The United States’ Broken Infrastructure Is a National Security Threat

The warning signs are everywhere. In Texas, a winter storm leaves millions of households without power. In Wisconsin, farmers are struggling to safely use modern equipment on roads that were built over 50 years ago. In Arizona, a century-old bridge partially collapsed last summer after a train derailed. In Florida, old pipes are leaking millions of gallons of sewage. America, the city on a hill, is crumbling.

After years of promises and inaction, revitalizing U.S. infrastructure needs to be treated as a national security priority rather than a punchline. Few ideas have as much bipartisan appeal and economic potential. Increasing public spending on infrastructure to levels similar to the mid-twentieth century would create more than 3 million jobs by 2029 and boost productivity. The U.S. economy would grow by $2.70 for every dollar spent.

But above and beyond the economic stakes, fixing U.S. infrastructure is a national security imperative. The strategic importance of infrastructure is not new, but it has grown in recent years due to climate change, innovation, and China’s rise. At stake is the United States’ military readiness, national resiliency, and global competitiveness.

During the Cold War, President Dwight Eisenhower understood the link between infrastructure and military readiness. As he argued in his 1955 State of the Union Address, “A modern, efficient highway system is essential to meet the needs of our growing population, our expanding economy, and our national security.” Eisenhower worked with Congress to create the National Highway System, which enhanced the United States’ ability to move troops and evacuate large cities.

Decades later, these capabilities were still on display. “The capacity of the U.S. highway system to support the mobilization of troops and to move equipment and forces to U.S. ports of embarkation was key to successful deployment,” Lieutenant General Kenneth R. Wykle explained to Congress after the First Gulf War. The problem, however, is that the National Highway System was designed to last until the 1970s. Years of underfunding has left a backlog of work for U.S. highways and bridges that exceeds $830 billion.

Infrastructure is also essential for resilience, the ability to recover from adversity. Last year, the United States experienced 22 weather and climate disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion each, a new record. Combined costs reached $95 billion. No person or place is immune to these risks, which aging infrastructure magnifies. As a National Academy study explains, “If a community has weakened infrastructure, like a human body with a compromised immune system, it will not withstand trauma as well as one in good health.”

Climate change is increasing these risks. Much of today’s infrastructure was built for a world that was cooler and less extreme, and it is now aging more quickly. Increased temperatures, precipitation, and storm severity that accompany climate change all degrade roads, bridges, and railways. Rebuilding infrastructure provides an opportunity to incorporate disaster resilience. It also provides an opportunity to increase energy efficiency and build a greener economy.

Resiliency extends beyond natural disasters. As the U.S. government considers how to make supply chains for critical goods more resilient, investments in infrastructure will be essential for reshoring production. New domestic production will create new patterns for moving goods that infrastructure will need to serve. Investing in infrastructure would also incentivize for companies to set up shop in the United States.

The United States is competing for much more than the attention of global companies. Infrastructure will influence whether the United States trains and attracts the brightest minds, whether it remains a leading hub for innovation, and whether U.S. workers and companies have the solid foundation required to export their goods and services to foreign markets. Right now, the sorry state of U.S. infrastructure is a drag on all these prospects.

Digital infrastructure has become even more essential to daily life, a trend accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, over 40 million Americans still don’t have access to broadband. Investments in infrastructure are needed to close that divide and give U.S. communities access to the educational, health, and business opportunities that digital connectivity provides. Done right, investments in digital infrastructure could also position the United States to export more of these solutions, from Open RAN networks to smart city systems.

China’s rise raises the stakes further. The United States is entering what could be a decades-long competition in which economic and technological power will matter just as much, if not more, than military might. Starting this race with decaying infrastructure is like lining up for a marathon with a broken ankle. Beijing understands the nature of this contest. Chinese leader Xi Jinping is championing “new infrastructure,” calling for major investments in 5G networks, data centers, industrial internet capacity, satellite services, and other digital infrastructure.

With its Belt and Road Initiative, China has even rolled out a bigger infrastructure package beyond its borders than the United States has been able to muster at home. Washington should not attempt to match Beijing’s infrastructure activities, which keep bloated state-owned enterprises afloat, stoke corruption, and can destroy more value than they create. But the United States must rise to the challenge by making strategic investments in its own future at home and playing to its own strengths abroad.

There are two paths ahead. The path not taken for ages—revitalizing U.S. infrastructure—will require courage and compromise. But it leads toward renewal, prosperity, and security. The current path—neglecting U.S. infrastructure—is easy and dangerous. It leads toward unpreparedness, fragility, and decline. The choice is simple: the city on the hill can shine again, or the world can watch as its lights go out.

Jonathan E. Hillman is the author of The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century and director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Jonathan E. Hillman