Beyond Budgets: Legacies Impacting American Defense Policy

In spite of more than a decade of combat operations, looming budget reductions, and a variety of social changes, the military remains a powerful tool for American presidents and they have not been loathe to use it. The military’s size, technology, equipment, and remarkable capabilities allow presidents to defend America and also to support friends, allies and partners, to supply humanitarian assistance, and to provide “presence” through Navy ships, Army training, and Air Force exercises throughout the world. President Obama’s 2012 defense strategy document reaffirms a global posture centered in the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. The official strategy suggests that the United States will maintain an ability to go anywhere (sub-surface to outer space) and to act in any situation (major combat to humanitarian assistance). While some continue to argue for curtailing the military’s role in foreign policy, for reducing its budget, and to assess what is actually accomplished versus goals articulated, politicians of both parties continue to support a large, well-equipped defense establishment. Budgets will certainly determine future military capacity, yet there are also non-material legacies impacting the future of American defense policy.

To be certain, there is a direct connection between national security and the economy—a strong economy generates revenue that can be allocated for defense and an innovative economy creates new technologies that can be employed by the military. The Pentagon now explicitly recognizes the importance of the economy to what it can do. In 2011, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen declared that the national debt is the single, biggest national security threat.He noted that the interest on the national debt is nearly the size of the defense budget and that an increasing debt would negatively affect future military spending. Thus, the US military would be unprepared for future military operations unless there is significant change in defense strategy.
Currently the United States’ expenditures on its military is almost half that of all the world’s military expenditures. It overshadows all potential competitors combined. Only the United States is able to place over 100,000 troops 8,000 miles from home and sustain them indefinitely under combat conditions. This capacity, not nuclear weapons alone, is what makes the United States a superpower. However, this capacity is costly—$655 billion in 2012. Over the last decade, the military budget grew by several hundred billion dollars. Some of the increase is explained by the cost of the wars, but there were also significant new outlays in scientific research and personnel costs. In fact, the US military spends more on health care than India or Germany spends on its entire defense budget; the US budget for personnel (salaries and benefits) is larger than China’s entire defense budget.
There is a current effort by the military to rein in personnel and health care costs. However, Congress is often reluctant to cut personnel benefits, thus weapons may eventually become the focus of the cuts. This generates concern at the Pentagon, which believes the United States may lose its edge if weapons programs are cancelled to pay for health care and retirees. As Arnold Punaro, a consultant on the Defense Business Board noted “we’re going to turn the Department of Defense into a benefits company that occasionally kills a terrorist.” To avoid this scenario, some advocate reducing personnel size and emphasizing technology. For example, an Arleigh Burke destroyer has a crew of about 350, while the new class of Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), which fulfills many of the same functions, only needs a crew of about 50. While LCS and DDG are not equivalent platforms, technology and doctrinal change are said to offset individual platform differences. Given the central role that American men and women play in military operations, there is reason to be optimistic that leaders will adapt to a different fiscal environment.
Outside of the fiscal concerns impacting the defense budget, there are significant non-material impacts of the wars on the military’s future. Since November 2001, the United States has had a substantial number of forces deployed in combat zones—2.4 million in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike in previous wars, US casualties have been low. In Iraq, 4,400 were killed and 30,000 were wounded. In Afghanistan, about 2,100 have been killed and 18,000 have been wounded. While physical wounds have been low relative to other wars, the psychological impact of the wars will resonate for years to come. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is at epidemic proportions and suicide deaths compete with combat casualties. To address these important issues, the military is now making a concerted effort to de-stigmatize psychological disorders and to instill in its leaders an obligation to help service members recover.
In addition to the psychological impact of recent wars, the combat experiences affect the military’s thinking about and planning of its future. Today’s mid-grade officers principally experienced counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. Marine officers are more comfortable in the foothills of the Hindu Kush than floating off-shore in an amphibious ship. It is unclear if these leaders will continue to embrace these missions or reject them as the Vietnam generation of officers rejected the tactics of their generation. Indeed, some senior leaders are questioning the population-centric orientation of the military with its emphasis on “winning hearts and minds.”
