Skip to content

Thornberry: The Best Defense Starts With a Good Offense

No one has a crystal ball that can tell us what will happen in the future, especially with national security. But we can predict one thing based on past experience: There will be change and turbulence in the world. America needs to be prepared to deal with it.

We face great security challenges in an increasingly interconnected world. We must be realistic about the dangers facing our country, whether from terrorism, aggressive actions by North Korea, Iran, Russia or China, or the spread of nuclear weapons. While some Americans may be war-weary after a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, we must confront such challenges by remaining vigilant. Congress and the president must ensure that our military continues to be second to none.

If America’s military is to remain first-rate, we must invest strategically and sensibly in national security. This is increasingly difficult in a tight budget environment where every dollar spent in one account represents a dollar taken from another.

It is important, however, to give historical context to defense spending, which is a constitutional responsibility and should be a budget priority.

Over the past 45 years, defense spending as a percentage of the federal budget has decreased while mandatory spending has shot up. In 1965, defense spending was 43.2 percent of the budget. In 2010, it was 19.9 percent. Additionally, after reaching a high of 37 percent following World War II, defense spending as a percentage of our gross domestic product fell to less than 5 percent in 2010. Fast-forward to the Budget Control Act of 2011, which cuts $465 billion over the next 10 years from defense spending.

While the economy is sputtering and there is strong disagreement over spending, there is strong bipartisan consensus that cuts to defense beyond the $465 billion already passed would seriously harm our national security.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently said President Barack Obama shares his view that the Pentagon should not face additional budget cuts. Other officials and military leaders agree, as do Members on both sides of the Capitol. Still, it remains tempting for some to look for more cuts from the defense budget. I believe this would be a major mistake.

The hundreds of billions that have already been cut will squeeze our armed forces. Across-the-board cuts, which would be enacted under sequestration, would have a devastating effect. Such cuts would reduce every budget category, thus eliminating our ability to budget strategically.

Some cuts would have an even more profound effect beyond its own spending category. One example is science and technology, which provides the options and capabilities that give our military a leg up on the enemy.

Because science and technology programs pay benefits largely in the future, it is tempting to cut them. But that would be a mistake. The best defense starts with a good offense. Investments in research pay dividends across all branches of our military. Doing research now helps protect our country and our children in the future.

Invention and innovation are two of the most critical yet perhaps underappreciated elements contributing to the effectiveness of our armed forces. Advancements in body armor and remote improvised explosive device-jamming technology have saved countless lives. Unmanned systems have also proved to be an invaluable asset to our defense. If we are going to defend our people, our homeland and our interests around the world, we must invest in technologies like these.

Another example is special operations forces. Over the past 10 years, we have increasingly relied on these forces. Their capability, training, hardware and supporting organizations are unparalleled. The future of defense may require greater emphasis on special operations missions.

It seems to be the height of foolishness to provide insufficient resources to an entity charged with fighting terrorists, preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction and training other nations to defend themselves so we do not have to. As national security threats evolve, our special operations capabilities are an invaluable asset. These forces, however, rely heavily on conventional troops to provide significant enabling capabilities such as air support, logistics, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Cuts must not undermine these or other capabilities.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently said, “Our record of predicting where we will use military force since Vietnam is perfect — we have never once gotten it right.”

Change is inevitable; how we prepare for it will determine success or failure. This is particularly true when it comes to defending America. Congress and the president must remember that truth as we move to the next step of budget cutting.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) is vice chairman of the Armed Services Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. He also serves as a senior member of the Intelligence Committee and recently chaired the House GOP Cybersecurity Task Force.