March 1, 2009  

A security strategy we can afford

When I taught at the National War College, an exercise required students to develop a national security strategy, then a national military strategy and finally a rough-cut at force-structure recommendations. Because the student groups all came up with similar recommendations, we then forced them to make choices by imposing increasingly draconian budgetary restrictions, which the students almost always accommodated by recommending across-the-board cuts.

It was a depressing exercise. Some of my colleagues dismissed the results by pointing out that while our students were often superb operators, their strategic thinking was still developing. Others argued that the exercise itself was flawed, with too little context and not enough time to develop genuinely novel proposals.

Unfortunately, this dreary, unimaginative approach to defense planning is what the American defense policy process has been for nearly a generation. There has not been a serious defense policy review since the Cold War. Our force structure is, as a result, increasingly incoherent given the arrays of challenges we face. The U.S. spends, by some measures, as much on the military as the rest of the world combined. And yet, fighting a low-intensity conflict in Iraq — a nation of only 23 million inhabitants — stressed the force to its limits. How is this possible? And how can we move out of this situation?

There are two fundamental problems with the way American defense policy is developed. The first is that we have not done a good job thinking through what we want the American military to be capable of. The second is that the process for developing strategy and then building supporting forces is broken.

The role of the military

The U.S. has a profoundly unrealistic view about what is actually possible militarily. The implicit foundation of U.S. defense policy is wholly unachievable.

Today’s U.S. military is expected to be able to project power nearly instantaneously virtually everywhere around the globe. This is a uniquely challenging requirement. No other country in the history of the world has expected its armed forces to be able to project power, even in opposition to other great powers, at every spot on the globe. Once you accept the notion that you have to be everywhere, you quickly come to the conclusion that you can cut nothing. If you cannot cut anything, you cannot reallocate resources. If you cannot reallocate resources, all defense planning becomes a budget drill with incremental increases and decreases allocated across the board.

Many analysts argue that this assessment is overly pessimistic, that if only the U.S. would be smarter or more efficient it could bring resources and strategy back into balance. Indeed, this was the basis of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s focus on transformation. But “transformation” masked a basic refusal to heed the laws of physics. Distance exercises an exponentially increasing tax on capacity. At some point, we will need to make choices based on sound strategic assessment.

My colleagues and I at the American Security Project recently issued four papers that seek to define possible strategic orientations for the U.S. military in a way that would allow for sound strategic choices and resource allocation decisions. The options are not wholly mutually exclusive, but ultimately, we argue it is not going to be possible to do everything at once. All of our options assume that the U.S. will remain globally engaged and the leading power in the world; despite this, there will be significant limits to what we can accomplish.

Sustaining the Bush doctrine

The first option we examined was building a force capable of implementing the Bush Doctrine of preventive war against rogue states and nation-building in the wake of victory. The current gaps are clear. We need more ground forces, and those forces need to receive different and better training and equipment. The Army in particular has to acknowledge that an all-purpose force is one that is not optimized for any specific role, and given the tremendous difficulty associated with nation-building activities, a specialized element is necessary.

A U.S. military buildup to support this mission would feature a small wedge element — equivalent to perhaps 20 percent of the current force and budget — focused on high-intensity conflict designed to quickly defeat rogue regimes and a much larger constabulatory force adept at low-intensity conflict and proficient in working with civilian elements in nation-building activities. In this option, the “bill payers” would be elements of the Navy and Air Force focused on high-intensity operations.

The strategic risk associated with this option is a diminished hedge against the possibility of great power conflict in the future, but this risk is likely to be manageable given rigorous and regular strategic reassessments. The political risk of this approach is that it is not at all clear that the American public will be willing to tolerate a generation of Iraq-style conflicts. For many Americans, one Iraq was enough. In this sense, recent calls for focusing on counterinsurgency capabilities may be premature.

Policing the global commons

The second option we examined focused on America’s unique role as guarantor of the global commons — sea, space and cyberspace. Trade and information are the lifeblood of the modern economic system. Unfortunately, these commons are under increasing siege. Piracy off the Somali coast has garnered a great deal of attention recently, but piracy is a problem in several other regions of the world as well, including Southeast Asia and the Caribbean.

The situation in cyberspace is even more confusing and challenging. In this realm, state and nonstate actors compete for influence in a shadowy confrontation that transcends state boundaries. Massive “botnets” of hijacked computers have the potential to shut down Internet traffic in either discrete or generalized assaults. In the run-up to the conflict between Russia and Georgia, Russian security forces apparently shut down Georgian government Web site traffic. U.S. military networks are under constant assault, though it is unclear whether the culprits are potential enemies probing for weaknesses or just thrill-seekers hacking a prestige target.

