U.S. National Security: Looking beyond the War in Ukraine

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There is no way as of yet to predict what the outcome of the war in Ukraine will be for Ukraine’s future, but it is all too clear that it is unlikely to have a happy ending. Ukraine has loyal and brave fighters, but the war has already produced massive damage to its economy and to the lives of its citizens – and even an ending to the war that leaves Ukraine somewhat intact seems unlikely to end the threat that Russia now poses to Western Europe.

Act Now to Face the Post-Ukraine War World

The war in Ukraine seems all too likely to leave a lasting state of confrontation between Russia and the U.S. as well as its European partners in NATO. Even if Russia does not actively threaten the Baltic states, intimidate some other European power, or fully execute its increasingly threatening modernization of its nuclear forces, the near to mid-term prospects for any form of Russian cooperation with the rest of Europe and the U.S. seem marginal at best. At least in the near term, Russia will represent the major nuclear threat to the U.S. and its NATO allies, and Russian military planners will do their best during much of the coming decade to build-up far more effective land, air, and sea forces – drawing on the painful lessons of Russia’s initial failures in Ukraine.

The war also seems likely to increase the tensions and levels of competition between the U.S., its strategic partners, and China. This not only will affect the military balance, but it will also affect civil competition and raise the levels of tension in other parts of the world. Powers in other regions will attempt to exploit the situation, and Russia and China will engage in spoiler operations and extend their competition with the U.S. and its strategic partners to other parts of the world.

If the U.S. is to take the lead in coping with such an outcome of the war in Ukraine, it must do four things:

  • The U.S. must first get its own house in order in developing an effective strategic planning, programming, and budgeting (PPB) system;

  • The U.S. must revitalize its strategic partnership with NATO and lead a major new NATO force planning exercise;

  • The U.S. must focus as much on China as on Russia, and it must realize that China is becoming the most serious emerging threat;

  • And, the U.S. must continue to focus on global threats as well as Russia and China, and it must continue to strengthen relations with its other strategic partners.

Develop an Effective U.S. Strategic Planning, Programming, and Budgeting (PPB) System

Ever since the break-up of the Former Soviet Union (FSU), the U.S. has failed to create effective national military plans, programs, and budgets for dealing with the Russian, Chinese, and other threats it identifies in its national security strategy. It has never shaped its defense spending and programs around the need to meet emerging threats and perform key missions.

U.S. program budgeting efforts have largely collapsed, and U.S. strategy documents have served only as brief exercises in rhetoric with no meaningful program budget or justification in the form of detailed net assessments. Its defense budgets have been driven more by the priorities of each military service than by national needs, the need to find the best approach to joint warfare, or the need to integrate emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) into the structure of U.S. forces.

Recent U.S. efforts to develop meaningful Future Years Defense Programs (FYDPs) have been little more than hollow shells, and the Department of Defense’s (DoD) proposed annual budget plans have failed to shape actual spending even a year in advance for well over the past decade. U.S. joint and combatant commands have moved forward in terms of their individual force posture and contingency plans, but U.S. national efforts to carry out meaningful long-term planning of its national strategy first floundered in the empty rhetoric of the Quadrennial Defense Reviews (QDRs) and then collapsed in the face of the Budget Control Act in ways that substituted rhetoric for real planning and analysis.

More recently, the U.S. has discussed the need to integrate the capabilities of each of its military services to perform joint all-domain operations (JADO) and the need to reshape its forces to make use of new emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs). So far, however, the U.S. has focused more on describing the need for change rather than planning ways to achieve it.

The U.S. has discussed rebalancing to Asia for a decade without defining what this really means, without fully examining the implications for NATO, and without focusing in detail on the role of its strategic partners in Asia and the rest of the world. The U.S. has largely decoupled its military planning from its planning for civil competition with Russia and China, and it has decoupled U.S. national budget planning to giving precedence to major rises in civil entitlement spending without examining what the U.S. needs to create a fully effective deterrent and defense.

At a time when the U.S. faces growing competition from Russia and China, it is spending less than half the share of its GDP on national security than it did during most of the Cold War. The U.S. has also focused on burden sharing rather than working with its strategic partners in shaping more effective common forces.

