Striving for Balance in Defense

By Thomas G. Mahnken

First, and most obvious, we are engaged in a war against violent Islamist extremist organizations such as al Qaeda and its associated movements, a protracted irregular conflict that spans the globe. Second, for the immediate future we will need to deal with regional rogues such as Iran and North Korea, who already have (in the case of North Korea) or seek (in the case of Iran) nuclear weapons. Third, and most consequential over the long term, is the rise of China, which is already affecting the balance of power in Asia and may over time do so globally.

Although very different, these challenges share a number of characteristics. They are long-term and won't be solved by the Obama administration or its successor. Rather, they are likely to be enduring features of the security environment. Meeting these challenges requires not only military power, but also the concerted use of all national-security assets. And finally, these challenges require not just a commitment on the part of the United States, but also action by our allies and friends.

It is useful to think of these challenges as long-term competitions: with al Qaeda and its associated movements; with North Korea and Iran; and with China. Whereas the competition with al Qaeda and its affiliates is a violent one, those with North Korea, Iran, and China involve peacetime competition, though each could lead to war. All are interactive: what we do affects our competitors, and what they do affects us. Finally, all will unfold over the course of years, if not decades.

As the 2006 QDR acknowledged, each of these competitions forces the United States to operate outside its preferred approach to waging war. To fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates, U.S. forces must build and institutionalize a competence in irregular warfare equal to that it has amassed in conventional warfare. To deal with North Korea and Iran, the United States must build the capacity to operate against a nuclear-armed opponent. In competition with an increasingly capable China, this country will need to maintain its capacity to project power in the face of capable anti-access and area-denial systems. 3

' Wartime Footing'

One way to judge the adequacy of the 2010 QDR is to ask how well it positions the United States in each one of these competitions. Secretary Gates' ongoing campaign to get the Pentagon bureaucracy on a wartime footing is vital to our success in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reflecting that priority, the 2010 QDR does a good job of securing what the U.S. armed forces need to win in Iraq and Afghanistan and position the United States for irregular conflicts in the future. Specifically, the latest review calls for increasing the availability of rotary-wing assets; expanding unmanned aircraft systems for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); acquiring more assets for special-operations forces; and improving counterinsurgency competency and capacity in general-purpose forces. 4

Winning the current wars must not lead us to fail in preparing for other contingencies, however. As a superpower, we must do both. The 2010 QDR does less to position the United States to deal with nuclear-armed adversaries such as North Korea and, prospectively, Iran. It contains some worthy initiatives, like the establishment of a Joint Task Force headquarters to eliminate weapons of mass destruction as well as increased funding for nuclear forensics. But President Obama's decision to scrap the Bush administration's deployment plan for missile defense in Europe in favor of a concept that has yet to be articulated and weapons that have yet to be developed will leave U.S. forces and allies vulnerable to coercion from Iranian missiles and potentially nuclear weapons.

Nearly nine months after the announcement of the new missile-defense plan, it remains unclear exactly how many interceptors will be deployed and where. Moreover, the 21-inch Standard Missile 3 Block IIA, which is key to the administration's plans to intercept longer-range missiles, does not yet exist. Current estimates are that it will not be fielded until 2018 - 2020. At the same time, the Pentagon's latest report on Iran estimates that Tehran could test and deploy a ballistic missile capable of striking the United States by 2015. 5

China Rising

The new QDR leaves the United States poorly positioned to deal with the most consequential challenge of the 21st century: the rise of China. The document forthrightly acknowledges the challenges that adversaries equipped with anti-access and area-denial capabilities pose to U.S. national security. It notes that "Without dominant U.S. capabilities to project power, the integrity of U.S. alliances and security partnerships could be called into question, reducing U.S. security and influence and increasing the possibility of conflict." 6 However, the review treats this challenge as a future hypothetical rather than a current concern. Whereas the challenge of irregular warfare yielded real programmatic recommendations, the threat posed by Chinese military modernization was largely met with a call to conduct studies and experiments. Although a number of these initiatives, such as the Air-Sea Battle concept, hold promise, they alone will fail to redress the ongoing shift in the military balance in Asia.

Chinese military modernization has exceeded expectations in its scope and pace. As the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Robert F. Willard told reporters last October, "In the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity, every year. . . . They've grown at an unprecedented rate in those capabilities. And, they've developed some asymmetric capabilities that are concerning to the region, some anti-access capabilities and so on." 7 To date, the U.S. response to these developments has been marginal. Without greater effort and urgency, DOD runs the risk of failing in its most basic mission: that of providing the President options for the use of force to achieve U.S. objectives.

New Military Reform Movement ?

A second way to evaluate the adequacy of the U.S. defense posture is to ask whether we have struck the right balance between technology and manpower. At least since World War II, advanced technology has been seen as an American comparative advantage. To be sure, technology never has been a panacea. Combined with highly capable Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, however, it provided the United States with an edge in peace and war. 8

This country has been able to take technological superiority for granted for the last two decades. Many of our major weapon systems were developed in the 1970s and procured in the 1980s, but it is unclear how long that superiority will endure. The United States has been living off the Reagan administration defense buildup since the end of the Cold War. Within the next two decades, the time horizon of the QDR , the The U.S. military will face the need to recapitalize large parts of its force structure. This is not an issue that has been squarely addressed.

In recent years, the United States has begun turning away from advanced technology. In part, this has been driven by the adoption of manpower-intensive approaches to counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the imperative of getting our troops needed arms and equipment quickly and reliably. In the cases of both ISR and mine-resistant vehicles, DOD has correctly pushed for approaches that are cheaper and more responsive than those offered by the defense acquisition community. However, the Obama administration's cancellation of a number of major defense programs could presage a broader shift away from what Secretary Gates has termed "exquisite" technologies and toward less advanced systems.

In some ways, the current situation parallels the emergence of the so-called Military Reform movement of the 1980s, the members of which charged that the military brass favored weapons that cost too much and were of questionable effectiveness. As one of the movement's most articulate spokesmen, William S. Lind, wrote:

The defense establishment's concept of quality leads to weapons that push the technological state of the art but often do so in areas that have little relevance to actual combat. These weapons also tend to be fragile and very difficult to maintain in the field, often fail to perform under combat conditions - which are very different from conditions on proving grounds - take decades to develop, and are extremely expensive both to buy and operate. 9

Unfortunately for the military reformers, when the United States went to war in 1991, many of the systems they had championed, such as the F-16, proved to be of limited effectiveness. By contrast, more advanced weaponry, such as the F-15E, proved to be more militarily potent.

The experience of the 1980s holds lessons for today. Should we allow our technological edge to erode, we could find ourselves at a battlefield disadvantage relative to an adversary - a situation we have had not had to face for over a half-century.

Interagency Illusion

The final criterion for judging the adequacy of our defense posture has to do with the division of labor between DOD and the rest of the national-security community to meet current and future challenges.

Those challenges are complex and require comprehensive approaches. Secretary Gates has spoken eloquently of the need for a dramatic increase in funding of the civilian instruments of national security, including diplomacy, foreign assistance, and economic reconstruction and development. In his well-publicized Landon Lecture at Kansas State University in November 2007, he said, "We must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military, beyond just our brave Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen. . . . Civilian participation is both necessary to making military operations successful and to relieving stress on the men and women of our armed services who have endured so much these last few years, and done so with such unflagging bravery and devotion." 10

This mirrors the 2006 QDR 's call for greater national security capacity, which notes that, "Although many U.S. Government organizations possess knowledge and skills needed to perform tasks critical to complex operations, they are often not chartered or resourced to maintain deployable capabilities. Thus, the Department [DOD] has tended to become the default responder during many contingencies. This is a short-term necessity, but the Defense Department supports legislation to enable other agencies to strengthen their capabilities so that balanced interagency operations become more feasible - recognizing that other agencies' capabilities and performance often play a critical role in allowing the Department of Defense to achieve its mission." 11

Drafters of this document based their analysis of future defense requirements on the assumption that other parts of the national security community, such as the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), would become larger and more adept at complex operations, thus relieving the military of much of this burden. The recent track record belies that optimistic assumption.

The Competence Trap

For all the talk of whole-of-government solutions, the U.S. military remains the most competent national-security institution we have. In recent years, the men and women of the U.S. armed forces have time and time again responded admirably when called on to conduct missions far beyond those for which they were trained. The very competence of the military has become a sort of trap. Time and time again, the military has taken up the slack when other national-security institutions do not perform as well as they can or should. Tasks better performed by the State Department or USAID, state or local governments, or non-governmental organizations too often wind up being performed by Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines.

Whether or not whole-of-government approaches become a reality will have implications for U.S. force posture. Should the United States develop a stronger capability for responding to complex contingencies, including greater civilian capacity to establish governance and promote economic government, the tax on the U.S. armed forces to fill gaps in these missions will decrease over time. Conversely if, as appears likely, the United States continues to maintain a deficit in civilian capacity, DOD can expect to continue to be called on for these missions. Such an approach will carry with it considerable costs, not only direct costs in terms of money and manpower, but also opportunity costs: soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who devote their time to perfecting their skills as civil administrators and development specialists will have less time to devote to the military arts.

Charting a Balanced Course

Winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the most important task that the United States faces. However, as the world's sole superpower, we cannot ignore other challenges. We must not only prevail in current conflicts, but also develop and carry out strategies to deal with regional rogues and a rising China.

Beyond institutionalizing the capability to wage counterinsurgency, we also must preserve and enhance our technological edge against other military forces. And we must seek a true balance between the Defense Department and civilian national security agencies. Without such a balance, we will face a growing gap between our interests and our ability to protect those interests against a complex and challenging array of threats.


1. Robert M. Gates, "A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age," Foreign Affairs (January/February 2009), p. 28.

2. "2010 QDR Terms of Reference Fact Sheet" (DOD, 27 April 2009), available at .

3. Quadrennial Defense Review Report (Washington, D.C.: DOD, 6 February 2006), pp. 19-40.

4. Quadrennial Defense Review Report (Washington, D.C.: DOD, February 2010), p. viii.

5. DOD, Unclassified Report on Military Power of Iran (Washington, DC: DOD, April 2010), p. 11.

6. 2010 QDR , p. 31.

7. .

8. Thomas G. Mahnken, Technology and the American Way of War Since 1945 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

9. William S. Lind, "'Quantity Versus Quality' is Not the Issue," Air University Review (September-October 1983).

10. Remarks by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Manhattan, Kansas, 26 November 2007, available at Dr. Mahnken is a Navy Reserve commander and professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a visiting scholar at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.


Dr. Mahnken is a Navy Reserve commander and professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a visiting scholar at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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