Project on Defense Alternatives

U.S. Military-Strategic Ambitions:

Expanding to Fill the post-Soviet Vacuum

Project on Defense Alternatives
Charles Knight
adapted from a panel presentation at the Council on Foreign Relations, N.Y.C.
14 June 2000 (revised October 2000)

In seeking to explain why defense budgets have remained high and indeed are growing again in the U.S., it is sometimes suggested that U.S. policy-makers have not yet moved beyond the Cold War frame. The continued emphasis on procuring weapon systems conceived and initially developed in the last years of the Cold War is offered as evidence of this fixation on the past, the proverbial "last war."

Such a vantage on the last decade glosses over an important change that has taken place. The new national defense policy, as most fully articulated in the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), is not simply a lesser version of the old policy. Rather, its security goals are very much more ambitious than during the Cold War.

During the Cold War, when the stated orientation of the U.S. was the containment of Soviet-led communist expansion, military preparations were overwhelmingly oriented toward a possible global war with the Soviet Union and its allies; a war centered on Europe that no one wanted and which could easily be catastrophic to the U.S. and its allies, even if they did not lose it in conventional terms.

New Standards and Detached Requirements

The thrust and orientation of U.S. military policy in the last decade has been refocused to expand the influence of the U.S. into the power vacuum left by the collapse of Soviet power. The QDR set a higher military preparedness standard than had been in effect during the Cold War. The new standard is to maintain military superiority over all potential rivals and to prepare now for future military rivalries even if they can not yet be identified and their eventual arrival is only speculative. The practical implications for military planning of these new goals and ambitions are many and profound.

Military requirements have become detached from net assessments of actual security threats. Generic wars and generic capabilities are proffered as the basis for planning. Preparing to fight generic wars is much more costly than preparing for specific threat scenarios, for instance war on the Korean or Arabian peninsulas. South Korea is a powerful ally, the Persian Gulf is uniquely suited to the application of air power, and both regions host prepositioned equipment and good base infrastructures.

In the 1992 defense guidance the Pentagon under the leadership of General Powell and Richard Cheney established extraordinarily ambitious new operational objectives. The guidance called for completion of one major war in 100 days and two in less than 180 days. This goal was substantially faster than what had been accomplished in the Gulf War and, among other things, created significant new investment requirements for strategic transport. Most importantly, this decision relegated our very substantial reserve component maneuver force to strategic irrelevancy. Effectively, it established the permanent requirement for the large active forces we have today. Recently, the Joint Chiefs have been calling for even larger active forces in order to meet the requirements of their war fighting strategy.

Sequencing Two Wars

This is the pivot point around which the so-called Two War Strategy should be debated. Those who say that preparing to fight only one large war will leave us strategically vulnerable have a point. Of course, we must be prepared for the small possibility of fighting two wars!

The issue we should debate is how strategically advisable and cost-effective it is to plan for very rapid sequencing to counter-offensives in both theaters? Very rapid sequencing to counter-offensives negates the value of reserve maneuver units and requires the maintenance year after year of large and very expensive active forces for deterrent purposes.

A reasonable way to adjust U.S. force structure to meet the requirements of two wars is to put proportionally more of our combat maneuver units in the reserve and put frequently-used specialized combat support and service units into the active component. Such a reform would save substantial defense dollars and would require relaxing the pace of counter-offensives in the planning for the extraordinary case of two nearly simultaneous wars.

Shaping for Global Primacy

Using our military forces to "shape" the international security environment is a newly emphasized and resource-demanding role for the military. In a recent U.S. Army War College study called "Shaping the World through Engagement" the authors state that the formal planning process for "shaping" (in place since 1997) "could have a major impact upon how resources are allocated among the armed services and the combatant commands." As of yet there is little good data and analysis as to the magnitude of the budget effect the newly prominent shaping role is having, but its potential is not trivial. The prominence of extending and maintaining global presence missions even in the absence of a global peer rival military power is indicative of expanding ambitions.

Overall, there appears to be a growing policy consensus in Washington for preserving by military means the new strategic depth afforded by Soviet collapse and for quasi-unilateralism as the easiest and most reliable way to pursue this strategic objective.

