Home inFocus How We Fight (Winter 2019) Stop Repeating Past Mistakes

Stop Repeating Past Mistakes

Mackenzie Eaglen Winter 2019
The Pentagon in Washington, D.C., headquarters of the U.S. military. (Photo: Ivan Cholakov)

It is time for a National Defense Strategy (NDS) that seeks to break the mold in honesty, clarity, conciseness, and fresh thinking. Since the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago, NDS documents have repeatedly served as opportunities to redefine American force structure and interests globally. Unfortunately, the most recent generation has become increasingly unmoored from the strategic reality the country faces. Following the Cold War, the Pentagon’s force-sizing construct has gradually become muddled and watered down at each iteration – from the aspirational objective of fighting two wars at once to the declinist “defeat-and-deny” approach – without enough substantive debate over the wisdom of the progressive abandonment of the two-war standard.

Even before debt reduction became a Washington priority in 2011, defense planning had become increasingly divorced from global strategic realities. American experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed the limited utility of a force-sizing construct based on wars. The challenge in prosecuting two large stabilization and counterinsurgency campaigns during the past decade-and-a-half laid bare the discrepancy between our stated defense capabilities and our actual strength. The wars that planners envisioned were not the ones the military was called upon to fight.

A lack of definitional clarity and policy consensus about terms including “war,” “defeat,” “deny,” and even now “deter,” is far from the only problem with previous strategies. A combination of shrinking global posture, force reductions, overly optimistic predictions about the future, and a deteriorating security environment has led to a crisis of confidence in defense strategy-making.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 further compounded the difficulty of aligning resources with strategy through clear and thoughtful prioritization and adjudication between tradeoffs. The need to build a defense program to fit declining spending caps accelerated the reduction in relevance and scope of Pentagon strategy documents.

Even with declining force-sizing constructs, U.S. forces have largely continued to do all that they had done under previous super-sized strategies. Reductions in force structure proposed in each iteration have not resulted in substantive changes in operations of the force. Instead, the armed forces have been asked to do more with less and continue to plan campaigns, conduct global counterterrorism, reassure allies, and provide deterrence as operational tempos remain unwaveringly high.

Meanwhile various missions and efforts are being shortchanged, ignored, or dropped altogether as the supply of American military power is consistently outstripped by the demand for it. Some uniformed leaders would argue that the challenge is broader, and that policymakers expect military power to achieve outcomes beyond its scope. Both interpretations are correct, and each contributes to the lack of credibility in new strategic guidance in the minds of its consumers. This lack of faith in defense strategy-making and planning has contributed to America’s global retreat and the worsening international security situation.

Realistic Defense Strategy

The writers of the newest strategy need to face some hard truths.

• Policymakers cannot wish away the need for a strong American presence in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. This includes understanding America’s commitments in the Middle East will not go away, get easier or eventually become a lesser burden on the military.

• Constructing budgets and then divining strategies, as the Budget Control Act has encouraged, is putting the cart before the horse.

• Pentagon reforms and efficiencies are noble goals and should become standard operating procedure to encourage good governance. But the belief that ongoing organizational changes will result in tens of billions in potential savings that can be reinvested elsewhere within the defense budget has yet to be proven.

• An obsessive hunt for technological silver bullets could be our military’s ruin, not its salvation – if it comes at the expense of medium-term needs.

To endure as a global power, the United States must never be in the position – as it is now in danger of finding itself – of committing its last reserves of military power to any single theater. Instead, force planners need to expand the size of the armed forces using the capabilities on hand. American forces must commit to permanent forward presence where they can effectively deter threats before they rise to the level of hostilities.

To facilitate these goals, the strategy should focus not only on the need to decisively defeat our enemies, but also to support the steady-state operations American forces undertake each day to deter our adversaries and reassure our allies in priority theaters abroad.

