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A New Millennium and a
Strategic Breathing Space
Russell E. Travers;
From the Washington
Quarterly, 1997 Spring. Vol. 20, No. 2; Pg. 95
The World is a dangerous place; so U.S. national security officials must assume. But how dangerous? What threats will confront the United States as it enters the twenty-first century? What does America's future risk equation look like? Few questions demand as much thoughtful attention from Washington as these; unless and until they are answered, the basis for a reasoned debate on the legitimate defense needs of the country -- relative to a wide array of competing priorities -- will not exist.
Unfortunately, a number of factors have obscured the distinction between actual threats, potential risks and unadulterated bogeymen. First, no consensus exists over the U.S. role in the world, on the scope of U.S. vital national interests, or indeed on what a security "interest" is in the first place; as such it is difficult to define threats to those interests. Second, transitional periods, like this post-Cold War era, are inherently challenging to strategists; uncertainty levels are high and no one can say with confidence what the world will look like in a decade or two. And third, the subject of "threats" is complicated; the United States has an abundance of avowed global strategists, but few go beyond platitudes ("Iran is a threat to the Persian Gulf," for example) when talking about the military and technical nature of threats.
By themselves these factors could lead toward "worst case" threat analysis -- throwing up one's hands and assuming that all potential threats can and will become real. And when this tendency joins with a host of domestic political considerations, the result is that pundits of varying credibility tout a dizzying array of alleged threats. This excessively robust threat portrayal leads to an overly conservative risk equation, which in turn skews U.S. resource decisions. And the U.S. public, which generally lacks interest in foreign affairs, ends up confused and deferring to the "experts." In the end, the country is not well served.
This article will suggest that the United States needs to reevaluate the threats it faces today and over the next decade. Yes, the world is dangerous, and Americans will be at risk around the globe. As a result of terrorist attacks, Americans, at a personal level, may even feel less safe than they did during the Cold War. But, generally speaking, a growing gap exists between many avowed threats and reality of the U.S. security posture. To support that assertion, this article will begin by briefly reviewing what amounts to the "sum of all our fears" view of future threats. It will then detail some of the major changes affecting worldwide defense planning, evaluate the regional and technical concerns typically considered to be threats, and finally, examine some of the actual threats that will confront the United States and its allies.
The essay concludes that the United States is on the threshold of a protracted military breathing space. During this period, U.S. leaders will be confronted with less risk of large-scale conflict than has been the case since the end of World War I. With the luxury of a very favorable risk equation, U.S. leaders can accelerate the pace of adapting to the post-Cold War era. In that vein, this essay goes on to suggest a package of proposals that would serve to shape the world as well as prudently guard against it.
The Sum of All Our Fears
The general parameters of what might be called the "sum of all our fears" model of defense planning are well known. Over the next decade, it argues, the United States will face the possibility of attacks by rogue states, with Iraq and North Korea generally considered the most likely candidates. In addition, the United States needs to guard against a resurgent Russia that could again threaten Europe. Iran will be a major threat in and around the Persian Gulf. And China's economic potential could be rapidly channeled into the military and threaten U.S. interests. Ethnic, religious, and sectarian violence will also provide a never-ending series of Somalias, Haitis, and Yugoslavias.
Technologically, according to this view, the United States could lose its superiority in advanced weapon systems. For one thing, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems will continue and the United States could be threatened by pariah states with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) early in the next century. Even more broadly, a wide array of advanced conventional systems could be fielded and made available to any countries willing to pay. And in the somewhat more distant future, U.S. defense planners could confront a "revolution in military affairs" achieved in the defense establishments of a few potential adversaries -- a combination of technological advance and new operational concepts that could render U.S. systems obsolete and inflict battlefield defeat on U.S. forces.
This rendition of possible future threats is indeed daunting, and would pose quite a challenge if all or even most of it were to come to pass. Fortunately, it will not. In actuality, the United States is on the threshold of a strategic breathing space that could easily extend a decade or two. During this period, myriad challenges will continue to claim U.S. attention -- but operations against an enemy capable of large-scale sustained combat will not be one of them.
Toward a More Reasoned View of the Future
Despite the significant uncertainty that exists regarding the nature of future threats to U.S. interests, a number of facts can provide insights into the future security environment. Together they suggest that the "sum of all our fears" model of threat analysis is exaggerated.
