Will the U.S. make needed changes to national strategy?
edited by Charles Knight & Carl Conetta
With this issue of the Reset Defense Bulletin we begin a new focus on strategy and military posture. A new Quadrennial
Defense Review and a new National Security Strategy are expected early this year. These iterations of routine official
documents arrive in the context of a slow wind down of the post-9/11 wars, the problematic strategic legacies of these
military interventions and a sluggish economic recovery from the Great Recession. Together these conditions obligate
the United States to consider very substantial adjustments to strategy and force posture.
Last July of 2013 "senior defense officials" gave a briefing on the Strategic Choices and Management Review which Secretary of Defense Hagel had initiated earlier in the year. One official fielded this question: "So have you guys looked at the active-reserve component force mix?"
Response: "... the short answer really is that we're going to continue to look at the proper balance between the active and reserve, even under reduced fiscal levels, because it's a way we have to get to a balanced budget."
Recently Inside the Pentagon reported that "The Quadrennial Defense Review is expected to be largely silent on the topic of senior-level guidance for balancing active and reserve forces, which means the operational model that grew during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would remain untouched, according to defense observers and a former senior official."
While strategically the Obama administration appears committed to avoiding long military occupations and counter-insurgencies, the Pentagon isn’t going to change its active/reserve force composition that has been atuned to support these sort of interventions. The Pentagon will forego one of the best ways available for achieving a more economical military posture: relying on a strong strategic reserve for infrequent medium and large scale wars while sizing the active force to meet a variety of smaller scale contingencies and for sustaining skilled cadre available to lead and train reserves in a rapid scaling up of the total force in the event of more demanding contingencies.
Today the risk of a large-scale war is very low and a force posture with a strong strategic reserve will be more cost effective than maintaining a comparatively large active duty force. Unfortunately, the Pentagon is still addicted to preparation for constant global military activism. The ongoing financial burden on the nation of this posture is a poor strategic choice.
Retired Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor has presented a reform proposal which could complement a more robust strategic reserve by providing more combat power in a smaller active duty force structure. Macgregor argues for his force reform which "...preserves depth in the force and provides more ready, deployable combat power at lower cost... designed to cope with the unexpected, 'Strategic Surprise'; a 'Korean-like Emergency' in 1950 or a 'Sarajevo-like' event in 1914, not counterinsurgency and nation building.”
In October the Army War College published a book of selected presentations from a November 2011 symposium at the National Defense University called “Forging an American Grand Strategy: Securing a Path Through a Complex Future”. The symposium's chair and the editor of this anthology Sheila Ronis, writes, "The National Security Strategy is the closest published document that represents a comprehensive discussion of where the country is going and what it wants to accomplish... it is neither sufficiently long term nor a true strategy that links resources with objectives over time. It represents, at best, a list of aspirational goals by an administration." An updated National Security Strategy has been promised by the White House in 2014.
Former Ambassador to NATO David Abshire argues that, while the President has constitutional authority over military strategy, when it comes to the nation's grand strategy (which includes all the goals of national effort) the President's power is limited to being "Persuader in Chief." In that regard it is notable that President Obama has not been particularly inclined to take up the challenge of persuading his nation of national priorities and the requisite investments needed to obtain them. Abshire's observation is all the more significant when he raises "the threat" of America's decline as a global power. He says, "America's decline... will be the result of diminishing economic strength and competitiveness, not global politics." Abshire is not the first to make this point. Yet, it remains notable that our national government's default investment program remains military power, not economic strength.
Former Bush National Security Council member Peter Feaver says a "velvet covered iron fist" is the first pillar of a 'discernible' U.S. grand strategy. He writes, "The 'iron fist' built a military stronger than what was needed for near-term threats to dissuade a would-be hostile rival from achieving peer status. ‘Velvet' accommodated major powers on issues, giving them a larger stake in the international distribution of goodies than their military strength would command to dissuade a near-peer from starting a hostile rivalry."
Putting aside for now reasonable doubt as to whether a 'stronger than needed' military dissuades arms racing and hostility, this grand strategy formulation begs the question of what is the 'velvet glove' accommodation of China's Pacific interests that will complement the 'iron fist' of the announced military ‘pivot to Asia.’ While Washington politicians are loathe to talk of accommodation of foreign powers, we very much need thoughtful discussion of what are the preferred accommodations to Chinese interests in the region. One such contribution is made by Amitai Etzioni in the Survival article cited below.
A short article appearing this past June in The Diplomat is notable for summing up (rhetorically at least) recent Navy/Marine Corps operational strategic thinking regarding their role in the Pacific. It speaks of new ‘revolutionary’ assets that will “dramatically enhance the power of the distributed force” -- “a 21st century attack and defense enterprise.” “Inherent in such an enterprise is scalability and reach-back. By deploying the C5ISR honeycomb, the shooters in the enterprise can reach back to each other to enable the entire grid of operation, for either defense or offense.” Readers will have to decide if this extravagant language usefully describes new strategic elements or is, perhaps, reflective of baroque conceptual mannerisms favored by 21st Century Pentagon culture.
