The Buzz

5 Questions the Reagan National Defense Forum Should be Addressing

This weekend the 2016 Reagan National Defense Forum (RNDF) will be held at Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. One journalist described the forum as a sort of Davos to which I would add one for defense nerds who get to play with real guns, tanks and nuclear missiles rather than just their video game equivalents. The attendees list has always been impressive and this year is no different. Among the confirmed speakers and guests are the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the heads of all the military services, several former secretaries of defense, current and former members of Congress, captains of industry and the best of the Fourth Estate. Rounding out the attendance list are several hundred of the best and brightest in the field of national security, in essence, the nation’s national defense establishment.

This year’s RNDF will address a number of weighty topics. There will be panels on the role of the Triad in national security, deterring revanchist powers, how friends and allies view U.S. national defense and the balance between increased defense dollars and greater efficiencies in how current resources are used. The Forum will conclude with a panel of former secretaries of defense discussing the state of national defense and a session with the current defense secretary, Ashton Carter.

The topics chosen for the RNDF Panels were selected months ago. All of them address important subjects. But I have a feeling that the people who put together this year’s agenda did so based on the assumption that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. To be sure, there is a panel on risks and opportunities for national defense in a presidential transition. But there is a certain “business as usual” quality about this year’s RNDF which is belied by the outcome of the presidential elections. I find this a bit odd for a forum named after the president who did so many unexpected things when it came to U.S. national defense such as calling on the then-Soviet leader to tear down the Berlin Wall, initiating the Strategic Defense Initiative and negotiating the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

This is a time for bold thoughts and new arguments about the right direction to take U.S. national defense. President-elect Donald Trump is something of a tabula rasa when it comes to national defense. On the campaign trail, he said things that provided a very general idea of his views on the subject. He believes in peace through strength. But he also has a somewhat jaundiced view of how U.S. military forces have been employed over the past 16 years, doesn’t think most of our allies are doing enough to defend themselves and wants to explore the possibilities of collaboration with Russian President Putin on issues where our interests coincide, such as the fight against ISIS.

But the larger point is that the new president is not particularly taken with the national defense memes that have dominated thinking in Washington on this subject. It is incumbent upon the professional elite in national defense of all political persuasions, the very group that will attend the RNDF, to provide a set of arguments about national defense that can inform and guide a different kind of national leader, one with no real experience in foreign affairs or national defense.

If we had known then what we know now, here are the five questions the RNDF should have focused on:

What are the purposes of U.S. military power? The defense intelligentsia might criticize my leading off with this question rather than something about national interests or defense strategy. But the President-elect is a practical man. He has shown no predisposition towards any particular ideology or school of thought when it comes to national defense. For good or ill, he is likely to treat each region, crisis or conflict as sui generis. He probably views the U.S. military, at least in part, as one of a set of tools at his disposal. Or more like a Swiss Army Knife. He is smart enough to know that the U.S. military is a hell of a hammer, but that not all problems are nails. So, this is the time to explain to him what the military can and, more importantly, cannot do. Also, after decades of fighting wars of choice, are there principles for the use of U.S. military power that can be articulated to limit reliving past follies?

On what should President Trump spend additional defense dollars? In one of his few speeches dealing with national defense, President-elect Trump declared that "History shows that when America is not prepared is when the danger is greatest. We want to deter, avoid and prevent conflict through our unquestioned military dominance.” That is fine as a general thesis, but says nothing about why more money is needed and on what to spend any budget increases. Given how badly the military has been shortchanged over the past eight years, everything needs to be fixed. What should be the new Administration’s priorities? Mine would be near-term Army modernization, the nuclear triad and associated infrastructure, missile defense, electronic warfare and space defense. But this is worth a serious debate.