First, among the world's major defense spenders, national security concepts are changing; the historic discontinuity occasioned by the demise of the Soviet Union is having worldwide repercussions in the military sphere. Worldwide military expenditures are down some 40 percent from the late 1980s. Perhaps 50 percent of global defense spending from this period was attributable to the Cold War, and the Cold War's end is gradually wringing those resources out of the system; the implications for future military capabilities are immense. Moreover, reflecting a decline in threat perceptions and a change in the security calculus occurring in much of the world, the share of the world's gross domestic product directed to defense has dropped precipitously. Although still important, the military component of national security policy is neither as useful nor as central in advancing interests as it once was. Simply put, the defense industrial powers are growing up, focusing more on economic and cultural avenues to power and less on military ones.
Second, with the change occurring in many countries' risk equation, long term defense planning is a mess. Countries are uncertain of their enemies, of how they should shape their militaries, and even of the missions for which their militaries should prepare. Most countries have published post-Cold War doctrines or white papers, but defense cuts often make the documents outdated even before they are issued; consequently, they are of little use for helping with force development, weapons acquisition, or conducting trade-off analysis. The worldwide trend is to defer hard decisions on weapons systems.
And third, as the world adjusts to the end of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, militaries are caught in the middle. Rapid downsizing has caught defense establishments unprepared. Increasingly, "two-tiered" militaries have become the norm: Except for select "upper tier" units, readiness -- judged by factors such as flying hours, ground forces training, and equipment availability -- has declined. Although developing countries are buying some modern equipment, most are having problems with training and maintenance -- and the gap between technological potential and demonstrated performance is growing. Finally, as a result of diminished defense budgets, weapons development has slowed substantially around the world.
If these trends continue, it may be that no country other than the United States will ever again demonstrate the capabilities that we displayed during the Persian Gulf War. Nonetheless, defense planners legitimately point to a number of concerns: the "uncertainties" inherent in this period of transition; the existence of "rogue" states; the availability of nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons technology and sophisticated conventional weaponry; and a very messy state of affairs in the developing world. To examine these factors in more detail, I will now look closer at the various countries and technological developments of concern.
Regionally, looking forward 10-15 years, what potentially hostile countries might be able to execute large-scale conventional offensive operations that could threaten U.S. interests? In the current vernacular, what major regional contingencies (MRCs) are likely to emerge early in the next century? The short answer could well be none.
North Korea probably poses the most complex security situation in the world: the potential for either explosion or implosion, with neither offering the prospect of much warning. Despite the problems confronting the North, the United States cannot rule out the possibility of explosion -- an armed attack on South Korea. With the bulk of North Korea's million-man military located within 100 kilometers of the 38th Parallel, careful attention will be directed at the thousands of tanks and artillery pieces poised opposite South Korea. Clearly this military has serious problems in training, logistics, and readiness (including malnutrition in the ranks); explosion may indeed be occasioned less by a deliberate attack in hopes of unifying the peninsula, than by a last-ditch lashing out. This dangerous situation could continue for several years, and should deterrence fail, an extraordinarily devastating war could occur.
But assuming deterrence succeeds, how much longer can North Korea continue as an over-militarized, closed society? Having been largely cut off from the largess of its Chinese and Russian benefactors, and finding itself with almost nothing anyone in the world values to sell (apart from a few missiles), how long can such a system carry on devoting an inordinate share of its limited wealth to a nonproductive military sector? Consider how bad conditions in the North must actually be if Pyongyang is willing to beg the international community for free food, and acknowledge in the open press the severity of its energy and industrial problems.
The North Korean regime is moving toward an inevitable demise; the only questions are how and when it will fall. Either explosion, an attack South, or implosion, a civil war or revolution within the North, would pose significant challenges. But the window is rapidly closing for any possibility for a large-scale attack by the North; within a few years and perhaps sooner, its military and society will simply have decayed beyond a point at which it can mount large-scale military operations.