Recommended from the Archives
World Politics Review: Strategic Horizons: To Build Future Military, U.S. First Needs Strategic Vision - Steven Metz (07/24/13)
Project on Defense Alternatives: Defense Sense – Fiscal Year 2014 Update: Options for National Security Savings (06/28/13)
Center for International Policy: Time to Reset Defense: Guidance for a More Effective and Affordable US Defense Posture – conference presentations (video) (03/26/13)
Government Executive: Striking a New Deal on Defense – Carl Conetta and Charles Knight (02/13/13)
Project on Defense Alternatives: Reasonable Defense: A Sustainable Approach to Securing the Nation - Carl Conetta (11/14/12)
Project on Defense Alternatives: How does defense spending rate for job creation? – Ethan Rosenkranz (06/25/12)
National Interest: How to Pay for Wars – Benjamin H. Friedman and Charles Knight (03/06/12)
Project on Defense Alternatives: Strategic Adjustment to Sustain the Force - Charles Knight (10/25/11)
Project on Defense Alternatives: The Pentagon’s New Mission Set: A Sustainable Choice? – Carl Conetta (08/01/11)
Sustainable Defense Task Force: Debt, Deficits, and Defense: A Way Forward (06/11/10)
Project on Defense Alternatives: A Prisoner to Primacy – Carl Conetta (02/05/08)
Select News and Commentary
The Diplomat: America’s Pacific Force Structure Takes Shape – Robbin F. Laird
“The strategic thrust of integrating modern systems is to create a grid that can operate in an area as a seamless whole, able to strike or defend simultaneously.” (06/28/13)
Trouthout: Making Trouble - and Alternatives - in Asia - Joseph Gerson
"The US must pivot diplomatically, not militarily. Campaigning to reinforce US hegemony in Asia and the Pacific will be no more successful than it has been in the Middle East..." (12/6/13)
New York Times At War blog: A Plan for a More Powerful Military That Costs Less – Daniel Davis
“Under the auspices of the Mitchell Institute, a nonprofit policy group founded by the Air Force Association, representatives of the Army, Air Force, and Navy presented a reorganization plan called the Macgregor Transformation Model. The plan is named after its architect, Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel who is the author of several books on reorganizing the military and also a decorated combat veteran. Mr. Macgregor says his plan can produce an increase in combat capability, even with smaller budgets.” (12/10/13)
Defense News: Next US Strategy Carries Heavy Expectations - Paul McLeary and John T. Bennett
"The United States will have to adjust its military ambitions to reflect the cuts the Pentagon will have to make, said Frank Hoffman, a former Pentagon official and now senior research fellow at the National Defense University. There is little doubt that the American military will remain the most powerful military force in the world, he said. 'You’re coming from a position of very dominant overmatch. Now it’s retaining overmatch and focusing on the things that are really important to you, and that’s what the [Asia-Pacific] rebalance is all about, maintaining overmatch.' " (12/11/13)
Breaking Defense: Budget Deal: Does the Pentagon Really Need an Extra $20 Billion? - Bill Hartung
"Throwing an extra $20 billion at the Pentagon now may just postpone a necessary rethinking of how we structure our armed forces and what we expect of them in a world where traditional approaches no longer work." (12/12/13)
Foreign Policy: The Little Deal is a Big Deal - Gordon Adams
"...the Pentagon loves this deal... Sequester is kicked away for two years. Congress, being devoted once again to the short-term, is now likely to be kicking this budgetary device off into the future forever. Nobody knows what will happen two years from now, but you can bet that sequester is deader than a doornail." (12/13/13)
Inside the Pentagon: No New Impulses Expected From QDR to Sort Out Active-Reserve Balance (subscription) (12/19/2013)
USA Today: Army and National Guard cross swords over troop cuts - Tom Vanden Brook
"Guard leaders maintain that the Army could be cut to as few as 420,000 soldiers if the Guard is allowed to expand." (12/24/2013)
Los Angeles Times: Americans favor not isolationism but restraint - Benjamin H. Friedman and Christopher Preble
"Restraint aims to preserve U.S. power rather than expend it through occupation of failing states such as Afghanistan and the perpetual defense of healthy allies." (12/27/2013)
Journal Articles, and Books
Oxford University Press: Strategy: A History - Lawrence Freedman (September 2013)
Army War College: Forging an American Grand Strategy: Securing a Path Through a Complex Future. Selected Presentations from a Symposium at the National Defense University -- Sheila R. Ronis, editor. (10/22/13)
Foreign Affairs: Defense on a Diet: How Budget Crises Have Improved U.S. Strategy - Melvyn P. Leffler
"Defense spending will not be slashed but simply decline a bit -- or possibly just grow at a slower rate.
This shift should not become a cause for despair but rather be treated as a spur to efficiency, creativity,
discipline, and, above all, prudence. Past bouts of austerity have led U.S. officials to recognize that
the ultimate source of national security is domestic economic vitality within an open world order --
not U.S. military strength or its wanton use." (Nov/Dec 2013)
Mitchell Institute: Macgregor Transformation Model (briefing slides) - Douglas Macgregor (11/19/13)
Stimson Center: The Softened Slope for Defense - Russell Rumbaugh (12/12/13)
Congressional Budget Office: Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2014 to 2023.
Nuclear forces will cost $570 billion over the next ten years. (12/19/2013)
The National Interest: America Unhinged - John J. Mearsheimer
"Probably the most serious cost of Washington's interventionist policies is the growth of a national-security state that threatens to undermine the liberal-democratic values that lie at the heart of the American political system." (01/02/14)