In 1998 Charles William Maynes warned in Foreign Policy against the "growing mood of assertiveness" on both sides of the aisle in Washington. He cited an enthusiasm for militarizing U.S. foreign policy and noted that "the surplus of power that the United States enjoys is beginning to metastasize into an arrogance toward others that is bound to backfire." This quest, for what I would characterize as enduring global primacy, will require rising military budgets, especially as other nations eventually organize to counter that primacy which they will view as illegitimate and threatening to the degree that the United States acts unilaterally or in exclusive coalitions as we did in the recent Kosovo war.

If one considers the maintenance requirements of global primacy and the preservation of unprecedented strategic depth, then the new emphasis in our national security strategy on using the military for shaping begins to make sense. With the objective of shaping the security environment globally we can see the rationale, for instance, of a navy with twelve carriers and over a hundred other combatant ships with vertical launch cruise missile arsenals providing a strategic-level conventional force presence in every ocean. Particularities of real threat scenarios have become secondary to the generalized need to show raw U.S. power across the globe.

Another indicator of note is the relative eclipse of the State Department by the Defense Department as the primary agency of international shaping. In this period of greatly diminished direct military threat to the U.S. and its interests, the military budget grows while the budget of the primary foreign policy establishment has declined. This represents prima facia evidence that we are witnessing the incremental militarization of foreign policy.

Failure to Reform

In 1992 General Powell began the post-Cold War retrenchment process with a Base Force plan and Roles and Missions study that left the structures, procedures, doctrines, and personnel policies of the services virtually untouched despite enormous change in the strategic environment. To the extent that there are persistent readiness problems in the forces today, much of the problem can be traced to the failure of necessary post-Cold War reform of the forces. A great deal of the reported dissatisfaction and exhaustion of personnel is directly related to today's forces being structured and their training organized for roles quite different than the expeditionary roles they actually play in the Balkans and Southwest Asia.

Ten years into the new era, the Air Force is beginning to implement an expeditionary structural reform which may relieve optempo stress. And belatedly the Army has announced a "transformation" initiative, one, however, that will take another decade or more to realize. The Army also wants to build its transformation force while fully modernizing its "legacy" force, a very costly approach to change. Neither the Air Force's nor the Army's gestures toward greater expeditionary capability entail deep changes to their structures. For the most part, instead of trimming away redundant Cold War structure and surplus general's billets these reforms add new layers of structure and more expense.

There is more structure in the U.S. armed services than revealed by the charts of large units. Since 1989, 45% of the active Army division flags have been retired, yet the reduction in brigades is only 35%. The reduction in battalion units, however, is just 26%. Forty-five percent of the divisions have disappeared from the charts, but at the deeper level of structure the reduction is only 26%. There is a similar story in every service and at almost every level. Throughout the post-Cold War drawdown the services have allowed personnel levels to fall faster than they have chosen to eliminate structure, incrementally adding stress to the remaining personnel and reducing readiness levels.

The Path Taken: Why?

Finally, why has the strategic ambition for global primacy and the trend toward militarization of foreign policy been in ascendancy? Although vested interests in the Pentagon and elsewhere, as usual, have played an important role, their influence is not sufficient to explain the trend.

A more complete explanation includes the effects of the particular political configuration of the last six years in which a Democrat in the White House has been on the political defensive against conservative Republicans who dominate Congress. It appears likely that the essential elements of this configuration will survive this coming election and perhaps several more to come. The bipartisan conservative hold on national security policy-making together with the happy coincidence of budget surpluses virtually insures higher military budgets in this decade.

The only immediate threat to the current strategy and associated budget increases is from the structural budgetary effects of demographic trends and cyclical economic pressures. If Republicans fail in their attempts to privatize portions of Social Security, which now seems likely, then rising entitlement shares of the federal budget will continue to exert a downward pressure of military budgets. And, of course, at any time a serious downturn in the economy would force unwelcome budgetary discipline on Congress.

Citation: Charles Knight, U.S. Military-Strategic Ambitions -- Expanding to Fill the post-Soviet Vacuum, Project on Defense Alternatives. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, June 2000 (revised October 2000).

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