The other country used most often to illustrate a major regional contingency is Iraq, potentially threatening the Saudi oil fields. Coming out of Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein sought to retain offensive military capabilities, and Iraq will warrant close scrutiny while he remains in power. On the other hand, U.S. planners need to keep the size and scope of this threat in perspective. Even six years after Desert Storm, Iraq's military remains less than 40 percent the size of the force that invaded Kuwait. Moreover, the military mirrors an Iraqi civil society that has been virtually crushed; it is rife with problems. Desertions, purges in the officer corps, training shortfalls, and severe readiness and logistics problems all undercut the military's capabilities. And although these problems mainly affect the regular military (roughly three-fourths of the overall force), even the Republican Guard has had similar problems. Few militaries in the world have demonstrated the capability to rapidly prosecute large-scale armor operations across hundreds of miles; with the Iraqi force in its current state of decay, disrepair, and continued vulnerability to air strikes, it simply does not have the capacity to conduct such operations deep into Saudi Arabia (as opposed to conducting much shallower attacks against the Kurds or into Kuwait). Moreover, still psychologically devastated from its disaster in the Gulf war, the Iraqi military has no stomach to fight the United States.
Under certain assumptions, this situation might eventually change. But the assumptions are pretty heroic: that Saddam remains in power; that he controls Iraq's insurgency problems, the Sunni tribes, and military coup plotting; and that he gets past international economic sanctions, somehow reconstructing civil society and channeling oil proceeds to the military. Under such circumstances, Iraq could perhaps once again pose a conventional threat to Saudi Arabia, but the combination seems unlikely. And if the assumptions do not hold, the Iraqi military will continue a downward spiral toward a protracted inability to pose a large-scale threat to Gulf oil supplies.
Beyond North Korea and Iraq, the United States must also contend with a potential military threat from Iran. Sitting astride the Strait of Hormuz, participating in state-sponsored terrorism, and advocating radical Islamic fundamentalism, Iran will continue to be of concern. But U.S. planners must be sophisticated in considering the threats posed by Iran. It is primarily Iran's use of the opposite extremes of the conflict spectrum -- from terrorism to weapons of mass destruction, including NBC weapons -- that is now and will remain a concern.
In contrast, Iran's conventional military capabilities do not constitute a major threat to the region. It is slowly improving capabilities to execute operations around the Strait in such areas as mining and cruise missiles, but the last thing Tehran wants today and in the foreseeable future is a military confrontation with the United States. Like its Iraqi counterpart, the Iranian military has serious problems. Iran's effort to maintain two separate militaries (regular and Revolutionary Guard) weakens command and control. Cut off from U.S. arms and spare parts, the Iranians now maintain aircraft from four countries (Russia, China, France, and the United States); their logistics system is a nightmare. Similarly, the pilot cadre, trained by the United States, is aging, and Iran's indigenous pilot training has been extremely poor. Other training -- such as the crews of the much-vaunted, Soviet-built Kilo submarines, for example -- is also suspect. And Iran's air defense system has long been porous; even with China's help, Iran's future air defenses may only approximate the limited Iraqi capabilities shown in the Gulf war.
Moreover, Iran's potential to improve its military capabilities is limited by a daunting list of social and economic problems. Iran's population could balloon from 65 million people today to 100 million by the year 2010, and the country's stagnant economy is ill-equipped to absorb such population growth. A lack of economic reform, debt restructuring that will require hard currency to meet future interest payments (thereby limiting arms purchases), and a decrepit oil and gas infrastructure will bedevil Iran for decades. Ample reasons exist to be concerned about Iran -- its use of terrorism, for example, and its pursuit of NBC weapons -- but its ability to conduct sustained conventional operations is not one of them.
Russia's political volatility, coupled with its very large military, lead some to be concerned that it could reemerge as a major conventional threat to Europe. Those concerns are misplaced. Absent some action by the West that serves to galvanize a Russian population and substantially to increase threat perceptions, Russian conventional forces will be limited to small-scale operations for well over a decade. The problems confronting the Russian military are so deep and so all-encompassing that it could be decades before it could again be considered healthy; Chechnya bears witness to the serious shortcomings of the Russian Army. By virtually every standard that is used to measure military capabilities, Russia's military is in deep trouble. The personnel system is in virtual crisis: the conscript pool is avoiding service; contract service is too expensive; the better young officers are leaving; and too many senior officers remain in the ranks. Training is abysmal: Fighter pilots fly 30 hours a year -- well below most developing-world standards and only 15 percent as much as U.S. standards; ground forces rarely train above the company or battalion level; and the navy is relegated to a few ships and submarines putting to sea. Readiness has been adversely affected by a lack of housing, lack of pay, disease, malnutrition, corruption, and crime. Block obsolescence of major combat systems like aircraft, ships, and battle tanks looms unless Russia begins to increase its procurement of new equipment.
