supporters around the world. All of this was possible because of U.S. military preeminence and the understanding of all, trading partners, allies, friends, potential enemies and enemies, that we were militarily preeminent.

What do I mean by U.S. “military preeminence”? A good working definition is ”a situation in which U.S. capabilities are so superior that they discourage or deter adversaries from taking action they might otherwise take to the detriment of U.S. interests.” Ideally, the deterrent effect would be so good that the U.S. would never have to actually deploy its military might. It also means that, if the adversary took a risk and acted anyway, the U.S. military would defeat it. The more clear it is at the outset that U.S. military capability is more than a match for the adversary’s force, and that Americans will politically support their military, the greater the likelihood of discouraging or deterring the adversary’s action.

How can we see into a future without U.S. military preeminence? One place that points the way is the past. The absence of U.S. military preeminence played a large role in precipitating North Korea’s invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950. In 1945, the U.S. had 40,000 soldiers in South Korea. By 1950, there were a mere 472 there. Consistent with the message sent by the drawdown, in a January 1950 speech Secretary of State Dean Acheson did not include South Korea among a list of countries he said that the U.S. would defend.

North Korea’s dictator, Kim Il Sung, therefore concluded that the U.S. would not interfere if he took military action to achieve his ambition of unifying the peninsula under his rule. He persuaded Stalin and Mao of that view, secured their promises of support, and invaded the South. 33,746 Americans died in that war. In economic terms, the war cost $470 billion in 2013 dollars. Once the Korean War started, the U.S. defense budget was quadrupled.

For the last several years, we have been planning military expenditures by asking the wrong question. We are asking how much money we need to save rather than what risks our military must be prepared to reduce or eliminate. What do we need to support the strategy – mostly successful until recently — of discouraging the use of aggression to pursue national ambitions? This important change in U.S. focus, from risk assessment to budget concerns, is apparent to friends and foes alike. Over the last 30 years or so, almost entirely for budgetary considerations, we have allowed U.S. military’s capabilities to dramatically decline. Let me give you a few alarming statistics of that decline.

The defense budget proposed two weeks ago would reduce the U.S. Army to 440,000 soldiers from 566,000 in 2011, making it the smallest U.S. Army since 1940. The same proposed defense budget will retire the entire fleet of 300 A-10 ground support jets, thereby increasing the risk that, as one general told The Wall Street Journal, more of the remaining troops “will get hurt or die” if engaged in ground combat.

From a 600 ship U.S. Navy in 1980, we’re down to 287 or fewer ships. The budgets that have been and are being proposed do not make provisions for replacing ships as fast as we are retiring them.

Similarly, the U.S. Air Force has the fewest airplanes it has ever had. At its founding in 1947, it had more than 12,300 airplanes. Today: approximately 5,200. From 2008 through 2012, the Air Force retired 700 more aircraft than it bought. Production lines have been closed down. This means that if current estimates of Navy and Air Force needs turn out to be too low, the U.S. won’t be able to act quickly enough to respond. The production lines and the people who man them will be gone.

As Secretary of Defense Hagel has said: “we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”

In evaluating whether this trend is imperiling us, it is necessary to consider what potential adversaries are saying and doing and how their actions will affect U.S. capabilities. Two countries of enormous importance in this regard are Russia and China, to say nothing about Iran, which has sworn “death to America” too many times to be ignored. As to Iran’s place in our discussion, it behooves us to remember that Russia’s and China’s actions in response to the Iran threat have evinced their ambivalence to Iran’s nuclear and hegemonic ambitions, and perhaps willingness to support them.

Preeminent U.S. military strength discourages aggression if a would-be aggressor is convinced that the U.S. would be willing to use it. Conversely, as was the case with North Korea in 1950, U.S. weakness encourages an aggressor to take the risk of using force to achieve its goals. Whatever armed adventures the Soviet Union, China and other countries might have contemplated in most of the period since 1945, the fact that U.S. naval, air and land power could be deployed and could not be defeated if deployed was a strong disincentive to aggression. However, today the gaps between U.S. military capabilities and those of Russia and China have diminished.

While our relations with Russia today are not as hostile as they were with the Soviet Union (thankfully), Russia’s reassertion of rights in now free countries the Soviet Union once occupied is extremely worrisome. Russia’s willingness to use force to achieve its goals in these countries is unsettling. It invaded Georgia in 2008 and seized two Georgian provinces which it still controls (Abkhaizia and South Ossetia). The U.S.’s weak response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia, virtually nothing but rhetoric, together with subsequent accelerating reductions in military capabilities plainly gave encouragement to Mr. Putin’s aggressive instincts, as we have seen in recent weeks in Ukraine.

Since the 1990s Russian air-force fighters have been competitive with the U.S. mainstay, the F15. Russia is developing fighter aircraft comparable to our now-incomparable F22 (production of which has been terminated to save money), and it is continuing to develop nuclear-weapon and other military capabilities explicitly intended to be superior to ours and to defeat us in any conflict.

