A New US Military Strategy:
Issues and Options
The purpose of defense reviews is to specify US military strategy and its implications for force structure, military modernization, readiness, sustainment, and infrastructure. The reviews are supposed to provide the links between strategy, policy, and budgets.
JCS Chairman Gen. Henry H. Shelton, among others, has urged that the new review put strategy rather than budgets in the driver's seat. But this is a false dichotomy. If strategy is anything, it is the process of relating competing ends and scarce means. Strategy is about mapping a route to a goal through a field of constraints, including budgetary ones. When strategy fails to do this, it fails as strategy -- and should be changed.
Because strategy affects almost all aspects of policy, the institutional resistance to change can be stubborn. The 1997 National Defense Panel speculated that the two-war strategy, for instance, had become "a force-protection mechanism -- a means of justifying the current force structure."
Another indicator of institutional inertia is how little the distribution of people and money among the services has changed since the Cold War ended. Re-arranging just four percent of today's personnel and two percent of today's budgets would reproduce exactly the resource distribution of the 1980s.
The proper starting point for strategy is a consideration of national interests, security threats, and the instruments available for addressing those threats. Because scarcity is a fact of life, setting priorities among interests and threats is essential. It is also essential that military instruments fit the problem at hand.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact left the United States with a distinct and undisputed superiority in military means. Because we presently possess military power in unmatched abundance there is a temptation to rely heavily on it. But the exercise of military power is like the use of radiation in medical therapy: even when used properly it is fraught with risk and inadvertent consequences. This caution applies not only to the conduct of combat operations, but to all forms of military activity, including alliance building, forward presence, military exercises, and military assistance programs. Any strategy worth the name will clearly convey limits on where, when, and how the United States will employ its military.
The recent debate over strategy has unfolded around several issues and questions. These provide a template for assessing the Bush administration's strategic orientation:
Beginning with the first Bush administration and continuing through the Clinton years, US military strategy has prescribed a bigger role for America's armed forces in its foreign policy. Both the scope and goals of our military activity have increased with the aim of "filling security vacuums" and enlarging the friendly, stable space in the world.
The first question that military strategy must address is, What types of tasks can we hope to accomplish by military means? During the Cold War the primary purpose of America's armed forces was deterrence and defense against attacks on vital US and allied interests -- fairly straight-forward objectives. In recent years, an increased emphasis has been placed on secondary functions, including reassurance, coercion, punishment, and conflict management (or "stability operations"). New functions have been added as well, such as counter-proliferation and "environment shaping" -- the use of military power in peacetime to help channel world events down paths favorable to US interests.
Under the rubric of "environment shaping" there has been an expansion in the range of military assistance programs, multinational exercises, military-to-military contacts, and other forms of military diplomacy. Thus, the role of America's armed forces in the nation's foreign policy has not receded in step with the decline of the global Soviet threat. Indeed, in some respects, it has expanded, impinging on functions that were once the exclusive responsibility of the State Department.
America's global military presence, once a byproduct of superpower contention, has become an environment shaping mission in its own right. In some places it still serves a traditional deterrence function. In others, its "reassurance" function is now emphasized, serving to buttress alliances and substantiate American leadership. In some areas the rotational presence of the Navy and Marine Corps, once configured to counter Soviet activism, now is supposed to have a beneficial cop-on-the-beat effect.
A high priority for environment shaping activities has been to deter the emergence of new threats and regional hegemons. This might be called pre-emptive deterrence or pre-emptive containment. While this mission borrows the language of traditional deterrence, its logic is quite different. Involving both positive and negative military inducements, it is focused on nations who are not yet locked in a confrontation with the United States over vital interests.
The problem with some of these new and newly emphasized military functions is that their effects are diffuse and uncertain. So are their costs. Among these costs are increased operational tempo and increased exposure of our military to opportunistic attack -- as in the case of the assault on the USS Cole, which claimed 17 lives and severely damaged an $800 million warship. The presence of the USS Cole in the port of Aden was part of an environment shaping mission. There is also the risk that some shaping activities will prompt military competition, rather than discourage it.
One option before the Rumsfeld review is to return US military power to the more traditional and reliable function of crisis response.