These problems stem from a precipitous decline in defense expenditures, which are down 80 percent from Soviet levels. Inadequate funding has led the military leadership to talk about bankruptcy, brink of collapse, irreversible decline, and a fight for survival; and trying to retain a force 40 percent the size of Soviet levels on a budget only 20 percent that of the Soviet era is a recipe for a hollow military. Although the defense budget is probably at or near its bottoming-out point, no substantial increase will accrue to the military over the next decade. The future for the Russian general-purpose forces will continue to be bleak well into the next century.
Finally, many view China as a country of concern, not because of what it once was, but because of what it might become. China's military is benefiting from impressive economic growth, but many Western observers have an exaggerated view of how rapidly it is developing because of inadequate appreciation of the very low starting point of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Overall, this military is too big and too old to pose a threat to the U.S. military any time soon; in its training and doctrine, it is decades behind its Western counterparts. Other than its potential to play missile diplomacy against its neighbors, the PLA has very limited ability to project force very far from its shores. Nor is China improving this force at a breakneck pace: high-profile purchases of SA-10 surface-to-air missiles, SU-27 fighters, and Kilo submarines from Russia have given a misleading sense of the overall modernization rate of the Chinese military. Assuming China proves able to assimilate technology fully (a 30 percent to 40 percent failure rate in the high-profile space launch vehicle program is noteworthy), modernization will pick up after the turn of the century. But consider the quality of this equipment: the Chinese Air Force will only begin fielding an indigenously-built fighter-attack aircraft equivalent to the 1970s-vintage U.S. F-16 sometime after the year 2000; its ground forces are striving to build a battle tank that is the equal of the former Soviet Union's T-72 of the 1970s; and the Chinese Navy may have a single aircraft carrier by 2010.
Generally speaking, China will enter the twenty-first century with small elements of its force having advanced just to the use of 1980s vintage equipment -- a substantial improvement by Chinese standards, but modest compared to the world's leading militaries. And equipment is only part of the challenge; with the vast majority of its conscript force not having graduated high school, the PLA will have to prove that it can integrate this equipment into complex, joint operations. China is undoubtedly an improving regional military power, but even if it avoids any political, economic, or social setbacks, it is still decades away from being able to project sufficient power to constitute a significant challenge to the U.S. military.
No regional threats will therefore pose a substantial problem for the U.S. military well into the next century. Either the countries at issue have substantial political, social, economic, and military problems, or they are not at a sufficiently advanced state militarily to be of substantial concern; all of them are experiencing difficulties simply manning, training, and equipping their forces.
The issue of future technical threats, on the other hand, is more complex, because U.S. planners must be concerned about foreign systems that may not be fielded for a decade or more. Yet here, too, much of the hype about future foreign weapons systems is overdone. They generally date to the Cold War and many are either undergoing reevaluation or running up against budget constraints. The gap between countries' desires for new weapons and their ability to pay for them -- the disparity between what has been sought for in research and development (R&D) and what will actually be procured -- is growing. As it does so, the menu of threats to U.S. forces in the coming decades is shrinking.
Russia is the clearest case in point. Moscow's defense industrialists have acknowledged ongoing R&D on weapons systems in most war-fighting mission areas -- strategic missiles, tanks, planes, submarines, helicopters, and tactical missiles. And because the Russians, like the Soviets before them, were among the world leaders in technological sophistication of weapons, these systems, if fielded in meaningful numbers, would constitute the leading-edge technological threats facing the U.S. military.
The key, of course, is whether these systems will be deployed. In fact, a large percentage either will not be -- at least not without substantial delay -- or will be procured only in small numbers. Russian defense expenditures have been in freefall, and in percentage terms procurement has fallen more than the overall budget. The logical question becomes, if Russia is so badly off economically, how can it even afford to continue research on so many systems? Life-cycle cost analysis provides the answer: R&D may account for 10 percent of the cost of a fighter aircraft, procurement 30 percent, and operations and maintenance (O&M) 60 percent. The Russian R&D picture may be relatively robust, but procurement has been decimated and O&M is dismal. The Russians are gambling that the budgetary picture will improve substantially in the future -- but there is no reason to believe it will do so over the next decade.