The U.S. has not provided any official open-source net assessments or comparisons of the real buying power of U.S. versus Russian and Chinese military spending, and the U.S. has never based its plans, programs, and budgets on any overall assessment of what is needed to meet the possible Russian and Chinese threat in either the coming year or the future. It has only provided consistent official annual assessments of one threat: China.

Neither the Executive Branch nor Congress have provided most of the critical elements needed to justify U.S. military spending. Both have relied on issuing a fog of strategic rhetoric and generalities, and then proceeded to focus on producing short-term shopping lists for each military service.

The Ukraine War is a clear warning that the U.S. now needs to create strategies that focus on developing actual capabilities for deterrence and defense, and that the U.S. must work with its strategic partners rather than simply pressuring them. The grim military realities that have emerged from the war in Ukraine also show that U.S. defense plans, programs, and budgets need to examine both current and future needs in terms of realistic net assessments.

This means the U.S. needs to restore and restructure its planning, programming, and budgeting efforts to focus on each combatant command rather than each service. At present, the military services tend to isolate their plans and budget priorities. Far too often, they plan separately or compete for resources – at a time when every aspect of force development should focus on jointness and innovation.

It has been clear since at least the 1950s that the U.S. should put in the effort to create real joint strategies based on substantive analysis and real-world priorities in the hands of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), the Chair of the Joint Chiefs, and each combatant commander – rather than in each military service. At the same time, the U.S. needs to plan for long-term competition with threats like Russia and China, not on meeting arbitrary annual budget goals for the coming fiscal year.

This is particularly true because the U.S. showed throughout much of the Cold War that it could spend roughly twice as much on defense as a percent of GDP (7%+) as it is now spending (2.7-3.2%). The U.S. also had far more support from its strategic partners in NATO – and the rest of the world – in gaining serious military support during the 1960s-1990s, when it focused on real-world security needs than when it reacted to the Russian seizure of Crimea by focusing on arbitrary spending goals like pressuring every NATO state to spend 2% of GDP on defense, and 20% of that defense spending on procurement.

Much depends on political priorities – The U.S. has spent far more on defense and national security in the past

Rises in Federal Spending Are Now Driven by Civil Mandatory Spending Programs Even If Biden Civil Programs Are Not Funded

Revitalize the U.S. Strategic Partnership with NATO and Lead a Major New NATO Force Planning Exercise

These issues are critical if the U.S. is to work with its NATO partners to create the level of deterrence and defense it now needs to deal with Russia. The U.S. must put a firm end to its recent focus on gross measures of national military spending efforts – or “burden-sharing” – and focus on how the U.S. can work with its allies to develop effective plans to rebuild a cohesive deterrent and defense capability.

Put simply, focusing on raising total national spending levels never made sense in a period when both official and think tank estimates of total Russian military spending were some $62 to $100 billion a year. Such estimates of Russian spending were consistently under one-third of the more than $300 billion being spent by NATO Europe alone. Such Russian military spending amounted to only a small fraction of the combined total for the U.S., Canada, and NATO Europe.

This focus on generic spending goals failed to provide any public incentive for higher spending based on a convincing analysis of the threat, and planners did little in political terms to focus on the areas where spending was most needed: for true interoperability and coordinated modernization.

The erratic national efforts to meet the 2% and 20% goals often ignored both the steady reduction in, and aging of, key aspects of the major weapons and military systems in many countries, as well as the continued dependence of many Eastern European members on weapons and systems that they had inherited from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and where they no longer had access to, or purchased, the upgrades, modernization, and updated weapons and C4I systems for such weapons.

Above all, this goal never addressed the fact that even the simplest comparisons of NATO force planning and spending priorities by country show that security must be based on nation-by-nation plans and not NATO-wide goals. As a result, NATO did far too little to correct a situation where there was so little effort to examine what level of spending was actually needed to correct the deficiencies in any given country’s force posture, modernization, readiness, and training and sustainability – or whether current spending levels or meeting the 2% would ever be adequate, not to mention when a given country could actually meet the necessary goals.

