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Research Questions

  1. What gaps exist between U.S. security policy and U.S. military capabilities and capacity?
  2. How should resources be allocated to address these gaps?
  3. What near-term investments in military capabilities, technical innovations, and new geopolitical initiatives and concepts could be made to reduce an adversary's opportunities?

Significant gaps exist in the ability of the United States and its allies to deter or defeat aggression that could threaten national interests. For example, NATO members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania remain vulnerable to Russian invasion. South Korea is vulnerable to North Korea's artillery. China's neighbors — especially Taiwan — are vulnerable to coercion and aggression. Violent extremists continue to pose a threat in the Middle East. Solutions to these problems will take both money and time. In this report, RAND researchers analyze the specific technological, doctrinal, and budgetary gaps between the stated strategic and defense policies of the United States and the resources and capabilities that would be required to implement those policies successfully.

Absent a change in administration policy or a new political consensus in favor of a defense buildup, there will not be enough resources to close the gap between stated U.S. aims and the military capabilities needed to achieve them. This leaves the Trump administration and this Congress with some difficult choices. The United States could decide to focus primarily on its own security, devoting to allies and partners only those forces and capabilities that could be easily spared. At the other end of the spectrum, the Trump administration could take the central role in defending U.S. allies against aggression by Russia, China, and other potential adversaries. The hard-to-find middle ground would be to provide the military with sufficient capabilities to ensure that aggression that imperils U.S. interests in critical regions would fail while helping allies build the capacity to do more for their own and the collective defense.

Key Findings

Significant policy-resource gaps exist

  • More funding will be needed to close the gap between the 2018 U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) budget and the forces needed to implement the Trump administration's stated security and defense strategy and goals for military modernization.
  • Investments should therefore be prioritized by (1) the importance of the goal to the United States and its interests, (2) the size and urgency of the gap between the capabilities required to achieve defense objectives and the forces ready and postured to provide the capabilities, and (3) the availability of realistic opportunities for the United States to close these gaps.

Investments will need to be prioritized by their importance to the United States and its interests

  • Tier 1 priorities are to improve U.S. nuclear deterrence; achieve limited ballistic missile defense; and counter terrorist threats to the U.S. homeland, particularly those using weapons of mass destruction.
  • Tier 2 priorities should begin with deterring or defeating Russian aggression in the NATO Baltic states; countering North Korean ballistic missile and artillery threats, improving the U.S. ability to evacuate its nationals from combat zones, and seizing and securing nuclear weapons if North Korea collapses; and deterring or defeating Chinese aggression against Taiwan if needed.
  • Tier 3 priorities should include potential threats that require ongoing attention, but that are less likely to cause a near-term disaster for the United States or its allies and interests. These priorities include countering Chinese coercion of U.S. allies and partners; countering hostile Iranian actions; and continuing to degrade violent extremist organizations.


  • In the event of a major war — such as a Russian attack on the Baltics, a resumption of full-scale warfighting on the Korean Peninsula, or a U.S. decision to come to Taiwan's defense against China — the U.S. President should mobilize all of the reserve components.
  • To deter Russia and defend the Baltics, the United States should pre-position the equipment and munitions for armored and Stryker or infantry brigade combat teams and supporting ground and air forces in Europe. Three armored brigades should be postured to blunt an initial Russian attack, while the remainder should be postured as part of NATO's reinforcement surge.
  • To deter North Korean aggression, the United States should acquire more airborne sensor platforms with advanced sensors to target fleeting artillery and missile systems in all weather; buy more long-range rocket artillery and more rockets with area-effects munitions; and buy and prepare to deploy more missile defenses to protect cities, theater bases, and air- and seaports.
  • To deter Chinese aggression against its neighbors, the United States should help Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and other friendly military forces develop sufficient anti-access/area denial capabilities of their own to blunt an initial attack until U.S. reinforcements arrive.
  • For all contingencies, DoD should increase the readiness of U.S. forces to the stated service goals or beyond: Ten armored brigades and 45 U.S. Air Force and 35 U.S. Navy/U.S. Marine Corps fighter squadrons should be ready at all times.
  • DoD should improve the mobilization infrastructure to speed the activation of National Guard and Reserve forces and the training capabilities needed to make all forces in the deployment pipeline ready.

This research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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