Given the disarray in Russia's defense industrial base, therefore, one should be leery of Western hand-wringing about Russian systems that will allegedly constitute a threat to the U.S. military. Come 2005, many Western analysts might look back sheepishly at all the systems the Russians did not procure in militarily significant numbers.
U.S. allies also face a mismatch between military desires and procurement budgets. They are working on an array of advanced systems, but procurement budgets have taken large hits over the last few years; even France is facing procurement cuts that could reach 35 percent. Virtually all major defense industrial powers face a "bow wave" over the next decade -- that is, they have insufficient money programmed for desired procurement. Like the Russians, America's allies indicate they see exports as a critical way of supporting their systems, but the arms market is too soft. Without sufficient domestic or foreign markets, many systems currently in development are going to die.
In sum, any suggestion that the United States is at risk of losing technological superiority as friends, allies, and adversaries alike push ahead rapidly with R&D on new and exotic weapons does not hold up. Defense analysts generally mention a few particular kinds of military systems as significant concerns:
* Rogue countries with ICBMs: As North Korea passes from the scene, what potential rogue state will develop an ICBM? Clearly, short-range missiles are a concern, but immense technological problems stand in the way of turning them into ICBMs. No such threat from a rogue state will exist until well beyond 2010.
* Fourth- and fifth-generation fighters: Virtually every system in the world currently in the R&D phase is in some trouble because of cost -- Rafale, FSX, Eurofighter, and numerous Russian systems. Buys are being delayed and cut back. Russia's much-vaunted multirole fighter is at least 15 years from series production, if it makes it at all.
* New tanks: Most countries of concern can barely afford 1970s-vintage T-72s, much less the millions of dollars that more modern tanks cost. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the interest in large-scale land warfare among the major tank producers is declining, and the wave of the future seems to be upgrades to older models rather than entirely new systems.
* Nuclear Submarines: Russia still produces state-of-the-art submarines, but the future of its submarine program is bleak. As Moscow debates the very nature of its triad, maintenance problems and falling procurement funds are leading to severe cuts in the size of its submarine force. Increasingly, Russia will be forced to rely primarily on current boats with little new production.
* Integrated air defense: Few countries of concern can afford Russian SA-10 quality systems in any numbers. Barrier air defense has been relegated to history, with most countries' air defenses less capable than was Iraq's in 1991. Civilian air traffic control can help air defense networks, but that implies a very vulnerable command and control system.
One corollary to this overall slowdown in weapons development relates to the revolution in military affairs (RMA). Although RMA proponents tend to avoid precisely defining the concept, generally speaking, RMA has its roots in the writings of Soviet Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov. In the early 1980s, he envisioned a military technical revolution (MTR) that would include a vast array of high tech weapons; since he wrote, the concept of MTR has been broadened to an RMA that would also include new organizational and operational concepts. The entire concept has a bit of a surreal quality. Yes, technological change is occurring at a dizzying pace. But given the state of disarray within many militaries, the rather traditional things they are trying to buy, the continued budget limitations they face, and the uninspired nature of foreign military theoretical literature, the RMA may be just one more casualty of the end of the Cold War.
Clearly, no military or technical "peer competitor" to the United States is on the horizon for at least a couple of decades. Yet, despite reasonably optimistic trends in the nature of both regional and technical concerns, numerous threats remain and must be carefully watched. For example, Russia and China will continue to modernize their strategic arsenals. Numerically, Russian warheads will come down regardless of START II, and the Russians may be forced into primary reliance on a vastly diminished land-based force as the nuclear ballistic missile submarine force comes under increased maintenance and obsolescence pressure, and as few new boats are procured. Similarly, China's numbers will go up, but probably not above some minimum-deterrent, second-strike level.
Beyond the strategic nuclear threat, theater-level capabilities in weapons of mass destruction -- NBC weapons -- will also expand. Proliferation, particularly the potential leakage from Russia, will challenge the world well into the future. Overall, increased availability of warhead technology and theater missiles will be of concern. Nevertheless, U.S. defense planners need to begin distinguishing between countries pursuing such weapons for their "war fighting" quality (as was the case in Iraq) and those countries primarily in search of a deterrent to counter conventional weakness. Syria, for example, has given up its search for strategic parity with Israel, cut back its conventional forces, and focused on Scud missiles and chemical warheads primarily as a deterrent. Mass destruction weapons acquired for strategically defensive reasons -- to forestall attack -- do not pose the same threat as those acquired to make an attack possible.
