We’ve Been Here Before
None of these questions is new. This strategy embodies several earlier ones, and it may be best to evaluate it on that basis. It is often said that amateurs study tactics, but professionals study logistics. In this case, logistics is funding. Apart from a few rather basic concepts, there is no meaningful U.S. national strategy. Funding really does shape what can be done, and what is done. That is true whether or not the administration has a bias toward or away from defense; it is impossible to say how much is really needed, or how much is enough. The basics are rather persistent. The United States generally concentrates on keeping threats at arm’s length, which means we have, wherever possible, a forward strategy. When that is impossible, as with the threat posed by strategic missiles, we tend toward deterrence.
U.S. strategists have long thought in terms of two simultaneous wars, because the United States faces both Europe (and the Middle East) and Asia, and because a large regional war in one area would be more or less independent of one in the other. For example, for years the requirement for amphibious lift was two independent divisional lifts, one for each theater. After the end of the Cold War, the requirement was to be able to fight one regional war while maintaining enough force in place to preclude hostile victory in the other—the idea being that once the first had been won, forces could be swung to the other.
After 9/11 the standard changed to an ability to fight two regional wars simultaneously. The U.S. Navy buildup projected after 9/11, and particularly the need for many more surface combatants (i.e., littoral combat ships), was justified on the grounds that there could be great deal more than two simultaneous crises. Naval strike forces could deal with many of them, even if there were not nearly enough ground forces to go around. The point was originally made by a slide showing multiple entirely conceivable crises on “a bad day in 2003,” emphasizing that something like 9/11 was a new kind of crisis that could erupt along with crises formerly taken into account.
In a larger sense, 9/11 was such a shock because it demonstrated that sub-national groups do not respond to deterrence: They have no home address where they can be threatened. The past decade reflected one forward strategy, which was to change conditions in the Muslim world in such a way that terrorism would become unpopular—hence the attempt at nation-building in Iraq.
The Arab Spring
It is entirely possible that the “Arab Spring” was ultimately the result of the effort in Iraq, and that it will eventually have the desired effect, though that will take some years to see. It is arguable that there is little point in a similar effort elsewhere in the Muslim world; either the Arab spring will work out happily, or it will turn out that nation-building bought nothing.
The 9/11 attacks also convinced many in the George W. Bush administration that much more was needed in the way of homeland defense. There is no public indication of the sheer size of the homeland-security budget, but it must be huge, and it is unlikely to decline anytime soon. It comes out of the same treasury that funds the military (as does the foreign aid that we hope builds countries less likely to attack us). That carries real costs to the military. This ought to sound familiar.
In 1949 the administration of Harry S. Truman realized that the Soviets posed both military and political threats. There would be little point in being able to defend Western Europe (the Cold War prize) if the Western Europeans decided to vote communist because their economies were in shambles. The administration decided that it needed an integrated military-economic strategy. It funded the Marshall Plan (which rebuilt European economies) out of the same pot of money that was paying for a U.S. mobilization to face the Soviets, Not surprisingly, the military end had to be cut.
What Stalin Knew
The pot was limited, because Congress was unwilling to raise taxes or to increase the large deficit left over from World War II. That administration thought—incorrectly, it turned out—it could take the chance that the U.S. military was weak because the United States enjoyed a nuclear monopoly. The monopoly did not last. Even worse, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin knew (through his spies) that the United States had very few bombs, certainly not enough to devastate the Soviet Union (nor did it have an effective strategic bomber force). He had what was later called a window of opportunity, and jumped through it to fight a war in Korea.
The new strategic doctrine eschews a further exercise in nation-building or even, it seems, in intervention to protect friendly Muslim governments if their opponents turn to civil war. The Democrats’ claim that Iraq had been a terrible mistake was a major theme in 2008 (the party avoided an antiwar label by claiming that Afghanistan was the right war to fight). Having a large capable ground force is a prerequisite for nation-building. A different way to say the same thing is that large armies get governments in trouble by offering possibilities that are easy to enter but very difficult to exit.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower seems to have had exactly this potential in mind when he took a meat-ax to the U.S. Army during his tenure. The weakness of the Army became an important theme in the 1960 election, and President John F. Kennedy reversed his predecessor’s policy. While Eisenhower had wanted it to be impossible for the United States to go in without partners making substantial contributions, the growing Army offered the nation a unilateral option in Vietnam.
The Nixon Doctrine
In much the same way, in 1970 President Richard Nixon announced a new doctrine under which the United States would provide countries air and naval support, but would expect them to use their own ground forces. In theory, this Nixon Doctrine underpinned the Vietnamization of the Vietnam War, and it can be argued that it was successful (Nixon’s political collapse after 1973 removed the threat of U.S. air and naval forces and thus made the ultimate North Vietnamese attack practical).
At about the same time, President Nixon promised incoming Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr. that any money he saved by discarding older ships would be used to recapitalize the Fleet. That never happened, at least partly because the U.S. public demanded a “peace dividend” after the end of the unpopular Vietnam War. We should not mistake the considerable popularity of the U.S. military now for popular support of the wars we are now fighting—and those wars were forced on us far more than Vietnam was.
Since deterrence and forward defense are so deeply embedded in our thinking, what does the new strategy do about persistent terrorist threats? It argues that the terrorists are not so much guerrilla fish swimming in a welcoming sea as individuals who have to be hunted down and killed. Thus the emphasis is to be on attacks against those individuals, such as the strike against Osama bin Laden and the continuing wave of attacks by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
That may or may not work; critics have pointed out that if al Qaeda or its clones can seize control of one or more unstable countries, that victory will give them considerable power against us. However, given the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not clear that the U.S. public will be very supportive of a new nation-building (or -altering) war in the region. War by assassination may be all we can have. And it may well be that local governments will lose their taste for U.S. UAV bases. In that case this kind of war will have to be based at sea, which may already be obvious.
What to Make of Iran
All of this leaves out the one place in the Middle East that may pull us into a ground war: Iran. Iran is big and has a large population. It seems unlikely that any military planner can envisage a strategy that would quickly unseat the Iranian regime. However, it is entirely possible that we will find ourselves drawn into a ground war to defend allies, just as we found ourselves drawn into the war over Kuwait in 1990–91.
In that case, an extreme drawdown of ground forces will be most unfortunate. However, the drawdown announced, 10 or 15 percent over about a decade, is limited and also probably quite reversible. If President Obama is re-elected, the drawdown may steepen considerably (as it also may if funding is automatically cut after the 2012 election).
Now go back to logistics—to money. Well before the Bush administration, many were saying that defense would soon be heading for a “train wreck,” because the cost of maintaining forces in the way that had become traditional was unsustainable. A worse problem would arise as the first baby boomers reach retirement age and Social Security and similar costs explode—which is actually a global problem.
The United States has been more fortunate than many countries because its population is still growing, so a fair number of workers are still supporting each retiree. However, that ratio is worsening. It is already desperate in Europe, which is one reason NATO countries already spend so little, proportionately, on defense (the existence of a strong U.S. military is, of course, another).
All About People
How do you squeeze down defense spending? Personnel, including medical care, already account for much of the cost. The reason is that the United States never really adjusted to the idea of having a large standing military force. Until about 1950 the pattern was simple. We maintained a very small force, then mobilized for an emergency like a world war. Once the emergency was over, the force was cut. Those who had been mobilized imposed few or no costs until they were old and ill, and until the 1950s not many veterans lived long enough to collect pensions or to obtain expensive healthcare.
Now, fortunately, people live much longer, and the average number in the military is much higher. Moreover, there is no longer a draft as a source of inexpensive manpower. The new strategy includes hopeful words about cutting the cost per person, but in reality the only way to save a lot of money over the medium run is to cut numbers. Ground forces require very large numbers of personnel. During the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan we tried to avoid the cost of growing the ground forces sufficiently by coercing the Reserves into acting as permanent ground forces. That worked, but it seems obvious that this resource has largely been expended.
Some would argue that there is not much more to cut in the surface fleet. Nor can overall numbers of ships be cut indefinitely, because the ocean is so vast and because there has to be some mechanism to advance our sea power.
Carriers are the remaining manpower-intensive ships, and that is largely because air operations require so many people. Yet the carriers are also the core of the Fleet, because they alone offer sustained striking power. Indeed, the new strategy explicitly rejects any draw-down in carrier numbers, recognizing that they are more likely to provide what is needed in the Far East than fixed bases. It seems time to look more closely at whatever can be done to reduce the operating cost of a fixed level of carrier air power. UAVs, if they are properly operated, may help enormously.
It seems inevitable, too, that there will be another close look at acquisition. The widespread sense is that weapon systems cost far too much. Previous attempts to control costs have failed. The real lesson of procurement reform is that its focus is entirely wrong. Reform seems to begin well after the weapon system has been defined. In fact, cost control is a matter of self-discipline, largely at the stage at which requirements are set. The implicit idea in current attempts at reform is that those defining it have a clear understanding of what is needed. That may sometimes be the case, but the Navy’s experience in buying ships suggests that understanding is often far less definite.
The reform that counts is probably in the way requirements are framed. Our ships and aircraft usually meet their required goals, but changes in the goals—often subtle ones—might have made them enormously less expensive. The new strategy does not and cannot address this issue.
One might add that, ironically, procurement reform was rammed down the Navy’s throat, replacing a very successful procurement technique based on about a century’s experience. The situation is more complicated now because so much of weapon capability resides in software, and no one seems to be able to associate capabilities with levels of software cost or complexity.
In the end, the point is that the new strategy almost inevitably repeats what previous administrations have felt compelled to do at the end of expensive wars. It faces some new problems, such as the high cost of future Social Security, and it enjoys some advantages—there is, for example, no current Soviet-scale threat.
Eyes on China
China poses the largest potential threat. No one in the United States is likely to imagine that this country will create a mass army to operate at length there. However, we can readily envision a need to counter Chinese aggression, because East Asia is increasingly vital to us. The Chinese appear to be building a massive oceanic navy based on Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan’s insight that seaborne trade is a vital national interest. The Chinese seem to take that idea seriously. In that case, we have a counter based on our own highly capable Fleet. China may indeed have a strategic center of gravity in the form of chokepoints for the shipping that brings it vital resources. It may be time for us to revive interest in antishipping warfare.
Of course it is also possible that the Chinese army is en route to convincing its government that the best future source of resources is Siberia. The Russians seized that territory centuries ago; it is possible that Chinese nationalism will embrace this fact. In that case the Russians will share our interest in curbing Chinese ambitions. Their land power (if it revives) may be a complement to our sea power (and vice-versa). This is not an explicit theme in the new national strategy, but it would certainly support both the determination to keep the Navy strong and the Obama administration’s interest in maintaining and strengthening ties to Russia, even at the expense of some Central Europeans.
Then there is an entirely new kind of geography: cyber-geography. The Internet seems to have (in effect) abolished distance. Thus there are no geographical barriers to attack, and it is not clear what other sorts of barriers we can erect. Clearly, a hostile entity can attack us through the Internet. Cyber-attacks are like terrorism, in that right now we find it difficult or impossible to associate a home address with an attack.
As with terrorism, our strategy is a combination of deterrence (or attack) and defense; the less effective the forward part of the strategy, the more we are forced into defensive measures. Because the forward part of the strategy (both attack and deterrence) is black, it is difficult to say publicly how the balance should be reached. But we know it cannot be inexpensive. Like homeland security, cyber security is a considerable expense that must come largely from the conventional part of the defense budget. Presumably a major goal is to make attack expensive enough that it can only be mounted by governments or their like.
The new strategy relies heavily on naval forces and on lightweight ground forces that can strike and then leave. It was not the only possibility. We might, for example, have adopted a strategy focused on the Middle East and on the possibility of enforcing and preserving changes we find acceptable. Another alternative would have been withdrawal from the Far East—though that would have had high costs in terms of our trade connections there. Yet another would have been to rely heavily on deterrence, in the form of enhanced nuclear forces and also on an ability to strike globally at very short notice (a capability now being developed). We can be sure that all of these possibilities (and others) will be debated extensively in the months ahead.