Define Objectives, Set Strategy

The National Defense Strategy must prioritize missions – and by extension – clearly delineate what it can stop doing. In the last decade, the U.S. military outsourced airlifting of troops to Iraq to Russian companies, NASA hitched rides into space also from Russia, Marines embarked on allied ships for missions patrolling the African coast, cargo shipments to Afghanistan were delayed due to inadequate lift during hurricane relief efforts, a private contractor evacuated U.S. and local troops after the ISIS affiliate ambush in Niger, and the Air Force has outsourced “red air” adversary training aircraft to contractors. This is just a sample of tasks that are being curtailed as the military struggles with fewer resources and finds it cannot actually do “more with less.”

Not all of these capabilities need to be restored – in some instances, it may be more efficient to continue to outsource ancillary assignments that don’t necessarily require military forces to prosecute. Instead of papering over these realities, the new strategy should spell out explicitly what sacrifices the force could make, and signal to allies and partners where they could be most helpful, in order to allow the Department of Defense to concentrate on its most critical missions.

Rosy assumptions need to go. Assumptions about international affairs that underpinned the last administration’s force planning – that Europe would remain peaceful, that the United States was dangerously overcommitted across the Middle East, and that a “rebalance” to East Asia could be accomplished without a substantial increase in forces – have all proven incorrect.

The new strategy also has to combat unrealistic assumptions about the Department of Defense –  such as the belief that reforms and efficiencies will generate significant savings that can be reinvested elsewhere in the defense budget, and that the Pentagon will certainly become more innovative when money is tight.

Global force management is not a substitute for strategy. Because campaigns can now occur across geographic boundaries and within multiple domains of warfare at the same time, the default strategy-in-motion has become global force management. Despite the flexibility it generates, this is not a substitute for strategy. The world is not one global combatant command, nor does any one leader, commander, or service have the ability to manage complex contingencies as if it were. The forthcoming strategy must restore classic force planning and development to Pentagon processes.

Claiming all operations are equally important is not strategy, it is the absence of one. Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s list of “five challenges” (China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and persistent counterterrorism – synonymous with the Joint Chiefs’ “four-plus-one” list) has persisted into this administration. Given the finite supply of American defense capacity, not all of these threats can receive the same amount of attention – nor should they. Force deployments must be rationalized to prevent the use of capabilities intended for high-end wars or deterrence being worn down in the long grind of ongoing anti-terror operations. Stealth aircraft should not be performing fire support missions against the Taliban that could be handled by robust army artillery, for example.

The Pentagon is bigger than a Department of War. Fighting and winning the nation’s wars is a core mission of America’s military. Preventing them is equally important. Daily, the U.S. military is active in maintaining a regular presence around the globe, cooperating with allies, and checking potential aggression. These “peacetime” presence and steady-state activities are the most effective – and certainly the cheapest – use of military power. The Pentagon must more accurately size the military to not only fight and win multiple contingencies at once, but also to conduct the multitude of routine missions, deployments, and forward presence that advance and protect American interests overseas.

It’s getting harder to differentiate between war and peace. The dangers of assuming Europe is a net producer of security became apparent the moment Russia annexed Ukrainian sovereign territory. In a single stroke, the Pentagon’s last strategy was rendered moot. The rise of ISIS further showcased the perils of American withdrawal from the Middle East. Coupled with increasing Chinese and North Korean bellicosity, these theaters are obviously vital considerations for U.S. military planning, even if active hostilities involving American troops are not underway in all of them simultaneously.

Tailored Responses, Even During Peacetime

Each of the five challenges to American security is unique and requires tailored responses, even in peacetime. Ballistic missile defenses have immense use against North Korea, but little utility against ISIS. As each of our competitors focus on a particular suite of niche capabilities – from Chinese maritime capabilities to Russian land power and electronic warfare – America is in the unenviable position of needing to respond to all of them. To manage the expense of this endeavor, efficiencies must be found to deter and mitigate certain threats within an acceptable margin of risk in order to concentrate additional resources on more pressing ones.

The clearest example is terrorism, which is a relative threat and not an existential one. The NDS must recognize that countering terrorism will be a generational struggle that can be managed more gradually and cheaply than efforts to counter immediate and monumental threats, such as North Korean ICBMs.