At the conventional level, U.S. defense planners will be concerned with an array of regional threats. Some threatening countries have a strategic advantage simply because of proximity to their possible victim, thereby requiring deterrence and U.S. forward presence. Iran, lying astride the Strait of Hormuz, is one classic example; North Korean divisions sitting in attack positions 30 miles from Seoul is another. Concern about such scenarios is valid, but I have argued that U.S. planners must also preserve a wider perspective on such imputed threats. Iran, for example, has limited interdiction capabilities against regional navies and tanker fleets; it also has, and will continue to have, severe shortcomings in its general military structure and certainly could not sustain prolonged operations against the United States.
On the technology side, some weapons systems currently on the market are already a threat to U.S. forces. The key questions become Who has them?, Who can afford them in the future?, How many can they afford?, and How effectively can they be used? But the threat is not growing by leaps and bounds: As I have argued, absent some significant increase in military spending, most countries will face severe constraints on their ability to field and maintain more modern systems. Instead of focusing on the threats posed by entirely new systems, therefore, U.S. planners will need to pay increased attention to enhanced capabilities offered by upgrades to existing systems -- for example, the ability to integrate advanced avionics and newer missiles on older airframes.
Without modern militaries capable of meeting U.S. forces on the battlefield, U.S. adversaries will increasingly turn to asymmetric responses to U.S. operations. This could involve weapons of mass destruction, as suggested above. It could also comprise technological "trumps" to U.S. systems -- information warfare used to attack the electronic networks on which U.S. military operations now depend -- though as far as deployed U.S. forces are concerned, this will probably prove to be a minor irritant. Of greater concern will be attempts to attack U.S. "will," such as taking peacekeepers hostage or imposing early casualties on U.S. forces; and almost certainly the asymmetric attack on U.S. will and staying power of greatest concern will be terrorism. The Japanese subway attack and Chechen use of radiation weapons in Moscow demonstrate that readily available technology can be lethal. The single most important question for U.S. "defense" policy in the years ahead may be how the United States will maintain capabilities to deter and, if necessary, attack terrorism sponsored from abroad.
As the 1990s have shown, portions of the lesser-developed world are coming to resemble virtual "states of nature" in their level of violence and institutional collapse, and wars such as those in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia will confront the world with immense challenges over the next decade. The pressures of population growth, urbanization, religious extremism, ethnic hatreds, disease, lack of arable land, and water shortages are guaranteed sources of conflict. These will prove to be the mainstay of conflicts that will bedevil the United States; combat will be neither organized nor high tech, but it will be brutal. In most cases these conflicts will not immediately affect U.S. strategic interests, at least not in any traditional sense, thus proving a potent argument against risking American lives; but at what future cost does the United States ignore current problems?
Beyond the immediate humanitarian costs of these conflicts, some will eventually implicate U.S. interests. As they do so, they will raise a host of vexing questions for defense planners. How can the United States help to alleviate these pressures and treat causes rather than symptoms? If those efforts are unsuccessful, can the U.S. military be used in a preventive diplomacy role? And if the military is engaged in conflict, what kind of force is best matched to a mission requiring neither heavy nor high tech forces? How the United States answers these questions will say a great deal about whether it plays a constructive role in large parts of the developing world over the next 10 to 20 years.
A Roadmap for Operating in the Breathing Space
How, then, can the United States avoid a focus on yesterday's threats and take advantage of its opportunity to shape tomorrow's reality? As it becomes more apparent that the United States has the luxury of a strategic breathing space, some observers are drawing parallels with the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s. These comparisons have merit, but unfortunately tend to highlight the reemergence of a significant threat -- almost as if its a given. Perhaps it would be a better use of history to learn from the mistakes of the past -- in this case, to learn how to avoid the rise of a new threat in addition merely to preparing for it. The interwar period was marked by a combination of economic bad luck and geopolitical blunders which, together, helped both to create aggressive militarized societies in Germany and Japan and to leave them undeterred. If U.S. policymakers can minimize their mistakes today and work to shape the future while at the same time prudently hedging against the failure of those efforts, they could diminish the likelihood of any large-scale threat coming to the fore well beyond the one- or two-decade breathing space.
