Future Defense Budget Choices Require Clear Strategic Priorities

Daniel Goure. Early Warning Blog, Lexington Institute, 03 September 2010.


The United States cannot afford and the people will not pay for a military that can do battle with uncertainty.

As a consequence of the need to do battle with uncertainty, emphasis was placed on a military that can cover all bases and do all things. This would not be a wise strategy even if resources were unconstrained. Not all threats are equal. Nor are all interests equally important. Finally, it is possible to make reasoned and reasonable judgments regarding how the future security environment will unfold and define a set of demand signals that would require shifting strategic priorities.

In the past, when U.S. leaders refused to make choices they allowed the military to shrink symmetrically, by cutting every program or service a little. That approach is self-defeating. It makes no sense to keep a so-called full spectrum military but continually reduce it in size.

Editor’s Comment:

Relevant passages from the archives ($3 trillion later):

Carl Conetta and Charles Knight. “Dueling with Uncertainty”, February 1998.

There is no escape from uncertainty, but there is relief from uncertainty hysteria. It begins with recognizing that instability has boundaries — just as turbulence in physical systems has discernible onset points and parameters. The turbulence of a river, for instance, corresponds to flow and to the contours of the river’s bed and banks. It occurs in patches and not randomly. The weather also is a chaotic system that resists precise long-range forecasting, but allows useful prediction of broader trends and limits.

Despite uncertainty, statements of probability matter. They indicate the weight of evidence — or whether there is any evidence at all. The uncertainty hawks would flood our concern with a horde of dangers that pass their permissive test of “non-zero probability.” However, by lowering the threshold of alarm, they establish an impossible standard of defense sufficiency: absolute and certain military security. Given finite resources and competing ends, something less will have to do. Strategic wisdom begins with the setting of priorities — and priorities demand strict attention to what appears likely and what does not.

The world may be less certain and less stable today than during the Cold War, but it also involves less risk for America. Risk is equal parts probability and utility — chances and stakes. With the end of global superpower contention, America’s stakes in most of the world’s varied conflicts has diminished. So has the magnitude of the military threats to American interests. This permits a sharper distinction between interests and compelling interests, turbulence and relevant turbulence, uncertainties and critical uncertainties. And this distinction will pay dividends whenever the country turns to consider large-scale military endeavors, commitments, and investments.

Among the visions that guide present policy, one is absent conspicuously: a world in which economic issues have displaced military ones as the central focus of global competitions and concerns. Failing to engage this prospect, the recent defense policy reviews are oblivious to the opportunity cost of military spending. And it is this lapse that gives license to their speculative methods and overweening goals.

The United States continues to invest more of its national product in defense than does its allies, more than the world average, and much more than its chief economic competitors. By disregarding the requirements and consequences of increased global economic competition, present policy makes an unacknowledged bet about the future: The Soviet Union is gone and no comparable military challenge to the West exists, except as distant possibility. Nonetheless, the American prospect depends as much as ever, if not more, on the specifically military aspects of strength. Of this much, the uncertainty hawks seem certain.

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