Archive for the ‘Assessments’ Category

Donald C. F. Daniel on Strategic Adjustment and the Benefits of Sequester

August 2013

The adverse consequences of hangings and budgetary cutbacks preoccupy those who face them. There may be no silver lining for those about to die, but there can be for those who must live with less. Cutbacks can force evaluation of priorities and the slimming of organizations whose bloat clouds institutional concentration and hampers agility. The DoD is one such organization: it has too many cooks concocting too many broths that either should be the responsibility of other elements of the US government or of no elements at all. Thus, the sequester can be a blessing.

The DoD is like most organizations; if leaders do not have to make hard choices, they will avoid doing so. Even the hard-nosed Donald Rumsfeld, a man with his own settled views, signed off on Quadrennial Defense Reviews that were criticized for their failure to provide the guidance necessary to choose between this or that entity, program, or provider of services. But such guidance would probably have been superfluous; budgets after all were rising dramatically and (over)matching the increases in demands levied on the DoD. The people asking the DoD to do more were understandably not interested in giving it less to do it with.

Secretary Gates struck the right tone when he did three things. One was to “re-balance” priorities to concentrate on the ongoing wars at the expense of preparing for wars against a future regional hegemon. A second was to cancel hugely expensive programs that were over budget and overdue. A third was to argue for a “whole of government” approach when evaluating who should do what to secure US national interests. He believed that the DoD had taken on or been assigned too many functions which were better suited to State Department, the Agency for International Development, and other civilian agencies. He even did something that many saw as an unnatural act for a department head: recommend to Congress that it re-program DoD moneys to the State Department so that State could better carry out the nation-building that the DoD had been doing.

Gates’ third initiative was the most important. How much of a blessing the sequester will be depends on how well our nation’s leaders (and not just the DoD’s) undertake to prioritize what they want for this country and to specify which department or agency is best fitted to carry it out. Those discussions have remained muted or in the background for too long, and that reality lessens the ultimate utility of the continuous stream of DoD budgetary studies, proposals, and commentaries coming out of the DoD, the Congress, think tanks, talking heads, and pundits. When national security experts (including former JCS Chairman Mullin) tell us that our most important national security priority is to get our economic house in order and that our greatest security threat is our debt, we should acknowledge that the defense budget is more tail than dog.

Too many Americans are not used to thinking that way. The Cold War conditioned many of today’s older Americans in particular (many of whom hold the reins of power) to overvalue the military instrument and to readily accept debt to pay for it—in other words to prioritize military needs over economic considerations. (Indeed, Vice President Cheney went so far as to argue that the Reagan years proved that debt did not matter.) Containment was the overarching national strategy that provided the framework for deciding on the priority to be allocated to the politico-diplomatic, economic, military, public outreach, aid, covert action and other ways to defend and advance US interest. But even then how to choose among these choices was not obvious. It hardly ever is. The original author of containment, George Kennan, was unhappy with the overemphasis (in his mind) on the military dimension of containment as advocated by Paul Nitze, Kennan’s successor as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. After the onset of the Korean War, Nitze’s conception largely dominated thinking through the end of the Cold War even when some Presidents—Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon (with heavy input from Henry Kissinger), and Jimmy Carter (up to the Afghan invasion)—sought to push back.

It was not until the Bush (43) Doctrine of preventive war (supplemented with democracy promotion) that the US had a grand strategy comparable to containment. Depending on one’s point of view, the Doctrine provided the ex ante rationale or the ex post rationalization for the strategically-disastrous Iraq War, but there was no confusion as to the centrality of the military instrument and the need to raise the DoD’s budget accordingly.

We are in a new era, and the sequester is nicely setting the scene to re-evaluate what we are about and how we should go about it. From a top-down perspective, we need for our national leaders to explicitly call for a national discussion. At the top of the agenda is the question: What are my country’s requirements? Reminiscent of Walter Russell Mead’s framework, should we give priority to a Jeffersonian emphasis on internal development and well-being? A Hamiltonian priority on international economic engagement? A Wilsonian priority on instilling American values abroad? A Jacksonian priority on the autarchic preservation of American honor and the achievement of military victory? What is the priority among them? How will we meet them? What ways—economic, politico-diplomatic, military, covert, etc—make the best sense and what are the priorities among them? Each way implies the generation and maintenance of resources and prioritizing among them. Generating resources in turn implies generating the capital to pay for them. In the best of all possible worlds, the capital would be there to allow the process to be top down only from requirements to resources, but that circumstance is rare and there must always be a bottom-up perspective: how much can I afford and how much must I trim my requirements? How much must I scale back on the ways on which I will rely? Which will be favored and within them which resources will I buy and to what extent? What bets will I place when making those choices? Where can I skimp in the purchase of resources in the hope that I will not regret it later? Alternatively how many contingencies—ranging from threats to domestic economic wellbeing to threats to our external influence—am I committing myself to respond to in the hope that I will never have to respond to too many at the same time? Indeed, how much is my commitment stance in any area more bluff than real, more hope than readiness?