Furthermore, any effort toward actually reaching 2% of GDP was erratic at best. NATO did report some increases in spending as a percent of GDP in constant 2015 dollars after 2014, but its most recent estimate of actual spending levels – issued in June 2021 – found that 19 of its 30 members were still under 2% – including 1.5% for Germany which had let its military forces go hollow – and 10 countries spending under 1.5%.1

Even a quick glance at the weapons holdings of many member countries – based on reporting by sources like the IISS and commercial sources like IHS Jane’s – shows that even countries that did meet the 2% goal usually needed to spend something like 3% or more of their GDP to correct these problems, offset the aging of their existing major weapons, and avoid a slow but steady cut in force size. In practice, such a review could also not reveal cuts in readiness; failures to train at adequate and realistic levels; major problems in interoperability; and the failure to modernize intelligence, command and control, and precision weapons.

The percentage spending goals set by NATO ministers were not practical for many states – given their domestic politics and economies. For example, these goals had only limited overall impact in maintaining the force strength of the Eastern European forces in the area near the Russian border and in converting them from Soviet to interoperable or common weapons systems with the forces of older members of NATO.

Here, it should be stressed that the U.S. and NATO European militaries, and the NATO military commands, often did try to set the right priorities during the Obama and Trump administrations – as did the Secretary General and International Staff. Driven by the United States, however, defense ministers focused on spending 2% of GDP on defense by 2024, regardless of how long it took to meet that goal and how any rise in spending was spent.

During the Trump administration, U.S. efforts to shift more of the spending burden to Europe at the political level, with little practical impact on force planning, often meant that any added spending was wasted on pockets of improvement that did not alter overall national force capabilities or offset the continued reliance of given members on aging and declining fleets of Soviet-era systems.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown how dangerous this approach to NATO force planning can be. It has shown that the Russian threat is still all too real, as has Russia’s focus on new nuclear forces, long-range precision conventional strike, information and cyber warfare, and the spoiler role it is playing in Syria and in sponsoring the use of Russian mercenaries.

NATO needs to revitalize its force planning exercises of the 1960s. It needs to focus on country-by-county needs and force improvement priorities, not vague alliance-wide spending goals. The U.S. also needs to capitalize on the new willingness of key countries like Germany to spend on the forces NATO needs, make further improvements in the U.S. ability to project forces into the forward area, and support NATO countries in the rear to rapidly deploy forward.

NATO should focus on creating realistic member country force plans that set the right priorities for force modernization, interoperability, joint all-domain operations, and integration of common approaches to coping with emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs). The U.S. must abandon its destructive emphasis on burden-sharing and raising defense spending as percent of GDP and procurement, and it must now focus on finding the best common solutions to the wide mix of different problems and challenges that each of its 29 allies, Sweden, and Finland now face.

NATO should also capitalize on the new momentum for meaningful planning created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine by taking full advantage of global intelligence, space, cyber, and the C4I and battle management capabilities of larger and wealthier countries like the United States – as well as develop U.S. and NATO European nuclear and long-range precision conventional strike forces – to raise the threshold of deterrence in the area where Russia still has its greatest military advantage.

In doing so, both the U.S. and its NATO strategic partners need to recognize that it will take at least 3 to 4 years to complete such an effort and that the new force planning effort will need to be steadily updated – not only to deter and defend against Russia, but to aid NATO in out-of-area operations and in dealing with extremism and China. The U.S. and its partners must also recognize that sustaining the funding of the necessary effort will pose a major challenge and that cooperation with the EU will be even more important at the economic level than the security one.

Here, the lessons of the NATO force planning exercise that was carried out at the peak of the Cold War in the 1960s are still critical:

  • First, as is the case with the U.S. defense effort, strategy per se is meaningless unless it is tied to specific plans, programs, and budgets.

  • Second, real progress takes time and patience as well as constant ongoing efforts to develop suitable plans, programs, and budgets.