The pivot to the Pacific portends such a move and the institutional military is again stressing the potential for a major conflict that could take place on the high seas (or under them), in space, or cyberspace. In fact, President Obama’s Secretary of Defense wrote in the 2012 defense strategic guidance:
This country is at a strategic turning point after a decade of war and, therefore, we are shaping a Joint Force for the future that will be smaller and leaner, but will be agile, flexible, ready, and technologically advanced. It will have cutting edge capabilities, exploiting our technological, joint, and networked advantage… It will have global presence emphasizing the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East while still ensuring our ability to maintain our defense commitments to Europe, and strengthening alliances and partnerships across all regions.
Refocusing the military on a potential competitor like China or regional challengers like Iran is welcomed in the halls of the Pentagon, but forces in the field and at combatant commands continue to concentrate on counterinsurgency, building partners’ capacity, and responding to natural disasters. This group tends to see a future characterized by the United States leading coalitions to combat sub-national and transnational forces such as insurgents, terrorists, pirates, and criminal enterprises. This group uses stability operations in the Balkans and counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for its examples and rejects “never-again” pronouncements about nation-building. They remind us of the dangers of skipping over the last 14 years simply because they were difficult and consider how the last decade may have looked if Marine General Charles Krulak’s 1999 characterization of three-block war” had been heeded.
Based on his thinking about US efforts in Somalia in the early 1990s, General Krulak attempted to drive strategic thinking and planning toward the types of conflicts he believed United States was most likely to wage. In the three-block scenario, the military would be fighting, peacekeeping, and delivering humanitarian assistance at the same time. The era of large-scale maneuver warfare reminiscent of World War II and Cold War scenarios was not a part of his vision. However, the institutional military did not adopt his three-block view. For Krulak and others like him, this was a mistake. Arguing against a fixation on conventional and large-scale warfare alone, he said fourteen years ago, “We’re not going to see the son of Desert Storm anymore. You’re going to see the stepchild of Chechnya.” The Pentagon ignored his vision and, instead, found itself relearning counterinsurgency doctrine and fast-tracking uniforms and equipment to better protect ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With no clear successes in Iraq or Afghanistan, it appears that a tendency to eschew three-block wars and to focus on a major conflict may be re-emerging. The Pentagon seems to be saying we will never do operations like Iraq or Afghanistan again. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ advice is prescient that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” Restraint in post-Qadaffi Libya and apprehensions for intervention in Syria’s civil war suggest the United States may be coming to grips with the limits of military power.
Obviously, the budget will affect the future focus of the military, but so do the lessons learned from recent wars. After Vietnam, a number of changes were made that dramatically changed the US military. First, the Abrams doctrine shifted key specialties from the active component to the reserve component. This slowed the nation’s ability to wage war (It took six months to call up reservists and National Guardsmen and to build the force needed for the 1991 invasion of Iraq). Second, the all-volunteer force was enshrined in part to have a constant pool of professional forces, but also to avoid conscripting unwilling personnel. Third, the Weinberger Doctrine advised strict criteria for military intervention, which was intended to prevent gradual escalations leading to full-scale combat. Finally, the Powell Doctrine advised overwhelming force if a commitment was made.
During the George W. Bush presidency the Vietnam legacies were largely overcome as the reserve component is the most integrated it has ever been with the active component, a professional force illustrated its usability and effectiveness, and the six-phase campaign plan replaced gradual escalation. The principal, yet unresolved lesson of the recent wars, is that the military cannot achieve national objectives alone. Thus, it regularly calls for interagency reform and for more development and diplomatic experts in the field. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s attempt to change diplomats’ focus from national capitals to austere environments did not produce the expeditionary mindset needed for civilians to do nation building even if there is reluctance to do it in the military.
Similarly, the Defense Department’s expeditionary orientation is difficult to apply to non-combat settings. Journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran has documented some of the unreality of US “whole-of-government” efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Writing about Afghanistan, Chandrasekaran wrote,
For all the lofty pronouncements made about waging a new kind of war, our nation was unable to adapt. Too few generals recognized that surging forces could be counterproductive…Too few soldiers were ordered to leave their air conditioned bases—with the siren’s call of Baskin Robbin’s ice cream in the chow halls and big screen televisions in the recreation rooms—and live among the people in fly-infested villages
Too few diplomats invested the effort to understand the languages and cultures of the places in which they were stationed. Too few development experts were interested in anything other than making a buck.
Too few officials in Washington were willing to assume the risks necessary to forge a lasting peace. And nobody, it seemed, wanted to work together.
