A vision for national defense

Published 9:30 pm Tuesday, December 30, 2014

By Rep. Randy Forbes

In March 1968, 156 U.S. planes fell from the skies of Southeast Asia. More than 250 American airmen and even more soldiers lost their lives. By the conclusion of the war, more than 3,200 U.S. aircraft were downed, and more than 58,000 Americans lost their lives in the conflict.

In January 1991, the Persian Gulf War began, and after only 42 days of relentless attacks by the allied coalition in the air and on the ground, Iraqi forces turned back. Only 23 aircraft fell, and 147 Americans lost their lives.

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What happened between Vietnam and the Gulf that led to such drastically different outcomes? The answer gives us some clarity for today.

In those two decades, we developed a stealth airplane. We built precision-guided munitions that revolutionized warfare. We generated a new level of military jointness where, for the first time in history, we could bring all the services together to act as one unified force.

We made considerable progress in our defense capabilities and were able to establish air dominance.

These ideas weren’t without opposition. They were challenged, lamented and discredited by loud voices at the Pentagon and elsewhere. Too much money, many scoffed. We don’t have the resources, nor do we know if we’ll need them, others argued.

Still others fought, relentlessly, but Congress insisted on the reforms and innovations we needed.

Today, we face serious vacuums in our national defense: a lack of strategy, repeated budget cuts, sequestration and miscalculated defense decisions. The National Defense Panel has warned that unless we change course from the failures of recent years, our military is at a high risk of not being able to fully guarantee our national security.

The effects would be felt in sectors that touch Americans on a daily basis. Communication systems. Financial transactions. Energy supply, to name a few.

When we consider this reality in the context of other turbulence in the world today, one can imagine the scenario in which we might find ourselves in the future — whether a Gulf-level of preparedness or a Vietnam-level of preparedness.

We simply cannot afford the latter. Congress has an opportunity, an obligation, to reverse our current course.

It starts by reframing our approach. First, the question we must ask is not, “How much do we want to spend on national defense?” The question we must ask is, “What do we want to accomplish with our defense?” From there, our defense strategy should drive our defense budget.

Second, we need to look beyond the Pentagon for answers.

In the 1950s in the face of a strained budget and the threat of Soviet aggression, President Eisenhower made a bold move. He launched a senior-level planning exercise named Project Solarium to devise a new strategy to deter the Soviets while sustaining America’s economic strength.

The innovative project, which consisted of multiple teams competing against each other to develop the best strategy, succeeded. President Eisenhower called it the “New Look.” During the next decade, the strategy succeeded in keeping the Soviets at bay while keeping the growth of the defense budget in check.

We can achieve something similar again, with today’s threats and with today’s unique challenges in mind.

Constitutionally, Congress is tasked with providing for the common defense. Elected representatives have an obligation to push and pursue new defense technologies and innovations to ensure military power today, the same way we pursued stealth and munitions to ensure victory in the Gulf.

Elected representatives also have an opportunity to look beyond traditional approaches and devise new strategies, like President Eisenhower did. We need the creative genius that comes with collaboration between private and public sectors and allied nations to create a future-focused defense structure. Congress has the power to create that framework.

That said, Congress is not, and should not try to be, the Department of Defense. Instead, it should be a Department of Ideas — generating new ideas and strategies that will not only protect us in the future, but also protect the men and women risking their lives every day to defend our freedom.

My fight for a strong national defense is relentless. I won’t give up. Because a strong defense means a strong America.

Congressman J. Randy Forbes represents Virginia’s Fourth District, which includes Suffolk, in the U.S. House of Representatives. Visit his website at forbes.house.gov.