What follows is a package of general policy prescriptions -- many of which are being implemented individually -- that constitute a roadmap for the use of a strategic breathing space. Taken together, this agenda would represent an acceleration in the U.S. attempt to adjust to post-Cold War realities.
1. Stay engaged. The biggest U.S. mistake of the interwar period was its return to isolationist tendencies. Today, the private sector, concerned about trade and globalization, will try to ensure that economic retrenchment on regional and global free trade pacts does not occur, but U.S. political leaders will need to make a forceful case with the American public, on both deterrent and stability grounds, for overseas commitment of U.S. forces. Similarly, Washington must do a better job of articulating the need for and underfunding of its diplomatic efforts. If the United States does not maintain a consistent military and diplomatic presence, it will not lead, it will lose its ability to shape the environment, and, ultimately, it might inadvertently assist in the reemergence of a major threat. At the same time, U.S. officials need to take account of the consequences of their actions; they will need to balance deterrent presence in a diminished threat environment with the potential for undermining friendly governments.
2. Be a worthy world leader. Acting in a statesmanlike manner will be America's best advertisement. The United States should remain the world's leading advocate of international law and fight any impulse to set it aside for narrow political or economic purposes; doing otherwise demeans the United States as a country. U.S. foreign policy leaders need to begin a national conversation about "sovereignty"; the authority of the state is on the wane around the globe, in large part because of economic integration and advances in communications -- and the United States is better off for it. U.S. officials need to explain changing norms of sovereignty and why the process -- with proper safeguards -- is in our overall interest. And, finally, Washington must not become giddy with idealism; when the United States must stand up to a tyrant or use military force, it should hit hard and leave no possibility that our resolve could be misunderstood.
3. Minimize future threats. Throughout this period the United States should address future vulnerabilities. Arms control can help: Russia, for example, is unlikely to maintain START II levels of nuclear weapons and will seek to negotiate lower totals. The United States will be able to pursue a minimum nuclear deterrent force of our design, saving substantial money and perhaps eliminating an entire leg of the triad of strategic forces carried on ICBMs, SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), and bombers. And although R&D for a national missile defense should continue, as much-delayed rogue-state missile threats pass further into the future, national missile defense (as opposed to theater defenses) will prove an unwise use of resources. Beyond military issues, the United States should also address its long-term vulnerability to oil.
4. Be patient. America's national fetish with instant gratification will not serve it well during this period. When dealing with Russia's transition to freedom, U.S. relations with China, or the Mideast peace process, progress is going to be a series of two steps forward and one back. Long-term, focused attention will be required, and setbacks will be many -- particularly in the developing world. Most often, the expensive peacekeeping operations so much in the news today treat symptoms rather than causes. Rather, U.S. policy needs to be focused on things like infrastructure and education -- the kinds of long-term developmental assistance that may not pay off for years. Beyond advancing governmental and multilateral assistance, we should continue promoting (subsidizing, if necessary) direct private investment overseas.
5. Don't fight the last war. As the United States prepares its military for the twenty-first century, it needs to consider whether Desert Storm-like wars are what it needs to be concerned about. It is neither self evident, nor even likely, that large-scale, combined-arms-sustained combat is the threat of the future. This doesn't mean that the United States should cut force structure; if the United States is going to remain engaged worldwide, it requires a large military to cover the range of missions, deployments, rotations, and other tasks associated with that responsibility. But it may mean that the U.S. military should alter its force composition in favor of lighter and more combat-support forces: the demand for heavy forces and state-of-the-art weapons will diminish as the United States focuses primarily on the low-end of the conflict spectrum. And if the American people do not want their troops doing peacekeeping missions, perhaps U.S. and allied governments ought to rethink the issue of a UN standby force to perform that mission.