The sequester provides an opportunity we should not forego.

Donald C. F. Daniel teaches security studies at Georgetown University. Previously he was Special Assistant to the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and prior to that he held the Milton E. Miles Chair of International Relations at the US Naval War College, Newport, RI, where he also chaired the Strategic Research Department in the College’s Center for Naval Warfare Studies.

Larry Wilkerson on Strategic Adjustment

July 2013

I was there (special asst to CJCS Powell) when we implemented the reductions to establish the Base Force and, further, when Les Aspin and Bill Clinton implemented even further cuts (resulting in the need, later, to use contractors massively in order to fight two wars simultaneously and thus avoid end strength limitations imposed by the very Congress that approved those cuts and authorized those two wars–or, actually, three wars if we count the backdrop war, the so-called GWOT–and to enrich men like Richard Cheney). Those were interesting times and very insightful as to what composes such situations in terms of the White House, the bureaucracy–civilian and military–and the national security decision-making process.

Today, my approach is that of the IPS/CAP report for 2013. The first step is to acknowledge that we spend $1.2T or more now annually on the national security account. That is State (150 account), VA, DOD, DOE (nuclear weapons), 17 intelligence bodies, and Homeland Security Dept. While GDP–particularly our anemic GDP–is an atrocious measure of almost anything and certainly for national security spending, such a holistic approach demonstrates a 7-8% of GDP expenditure rather than the 3-5% so often cited. That’s a hell of a lot of money by any measure.

Once this holistic approach to national security is the rule–and it has to be if one is going to make sense of what the nation is doing–then the first requirement is to balance appropriately the overall accounts in accordance with the nation’s strategic approach to the world. Since the best and only sensible strategic approach is to lead with soft rather than hard power, one realizes immediately how out of balance is the national security budget. This is true whether one is a balance of power theorist or otherwise; unless of course one’s objective is to destroy the empire through bankruptcy.

When even a rough re-balancing is accomplished within the accounts listed above, it becomes immediately clear that we can reduce the national security budget by somewhere between three-quarters of a trillion and a trillion dollars over the next decade, or done wisely year by year, between $60-100B per year, starting with FY 2014.

The essential details of these reductions should be accomplished in accordance with the nature of the threats we envision and the resultant capabilities we believe required to meet those threats. The White House, not DOD, should lead these efforts. DOD, as the major user of funds, should have a strong voice, but that voice should be conditioned by the overall strategy devised in the White House.

Will anything remotely resembling this happen? Probably not. We are led by amateurs, in all branches of government. I see not a strategic–or even an adult and wise–mind among them.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (US Army, ret.) had a distinguished career in the U.S. Army, was special assistant to CJCS Colin Powell and was Chief of Staff during Powell’s term as Secretary of State.

Matthew Leatherman on Strategic Adjustment

July 2013

One of the Pentagon’s earliest and catchiest bumper-stickers for the automatic cuts of sequestration came from then-Secretary Leon Panetta during the first week of January 2012. If that cut arrived – as it did – the Pentagon would “probably have to throw that [strategy] out the window and start over.”

Eighteen months have come and gone with steady, uncomfortable murmuring about strategy but no definitive change. Most recent is Secretary Hagel’s July letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee. This tension is a reminder that politics drive budgets, not just strategy.

Top-line budget request decisions belong to the White House and, like Congress’ defense committees, it has its own political reasons for not acknowledging sequestration. Even if the Pentagon wanted to submit plans for matching strategy to sequestration-level spending, it likely couldn’t – the political system will not accommodate that conversation right now. So strategy stays where it is, sure to adjust because of the size of the cuts but not yet adjusted.

This is less concerning than it might sound.

A rudimentary description of strategy would be that it is a statement of goals, an ordering of those goals by priority, and a cut line demarcating how far down the list the US can afford to go. When less money is available, the cut line moves up and fewer goals are financed. The priority order of these goals should not change, however. Priority #1 always gets bought and, in accounts as large as the Pentagon’s, priorities much further down the list are just as safe.

