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Revitalizing the Foundations of American Defense

“As policymakers begin to rebuild the military, they should keep two overarching strategic truths in mind. First, global powers do not pivot. The US military cannot flit from crisis to crisis given its enduring security interests in three theaters: Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. Second, the military cannot always choose its fights. The Pentagon cannot choose between preparing for the future or the present, as historical attempts to do so have left the nation unprepared for both.”

—Mackenzie Eaglen, Resident Fellow

AEI scholars continue to shape the defense policy debate and educate policymakers and the American public on the necessary size, posture, and lethality of our nation’s military; its state of readiness; the budgets and investments necessary to rebuild it; and the international security environment in which it operates. As the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has said on more than one occasion, it is the work of AEI scholars that has built the constituency to revitalize the foundations of American defense. Taken in the context of the rising threat of and complicated relationships with Russia, North Korea, China, and Iran, and the prospect of conflict in one of these theaters, AEI’s scholars are front and center making the case for why our military must have the funds, skills, and tools to not just fight and win but, more importantly, deter.

Framing the Forthcoming Budgetary Battles

Major policy decisions made in the first quarter of 2018 are shaping America’s military for the foreseeable future, particularly the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, the first Nuclear Posture Review in eight years through the defense-industrial base review, and the budget deal for fiscal year (FY) ’18 and FY19 secured by Congress that boosted defense by (recent) historic levels.

As the unprecedented budget deal demonstrated, there is a sense of unity between Republicans and Democrats, among fiscal and defense hawks alike, and in Congress and the White House about the need to repair the American armed forces. The level of military spending that President Trump authorized went tens of billions of dollars above the increase he proposed in summer 2017. It was the level recommended by AEI’s defense scholars, who, over many years, have provided the analytic and strategic justification for such a budgetary figure and a detailed breakdown on how to spend additional funds.


This past year, Mackenzie Eaglen, in particular, was one of the most prolific and influential authorities in the policy debate on the National Defense Strategy and the Pentagon budget. Her work was consistently featured in leading defense studies outlets, and she regularly briefed policymakers, military leaders, and the business community on her research and reform recommendations, serving as an authoritative source for timely information on the developing legislation that undergirds American national defense.

In 2017, Eaglen was asked to join the staff of the National Defense Strategy Commission, a bipartisan commission of scholars and experts appointed by Congress to review and critique the Pentagon’s new defense strategy. Eaglen has since prepared more than 100 graphics on the past, present, and future of the defense budget for potential inclusion in the commission’s final report.

  AEI defense and security studies scholars monitored and drove change in a decisive budgetary season. Mackenzie Eaglen analyzed the strengths and shortcomings of the FY19 budget, commenting on the immediate and long-term changes proposed to the US military. Capitol Hill staff from key committees reached out praising the work and explaining how much they valued its conclusions. Eaglen found that the president’s budget request for FY19 failed in its central objective of adequately rebuilding the armed forces rather than merely repairing them. The budget request signaled a tension between then-Secretary Mattis’ plans and those of Congress about the proper direction (and permanence) of the forthcoming defense buildup.

  Strategic thinking from AEI scholars in two seminal reports on the military America needs made a tangible impact on legislation under consideration in the House and Senate. Mackenzie Eaglen released a major report in March, Repair and Rebuild: Balancing New Military Spending for a Three-Theater Strategy. The report answers a simple question: What plans and priorities should new defense spending increases be geared toward if Congress endorses a threetheater force? This report builds off the 2015 AEI coauthored report To Rebuild America’s Military (Giselle Donnelly, Mackenzie Eaglen, William Inglee, Phillip Lohaus, Gary Schmitt, Jim Talentand Roger Zakheim) by developing the programmatic depth and detail to the principles and objectives identified in that publication. Congressional staff from key Hill committees and members of Congress read AEI scholars’ work on this issue; legislation under consideration in Congress showed indelible marks of AEI’s strategic thinking.

  AEI hosted service chiefs and defense administration officials for substantive conversation on the future of each military branch. Throughout the year, AEI hosted senior Pentagon leaders — including the secretaries of each military department, the Department of Defense’s comptroller, and the deputy secretary of defense — in a variety of public and private roundtable events to stimulate these decision makers to move beyond rote talking points and into substantive conversation. AEI challenged the leadership of each department to conceptualize the future of their service while offering a forum to discuss the interplay between the National Defense Strategy and the budget request.


  AEI scholars partnered with the former chief of the Air Force on a major project to study the Air Force’s capacity to meet global future demands. Giselle Donnelly, Phillip Lohausand Gary Schmitt, with the support of the 18th Chief of Staff of the Air Force General T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley, conducted a series of tabletop exercises to model how the United States could respond to both steady state demands and crisis scenarios using the projected force structure of the US Air Force across the three major theaters: the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, and Europe. The exercises tested the Air Force’s ability to overcome force structure and manpower challenges, particularly relating to space operations, global command and control, and logistics. The results of the highly successful war games were distilled in a report at the end of the year and will be presented to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees in January.

  AEI hosted war game exercises with more than two dozen former military and defense officials. In April, Giselle Donnelly and Gary Schmitt, along with Vice Admiral John W. Miller (ret.), released Rough Seas: An AEI Study in Crisis Response for Tomorrow’s Navy and an Improved Navy for the Future. The report, which evaluates naval requirements for meeting possible crises, is the result of four tabletop exercises conducted in the winter of 2017 with more than two dozen former Navy, Department of Defense, and national security officials. The report identifies the Navy’s major issues, including the lack of global presence and capabilities to deal decisively with Russia and China. It also identifies strategic short-term investments and recommendations for rebuilding the Navy so it can face future threats to our nation. Donnelly and Miller presented the work at a Hill briefing over the summer and were joined by Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA), chair of the House Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.

  AEI scholars worked with military leaders at US Army Europe on how to deter Russia and prepare for future conflict. Giselle Donnelly, Mackenzie Eaglen, and Gary Schmitt undertook a detailed assessment of what the United States and NATO must do to deter Russia and prepare for future conflict. Reviewing current efforts, including the European Reassurance Initiative, they identified what more needs to be done and how the United States should reposition its forces. As the security of Europe is dependent on ground forces, AEI scholars repeatedly met with US Army Europe to receive the Army’s perspective.

  In advance of the 2018 NATO Summit, Gary Schmitt published a major report on the ways in which NATO has enabled the larger liberal order in Europe to emerge. In June, Gary Schmitt published “NATO’s Unsung Virtues,” which detailed NATO’s often-overlooked contribution to the growth of the liberal world order. Schmitt attested that, given the multilateral character of the alliance and the sometimes uneven US leadership, NATO has actually proved relatively adept at meeting changes in the security environment. He also argued that US global leadership has been minimally constrained by alliance partners because American power has been seen as indispensable to European peace and stability.

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Gary Schmitt appeared on C-SPAN’s ‘Washington Journal’ to discuss the turnover in the Trump administration’s national security team.

  Top administration official praised a new AEI report detailing a US strategy for Southeast Asia. In August, AEI celebrated the publication of Michael Mazza‘s report, An American Strategy for Southeast Asia. Mazza argued that Southeast Asia is no mere strategic sideshow but should instead be a crucial part of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy. Mazza presented the work at a public event at AEI, which packed the auditorium and featured seven media crews. Keynote speaker Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver praised the report’s policy recommendations and attention to US historical engagement in the region. Following the event, Mazza held a briefing on Capitol Hill.

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