The military may recognize its limits better than do civilians, yet it is civilians with grand development and diplomatic goals that direct the military. Still the challenges to development and to diplomatic goals in a country like Afghanistan now seem obvious. The military may be able to check insurgents and may successfully develop a professional Afghan Army, Air Force, and Police. However, it is unclear what kind of civilian government will finally emerge, whether Afghan elites will stay after 2014 to invest in the country, and how or even if the Afghan economy will develop. Thus, eleven years of conflict suggest, that external actors can have only a temporary and/or marginal effect on a country’s circumstances. Only nationals can establish a nation’s sovereignty and effectively provide for their security, government, and prosperity.
Reflecting on other efforts to build states or reinforce failing states, the results seem grim. Proponents of nation building point to successful cases in Japan, Germany, and South Korea; there are few contemporary examples, however, where external actors such as the United States have achieved announced objectives of creating security, representative government, and a developing economy. Colombia may be the new model if contemporary peace talks bring resolution to the 50-year old civil war. Yet the Balkan countries of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo may be more revealing where economic and political development have progressed little since the late 1990s. Or in Pakistan, being a top recipient of US international assistance has not helped the country resolve tensions with India, quell insurgencies in its north and west, or guarantee a stable partner to support international forces in Afghanistan. All these cases are instructive and underlie restraint in Libya and Syria today. But, the case of Haiti continues to be the most revealing. With no war as a shadow hanging over development efforts there, with extensive international involvement, and in close proximity to US shores, little stability or prosperity can be claimed after nearly a half century of trying. Thus, the president will have to consider the viability of its partners it seeks to bolster and whether they more closely resemble Colombia or Haiti.
Eleven years after the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan, one thing is clear–the United States is still committed to being able to use its military globally. Beyond counterterrorism efforts like those to combat al-Qaeda, US strategy attempts to support sovereign governments like Qatar, the Philippines, and Colombia in order to ensure regional stability, support counterinsurgencies, and to thwart international terrorism. While much has been made of linking US national security to international security, too few realize that intervening in other countries’ insurgencies carries its own risks.
By partnering with nearly every country in the world, the United States seeks to minimize the risk by placing itself in a supporting role. Over the last decade, the American security assistance program has expanded from about 50 to 150 countries. Funded through the Department of State, security assistance is implemented by the Department of Defense. Military-to-military relations have thus become as important as diplomat-to-diplomat relations in some countries. This type of assistance ranges from bringing foreign officers to the United States to teach them how to pilot helicopters and to attend our War Colleges, to helping countries control their maritime space by providing ships, intelligence and training. Regime type is not a discriminator; the United States works closely with democratic regimes like Japan and nondemocratic regimes, like Saudi Arabia. The few countries excluded from US assistance are either barred by law such as Sudan or excluded for traditional reasons such as Iran.
In contrast to the Cold War, when countering a “peer competitor” such as the Soviet Union, was the organizing principle for military strategy, and the concern was US “vital interests,” weak states and others’ interests preoccupy strategic thinkers today. The 2011 National Military Strategy of the United States underscores this noting: “In this interdependent world, the enduring interests of the United States are increasingly tied to those of other state and non-state actors.” Consequently, gangs in Latin America, terrorist groups in Africa, and illicit traffickers in Asia are on the US national security agenda.
The rationale for providing security assistance globally is based on the assumption that instability breeds chaos, and chaos could threaten the United States. Therefore, the United States should support other countries through military-to-military contacts, equipment transfers, and combined training activities. Since the United States has such a dominant military, countries increasingly choose to partner with the United States to take advantage of US assets. The United States welcomes military partnerships because they broaden our influence, give us access to strategic locations, and promote international security.
Admittedly, security assistance does not always translate into influence or even stability. Even countries such as Israel, Pakistan and Egypt, which receive enormous support from the United States are (and have to be) responsive to domestic politics. Still, the new model of security assistance is a far cry from what the US military practiced through much of the 20th century. Then, military assistance meant installing US-friendly governments through the power of the bayonet (Panama), promoting insurgency to overthrow unfriendly governments (Nicaragua, Iran, Afghanistan), and arming friendly regimes regardless of human rights records (Saudi Arabia). The United States now aspires to create partners that can manage their own threats to security and stability. While beginning to understand that there are clear limits to what the United States in general, and the military in particular can do, it appears that both Democrats and Republicans see a continuing, major role for the US military in supporting global stability through international partnerships.
Derek S. Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of National Security Affairs and the EMC Informationist Chair at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The views here are his own and do not necessarily reflect US government policy. This essay was previously published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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