Under any resource circumstance, though, there comes a point at which the money goes no further. This can become a problem if things falling off the list are essential for national defense, if the priorities are ordered unwisely, or if the cuts aren’t made according to the list. Today’s problem isn’t the first – our national defense doesn’t hinge on the savings margins at play – and the second issue is subjective. Instead our consensus problem is that cuts aren’t being made according to the list.

Sequestration is the obvious example. Applying a formulaic cut across-the-board isn’t strategic. But it’s not the only example. Secretary Hagel’s letter forewarned that “cuts of that magnitude” place “at much greater risk the country’s ability to meet our current national security commitments,” overlooking that strategy-driven drawdowns aren’t about holding current commitments constant and accepting risk everywhere. To the contrary, they’re about raising the bar so that goals our strategy prioritizes are unaffected and goals that barely snuck into earlier budgets fall away.

The Budget Control Act and the dynamic it has fostered between Congress and the White House are about the politics of taxes and entitlement spending, not defense. Even the most astute, realistic strategy won’t change that, and various political pressures aren’t permitting adjustment of any kind. But the way ahead is much clearer than Panetta’s “throw it out the window” statement suggests, or even General Dempsey’s more recent comment about a “redo.” Once Congress and the White House make a decision on handling sequester and the federal debt ceiling, the Pentagon can give us a clearer sense of how it prioritizes goals from the 2012 strategic guidance and which of the lowest will fall away.

Matthew Leatherman is resident fellow at the International Affairs Council of North Carolina and former budget analyst at the Stimson Center, Washington, DC.

USA and Allies Outspend Military Rivals by Four-to-One: America Carries Heavy Defense Burden for Allies

Carl Conetta. PDA Briefing Memo #55, 18 July 2012.

Efforts to cull savings from the US defense budget for purposes of deficit reduction have been stymied by Pentagon claims that any significant cut might have “devastating” or even catastrophic” effects. However, a review of global defense spending data by the Project on Defense Alternatives shows that America and its allies outspend potential rivals by a margin of four-to-one.

Moreover, according to the PDA review, the United States carries much more than its share of the allied defense burden, as measured by percentage of Gross Domestic Product allocated to defense. Together, the United States and its close allies worldwide spent $1.23 trillion on their armed forces in 2010 – more than 68% of the global total. But had the burden been shared equally among the allies based on GDP, the United States could have reduced its military spending by one-third (33%), including spending for war. This proportion substantially exceeds the Pentagon budget cuts mandated under the sequestration provisions of the Budget Control Act.

global military shares

Maximizing Chances for Success in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Michael E. O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel. Brookings Institute, 15 February 2012.


The next president will need to move closer to a policy of containing Pakistani aggression, which would mean a more hostile relationship. But, it should be a focused hostility, aimed not at hurting Pakistan’s people but rather at holding its army and intelligence branches accountable.

Editor’s Comment:
I suppose we should give the authors credit for their display of imagination. I, for one, can’t imagine this strategy working. It also raises the question in my mind as to who would be doing the “aggression”, Pakistan or the U.S.?

Vimy Paper 2012: The Strategic Outlook for Canada

Paul Chapin and George Petrolekas. CDA Institute, February 2012.

Dereliction of Duty II: Senior Military Leaders’ Loss of Integrity Wounds Afghan War Effort

Daniel L Davis. Rolling Stone, 27 January, 2012.


In my honest and very frank estimation, American Service Members are dead today – and hundreds more have had limbs blown off – as payment for the perpetuation of this myth, for we built the 2010 surge in Afghanistan on the belief that the same “fundamentals that served us so well in Iraq” could be adjusted to fit the new effort. As has now been made very clear from the foregoing, however, the “protect the population” strategy used in 2007 Iraq was never the primary causal factor leading to success as has been claimed. Instead, it was an event entirely beyond our ability to influence or control: America’s main international terrorist enemy al-Qaeda became such a heinous animal that the brutality they inflicted on our local enemy (the Iraqi national insurgency) caused the latter to turn against what ought to have been their natural ally.

By burying that truth and instead elevating the myth to the status of doctrine, we have set the conditions for our own harm in Afghanistan.

Key Risks in the New Defense Guidance: What Kind of War and Where?

Nathan Freier. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 17 January 2012.


Like any change in strategy, however, the new approach has risk embedded in it. One of the more prominent risks involves the wholly predictable and complete triumph of classical realism in DoD’s future outlook. It appears that high-tech war between states is back in vogue as the single most important core planning scenario; this at a time when war within important states may be increasingly likely and, depending on location, equally impactful. How defense leaders account for and manage this risk will determine whether or not the guidance survives first contact with global uncertainty.