May 26, 2020 3:16PM

The Evolution of “Building a Modern Military”

Any entity seeking to have an impact on the course of foreign policy in Washington D.C. should have an orientating position paper--a take on the currents of national strategy. All too often the national security community has ceded the intellectual ground to policymakers and professors alike. One camp might give us evidence for action with little context for implementation (the academics). Another may give us a desired means of achieving a goal, but little consideration for feasibility (policymakers). In Building a Modern Military, released on May 26, 2020, the Cato Institute’s defense and foreign policy team seeks to provide an orientating guide to the future of U.S. national security policy with a strong concern for feasibility and the implementation of our ideas.

We began work on Building a Modern Military in the summer of last year. The goal was to produce a yearly budget analysis document. Over time this project evolved into so much more. While the budget is a big part of our project, we are more concerned with overall strategy and the strategic challenges that might upset United States’ standing in the world.

After we had written Building the Modern Military at the turn of the year, perhaps the greatest national security challenge United States has ever faced since World War II occurred: COVID-19. We considered scrapping everything we had done and reorienting ourselves for the challenge of global health. We found, though, that the words written last year were still prescient. We never predicted a global pandemic, but we did push for budget adjustments, military innovation, and a realignment of strategic deterrence. All three of these issues remain relevant.

Moving forward we have a deeper challenge to re-conceptualize just what security might mean in the age of COVID-19. The topics we tackle next year will have to morph and change with the times. We will still advocate a restraint-based strategy that considers the priority of national defense and enabling our allies as opposed to a global geostrategic umbrella that defends neither the homeland nor our allies. But just how we defend the homeland and what we spend to do so will have to change.

Some future challenges are already known. How do we enable defenses against cyber threats and information operations given that we are more dependent now than ever before on digital connectivity? How do we ensure that global repression is not a common outgrowth of the rise of the surveillance state to support health initiatives? How do we move on from legacy technologies that no longer serve a strategic purpose?

Moving forward, budget cuts are going to have to be drastically more intense than ever due to the pandemic's prolonged economic harm. We will be required to make tough choices. The United States is a country built on tough choices and has endured for generations. It will meet the coming challenge of global pandemics, climate change, and the rise of near peer competitors, but it will not change American values and intentions. Our goal is stability while maintaining security, moving beyond the failures of leadership and coordination that the United States recently witnessed.

As we eventually move past the pandemic and think about recovery, we must also remember what we have lost during this period of turbulence. The significant amount of lives lost, the resulting loss of prestige and position internationally as a global leader in health, and the economic harm the United States will experience will reverberate for generations. How we meet this challenge and move forward as a resilient nation will shape how the United States engages with the world for many years to come.