Today US global military engagement far surpasses that of any other nation. Typically the United States maintains:
This is remarkable level of military activity and commitment for a nation with an isolationist past. What prompted continuous peacetime military engagement on this scale was a special circumstance -- global military contention with a peer superpower. But this circumstance has now passed. Much of our military engagement today has a different function than during the Cold War, as noted in the previous section.
For the elder Bush administration the goal of preserving the "strategic depth" afforded by Soviet collapse replaced containment of the Soviet Union as a driving purpose. The Clinton administration rephrased this in terms of containing instability and expanding the democratic space in the world. Both came to see America's unmatched capacity to address security problems worldwide, wherever it might choose, as an important asset in the effort to maintain US global leadership. Nonetheless, Soviet collapse has had the effect of reducing America's immediate and manifest security stakes in distant conflicts; these are no longer part of a master game.
And this has made it more difficult to achieve and maintain domestic consensus regarding the level, extent, and nature of engagement.
In some respects the level of engagement today is substantially less than during the Cold War; in others, it is greater or more demanding. US military presence overseas has declined in both absolute terms and as a percentage of the total force:
However, the sites of engagement, numbers of exercise, numbers of contingency operations, and numbers of personnel involved in contingency operations have increased. US personnel are deployed in seven more countries today than during the 1980s, the number of JCS exercises has doubled, and the average number of personnel continuously deployed in contingency operations has tripled to about 35,000 (circa December 2000).
The scope and complexity of today's military engagement agenda has made it more difficult for our military to meet its readiness goals. This problem might be addressed either by increasing readiness resources or by improving the management of existing resources. Neither solution, however, addresses the concerns of those who feel that present US military engagement does not accord with the level or distribution of US security concerns.
From this perspective what is needed is greater selectivity in our military engagement. Specifically, critics of recent policy have argued variously to (i) reduce the overall level of US security engagement abroad, (ii) restrict its forms, and (iii) shift its emphasis more toward Asia.
4.1 Standoff engagement
First, their purpose is unambiguous and their attention undivided. Second, for a timely and tailored response to aggression, there is no substitute for having multifaceted assets instantaneously available within a theater of conflict. Long-range forces may be less vulnerable and more flexible strategically, but these qualities come at a price: long-range forces must often deploy from a distance. And there is a tradeoff between how fast they can deploy and their tactical flexibility once they arrive. The fastest of long-range assets -- missiles -- have a narrow utility. Cruise missiles, for instance, favor fixed high-value political-industrial-military targets.
Finally, a general shift toward much greater reliance on offshore and long-range assets for fighting major wars would be very expensive. As a heuristic consider trading in the tactical component of the US Air Force for carrier-based air power. To match the sortie-rate, range, and firepower of 20 USAF air wings we would have to deploy approximately 45 additional big carriers, protected by surface battle groups and submarines. This implies quadrupling the size and budget of the Navy.
A substantial shift to off-shore or remote warfightng posture might make sense if we lived in a world where there were a half-dozen widely-separated theaters in which the United States might be compelled to fight big wars -- that is: wars as likely, as large, and as important to us as a Persian Gulf conflict. Similarly, if we lived in a world where all other nations were either our enemies or neutrals, we would need the capacity to fight wars without forward bases. But this isn't the world in which we live. The United States enjoys an ample cohort of allies, friends, and dependents. For the world's predominant military power to act as though this circumstance is ephemeral or as if it entails unacceptable limits is neither necessary nor wise.
4.2 Are peace operations un-American?
Peace operations are not about simply identifying an enemy, destroying it, and imposing one's will on a situation. Consensus plays a bigger part than in war -- both as an enabler of action and as a goal. Common aims are to contain, de-escalate, disarm, and defuse the "clash of wills." If the value of consensus and conflict containment as goals is depreciated, so will the value of peace operations.
On the cost side of the calculus: peace operations often entail protracted commitments -- years of involvement at some level rather than months. By their nature peace operations preclude decisive military solutions -- although the "finality" of war should not be overstated nor its lingering costs underestimated. Nonetheless, in a net cost-benefit analysis, the cost of peace operations to the United States is more immediate than their obvious benefits. If nothing else, this makes them politically problematic, especially for a nation with a significant isolationist current and a preference for quick, decisive results. Advocates of peace operations must recognize that the threshold for "commitment exhaustion" is relatively low, regardless of America's material capacity.