  • Third, such an effort must look at least five years ahead and will require constant ongoing work at both the NATO and national level to actually implement the necessary effort – with ongoing efforts to roll the five-year plan forward every year and regularly adapt to ongoing changes in events.

  • Fourth, no effort is meaningful that does not focus on country-by-country efforts that recognize domestic political realities and constraints. Getting what you can is far more important than seeking what you cannot.

  • Fifth, such an effort must be based on net assessments – not abstract goals or concepts.

Finally, such efforts must be transparent enough to convince the civil power elite in the U.S., Europe, and Canada – and as much of the public as possible – that such efforts are valid and necessary. This means reporting progress on a nation-by-nation basis even when this is sometimes embarrassing, including describing both the Russian threat and rate of overall improvement in the balance, deterrence, and defense.

Over-classification and a lack of public transparency can be as much of a de facto enemy as foreign threats. The war in Ukraine has shocked most American and European publics and politicians – as well as the publics and politicians in most advanced Asian states and other regions of the world – into facing the realities of a world where two major authoritarian states pose a continuing threat and many developing states are poor, divided or involved in civil war, and have failed governments or authoritarian states.

That shock, however, is all too likely to be temporary, and both the U.S. and its allies face major civil challenges and needs for government resources. Much will depend on showing the majority in democratic states that there are valid plans to meeting valid needs, and one that must be given a high priority in the face of threats like Covid and the challenges in raising civil living standards and creating social opportunities and equality.

The U.S. and its NATO allies need to act quickly to build on the momentum that the tragedy in Ukraine has created. They also need to earn the trust of their publics. Calls for patriotism and sacrifice need to be supported in full detail. No strategy based on rhetoric and the phrase, “trust me,” is valid – or even tolerable – in a democratic society.

The U.S. and Its NATO Partners Have a Massive Lead in Military Spending over Russia If They Use Their Funds Effectively

Russia Is Now a Leading Military Superpower in Only One Dimension

Focus as Much on China as on Russia, and Realize that China Is Becoming the Most Serious Threat

It is one of the ironies of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that if Russia had not invaded, U.S. national security planning – and the President’s FY2023 budget – would have focused on China and threats like Iran and North Korea. The sudden flow of U.S. and other Western military aid to Ukraine as well as the focus on Putin as a tyrant would never have taken place. Europe was not prepared to make serious increases and changes in its force posture, and the U.S. was focusing on China and the military balance in the Indo-Pacific region. The U.S. was doing this because China had become a far larger economic power than Russia, and it was becoming far more competitive with the United States in terms of military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region.

The grand strategic and global outcome of the war in Ukraine has changed this situation. It is now clear that the U.S. cannot focus on a single major threat. As long as anyone like Russian President Putin heads Russia, it will stay a hostile authoritarian state. Russia will continue to confront the U.S. in Europe and the rest of the world, and it will pose a continuing threat to NATO Europe – particularly the states near its border.

At the same time, Russia’s growing isolation means that it will continue to try to strengthen its ties to China in ways that will link China to Russia in its competition with the U.S. and its global strategic partners. It also means that Russia and China will play spoiler roles throughout the world whenever they feel this can give them leverage over the U.S. and its strategic partners.

This does not mean, however, that the U.S. and its partners face a revival of the Cold War. As real as the Russian threat to NATO has become – and will remain as long as someone like President Putin remains in power – it is China that has become the prime challenge, and President Xi is a more serious challenge than President Putin.

The U.S. and its strategic partners now face a multipolar world in which China poses the major – and largely independent – strategic and military threat. President Xi’s China has a far larger economy than Russia, far larger resources to spend on military power, and far more capability to blend economic and military power into a cohesive and enduring threat.

China now spends far more on military forces than Russia. The IISS estimated in its 2022 annual military balance that China’s official military spending figure was $207 billion in 2021, and its spending, measured in comparable purchasing power to Western spending figures, was $332 billion. The official figure for Russia was $62.2 billion, and its figure for comparable spending was still only $178 billion.2

To put these numbers in broader perspective, the IISS figure for U.S. official spending was $754 billion, NATO’s estimate for all of NATO Europe was $337 billion, and the IISS reported that Britain alone spent $71.8 billion. As for Asian powers, the combined total for Australia, Japan, and South Korea was $130 billion – well over 50% of the total official figure for China and more than twice the official figure reported by Russia.

