Solving Our Strategic Math Problem with America's Five Major Adversaries

The Hill, Solving Our Strategic Math Problem with America’s Five Major Adversaries, December 6, 2023

By Jane Harman and Eric Edelman

For the past two decades, every American defense strategy has
grappled with a basic math problem. The United States has five major
adversaries — China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorist groups. These five
adversaries are spread across three theaters of concern — the Indo-Pacific,
Europe and the Middle East and are active across the globe. But, as the Iraq
and Afghanistan Wars demonstrate, the United States military is hard-pressed to
fight even two second-tier adversaries in just one theater at one time.
Moreover, China’s rapid military modernization has only
widened the gap between U.S. needs and resources over years. Both Republican
and Democratic administrations alike have tried to solve the equation the same
way — by, with and through our allies.  


But if the U.S. wants to rely more on allies to help us fight
our collective wars, then we need to be willing to invest our treasure
particularly when they are willing to sacrifice their blood. For this reason,
it is crucial Congress pass the supplemental military funding for Ukraine,
Israel and Taiwan — not for charity, but for cleared-eyed American


While the Biden administration’s ask for $106 billion in supplemental funding for
these three countries may sound unaffordable, it still only amounts to an eighth of what the Americans’ spend on the
Department of Defense per year. More importantly, though, the amount still
constitutes a remarkably good return on investment. Since February 2022, the
United States has supplied $44.2 billion in military aid to Ukraine.
The impact has been stunning: 13,000 major pieces of Russian equipment
destroyed or captured, including almost 2,500 tanks, 900 artillery pieces and
more than 130 helicopters, all at a cost of no American servicemembers’ lives.
In effect, Russian combat power has been reduced by 50 percent. 


And there are promises of still more gains from our additional
support. The Commission on National Defense Strategy, which
we lead, recently traveled to Europe, where we saw the impact that Army
Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) are having on the battlefield. Their
introductory use destroyed nine Russian helicopters in a single strike.
Additional long-range strike weapons would allow Ukraine to destroy supplies
deep behind Russian lines in occupied territory and gain a strategic advantage.  


Our allies are by no means free riding on American
benevolence.  Yes, the United States is the largest single donor to Ukraine, in
absolute terms. But as a proportion of countries’ overall economies, the United
States does not even rank in the top ten donors.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all given close to 1 percent or more of their
gross domestic products to Ukraine. Poland dedicated 0.68 percent. The United States, by contrast,
only spent roughly a third of one percent, similar to Germany,
Canada and the United Kingdom. 


Military aid to Ukraine and other allies also strengthens
American national security in less obvious ways. Our military is learning
about our own air defenses, hypersonics, and small unmanned aerial systems, and
their roles on the battlefield. The Defense Department’s replicator initiative — currently aimed at
producing fleets of small, cheap drones — stems from these lessons from the
Ukraine war.  


Military aid is not a “blank check,” as some skeptics claim. For
starters, there is no check. The United States provides weapons to these
countries. The money we spend on military aid goes to replenish American
stockpiles, which come from American weapons manufacturers. In practical terms,
that leaves the Department of Defense with newer, better equipment, more
American jobs, and a more robust American defense industry that the United
States will need should we find ourselves more directly involved in fighting a


Supporting Ukraine has other far-reaching effects as well. It
helps deter China in the Indo-Pacific, for example. While some in Congress want
to redirect funding from Ukraine to defending Taiwan, Taiwan sees its fate as integrally intertwined with that
of Ukraine, and for good reason. After all, Xi Jinping 
watching as his neighbor to the north becomes mired in a conflict that many
predicted 20 months ago would be over in a matter of weeks. What better way to
make Xi think twice about China’s ability to seize
the island nation quickly and effectively?  


As threats continue to grow, the basic strategic math problem at
the heart of the U.S. defense strategy will only grow worse. Whether China and
Russia’s “no limits” friendship, Iran and North Korea’s
aid to Russia, or Hamas -Iran – Russia ties, our adversaries are
increasingly tied together via transfers of military equipment and dual use
technology. We need to compete globally, all at once. And we simply cannot do
that alone. American military aid to countries like Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan
presents a cost-effective and strategically prudent way to protect American


At the dawn of the American age, President Franklin Roosevelt
committed the United States to being the “arsenal of democracy.” In a world facing rising
authoritarianism and growing threats, such a commitment is as important today
as it was more than eight decades ago. Passing the emergency supplemental is an
essential first step. 



Former Congresswoman Jane Harman and former Under Secretary of
Defense Eric Edelman are the Chair and Vice Chair of the Commission on the
National Defense Strategy.