Marine turned lawmaker Mike Gallagher warns that the U.S. is far more vulnerable to losing a war than the public recognizes.
Russia has invaded Ukraine and threatens nuclear war, China is eyeing Taiwan, Iran holds regular military exercises with China and Russia, and North Korea just launched a missile over Japan. If that doesn’t sound ominous enough, Mike Gallagher has worse news: The U.S. is increasingly vulnerable to losing a war, “either by sitting the conflict out or through defeat in combat.”
This is “a window of maximum danger,” says the military veteran and third-term congressman, and most Americans aren’t aware of its gravity as they understandably focus on domestic matters. He’s making it his political mission to change that.
Americans “want to think of ourselves as the force for good in the world, but we’re reluctant to pay the cost for that,” says Mr. Gallagher, 38, a Republican representing northeastern Wisconsin. He has been pressing the case for more military spending since before he first ran for Congress in 2016. “Global engagement is a sound investment for the taxpayer,” Mr. Gallagher said in his first political speech, delivered in 2014, the year after he completed a seven-year stint in the Marines. “Are we prepared to let China and Russia enforce shipping lanes, to let them dominate airspace, space and cyberspace instead of us? Would that make any financial sense for Wisconsin?”
I spent two days with him in September, touring shipyards and businesses in the Badger State and talking about the threats from China and Russia—and from America’s own distraction and complacency—as well as his ideas about how to prevent war and reunite the Republican Party.
Taiwan is a particular preoccupation. What interest do Americans have in protecting this distant island? If the Chinese subdued it, it would heighten their threat to Japan and the Philippines, which the U.S. is bound by treaty to defend. America’s friends would hedge their bets by cozying up to Beijing. More important, by seizing Taiwan’s semiconductor-manufacturing capability, Xi Jinping would “hold the rest of the world economically hostage,” Mr. Gallagher says. “All this stuff that drives people in the Midwest crazy, when Hollywood or Wall Street bows down” to the Chinese Communist Party, “you can 10-X that if Xi takes Taiwan.”
President Biden has more than once said the U.S. military would intervene to defend Taiwan. But these assertions have the feel of verbal stumbles, not clear statements of intent. “To avoid war, you have to convince the other guy you’re willing to go to war,” Mr. Gallagher says, “and I’m not sure we are.” Over time—from Barack Obama’s unenforced “red line” in Syria to Donald Trump’s impulse to withdraw from the world—America has too often taken a dubious approach to world affairs, which Mr. Gallagher summed up in 2014 by inverting Theodore Roosevelt’s dictum: “Speak loudly and carry a small stick.”
The disconnect between rhetoric and reality is most pronounced in the U.S. Navy. Congress wrote the goal of a 355-ship Navy into law in 2017, while China “actually went out and built one.” The U.S. fleet is on track to number fewer than 280 ships by 2027, and Beijing has also “built an anti-navy,” the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, “which is specifically designed to destroy our ships and keep us out of the First Island Chain”—the archipelagos closest to the Chinese mainland, including Japan and Taiwan.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress call for budget increases, but “generic warnings of risk” aren’t persuading the public. Because an aversion to standing armies is part of the “American DNA,” Mr. Gallagher observes, defense spending historically follows “a sine wave,” increasing in wartime and trailing off after combat ends.
One problem is that the Pentagon isn’t articulating its needs to lawmakers. He describes a scene he’d like to see—a “simple conversation” that “has never happened”: “We’re sitting there in front of the map”—the Navy secretary, the chief of naval operations and members of the House Armed Services Committee. The Pentagon officials say: “ ‘OK, here’s what we think the PLA is going to do. Here’s what we’re capable of doing. Here’s what we don’t have, and what we’re asking you for.”
Mr. Gallagher has made a cause of beating up the Biden administration’s buzz phrase “integrated deterrence,” which, charitably defined, means combining diplomatic and military power to dissuade America’s enemies from misbehaving. Mr. Gallagher calls it a “smoke screen to justify cuts to conventional hard power.” The administration has proposed retiring dozens of ships and hundreds of aircraft in the coming years, a strategy to “divest to invest” in new technology, which won’t arrive until the 2030s. “Behind integrated deterrence,” Mr. Gallagher says, is “a series of remarkable assumptions about the ability of technology to make things super easy for us in warfare, which I find to be really naive.”
Mr. Gallagher has been calling for a new “public diplomacy” campaign to make clear why, more than ever, the U.S. needs “a Navy capable of decisive fleet action near our enemy’s home waters.” An example from the past is how the Navy sold the public on the need to build ballistic-missile submarines that could lurk undetected in the oceans and ensure the U.S. could respond to any nuclear attack. Each submarine commissioned from 1959 through 1967 was named after an essential American, from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt, and the subs became known as the “41 for Freedom.” The campaign captured “the popular imagination in a very visceral way,” Mr. Gallagher said in 2018.