The strategic challenge of this approach is that while most analysts would agree that these routes of trade and information are vitally important, it is much less clear how to define militarily achievable missions to safeguard them. Even a relatively straightforward challenge such as piracy is unlikely to be met solely by measures taken at sea and may require state-building activities in places such as Somalia. Proposals for “cyber-Special Forces” to operate online are even more strategically ambiguous. That said, adopting this orientation would at least allow a productive debate on force structure and new investment in costly platforms. Green- and brown-water capabilities, missile defense and a deep investment in computer network security would be the hallmarks of this approach.

Preventing interstate war

The third option we examined focused on steps the U.S. can take to reinforce the global norm against aggression and interstate war. While trade and information may be the sinews of the modern economy, their existence is only possible because the world remains in a “long peace” largely devoid of direct large-scale great power warfare since 1945. This is a stunning development and must be considered a significant permissive condition in allowing for economic globalization and the spread of democracy.

As a global power, the U.S. has a unique opportunity and perhaps obligation to ensure that this condition continues. The U.S. can encourage the continuance of this norm against aggression by explicitly supporting the U.N. Charter framework for the use of force, which makes war only permissible in self-defense or in response to explicit authorization by the U.N. Security Council. In addition, the U.S. should maintain forces and capabilities designed to punish would-be aggressors. The defeat of Saddam Hussein and the expulsion of his forces from Kuwait in 1991 is a model of the kind of military conflict the U.S. should be prepared to wage.

This approach would seek to get the U.S. out the nation-building game. Instead, the U.S. should develop forces designed for rapid deployment and decisive operations. The strategic risk associated with this approach is a limited capacity to address root causes. Saddam remained a regional threat — though much diminished — after the 1991 conflict. An American strategy designed to prevent interstate war or punish aggression could easily devolve into a form of global “Whac-a-Mole” against rogue regimes without ever solving regional problems.

Empowering American alliances

The final option we considered focused more on the “how” of strategy rather than the “what.” This approach argues that the only way the U.S. can continue to play its current role in the world is by working closely with reliable allies. The only way the U.S. can continue to operate everywhere and be involved in every issue is by using the territory and capacity of allies to bolster our own resources. Projecting power in East Asia unilaterally is a daunting challenge. Working with countries such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea to do so is much more manageable.

In this approach, American forces would be designed to interoperate and complement that capacity of selected core allies. The strategic risk associated with this approach is that we would need to cede some decision-making role to our core allies. They would, in short, have an effective veto on much of our defense planning. Unilateralism bolstered by “coalitions of the willing” maximizes American flexibility, while formal, cooperative alliance relationships bolster capacity at the cost of diminished flexibility.

If the U.S. adopts a new strategic orientation that allows for a realistic debate about tradeoffs, we will also need a new defense policy process that will be able to implement such a strategy. Simply put, the current process in place to manage the Defense Department is too complex and cumbersome to allow the U.S. to build and train a force to meet America’s strategic needs.

The process, with its multiple feedback loops, branching decision paths, and combination of veto/delay points and hard deadlines (particular in developing the budget), creates a perfect storm of factors that encourage inertia and incrementalism. Anything else is just too hard. Re-engineering the process will require more than just the creation of new bodies to coordinate work, but rather will require some discrete pruning as well as adjustment of the responsibilities of various institutions.

In particular, the relationship between the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the services and the combatant commanders has to be rationalized. A compelling argument can be made that bureaucratic efficiency would be maximized by reducing the services to a merely ceremonial function, making all the train and equip functions joint. The resistance to this approach is likely to be so overwhelming as to make it impossible. And yet, we need to do something.

What agility we have seen in the force over the past several years has been a result of the availability of loosely programmed supplemental funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as a handful of ad hoc decisions made on specific, narrow issues at the highest levels of the Defense Department. But a system that relies on access to funds with little accountability and personal intervention by senior leaders is too risky for an institution as large and important as the U.S. military.

Tackling defense reform

With a new administration in office, now is the time to tackle defense reform in a systematic manner. The U.S. needs a serious strategic planning effort that will encompass a profound reassessment of the role of the American military in the world with a fundamental effort to re-engineer processes within the Defense Department to make change possible.

The key element of this approach is an open and creative debate on the appropriate roles and missions of the U.S. military linked to competing strategic assessment that highlights the tough choices we face in managing our global role. We cannot do it all alone, and balancing risk in a comprehensive and coherent manner is the essence of sound strategy. AFJ

Bernard I. Finel is a senior fellow at the American Security Project in Washington, D.C. This article summarizes a series of papers the ASP has released on defense alternatives and which can be seen at www.americansecurityproject.org.