It was March, 1968. That month alone, 156 U.S. planes fell from the skies of Southeast Asia. Over 250 American airmen and even more soldiers lost their lives. That year, men like newlywed James Crew of Windber, Pennsylvania, an honors graduate of the Air Force Academy; and Major William Cordero of Santa Barbara, California, who had just found out he was going to have an infant son, would lose their lives.
In those days, U.S. aircraft relied on sheer numbers of bombs dropped because each bomb was “dumb” – it couldn’t precisely target something on the ground. To drop such huge numbers of munitions, the U.S. military had to fly innumerable missions over heavily defended enemy territory, incurring many more casualties.
Vietnam showed the consequences of an America unable to control the skies and achieve air dominance. By the conclusion of the war, over 3,200 U.S. aircraft were downed. Over 58,000 Americans lost their lives in that conflict.
Fast-forward 20 years.
In the hot summer of 1990, the Iraqi Army – then the world’s fourth largest army – launched an invasion of Kuwait with a bombing campaign of its capital city. Within twelve hours, most Kuwaiti resistance ceased, and Iraq held control of the strategically valuable nation. Alarmed, surrounding Arab powers called on the United Nations, the United States, and other Western nations to intervene. Months of sanctions and negotiations ensued, yet ultimately Iraq defied the demands of the world.
On January 17, 1991 the Persian Gulf War began with a massive U.S.-led air offensive known as Operation Desert Storm. The risks were high and Americans knew it. 35,000 body bags had been ordered.
Yet, after only 42 days of relentless attacks by the allied coalition in the air and on the ground, Iraqi forces turned back. Only 23 aircraft fell. 147 Americans lost their lives. And 34,853 body bags would never be used.
What happened in those two decades between Vietnam and the Gulf that led to such drastically different outcomes? The answer gives us some clarity for today.
In those two decades, we developed a stealth airplane. We built precision-guided munitions that revolutionized warfare. We generated a new level of military jointness where, for the first time in history, we could bring all the services together to act as one unified force. We made considerable progress in our defense capabilities and were able to establish air dominance.
These ideas weren’t without opposition. They were challenged, lamented, and discredited by loud voices at the Pentagon and elsewhere. Too much money, many scoffed. We don’t have the resources, nor do we know if we’ll need them, others argued. Still others fought, relentlessly, but Congress insisted on the reforms and innovations we needed. One of the major differences between establishing air dominance, and failing: 34,853 empty body bags.
Today, we face serious vacuums in our national defense: a lack of strategy, repeated budget cuts, sequestration, and miscalculated defense decisions. The National Defense Panel has warned that unless we change course from the failures of recent years, our military is at a high risk of not being able to fully guarantee our national security. The effects would be felt in sectors that touch Americans on a daily basis. Communication systems. Financial transactions. Energy supply, to name a few.
When we consider this reality in the context of other turbulence in the world today, one can imagine the scenario in which we might find ourselves in the future – whether a Gulf-level of preparedness or a Vietnam-level of preparedness.
We simply cannot afford the latter. Congress has an opportunity, an obligation, to reverse our current course.
It starts by reframing our approach. First, the question we must ask is not, “How much do we want to spend on national defense?” The question we must ask is, “What do we want to accomplish with our defense?” From there, our defense strategy should drive our defense budget.
Second, we need to look beyond the Pentagon for answers. In the 1950s in the face of a strained budget and the threat of Soviet aggression, President Eisenhower made a bold move. He launched a senior-level planning exercise named Project Solarium to devise a new strategy to deter the Soviets while sustaining America’s economic strength. The innovative project, which consisted of multiple teams competing against each other to develop the best strategy,succeeded. President Eisenhower called it the “New Look.” Over the next decade the strategy succeeded in keeping the Soviets at bay while keeping the growth of the defense budget in check.
We can achieve something similar again, with today’s threats and with today’s unique challenges in mind. Constitutionally, Congress is tasked with providing for the common defense. Elected representatives have an obligation to push and pursue new defense technologies and innovations to ensure military power today, the same way that we pursued stealth and munitions to ensure victory in the Gulf. Elected representatives also have an opportunity to look beyond traditional approaches and devise new strategies, like President Eisenhower did. We need the creative genius that comes with collaboration between private and public sectors and allied nations to create a future-focused defense structure. Congress has the power to create that framework. That said, Congress is not, and should not try to be, the Department of Defense. Instead, it should be a Department of Ideas – generating new ideas and strategies that will not only protect us in the future, but also protect the men and women risking their lives every day to defend our freedom.
My fight for a strong national defense is relentless. I won’t give up. Because a strong defense means a strong America.
Randy Forbes represents Virginia’s Fourth District in Congress.