Mr. Gallagher also calls for “an aggressive reform effort” that goes beyond bromides about waste, fraud and abuse. One example is increasing the Pentagon’s “tooth-to-tail” ratio, the proportion of combat troops to support personnel. The Office of the Secretary of Defense alone employs 4,000 people by one estimate—almost the size an aircraft-carrier crew (around 5,000). A Marine intelligence officer who deployed twice to Iraq, Mr. Gallagher says months spent looking for a terrorist who was eventually discovered hiding inside a trap compartment “in this ugly green couch” taught him “how things that seemed pretty simple in D.C. get pretty difficult at the point of the spear.”
Maybe, he adds, the military branches don’t “need golf courses”—there are by one estimate more than 140 on U.S. bases world-wide—or, for that matter, to run commissaries: “If there’s one thing the modern free-market economy has figured out, it’s grocery stores.” Congress could trim “all sorts of jobs being done by one-stars that could be done by lieutenant colonels or colonels.” All of this could produce enough money “to really start testing the limits of the shipbuilding industrial base.”
Another problem is that leftist ideology has “escaped from the lab of higher education and is now infecting other institutions, the military among them.” Only 45% of the public has a “great deal” of confidence in the military, according to an annual poll by the Reagan Institute. That’s down 25 points in three years, and Mr. Gallagher thinks woke ideology is a major reason. Mr. Gallagher thinks the military’s emphasis on “inclusion” at the expense of “war-fighting excellence” may deprive the military of the recruits it most needs. Young people are attracted to the Marines precisely because it’s an exclusive organization with exacting standards not everyone can meet.
At Fincantieri Marinette Marine, north of Green Bay, I touch a piece of what will eventually become the U.S. Navy’s new Constellation-class frigate. The hope is that the Navy has learned from procurement disasters such as the littoral combat ship, and that the frigate will be a cornerstone of a larger fleet. But the frigate isn’t set to arrive in the fleet until the latter half of the 2020s.
If a crisis in Taiwan or elsewhere comes sooner the U.S. would have to fight with the equipment it has, much of it from Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup in the 1980s. America, Mr. Gallagher says, therefore needs a “hedging strategy” to defend Taiwan “within the decade” and prevent an invasion in the first place:
Convert tired old ships into missile barges. Strap antiship missiles onto aircraft that hunt submarines. Buy two years worth of munitions parts in every budget to fill up bomb stocks. If “armed with a sense of urgency, there’s all sorts of things we can do” to “make the PLA think twice about taking over Taiwan,” Mr. Gallagher says. “The only short war for Taiwan is one that China wins.”
One lesson of Ukraine “is that you need to be in the business of arming yourselves and your allies prior to deterrence failing. Because by the time it does, it’s too late.” The savings from failing to arm earlier are “dwarfed by the cost of having to ramp up or get involved in war on someone else’s terms.”
Mr. Gallagher can seem like an intellectual directed-energy weapon, firing off at length about today’s parallels to the early Cold War, a period he studied while earning a doctorate at Georgetown in international relations. Why a doctorate? He invokes the old saying from the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency: The ideal recruit is “a Ph.D. that can win a bar fight.”
Yet bar fighting isn’t Mr. Gallagher’s style, and he may be worth studying for those who want to repair the Republican Party and find a constructive way to manage Donald Trump. Mr. Gallagher called the Jan. 6 riots “banana-republic crap” in a video he taped while trapped in his office, but he didn’t vote to impeach Mr. Trump because it “accomplishes nothing.” He supports more money for tightening the border but opposed Mr. Trump’s diverting military-construction money on the principle that a president was usurping Congress’s appropriation power. Mr. Gallagher has no Democratic opponent for re-election.
“The military crisis,” he adds, is “a microcosm of the broader societal crisis.” The U.S. is “increasingly becoming a healthcare and retirement organization that has guns.” The next president will have to “sail the ship of state through the Scylla of a confrontation with China and the Charybdis of an entitlement crisis.”
And that’s if the confrontation takes that long to materialize. Mr. Gallagher notes that China faces both a “structural economic slowdown” and a “demographic buzzsaw” as its population ages rapidly. So why wait to make a play for Taiwan? “Xi’s gotten away with Hong Kong.” He’s getting away “with genocide in Xinjiang. Oh, and unleashing—not deliberately—but unleashing a virus on the world that has killed six million people. And there’s been no accountability for that. So what would lead you to conclude that Xi is going to be restrained?”
Mr. Gallagher offers this scenario: Taiwan’s next president takes office in May 2024. Suppose the country elects someone “more friendly to independence than anyone in history,” and Mr. Xi concludes that he can’t take Taiwan through “political warfare.” Meanwhile, Americans begin “tearing each other apart” in another nasty presidential campaign.
According to “Navy nerds” who study the region, conditions are especially favorable in October for an amphibious assault. “You could be headed for the mother of all October surprises in 2024,” Mr. Gallagher says. “So with apologies to the Rolling Stones, time is not on our side.”
Mrs. Odell is a member of the Journal’s editorial board and a 2022 Robert Novak Fellow.
Appeared in the October 8, 2022, print edition as ‘America’s ‘Window of Maximum Danger’’.