China long has made claims on the land and sea in the enormous territory surrounding its borders. But in the last few years it has backed these claims with aggressive conduct. Just a few months ago, as you may recall, China declared what it called an “air defense zone” consisting of islands, shoals and a vast expanse of the sea. China’s actions and demands make it clear that what it calls an air defense zone is an area over which China means to exercise sovereign control and impede the activities others. This zone, like others in the western Pacific that China claims, includes islands claimed by other countries—Japan, Korea, Philippines, Vietnam among them. Moreover, these Chinese claimed areas mostly consist of what the U.S. and other countries regard as international waters over which no country has sovereignty, waters that are free to be used without anyone’s permission for commercial or military passage.

It is no secret that China is aggressively building a blue-water navy. It already has as many ships as the U.S. Although many of these are inferior to U.S. ships, it is building ships of modern design at an accelerated pace. Like Russia, China already has F15-comparable fighters in its own air force, and already is testing and further developing an F22-type aircraft.

Russia and China each nearly doubled its military spending in the first ten years of this century. It appears that each will continue at this rate of growth over the next several years. China just announced a 12% increase in its defense budget for next year. Significantly, the ships, aircraft, missiles, and space and cyber capabilities China is developing, like those the Russians are developing, are explicitly being designed to defeat U.S. air, naval, and space military capabilities. According to president Obama’s former Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, the Chinese are spending “ninety percent of their time…thinking about new and interesting ways to sink our ships and shoot down our planes.”

These facts are important to take into account. What Russia and China are doing and planning show that they believe there is a significant possibility that they will want to use military force to achieve objectives contrary to the interests of the U.S. and U.S. partners.

In the lead up to World War 2, U.S. military weakness helped ease the way for Nazi aggression and invited Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. At that time, the U.S. military was not remotely prepared for the war. Had the U.S. not been as isolationist and had it spent what was necessary in the 1920s and 1930s to assure itself of adequate military strength, if not primacy, perhaps Japan and Germany would not have started what became World War II, a war in which 70 million people, including 405,399 Americans, died, and which cost us $4.126 trillion in 2013 dollars.

There is no way to predict how Russia or China will use their growing military power to achieve their goals, although there is ample evidence that each will use it. But we can be sure that, if a U.S. interest or a defense alliance with a partner is involved — Japan or Taiwan, for example —Russia or China would assess the U.S.’s military capability and take it into account before initiating military aggression. If that happens, and the assessment is that the U.S. military might be defeated, they might well take military action to achieve their goals. What would we do? Would we capitulate to our adversary’s demands, whatever they may be? Would we deploy our military forces in the hope of prevailing? If our military forces prevail, how would we feel about the human and economic costs we suffered in the conflict? And what impact would this have on our economic and political relations with other countries, countries in Asia living in China’s growing shadow, countries in Europe subject to Russia’s bullying and military intervention? What would be the cost to us?

Some prominent political and academic leaders in our country claim that they appreciate what our military has done and is doing but want to reduce the cost of it. To persuade you, some of them assert that they are against any further “military adventures” or that resources that might in past years be allocated to our military should be used to fix our domestic economic problems. When you hear these rhetorical exhortations, please remember the facts and issues I’ve drawn to your attention tonight. Those facts and issues show that paying for a military that can deter aggression that could lead to war and thereby protect our interest in three trillion dollars of trade and the multiple trading partners with whom we have that trade is not a “military adventure.” It has been necessary to assure the liberal, peaceful, and overwhelmingly desirable international order that has saved us blood and treasure and made us as prosperous as we are. If the U.S. fails to continue to maintain this order, it will be a tragedy. If the U.S. does not, no one else will.

When the advocates of reducing the military budget ask for your support, please remember the potential cost of doing so. Those who tell you they are merely proposing what they call “doing more with less” are fooling themselves. We cannot do “more with less.” We cannot maintain the preeminent military we’ve had with less. Unless we stave the diminution of military capability we’ve already suffered and reverse the decline, as Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno testified in Congress, “we may have to brutally accept more risk, where in the past we have reduced risk.”

“Si vis pacem, para bellum” is an adage that’s 2000 years old. It means: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” That advice applies today. The U.S. has preserved its political and economic freedom, and the political and economic freedom of our friends, by maintaining military preeminence since the 1950s. We must continue to do so.

Thank you for your attention.

Si vis pacem, para bellum is a Latin adage translated as, “If you want peace, prepare for war” (usually interpreted as meaning peace through strength—a strong society being less likely to be attacked by enemies). The adage was adapted from a statement found in Book 3 of Latin author Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus’s tract De Re Militari (4th or 5th century), although the idea it conveys is also present in earlier works, such as Plato’s Nomoi (Laws).

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