6. Prepare for . . . what? A host of transnational and low-intensity threats pose a series of unique challenges to U.S. military planners: international organized crime; trafficking in nuclear materials; asymmetric warfare, including terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and, potentially, information warfare; and so on. Designed to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities and avoid U.S. strengths, these challenges will rarely lend themselves to traditional military solutions. To meet these threats, the United States will need a robust intelligence community capable of analyzing the world and giving early warning of these extraordinarily complex problems. As such fundamental concepts as war, crime, and terrorism converge, and as traditionally distinct domestic and international issues blur together, U.S. planners will need to rethink the national security structure and interagency process. They are not well suited for today's world.
7. Think longer-term, but don't get locked in. The fiscal tension between maintaining force structure and modernization is real. Throughout the period of this breathing space, advanced weapons platforms will have limited utility in dealing with low-intensity problems; they will be manpower-intensive, but not high-tech weapons intensive. Clearly, the United States needs to continue R&D on a host of advanced military systems in the face of future uncertainty. Yet, U.S. defense planners should push irrevocable decisions into the future; if current trends continue, many of the foreign systems in development are going to die from lack of procurement funds. The United States should stretch out programs and be prepared to cut back future buys; although it must maintain technological superiority, the military may increasingly modernize along the F-117 model: a few versions of the most advanced technologies that serve as force-multipliers for a military whose equipment mostly consists of upgraded older models. Small force packages of the highest-end U.S. technology, backed up by 1980s- and 1990s-vintage weapons, will easily counter all developing threats.
8. Be bold. Whether through a new strategic relationship with Russia, arms export restraints, new confidence-building measures, elimination of entire classes of weapons systems, or some other action, the United States has a historic opportunity to shape the environment. One example of the kind of bold thinking demanded today emerges from the simple fact that the world is eventually going to have to deal with the phenomenon of failed states. Despite the obvious reluctance of all advanced industrial nations to become involved in "nation building," sooner or later governments, international institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and the affected local populations must face up to the protracted process of "state building." Convincing Americans of the need for the United States to assist in such long-term commitments will be no small task, but the argument is simple: The United States should pursue neo-Wilsonian ideals, not simply because they are good for the conscience, but because it is in the U.S. national interest to help build such a world. If the United States can lead the advanced democracies to treat the causes now, it will not be forced to respond to the symptoms later.
9. Attend to the home front. As the United States goes about trying both to mold the outside world and to guard against it, the greatest threats to future U.S. national security may well prove to be internal. As the American public's lack of interest in foreign affairs demonstrates, the body politic intuitively senses the existence of a strategic breathing space abroad. Nevertheless, a wide range of domestic problems are eating away at the U.S. national will and psyche. If the United States is in the process of creating a permanent underclass increasingly disaffected from civil society, and it is seeing the rise of other groups that essentially reject the authority of its federal structures, then it may be confronted with significantly greater domestic threats than any foreign tyrant with a few tank divisions.
Finally, recall that this article proposes the existence of a "breathing space," not "peace in our time." In other words, the United States must keep shaping the security environment to prevent a sudden reversal of the trends toward declining threats summarized above. As noted, that will require a full range of peacetime engagements. Moreover, it is conceivable that a large-scale threat could reappear on the more distant horizon; the United States should therefore retain sufficient flexibility that it could recalibrate, should U.S. planners detect evidence that a substantial military challenge is emerging. The degree of flexibility can and should be debated because it will come with a price tag; but clearly at some level that price represents a major power's cost of doing business.
But that debate -- about the proper scope and character of the hedge in U.S. defense policy against future threats -- cannot be conducted without an accurate and comprehensive view of the nature of future threats confronting U.S. interests.
This article has attempted to provide a starting point for developing such an understanding. Its basic conclusion is that the United States will almost certainly enter the new millennium in an extraordinarily favorable strategic position. Militarily, the United States is on the verge of a breathing space that could easily extend one to two decades. Of course, the country must hedge against long-term uncertainty, and threats and risks clearly do remain; but scope and scale are critical. It is entirely possible that no regional power will prove capable of conducting large-scale conventional operations against U.S. forces or allies for more than a decade; and the pace of foreign weapons development has slowed substantially. The United States has not seen such a favorable strategic position since the end of World War I; it will possess a very favorable risk equation and the luxury of a tremendous degree of flexibility to shape the world, as well as to guard against it. The key is to avoid the danger of wasting such a historic opportunity shadow boxing with an array of nonexistent threats.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Russell E. Travers is an analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Reproduced by permission of The MIT Press.
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