One way to manage the problem of "over-commitment" is to cap the total number of troops that the United States is willing to have continuously deployed in contingency operations -- say, 50,000 troops. Exceeding this limit, even temporarily, to meet a new contingency would depend on the nature of the contingency and its relation to manifest security interests.
Two things that should not be done are (i) to rely on artificial time limits for operations -- these are self-defeating -- and (ii) to configure a subset of the US military as "peace operators". Although the mix of capabilities needed in peace operations is different than that needed in wars, there is substantial overlap in the types of capabilities needed. Peace operations are distinct from war but they may involve intervals of fighting and certainly involve the threat of combat. Thus, even tanks have a place in the peace operations arsenal.
While the recent discussion of peace operations has focused on the option of disengagement, other options are available that might improve the cost-benefit balance sheet. The recent experience of peace operations suggest that:
Notably, some of these proposals imply changing the form of our military engagement; increasing some forms and reducing others to make engagement more effective. Their thrust is to put policy on a more multilateral basis and to find a better balance between military and nonmilitary means. But the idea of reforming policy in either of these ways is not preseeently in political favor in the United States. This narrows the range of engagement options and suggests that today's debate over engagement is part of a wider one regarding multilateralism and the value of nonmilitary forms of engagement.
A second type of concern about peace operations is that they constitute an inappropriate use of our military and have a corrosive effect on readiness for war. Of course, units deployed in peace operations are not available for other purposes and some of their warfighting skills will degrade, although most can be recovered within six months. To put this in perspective: less than 10 percent of our military is affected by these factors at any one time. The real issue is one of principle and it reflects the value put on peace operations, which is low. Also influential is the notion that the sole or predominant purpose of armed forces is to fight big, all-out wars. This idea, which has much currency today, reflects a selective reading of the early-19th century Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz. But it does not reflect the historical record regarding the critical national security roles that armed forces have played nor does it reflect the broad set of reasons that nations have for maintaining armed forces. At any rate, von Clausewitz is not among America's "founding fathers"; Neither the US Constitution nor the US Code assign the US military a role as narrow as some of von Clausewitz's interpreters would like.
An alternative approach to limiting the functions of the armed forces was suggested in an earlier section: focus them on crisis response and traditional deterrent roles -- functions in which combat capabilities are vital. Excluded would be roles like military diplomacy, where the armed forces substitute for other forms of influence.
4.3 A shift toward Asia?
Security engagements should not track with economic interests alone; the magnitude of specific threats to these and other interests should be key in the determination of US policy. Thus, the potential for confrontation with China plays an important part in arguments for a greater emphasis on Asia. However, recent US contention with China has been narrowly focused on the issue of Taiwan, which pales as an issue in comparison with the many critical points of contention that divided the United States and Soviet Union. It seems paradoxical that "selective engagers", who tend to see little or no US interest in the Balkan conflicts, might find the Taiwan issue a sufficient reason to reconfigure the US military. Those who favor maintaining the balance in US policy between Europe and Asia cite as reasons not only the instability in Eastern Europe but also in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Central Asia. Europe can serve as a forward base from which to address these other areas of concern.
Confident assertions of a "China threat" may reflect a mechanical application of Realist thinking, which sees strategic competition as inevitable. From a simplistic Realist perspective, China's rapid national development and its size constitute sufficient reason to expect a future clash. By shifting the focus of the US military toward Asia, America might "get a jump" on this coming competition. But there is also the danger that focusing US military activity on China now could serve to "jump start" a competition.
In terms of military capability, China's power is growing, but its Pacific regional power projection capacity is still less than 15 percent that of the former Soviet Union. By comparison, America's military presence in Asia is virtually unchanged since the Cold War. The growth in Chinese power is less impressive when placed in regional perspective: throughout the 1990s it actually lost ground to its neighbors in terms of relative levels of defense spending. The recent substantial increases in the Chinese military budget only serve to balance this trend; at any rate, most of China's new spending has been used to lift military living standards and stem the exodus of quality personnel from its armed forces. In terms of recent modernization efforts: Arms imports by Taiwan alone surpassed those of the PRC by a factor of three during the 1990s. So it is not clear that the US military presence in the region needs to grow for reasons of maintaining balance.