One does need to be careful about making such comparisons. The intelligence community’s estimate never seriously attempted to examine how comparable or realistic the estimates for Chinese and Russian spending really area. They are not as militarily (or analytically) absurd and stupid as comparing burden-sharing as a percent of GDP, but they do have many uncertainties, and they are no substitute for assessing the detail of a country’s military forces, their comparative strength and patterns of change, and their capabilities in key scenarios.

China’s geography also gives it a level of strategic depth in Asia as well as in the Pacific and Indian Ocean relative to Europe and the United States that is totally different from that of Russia. As a result, China can already pose a major potential military threat in the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea, and it is the major land, air power, and missile power in Asia.

China is creating a blue water navy as well as far more modern air, land, and missile forces. It also is expanding its nuclear missile and strike forces, cyber and space assets, and precision conventional strike capabilities. China is also steadily making major increases in the modernization and effectiveness of its military forces, and it is preparing to equal or outpace the U.S. in military power, economic strength, and technological development at some point between 2030 and 2040.

“White area” power also sharply favors China. While gross measures of the size and strength of national economies always have serious uncertainties, the World Bank is probably broadly correct in estimating that the Chinese economy has grown so quickly and sharply that its GDP was close to the equivalent of $14.6 trillion in constant 2015 U.S. dollars in 2020. The World Bank also estimates that China’s GDP was 10 times the size of Russia’s GDP ($1.4 trillion). It was 1.1 times the size of the total GDP of the EU ($13.886 trillion), and 1.9 times the total GDP of Australia, Japan, and South Korea ($ 7.5 trillion). It had also reached 76% of that of the U.S. GDP ($19.2 trillion).3

Unlike Russia, China has the economic strength and resources to compete with the U.S. and its strategic partners on a civil as well as a military level. China also has more options in terms of possible strategic partners in Asia, although a number of Asian states have already joined the U.S. in its efforts to limit China’s expanding strategic impact.

Both Russia and China do seem likely to cooperate more closely in ways that serve their own individual interests, just as each will do with other authoritarian and spoiler states. However, Russia and China do not share any common ideology or culture. Neither country will likely take major strategic risks for the other in any confrontation or conflict where one does not get benefits that more than offsets the risk and cost. In fact, each would benefit immensely from any major theater level or nuclear conflict where the other engaged the U.S. – or a major U.S. strategic partner – alone.

In fact, one key difference in today’s emerging multipolar world is that a combination of nuclear, large-scale precision conventional strike, and cyber competition between the U.S., Russia, and China differs sharply from the bipolar mutual assured destruction (MAD) that shaped the Cold War. If either Russia or China can avoid joining in any major military engagement where the other power engages the U.S., it will be the power that does not engage that will be the natural winner.

Russia’s initiation of the war in Ukraine could also end in becoming an inadvertent “spoiler” operation that favors China and lesser regional threats if the U.S., NATO, and America’s other strategic partners focus their military and economic resources on Russia. Such a focus would sharply limit their ability to deter or pressure China.

Similarly, third parties like Iran and the Arab Gulf states may gain from exploiting China and Russia’s different interests in energy exports and arms sales. Nations like India may exploit Russia’s growing need for sales to both compete with China and gain leverage over the United States. The end result of the war in Ukraine may be that the ideological battles that helped to lead to World War II and eventually shaped the Cold War will be replaced by a world filled with a global and unstable mix of incentives for strategic opportunism.

