Often the Only Option

By The Honorable John Douglass

The Pacific Rim, although it lacks the historical and cultural ties that bind us with Europe, has grown in importance to the U.S. economy. Because this region is one of the most potentially volatile in the world, and because it has no dominant military alliance, many believe a long-term U.S. military presence will be essential to maintaining peace and security in the Pacific Rim.

Changes in Asia are inevitable. Sooner or later North Korea seems bound to either explode with a vengeance or implode under the weight of its own misery. China has the potential to become an economic as well as a military powerhouse. Our own normalization of relations with Vietnam points to further changes. Even Japan, constitutionally prohibited from using its military to participate in anything but the strict self-defense of the homeland, openly talks about reinterpreting the definition of the lawful use of military force.

Although the world is safer today than when it faced imminent nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, it is by no means free of danger. The 1993 Bottom Up Review projected the potential for two major regional conflicts and defined the threats to U.S. national security in general terms, including:

  • Dangers posed by nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction
  • Regional instability
  • Dangers to democracy and reform
  • Economic dangers

In addition, the Bottom Up Review recognized that our military may be used to promote American values that are in our national interests, including:

  • Democracy and human rights
  • Peaceful resolution of conflict
  • Maintenance of open markets in the international economic system

Indeed, the major military initiatives during the past five years—Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia—have had more to do with human rights and American values than the direct defense of the United States. This notion that there is a huge difference between those events and the other more imposing dangers of the 1993 Bottom Up Review will be an important part of future debates on U.S. national security. Not everyone understands or agrees with the extent of our global involvement, or the attention that we have given to American values. Yet it is here—at the convergence of global responsibilities and core values—where the important national security events are likely to take place in the immediate future.

Most national security analysts agree that a major conflict involving the United States and Russia as the primary belligerents is unlikely in the immediate future. Many also believe that the prospect of two simultaneous major regional conflicts is remote. More likely is a continued series of lesser security challenges along the magnitude of Somalia and Bosnia. With this in mind, it is important to understand that the primary objective of future military conflict resolution probably will be not the occupation of enemy territory but to deter conflict altogether or to initiate conflict with quick and decisive action to avoid a large-scale operation.

In planning for national security, however, we have to assume a worst-case scenario. If we were to be drawn into a major regional conflict in response to the armed aggression of a hostile nation—as was the case in the Gulf War—the United States or its allies would be vulnerable to aggression by another hostile nation if it were convinced that we lacked the requisite military capability or the will to oppose it. Therefore, it is prudent for us to maintain sufficient military power to be able to confront two major regional conflicts that occur nearly simultaneously. With this capability we will be confident, as will our allies and potential enemies, that engagement in one region will not leave our interests and our allies in other regions at risk. Further, sizing our forces for two major regional conflicts "provides a hedge against the possibility that a future adversary—or coalition of adversaries—might one day confront us with a larger-than-expected threat." 1

Another problem we face is growth in military capabilities worldwide. The world learned much about U.S. military capabilities from Desert Storm. Every country with the slightest hope of maintaining military competence is busy modernizing their weapons and tactics to deal with what they observed. As costs decline and technologies with direct military applications become increasingly available in commercial products, advanced military capabilities become affordable to more nations every year. Future opponents will have the capability to act quickly and project force with modern missiles. We also can expect to face nations with the will to use weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons, if they consider their situation desperate enough or their use effective against a politically sensitive opponent.

The Next Paradigm

What are our alternatives? Is it feasible to return to the isolationism of the pre-World War II years? Will the Cold War return if Russia takes a turn backward? Would the American people support a "Pax-Americana," with the United States becoming the world's police force? The answer to all of these questions probably is no. So what new security strategy do we expect to emerge?

In the closing years of the 20th century, U.S. security strategy is increasingly difficult to formulate because the paradigm on which it is based is in transition. There are, however, a few elements that might approximate the national view of security as represented by the recent past:

  • Any action must relate directly to easily recognized national interests or values and must enjoy the support of the American public and government.
  • Actions must have at least some support of U.S. allies. Allied participation is preferred to share both the costs and risks of military actions.
  • Actions must involve minimal casualties and must end to our advantage in a relatively short time. Civilian casualties and collateral damage must be held to a minimum.
  • Engagements must have an understandable, desired outcome and not involve long-term U.S. occupation forces.
  • War, if unavoidable, must have clear victory conditions.

If these describe the national consensus on security issues, then a true new security paradigm is not likely to emerge until a new threat is defined. In the meantime, we will remain in transition with our security interests defined by the convergence of American values and our perceived global responsibilities. It is important to recognize that fact and build a flexible security strategy—with naval forces with their flexibility and mobility as its foundation.

Essential Military Capabilities

The current dynamic and unpredictable global security environment demands that we maintain certain military capabilities flexible and responsive enough to cope with unforeseen dangers. Even against this uncertain picture, we can speculate that our future strategy will be an extension of our current strategy to use our military from time to time to suppress and deter others from actions against our interests, and to act in coalitions wherever possible. If this continues, the following military capabilities will serve us best for the uncertain era ahead:

Mobility . Because we cannot predict with any certainty where forces will be required, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Army units need to be structured and equipped for rapid overseas deployment. The fact that most of America's vital strategic interests overseas lie within 100 miles of the coastline, coupled with the natural economics of moving large forces by sea, means that mobility across the seas must be the primary ingredient in force structure. This, of course, is natural for the Navy and Marine Corps and requires a strong military sealift capability to supplement prepositioned assets. Moving a large and powerful naval force into an area of degenerating political conditions can signal our interest and, in most cases, deter conflict altogether. This can be done unilaterally and quickly, if needed, and provides the confidence for coalition partners to join in our cause.

Sustained presence . To reinforce our interest—both as a warning to our enemies and comfort to our allies—we need the capability to maintain a sustained military presence in vital regions around the globe. We may not always have access to bases in strategic locations, or receive permission to launch strikes from foreign countries where we do have access to bases. Witness the recent restrictions from Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia in our continuing confrontation with Iraq. It is especially difficult both logistically and politically to move land or air forces into places where they do not already exist.

Naval forces, on the other hand, have the ability to maintain a sustained presence without regard to political limitations. The offensive capability of carrier battle groups, Tomahawk-equipped cruisers and destroyers, and Marine amphibious ready groups provides the deterrence. Antiair warfare systems give the Navy the ability to sail into harm's way, and in the future will be able to provide a highly capable ballistic missile defense. Command, control, communication, and information (C41) systems such as cooperative engagement capability provide the means to understand and control events from the start, allowing Army and Air Force units to plug in as they arrive. Maintaining a naval task force off the coast of a troubled region contributes significantly to forward engagement, deterrence, and crisis control in support of our national interests.

Ability to operate with allies . Any new national security strategy must include the ability for each of our services to operate with our allies through the full range of military engagements. Indeed, every major conflict that the United States has been involved in since World War I has been contested with allied assistance. As overseas bases are closed and forces withdrawn, it will not be as easy to maintain training or provide on-scene familiarization for shore-based units. Naval units, however, routinely conduct joint allied operations all over the globe. Coalition members may contribute forces and equipment in a crisis, but U.S. naval forces are uniquely able to provide needed logistics, C4I, and air defense for allied forces without reliance on basing rights or host-nation support.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Navy-Marine Corps team is precisely the force needed when uncertainty is the primary factor in national security planning and execution. Despite downsizing in both personnel and budget, Navy-Marine Corps operational tempo has remained at Cold War levels. In 1989, the last year of the Cold War, U.S. naval forces were dispatched to respond to six crises worldwide. In 1995, that number jumped to eight. In 1996, they responded to crises off Taiwan, Liberia, Haiti, and Iraq and canceled a carrier battle group deployment to the Arabian Gulf to maintain a presence near the Korean Peninsula.

Yet the Navy's fleet has dwindled from 562 ships at the end of the Cold War to 347 at the end of 1997. Since 1985, the overall Navy/Marine Corps budget has declined 38%, procurement is down by 70%, and research and development is down by 40%. As long as we face a declining total investment in defense, retention of force structure and infrastructure for near-term readiness comes at the expense of long-term modernization. As we look into the future and develop a plan to modernize our forces, we will have to make adjustments to our force structure. In doing so, we would do well to emphasize those capabilities that will give us flexibility to react to unpredictable events, and to value most highly those portions of our force structure that we already are requiring to operate at historically high levels.

The Preferred Response

Since the end of the Cold War, it primarily has been the naval services that have been called on to respond to crisis around the world. Helping control events at the outset of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the rescue of Air Force Captain Scott O'Grady from Bosnia, the evacuation of more than 700 Americans and country nationals from war-torn Liberia, the swift response to tensions in the Straits of Taiwan, and the response to Iraqi aggression against the Kurds—these are but some of the more dramatic naval operations that are performed everyday all over the world in support of our national security. Naval forces are not just the favored option, they often are the only option.

Indeed, the Navy and Marine Corps are our nation's "911 Force." The ability to carry their base and their airfield with them and to operate close to the scene for extended periods relatively unencumbered by foreign political limitations are the unique attributes that make them so valuable. In addition, naval forces are cost-effective, because their responses to crises around the world are planned and budgeted as normal operational expenses. There is no "sticker shock" such as we are now experiencing with the price tag attached to actions in Bosnia.

The effectiveness of a warship off the coast has been known for centuries. It can and does and will continue to play a huge part in foreign policy. It can move in, it can back off—whatever the political or military situation dictates. It may not even have to fire a shot. It is a threat of force, a political tool, an exercise of power. Strong naval forces are not simply a tool of international policy; they are a precondition for it. Perhaps Oliver Cromwell said it best: "A man-of-war is the best ambassador."

1 Report on the Bottom Up Review, p. 19.

The Honorable John Douglass is the Assistant secretary of the Navy for Research Development, and Acquisition. He has extensive experience with Congress, the Department of Defense, and the executive branch, serving most recently with the Senate Armed Services Committee as Foreign Policy Advisor and Science and Technology Advisor to Senator Sam Nunn. He retired from the Air Force as a brigadier general after 28 years of service. 


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