A final reason for a relative shift toward Asia is that it comports well with the American unilateralist impulse. Historically, isolationist and unilateralist trends in US politics have found it easiest, when compelled to engage internationally, to adopt an "Asia First" philosophy. America's freedom of action in Asia is greater than that in Europe. This is due partly to the greater relative role of naval power in the Asia-Pacific. But also, US security relationships in Asia have tended to be bilateral, one-on-one affairs in which American leadership is undisputed. US allies in Asia have not developed a regional security institution comparable to NATO; the United States is the nexus for concerted action. The relative disorganization among America's Asian allies also has an economic component: there is not today, but there could be in the future, an Asian equivalent to the European Union.
4.4 Testing Bush policy on engagement
International engagement can occur on a unilateral or multilateral basis. Multilateral engagement can be either broad, involving potential competitors, or narrow involving allies and friends only. Arguments for "selective engagement" often conflate these various forms and the difficulties associated with each. Some selective engagers are primarily concerned with the stress that overseas activity imposes on our armed forces. Others are primarily concerned with the limits on US action that cooperative engagement entails. Distinguishing these two perspectives is worthwhile because what is a problem in one view may be a solution in the other.
Unilateral and bilateral engagement offer the United States the greatest freedom of action overseas -- but also carry higher costs and risks. Multilateral engagement of a narrow sort, involving exclusive security alliances, promises a sharing of risks and burdens -- but it also requires compromise and entails commitments. A broad multilateralism, which seeks to involve potential competitors in cooperative security relationships, is perhaps the most restrictive form -- but it holds out the promise of directly mitigating or limiting the potential for conflict.
The Clinton administration took office in 1993 espousing a new commitment to multilateralism in foreign policy. This entailed efforts at security cooperation across old Cold War divides and an increased emphasis on working through multilateral security institution, such as the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. More than a means of burden-sharing, this new multilateralism aimed to heal Cold War divisions and lower the probability that they would erupt again. Thus, among its proponents, broad multilateralism was understood to be itself a type of confidence- and security-building measure. By 1995, however, the Clinton administration had begun a retreat from multilateralism. The compromises and investments it required in order to be effective proved greater than the Administration had anticipated and, in any case, became politically unsustainable once conservative Republicans won control of congress. By 1998 emphasis had returned to exercising and expanding more traditional alliance relationships.
The critique of multilateralism has also found general expression in a debate on the putative "end of arms control". Relevant to this debate was the end of the bipolar superpower stalemate and the emergence of distinct American military superiority in most realms. As the danger of a global conventional and nuclear war receded, so did concerns with "crisis stability" and "arms race stability". At any rate, the standoff between the Clinton administration and its opponents in Congress undercut progress in arms control after 1994. Nonetheless, several important multilateral initiatives remained in effect: strategic arms control efforts, the cooperative threat reduction program with Russia, proliferation control regimes, peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans, support for the ASEAN Forum, and mediation of the Middle East peace process. How the new defense review treats these initiatives is an important indicator of where it falls on the unilateralism-multilateralism continuum.
Another test is the emphasis the new review places on the US prerogative to "act alone" (that is, without allies) "when it must." Planning for war-without-allies in regions of common concern also reflects a unilateralist bent. Finally, a determination to proceed with national missile defense despite allied objections and regardless of its impact on arms control is an indicator of unilateralism.
A critical task of strategy is to correlate a nation's military posture with the threats to that nation's security. In recent years the link between posture and threat has come undone. The 2001 defense review presents an opportunity to re-establish it.
During the past decade there has been a dramatic change in both the magnitude of military threats and their distribution across the threat spectrum. Whereas higher-intensity threats once predominated, today's are more evenly distributed toward the mid- and low-intensity end. Today's threats, while smaller than yesterday's, manifest greater variety, complexity, and volatility. This puts a premium on the flexibility of America's armed forces.
Since 1990 US military policy has focused on the threat posed by so-called "rogue states" possessing substantial air and mechanized forces. Our principal concern was that these states might launch rapid large-scale attacks on their neighbors with the aim of seizing territory. However, the conventional military capacity of almost all "rogue" states has been in sharp decline for a decade now. Defense Intelligence Agency reports foresee threats like that posed by Iraq in 1990 diminishing to 20 percent of their former level by 2005.
Another recent concern has been the threat posed by irregular forces -- militia, guerillas, and terrorists -- employing unconventional methods, often in the context of ethnic conflict, civil war, or state collapse. In many cases these "complex contingencies" do not immediately threaten critical Western interests, but they can destabilize entire regions. Throughout the 1990s the US military has been substantially involved in such contingencies, although it remains ill-suited to dealing with them effectively.
Other recent concerns are international criminal activity, the drug trade, and the prospect of direct attack on the US homeland by means of ballistic missiles, terrorism, or information warfare. As in the case of complex contingencies, the US military is not presently configured to address these potential threats very effectively.
A comprehensive and accurate threat assessment is the first step toward improving the fit between US armed forces and the threats that face the nation. The new defense review can serve this end in several ways:
Today's conventional missions fall into three broad categories: fighting major theater wars, conducting smaller-scale operations, and engaging in various environment shaping activities, including global presence. The attempt to cover all three has proved a daunting challenge. Much criticism has focused on smaller-scale operations, although the other two mission areas are far more demanding.
Current strategy seeks to win major regional wars within 100-150 days -- much less time than it took to complete the Gulf War. It also pegs war plans to a magnitude of threat that no longer exists. Finally, it prescribes a capacity to conduct overlapping counter-offensives in two wars at once. There are other ways to manage concurrent wars; the present approach is among the most ambitious possible.
There is substantial freedom to revise today's war plans in ways that would significantly reduce force structure, modernization, and readiness requirements. A first-step would be trimming deployment plans in accord with the reduced capabilities of regional adversaries; a second step would be to adopt more realistic warfighting time-lines; a third step would be to adopt a less ambitious approach to managing concurrent wars -- for instance, we could move further down the path of a "win-hold-win" strategy, which would delay the second counteroffensive.
A new, more realistic strategy might also de-emphasize the Pentagon's "environment shaping" activities and re-associate US overseas presence more closely with specific conflicts of concern. This might entail reducing the number of US personnel permanently stationed in Europe and returning the Navy to a two-ocean standard focused on the Indian and Pacific oceans. Finally, we might reconsider the way our military prepares for an uncertain future.
The 1997 QDR asserted a need to "prepare now for an uncertain future". This imperative added a set of "future possible" threats to today's roster of "real and present" ones. Among these future possible threats were new high-tech adversaries and peer competitors. The QDR strategy hedged against these possible threats in two ways: first, by maintaining an overly large force structure and, second, by proceeding with massive buys of advanced weapon platforms originally designed to counter Cold War foes. This approach crimps our capacity to address current needs, but it cannot assure us that we will have the type and mix of armed forces we actually might need in the future. Should a revolution in military affairs (RMA) eventuate, many of the platforms on today's procurement lists may be obsolete on arrival.
The United States needs to rethink how best to prepare for threats that do not exist today and that may or may not exist 15, 20, or more years in the future. An alternative to the present approach might emphasize force experimentation and organizational adaptiveness.
Adaptiveness requires that we not commit ourselves to any particular vision of the post-2015 future, but instead retain a capacity to reconstitute our forces along unexpected lines. Adaptiveness also depends on our intelligence gathering capabilities; our military research, development, and production base; and our military training and education establishment. With regard to modernization, adaptiveness entails that we economize for the next 10-12 years, while laying the technological basis for re-capitalizing along revolutionary lines thereafter, as need dictates. Appropriate near-term procurement might focus on communications and information systems, small buys of "silver bullet" assets, and upgraded models of current generation platforms.
Citation: Carl Conetta and Charles Knight, A New US Military Strategy:
Issues and Options, Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Memo #20. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, 21 May 2001.
The Project on Defense Alternatives, The Commonwealth Institute
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