Comparing GDP of the United States, Russia, China, and the European Union from 1980-2020
(in Constant 2015 $US Millions)

Broader Comparisons of Economic Powers (GDP) in 2020
(in Constant 2015 $US Billions)

Comparative Size of U.S., Chinese, and Russian Conventional Military Forces in 2021-2022

Broader Comparisons of Military Spending
(In Current $US 2021 billions)

Looking at Other Measures of China’s “White Area” Power

CRS: Comparative National Expenditure on Global Research and Development: 2000-2019
(In $US Billions of PPP)

China’s Growing Global “White Area” Influence

The U.S. Must Continue to Focus on Other Global Threats and Challenges, and Strengthen Its Relations with Its Other Strategic Partners

Finally, the U.S. cannot continue to weaken its strategic partnerships outside NATO and the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. increasingly competes with Russia and China on a global basis, and especially with China on both a military and economic level. The U.S. is structurally committed to being a global economic power, and it faces many lesser threats and challenges from a wide range of other civil conflicts and authoritarian leaders. The U.S. does not get to choose the part of the world where it acts as global power, but it can work with a strong network of strategic partners and other friendly states globally to both achieve its security goals and help nations increase their stability and development.

Once again, the goal in shaping such strategic partnerships should not be to shift the burden or to avoid one. It should be to share the effort with strategic partners on the most effective terms possible. It should also be clear that in many cases, the priority in establishing strategic partnerships must be security and stability rather than efforts to reform them – not only to meet the security needs of the U.S., but to also end or limit extremist threats and civil wars and to aid economic and security development, which has a broader humanitarian value than dealing with limited human rights issues or political and security abuses. The world has all too many failed or fragile states, including states where grim trade-offs need to be made between seeking democracy and human rights (in some abstract sense) and choosing the real-world options available to the United States.

The impact of sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine has again illustrated the strategic importance of securing Gulf oil exports. Russia’s support of the Assad regime has produced even more humanitarian tragedies than its invasion of Ukraine, and its use of mercenaries in Libya has shown the role its spoiler operations can play throughout the world. China has clearly coupled its increased “belt and road” efforts to increasing its strategic presence, and the U.S. and its partners can only successfully compete with China if they compete on a global level. Moreover, NATO allies like Britain and France already play a key role in power projection and alliances like AUKUS.

Developments like the proliferation of nuclear, biological, chemical, long-range precision conventional strike, and cyber threats are also extending the capability of smaller powers to pose major threats. So far, the pace of such threats increasing in tangible versions is still relatively slow and limited. In all too many other cases, internal or local tensions and conflicts produce massive refugee and IDP issues, famines, land and water grabs, and broadly based political strife that can affects thousands to millions of lives. Like medical triage, strategic triage must focus on the art of the practical, not on the impossible ideals.

The U.S. can, however, work more closely with regional powers in many cases to service both its national security needs and achieve some level of progress in areas like security, stability, human rights, democracy, development, regional and local security, and the rule of law. It also can work with its key partners in every part of the world to share the cost of effective action – particularly if it enforces conditionality – rather than effectively throwing money at such problems without regard to the honesty and effectiveness with which it was used – as it did in Afghanistan.

Here, the U.S. advantages in areas like space, airlift, intelligence, and links to international organizations can be exploited at a limited cost, and the U.S. showed in both Afghanistan and Iraq that it could achieve more and make major reductions in annual spending by focusing on training the security forces of other countries, providing limited amounts of airpower, and avoiding waste by not spending on corrupt or grossly overambitious projects.

As the work and reports to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), and Lead Inspector Generals (LIGs) of the State and Defense Departments show, the problem in providing effective support has rarely been the amount of money per se, but rather the efficiency and honesty with which it is used. Historically, the U.S. has also done far better when it worked closely with other donors or sources of security assistance to limit the growth of such problems than when it waited until they became so serious that the U.S. had no choice other than to act.

The same has also seemed to be the case where the U.S. did the most to integrate civil and military efforts as well as the activities of State, USAID, DoD, and the intelligence community – although that number of cases where such efforts actually were given the resources and priorities needed to be effective are surprisingly limited.

The Global Impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

European Partner Deployments in the Indo-Pacific

This commentary entitled, U.S. National Security: Looking Beyond the War in Ukraine, is available for download at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/220323_Cordesman_Beyond_War.pdf?CWgiNVmFborzoA3zL_Q.cktHecsf3ZET.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Emeritus Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

Please consult the PDF for references and image citations.

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).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy