Sponsored by the Project on Defense Alternatives
by Carl Conetta
The NDP report advises that US security policy orient more to preparing for the period after 2015 than it does at present. In line with this, the report builds an argument for near-term force structure reductions (although it does not explicitly call for cuts), and it suggests reduced investment in what it calls Cold War "legacy" equipment. It also argues for substantial cuts to the mobilization base and support infrastructure, which it sees as still configured for fighting long global wars. Last spring's Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) put forward a military strategy of (i) responding to present crises, (ii) shaping the strategic environment, and (iii) preparing for the future (including especially the emergence of a new peer rival). By contrast, the NDP report suggests that current policy overstates mid-term "crisis response" requirements, and it strongly affirms that diplomacy is the most important environment shaping tool. The NDP also assumes a more agnostic stance with regard to the possible future emergence of a new peer global rival -- a prospect that the NDP treats as quite unlikely before 2020. This last point may pertain to how we "prepare now" for this particular possibility. Would it be wise, for instance, to hedge by maintaining and equipping "extra" force structure for the next 15 years? The NDP(quietly) casts doubt.
Overall, the NDP focuses more on the quality or character of likely future threats than on their size, and it focuses on the novel and demanding operational challenges it says they will pose(regardless of size). These challenges derive especially from technology diffusion and asymmetric modes of warfare. The NDP proposes to increase investment in preparing for the operational challenges of the period 2010-2020 and after. This means improving our force development processes -- which produce new equipment, structures, and operational concepts -- and gearing them toward greater experimentation and faster fielding of end products. It also means shifting more investment now toward the types of equipment needed by the "military-after-next." Finally, the NDP suggests that the complexity of tomorrow's challenges will require better defense cooperation with allies, improved inter-agency cooperation, and more jointness in both the development and exercise of military power.
Although muted, the NDP's greater realism with regard to the two-war requirement and the threat of a new peer competitor are welcome signs. So is the greater emphasis it places on diplomacy and cooperation in achieving regional stability. Its proposals to enhance the responsiveness of our force development processes constitute a sober and economical way to hedge against future uncertainty. However, it jumps the gun in proposing to accelerate development and procurement of "military-after-next" equipment, such as directed energy weapons, stealth combat ships, and very long-range standoff weapons, among others. Its discussion of asymmetric warfare and technology diffusion, which is central to its program, perpetuates a tendency (also apparent in the BUR and QDR) to detach statements of requirement from a sufficiently concrete and exacting analysis of threat and risk. Thus, it treats hypothetical threats to our power projection capability and to the US homeland with more certainty than they deserve.
The NDP report argues largely from observed general trends, but soft-pedals or overlooks several of the most important ones: our profound military superiority over all prospective threat states, the increasing importance and intensity of international economic competition, America's growing share of world military spending, and the fact that we continue to spend much more GNP share on defense than do our chief economic competitors. This, and the panel's reluctance to explicitly call for force structure cuts means that it cannot offer the option of reduced defense spending. In this important respect the NDP report does not escape the gravitational pull of the BUR and QDR.
The National Defense Panel's report, Transforming Defense, distinguishes itself from last spring's QDR by placing much greater emphasis on the need to prepare now for the putative challenges of the post-2015 world. While the QDR signaled a reduced emphasis on preparations for a two war scenario involving current adversaries, the National Defense Panel(NDP) goes so far as to suggest that the two-war construct "may have become a force-protection mechanism -- a means of justifying the current force structure..."
The authors base this conclusion on their observation that "the current posture minimizes near-term risk at a time when danger is [already] moderate to low." (TD:24) They note that "this approach focuses significant resources on a low-probability scenario, which consumes funds that could be used to reduce risk to our long-term security." (TD:ii) In the Panel's view, the long-term risk to our security is more worrisome than near-term risk.
Regarding the threat of aggression in the Persian Gulf and Korea, the Panel asserts that "our current forces, with the support of allies, should be capable of dealing with both contingencies."(TD:ii)(This puts the Panel at odds with those Administration critics who argue that today's force cannot support the two-war strategy.) Concerning tomorrow's threats, however, the NDP authors feel less assured: "we believe that the current and planned structure, doctrine, and strategy -- that is to say, our current security arrangements -- will not be adequate to meeting the challenges of the future." (TD:21) Thus, the NDP's analysis suggests that the current emphasis on the two-war scenario is either myopic or parochial -- and probably a little bit of both.
Nonetheless, the Panel fails to make an explicit proposal for force structure cuts, although this would seem to follow inexorably from their analysis. But the authors leave the option open when they artfully warn that sticking to the two-war formulation "could leave the services vulnerable, if one [or] the other major contingencies resolves itself before we have a transformation strategy in place, [to] a strong demand for immediate, deep, and unwise cuts in force structure and personnel."(TD:23) This is not an argument for retaining force structure, but rather for adopting a transformation strategy which would permit safe force cuts should one or more of today's major contingencies resolve itself.
That force structure and personnel numbers would not go much below the levels set by the BUR has been an axiom of the policy "debate" since 1993 -- and it has bedeviled the efforts to achieve ambitious readiness and modernization goals within today's resource constraints. It does not take a genius to see this, but under present conditions it does take a Republican secretary of defense to act on it -- even modestly. The NDP report attacks the rationale of the "structure preservation" axiom, but it still treats the axiom with respect. The Panel does not suggest actually funding its transformation strategy by cutting force structure and personnel -- except as a last resort. (TD: vii and 59) Its approach is more cautious: transformation first -- funded principally through infrastructure and acquisition reform -- and then force structure cuts (maybe). While politically astute, this approach may not be adequate to achieve some of the broader policy reforms that the NDP favors.
An important (and largely overlooked) strategic innovation of the QDR was to increase the emphasis of American defense policy and planning on "environment shaping" and its associated requirements. Environment shaping remains a vague concept. It encompasses not only traditional deterrence (a relatively concrete goal), but also all the various and diffuse ways in which US military power -- now unparalleled -- might enhance American prestige, influence, and leverage. The QDR linked "environment shaping" directly to force size considerations when it identified "continuous overseas presence" and "forces rotationally deployed overseas" as important means of environment shaping.
By increasing DOD's emphasis on the goal of environment shaping, while reducing the emphasis on crisis response, the QDR raises the prospect of an increased resort to "diplomacy by other means" -- a move that the State Department and diplomatic corps might consider intrusive. (A roughly analogous situation would be a police department that decides, in light of reduced criminal activity, to increase its emphasis on duties related to fire prevention.) By contrast, Transforming Defense strongly affirms the preeminent role of diplomacy and nonmilitary instruments in achieving regional stability:
Furthermore, the NDP report notes that "economic tools are powerful means to influence the regional environment," and suggests that "The United States, in concert with its economic partners and international financial and development organizations, can address specific regional economic problems in ways that promote stability." (TD:30-31)
In this way, Transforming Defense seeks to frame and delimit DOD's role in "environment shaping" -- a phrase, by the way, that the NDP report largely avoids. The way the NDP report reframes this issue (or "re-reframes" it) saps the rationale for maintaining very large forces to serve diffuse environment shaping goals -- goals that might be better served by nonmilitary means. Also, in arguing for proactive diplomatic measures to promote stability, the report notes that the US requires "more robust diplomatic capabilities than we budget for today." (TD:30) The report does not specify how we might fund these requisite diplomatic capabilities, but its clear emphasis on the role of nonmilitary means in ensuring regional stability suggests a reallocation of existing resources.
Both the QDR and Transforming Defense argue for a shift in policy emphasis from immediate crisis response to preparations for future military challenges -- although the NDP report does more so. Notably, the QDR focused its concern on the possible emergence of major regional and/or global peer competitors after 2010-2015. Transforming Defense moves the threshold for the possible reemergence of a peer foe out beyond 2020, and it assumes a more agnostic stance regarding this eventuality. It focuses less on the issue of future threat magnitude -- peer vs. major vs. smaller -- and more on qualitative characteristics. Regardless of their size, the report sees the character of threats changing and contends that this will pose "an entire new array of operational challenges." (TD:11) Thus, its policy recommendations concern the character or quality of America's future military more than its overall size.
The NDP report sees the new challenges deriving from several developments and dynamics. Key among these are the increasing resort of adversaries to "asymmetric" forms of warfare, which aim to avoid current US strengths while exploiting weaknesses, and the general diffusion of advanced information and combat technologies. Noting that it may take as many as 20 years to complete a comprehensive transformation of the military, the NDP raises the specter of the nation's facing a strategic surprise should it fail to begin a dedicated process of change now. (TD:57) (Such a surprise need not entail being unexpectedly and suddenly surpassed by a rapidly emerging global peer -- a prospect that strains credibility. Instead, the report ponders the possibility of a mid-size, aggressive regional power selectively integrating advanced technologies for use in asymmetric ways that inhibit US intervention.)
In arguing to accelerate the transformation process, however, the NDP report recognizes that "[t]here is the risk that if the wrong transformation course is chosen..., the Department of Defense will find it difficult, if not impossible, to buy its way out of its mistakes." (TD:57) Wisdom and care will be required to avoid "premature decisions and unintended 'lock-in' with equipment purchases, operational concepts, and related systems whose effectiveness may erode precipitously in a rapidly changing conflict environment." (TD:58) In the authors' view, the goal is "[c]hoosing the right alternatives, as threats become clear and technology proves out..." (TD:58) And the capacity to do this depends on our having created a highly adaptive defense establishment and our having explored and, to some extent, developed a range of alternatives in advance.
The NDP's prescriptions for transformation fall into two broad categories: those involving the renovation of the "force development process" (for instance, by the creation of battle labs), which are meant to make our military more adaptive, and those involving investment in a specific "military-after-next." These are very different kinds of initiatives. The first type is meant to hedge against uncertainty, while not pretending to presage what the future will actually bring. Along these lines, the NDP refrains from suggesting a military strategy for 2020, asserting that "the best way to ensure our future security is to provide a process for developing tools and concepts necessary to implement whatever the most appropriate strategy might be at that time."(TD:20-21)
The second type of initiative -- involving, for instance, investment in the arsenal ship or in directed energy weapons -- presumably correspond to what we already know or think we know about the world to come. And it is this category that runs the risk of premature (or possibly unnecessary) investment -- a risk that the NDP report does not adequately guard against.
During a period of rapid change and considerable uncertainty, it is hard to argue against initiatives that seek to improve the responsiveness of our force development processes. Improvements in intelligence gathering, in the research and development base, and in the weapon acquisition process are representative. However, buying into elements of a specific "military- after-next" today is another question. Such proposals should pass a tough, empirical test of probable need -- unless we are willing (and able) to contemplate buying into every feasible version of a "military-after-next." Using any less stringent criteria would represent a failure to take "uncertainty" seriously, reducing it to little more than a budget preservation slogan.
Transforming Defense argues that current strategic and technological trends dictate not only steps to improve the adaptiveness of our military, but also a revision of specific procurement priorities.(TD:46-49) The report, for instance, favors shifting funds from upgrades of "legacy" systems -- such as the Nimitz-class carriers -- to new systems, such as the CVX-class carriers; more emphasis on directed energy and electromagnetic energy weapons; and, greater emphasis on long-range stealthy cruise missiles and brilliant munitions. It also advises faster movement toward "small-signature ships capable of providing sustained long-range, precision firepower" (the arsenal ship, for instance) and rethinking the planned balance between short- and long-range combat aviation -- that is, fighters versus bombers.
But the strategic assessment that the Panel offers is too general and speculative to establish a real need for such specific procurement priorities. Indeed, its fundamental argument -- that the QDR fails to move our armed forces fast enough or far enough toward a new technology posture -- remains unsubstantiated. The report shares the current proclivity, obvious also in both the QDR and the BUR, to detach statements of requirement from a close examination of need. While Transforming Defense takes the question "how much is enough" more seriously than does the QDR (and assumes an agnostic stance with regard to future force size), it falters on answering the question "How high-tech must our forces become?" It may be that the QDR actually goes too far. The strategic assessment offered by the Panel is too vague to settle the issue. (This criticism is relevant specifically to procurement decisions and choices. The report's parallel proposals for enhancing the responsiveness of our force development process correspond well with a condition of uncertainty.)
Central to the report's modernization proposals is its assessment that America's adversaries, current and prospective, will vigorously pursue asymmetrical modes of warfare and will benefit substantially from the diffusion of advanced combat technologies. Regarding the challenge of asymmetrical warfare, the Panel writes that,
As for the diffusion of advanced technology the Panel foresees adversaries procuring and employing more precise and longer range weapons, especially ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Regarding the use of space, "We must anticipate that our enemies will seek to use commercial remote-sensing and communications satellites, along with space-based timing and navigation data, to target US forces with high-degrees of accuracy."(TD:14) The Panel also foresees future adversaries integrating and exploiting new informational technologies in significant ways.
Adversaries' increasing resort to asymmetric warfare and what could be called "the rising curve of enemy technical sophistication" will combine, in the Panel's view, to produce tomorrow's novel operational challenges. America's capacity to project power into regions of turmoil is especially at risk. "The days of the six-month build-up and secure, large, rear-area bases are almost certainly gone forever," concludes the Panel. (TD:42) Additionally, the proliferation of WMDs and the development of delivery systems of intercontinental range complicate the challenge of homeland defense, as does an increased potential that terrorists will resort to WMDs.
These possibilities certainly bear close watching. Benchmarks should be defined and possible countermeasures should be thought through and designed. How much more than this needs to done, however, depends on a closer, more empirically-based evaluation of risk. As it stands, the purported dangers are largely hypothetical. Concerns about asymmetrical warfare, for instance, rely on counter-factual argumentation that tries to divine potential enemy strengths where there is evidence only of profound weakness. The fact that we can imagine possible windows of vulnerability in the edifice of Western strength does not mean that adversaries have or can develop an effective capacity to climb through them -- nor can general assessments tell us what it will take to stop those few who may be able to mount a credible effort.
Transforming Defense assuredly assumes that current and prospective foes will learn from the Gulf War, although it is unclear that even Saddam Hussein has grasped its lessons as far as the use of his armed forces is concerned. Looking back to 1990, Iraq also had failed to employ the lessons of the 1982 Israeli-Syrian conflict in any way that could have helped it combat the United States. Of course, the prospect of war with the United States was not a central part of Iraqi strategic calculations during the 1980s. And this is an important point: very few powers would choose direct military confrontation of any sort with the United States, although they might blunder or miscalculate their way into it. Nor can most nations (and certainly not lesser developed ones) afford to hedge against this possibility while also confronting immediate local and internal threats. In retrospect, the Iraqi military had evolved during the 1980s into a force adapted to Iraq's chief concerns: Iran, internal dissent, and Israeli raids. This adaptation was not myopic, but rational -- given Iraq's resource constraints and the perceived threats to its interests. The freedom of states like Iraq to pursue flexible options is more constrained today than yesterday, and will be even more so tomorrow. Primarily, what will shape their armed forces(and drain their treasuries) are the local challenges they face every day.
Terrorism suggests another avenue of growth for asymmetric warfare. However, for nation-states, this instrument has limited utility -- and they cannot employ it against US assets with impunity. By contrast, a number of factors seem to favor increased terrorist activity by non-state actors: global economic dislocation, the weakening of state structures in several regions, and the growth of religious and cultural extremism. But when we look to substantiate this danger, especially as it may affect the US homeland, concrete evidence of a rising threat from outside our own borders is slim. Indeed, more remarkable is the extent to which the United States has escaped terrorist violence, given our 30-year partisan involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, four-year intervention in the Balkans, relations with the ruling parties of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and enmity with Iraq, Iran, and Libya.
Yes, the World Trade Center bombing argues for increased vigilance, and Western states have a way to go before their airlines, for instance, are as secure as Israel's. But remedial steps should be calibrated carefully to the threat, rather than drawn in broad strokes. Clearly, a disturbing new potential is increased terrorist access to the technologies of mass destruction (due largely to the collapse of the Soviet Union). First and foremost, this requires cooperative, preventative measures at the source and increased human intelligence gathering activities
The most substantial "new" terrorist threat comes not from outside the United States, but inside. And it involves not the potential access to exotic weapons, but the universal availability of fertilizer and fuel oil. Indicative of the problem with today's security policy discussion is the fact that the sarin gas attack in Tokyo seems to loom larger in our calculation of homeland threats than does the Oklahoma City bombing.
As in its discussion of asymmetric warfare, the NDP's assessment of the diffusion of advanced technology is abstract and hypothetical. The panel presents as axiomatic the view that the world "provides all nations with more or less equal access to defense-related technologies" and sees this as posing a special challenge to the United States.(TD:74) In practical terms, however, access to the military-technical revolution, like an individual's access to Maserati sports cars, will be quite selective and differentiated. For most of the nations that concern us, global economic trends and the recent geostrategic revolution have overwhelmed their capacity to access the military-technical revolution. Their military development curve has not simply flattened or declined, it has fallen off a cliff.
In most respects, less developed nations (and even middle-income ones) lack the capacity to build, buy, integrate, support, and effectively employ cutting-edge military systems in quantities that would be operationally significant in a head-to-head contest with the United States. And the problems of third world militaries entail more than a sudden dearth of money and technology. They have long suffered from shortages of sufficiently skilled personnel and severe problems regarding social-cohesion, military professionalism, and civil-military relations. These shortcomings are rooted in socio-economic conditions that, in most cases, show no prospect for substantial improvement during the next 15-20 years. Indeed, these conditions are growing worse. Most of these states are by necessity fixated on problems of internal instability and old- fashioned cross-border threats, rather than advanced military competition, and their mass militaries serve a secondary (but critical) function as a repository of surplus labor. This complicates any simple substitution of quality for quantity.
Among America's potential adversaries, Russia and China may constitute exceptions eventually, and military development in these states should be watched closely. Other states will attempt to absorb elements of advanced technology and fighting concepts -- but lacking big power patrons none are likely to be nearly so successful as Iraq. Indeed, should lesser developed militaries come to rely on new information technologies or on the space-based assets of other states, it might earn them more vulnerability than benefit in a contest with the United States. Analyses that see more threat than opportunity in a foe's reliance on American GPS satellites, for instance, are insufficiently apprised of our military's wile and wherewithal.
The point is not that we can afford to be complacent; vigilance is required. We should watch closely world military spending and arms trade patterns, the evolution of international relationships, and the economic, industrial, and military progress of potential adversaries. But, today, the "balance of general trends" is profoundly in our favor, providing no general reason for us to hit the force development accelerator. Instead, we should peg force modernization plans to specific developments within the military-industrial complexes of potential adversaries.
The most concrete challenge posed by both asymmetric warfare and technology diffusion involves the potential combination of WMDs with medium- and longer-range missiles. The NDP recognizes the key role of preventative measures in managing this danger -- measures including cooperative threat reduction, arms control, and intelligence efforts. With regard to regional operations, the report also emphasizes improvements to theater missile defense and force protection measures (including a shift toward the use of smaller, more dispersed units and bases). Regarding homeland protection, the report advises that ballistic missile defense efforts should remain in the research and development stage as a hedge. With regard to both regional and homeland defense missions, conventional deterrence of WMDs attacks receives new emphasis. This set of measures is judicious and seems well-calibrated to the likely threat.
However, the report also asserts that the WMD threat to regional operations makes necessary a radical, across-the-board increase in the speed with which we can deliver significant forces into distant theaters -- hours or days rather than months -- and it sees a need "to increase dramatically the means to project lethal power from extended ranges." (TD:42) "Significant force" and "extended ranges" are left undefined, but presumably the NDP feels that current plans, which are quite ambitious, do not fill the bill. This would seem to correspond to a much higher order of threat than that suggested by the defensive and protective measures outlined in the previous paragraph. Taking these additional steps should depend on some good evidence that an incipient threat warrants it.
In advancing the idea of conventional deterrence of WMD attacks, the NDP unfortunately also opens the door on a new form of strategic warfare: "Advancing military technologies that merge the capabilities of information systems with precision-guided weaponry and real-time targeting and other weapons systems may provide a supplement or alternative to the nuclear arsenals of the Cold War." (TD:51) Deciphered, the end point of this development path could be a capability to "shut down" a distant society in the blink of an eye. This would be much easier to execute than more cumbersome forms of conventional deterrence, and it would kill more discretely (although more broadly). Is this better? Not if the nuclear arms race has taught us anything. Pandora, it seems, has an endless supply of boxes. This may overstate the Panel's position, which its report leaves unclear. Clarification would be helpful on the issue of developing long-range "conventional" weapons that are likely to have mass, indiscriminate effects.
Transforming Defense considers a number of alternative future worlds as a prologue to making policy recommendations. (TD:8-10) However, none of the possible futures it examines really captures the strategic implications of a possible relative decline in America's social-economic standing. And none represent a future in which economic competition has displaced military confrontation as the focus of strategic policy. Instead, the report's alternative futures array along a two-dimensional spectrum running from a world characterized by military cooperation and stability to one characterized by traditional big power military contention. This lapse may explain the report's failure to grasp the strategic importance of asking, How much (defense investment)is enough?
Both the QDR and Transforming Defense fail to acknowledge the strategic opportunity cost of defense spending (although the NDP's notice of a shortfall in budgeting for diplomatic activities implicitly recognizes this problem). Generally speaking, the present policy discussion proceeds as though recent Pentagon budget reductions have obviated the asking of this question. The NDP chairman, Philip Odeen, ruled out concern about overly-high Pentagon spending during the 1 December press conference when he recited the worse-than-meaningless claim that the defense budget has fallen by one-third since the mid-1980s.
Comparing the Reagan high point to the present low point is analogous to judging US north- south climate difference by comparing Maine winters to Texas summers. A more apt comparison is between military spending during the recent Cold War period 1976-1990 and the projected future average budget (as yet unachieved). This comparison shows a prospective post-Cold War decline of about 20 percent. Comparing outlays for 1994-1997 to the 1976-1990 period shows a decline of only 12 percent.
Since 1985 the portion of US GNP devoted to defense has dropped from seven percent to less than 3.5 percent. Why should "excess" spending still concern us? Because global economic competition is fiercer today than yesterday, and it will be fiercer yet tomorrow. Holding our own, especially as we look 20 years into the future, requires efforts to reinforce and improve our nation's general productivity. Notably, we continue to spend much more of our GNP on defense than do our chief economic competitors and more than the world average. (Indeed, our share of global military spending has increased substantially since 1985, not declined.) At issue is not only the long-term economic health of our nation, but also the more diffuse elements of "national strength." Ensuring our long-term social stability and cohesion, for instance, may require more attention to quality-of-life issues -- crime, urban decay, health care -- and the amelioration of growing income inequality.
Attention to the opportunity cost of defense spending should drive security policy analysts relentlessly to ask, How much defense investment is enough? The happiest circumstance would be one in which the nation's vital security goals could be met at levels of expenditure, measured as GNP share, significantly below those of its economic and military competitors. If such a goal is to be achieved ever, we must recognize that there is no percentage of GNP devoted to defense that is so absolutely small that defense planners can afford to relax their efforts to correlate defense investment closely with an exacting assessment of threat and risk.
From the perspective of seeking economy in defense, several of the NDP's proposals are either positive or noncontroversial:
Among the most provocative suggestions made by the NDP bearing on the responsiveness and economy of our armed forces are several regarding the acquisition process, mobilization plans, and military support infrastructure. A common theme is that existing structures and process are still geared to a global war footing (TD:76 and 79) -- a not surprising fact given that our present armed forces evolved in the course of fighting two global contests, one hot and one cold. Until recently, our strategic circumstance was thought to require a capacity to send, on short notice, millions of people to war for months and years. Among other things, this meant that weapon production runs were large and that we maintained substantial peacetime slack in our military system -- although more in some areas (structure and infrastructure) than in others (top-line equipment and readiness).
Transforming Defense argues that "[w]e should be operating today under peacetime rules." (TD:76) Among other things, this means gearing our modernization process to shorter production runs. Unless the development process is renovated, as the NDP proposes, shorter production runs will raise unit-cost. But, as the NDP points out, even without acquisition reform, "reduced production quantities will reduce total program cost, which is a more relevant measure of the cost to the nation." (TD:76) Our current practice, by contrast, is to "save money" by retiring useful systems early to make room for larger-than-needed quantities of new platforms.
Adopting "peacetime rules" also means streamlining our mobilization base. The authors argue that "[s]hould a hostile peer competitor emerge, then we should make appropriate policy decisions at that time, including mobilization preparation within a sufficient lead-time, in order to be ready if hostilities break out." (TD:77) Finally, the NDP argues for substantial cuts to the support infrastructure -- the "extensive network of facilities, headquarters, and agencies located primarily in the continental United States" (TD:79) -- which was predicated on the need to fight long, large wars.
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