Organize for three theaters, not two wars. The degradation of the two-war standard since the end of the Cold War has left the nation with a one-plus-something strategy that is neither well understood nor universally accepted by policymakers or service leaders. Planners should size forces to maintain robust conventional and strategic deterrents in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, and equip a force-for-decision in the event deterrence fails. The NDS must make a clear distinction between the forces, capabilities and posture required to prevent a war against a near-peer state versus those needed to win one should it break out.

While deterring further Russian and Chinese aggression requires advanced aerospace capabilities, the principal presence missions would fall on maritime forces in the Pacific and land forces in Europe. In the Middle East, the situation is quite different; there is no favorable status quo to defend. Securing our regional interest requires not just presence, but an active effort to reverse the rising tide of adversaries: Iran, ISIS, al-Qaeda and its associates, and now Russia. If we hope to remain safe and prosperous, America can neither swing among these theaters, nor retreat to the continental United States. Forces can and should be tailored to the needs of each.

These forces must be of a size and quality to be operationally decisive and a balanced “capacity of capabilities” across air, land, sea, space, and cyber domains is necessary to provide the widest possible set of options to campaign planners (and the president).

Develop New Capabilities to Over-Match

Presence missions and train-and-advise efforts are crucial to support our allies, but firepower is ultimately what deters our foes. The new defense strategy should concisely outline the core competencies required of each service by region and threat, and over varying time horizons and levels of risk. It should concentrate development of new capabilities to restore as much technological overmatch as is possible. Planners should also seek opportunities to generate efficiencies when possible. For example, introducing a series of Armored Cavalry Regiments permanently stationed in Eastern Europe comprised of combined arms units would not only provide a powerful U.S. presence to counter Russia, but also would allow regional partners to better develop their domestic capabilities through increased opportunities for bilateral training and exercises.

The American military needs more inter-service competition, not less. In some respects, the individual services have become too dependent on one another. Having the entire military rely on an individual service as the sole provider of a given capability can introduce risks and decrease the efficiency of U.S. forces. One obvious example is the degradation of Army short-range air defense (SHORAD) and an overreliance on increasingly scant Air Force interceptors to maintain air superiority. Competition among the services – for missions and for resources, for example – is the key to innovation. Beyond the advantage of having redundant tactical and operational tools at hand in the event one fails or proves to be easily countered, competition fosters a richer and more diverse discussion of the nature of war and serves as a check on the American propensity to rely too heavily on technological solutions to military problems.

The Budget Control Act must no longer be the scapegoat. By attributing most or all of the current force’s problems to sequestration and ignoring their historical context, policymakers wrongly assume that solutions are simple (e.g., higher defense toplines alone will solve the military’s woes). The next National Defense Strategy will need to account for two compounding problems. First, the international situation is deteriorating. Second, our fiscal ability to support all instruments of national power is declining. Higher spending can alleviate the latter challenge, but new investments will need to be tied to clear strategic goals in order to address the former. We cannot repeat the mistakes of the early 2000s when billions were squandered on cancelled research and development programs that fielded little to nothing because they were not tied to the threats America faced.

Investments must balance the needs of today, the medium term, and wars of the 2030s. To alleviate strain on the current force, it will need to grow. This expansion of capacity should be undertaken immediately and with currently available equipment and technology rather than forestalled in pursuit of tomorrow’s super weapons. Over-investing in near-term readiness and speculative capabilities not only introduces a large amount of acquisition risk, it also creates a dangerous situation in which adversaries know we are weak today and will be strong tomorrow. Facing this scenario, they would see that it’s better to strike now than later.

In this way, more investment in our military could worsen American security unless it is properly managed to alleviate any potential gap in American readiness to deter and, if necessary, defeat our foes. Policymakers must avoid a “barbell” investment strategy that deemphasizes the medium-term needs of the 2020s.

It is time for strategy to make a comeback in American defense thinking.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute specializing in defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness.