Last week at the Pentagon, with the Joint Chiefs present, President Barack Obama unveiled the nation’s newest defense strategy. To the administration’s credit, the strategy was intended to set priorities to drive budgets, not the reverse. Unfortunately, as was the case three years ago with the President’s Afghanistan-Pakistan study, the new strategy has several fundamental and potentially fatal flaws.
The new focus of the military strategy is Asia and the Middle East with a strategic pivot to the Pacific. Unfortunately, this construct is akin to building a stool with one or two legs.
A sounder approach is to identify where U.S. forces are and would be needed. Europe and the Southern Mediterranean; the Middle East; Southwest Asia; and the Pacific form those legs. Then, strategy must balance forces across these regions depending on circumstances and most importantly, American interests.
Further, by alluding to China (and Iran) as potential major threats, the strategy is setting potentially unrealistic military requirements. By comparison, Iran is about three times larger than Iraq in area and population (about 80 million), possessing a standing army of almost 600,000 and an irregular force several times that number. China is a dozen times more populous than Iran, and as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates properly concluded, the United States would be insane to engage in a land war in Asia.
Second, the strategy failed to recognize military force, while necessary to achieving military aims, is not sufficient by itself to achieve many national security objectives. Afghanistan and Iraq are prime examples of the limitations of military force in producing political stability. Missing is the role of the other arms of government necessary to reinforce and complement the most capable military in the world.
As America draws down, diplomacy, intelligence, law enforcement, aid and assistance, and other non-military tools are vital. None were discussed. Hence, the inference is the United States will continue to rely too heavily on the Pentagon for broader national security goals beyond that department’s competence or authority.
Third, the impression of a “one war” strategy was created. Obviously, Pentagon and operational commanders need scenarios to plan forces and budgets. But any force sizing structures are inherently susceptible to criticism.
It can be argued World War II was a large one-war scenario. In that war, 12 million Americans (about 10 percent of the population) served in uniform, and an equal number supported the war effort on the civilian side. The Kennedy administration embarked on a “2 1/2” war strategy in which the United States and its NATO allies would defeat the Soviet Union and Red China in separate conflicts while still being capable of fighting a “1/2” war. The half war turned out to be Vietnam. Even half a million troops could not win that half war.
Using numbers of wars or contingencies for planning purposes is understandable and practical. A better approach is to soften this quantitative approach by stating the United States needs to have the capacity to deploy concurrently two joint expeditionary forces of 75,000-100,000 to different parts of the world. Further, given the extraordinary advances in technology in which current and future weapons systems are far more capable than those they are replacing, fewer are needed.
Fourth, the new strategy assumes budget cuts of just under $500 billion over 10 years. Few believe this is realistic because, absent a crisis or conflict, further reductions are inevitable and likely to be larger. Historically after a drawdown, the nation spends about $400 billion a year (in current dollars) on defense — about a two-fifths reduction from current levels.
Fifth, as a former naval person, the virtues of maritime power are real. But shifting to a “sea-air” bias in the Pacific is troubling. People do not live in the sea or the air. Wars are won or lost on the ground where people live. This reality must not be central even as ground forces are reduced, which they must be.
Last, details of implementing this strategy have to be determined. The good news is the senior military understands the need for “jointness” and for dampening the negative effects of interservice rivalries. However, after a decade of massive budget growth, no officers at senior levels have served at a time of serious budget reductions.
In this environment, big and bold ideas are crucial. Closer integration and mission specialization with allies and friends need to assume higher priorities. Steps to diffuse potential tensions with China such as greater military-to-military cooperation and even arms-control discussions are essential. And as tensions with Iran increase including possible airstrikes against Tehran’s nuclear facilities, we must answer the question we failed to pose in Afghanistan and Iraq of “then what next?”
Key conclusion: One- or two-legged stools do not work!
Harlan Ullman is senior advisor at the Atlantic Council, and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business. This article was syndicated by UPI.