Home / Articles / The Future of American Military Strategy: A Conference Report
The Foreign Policy Research Institute held a conference on the future of American military strategy on 5 December 2005 at the Union League of Philadelphia. A distinguished group drawn from the current and retired ranks of the military (active and reserve component), academia, and policy analysis convened to explore alternative strategies for American defense policy. Michael P. Noonan and James Kurth, the Claude Smith Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College, Editor of Orbis, and Senior Fellow at the FPRI, served as panel moderators. In attendance were over one hundred individuals drawn from academia, non-governmental organizations, the media, the military, and the interested public. The following is a brief summary of the conference proceedings. The complete collection of conference papers will be published in 2006.
The conference was structured around four panels that addressed distinct models (“strategic drivers”) for American military strategy: (1) irregular warfare (threat-based), (2) “offshore balancing” (minimalist), (3) countering a rising peer competitor (“Pax Americana”), and (4) a balanced approach (“strategic pluralism”). For each panel, a single presentation served as the starting point of a discussion among the presenter and the other two panelists. In addition, the luncheon keynote address (the W.W. Keen Butcher Lecture on Military Affairs) served as a bridge between the morning and afternoon discussions. The views expressed within this report are those of the respective speakers and should not be construed to represent any agency of the U.S. government or other institution.
FPRI’s Program on National Security gratefully acknowledges the financial support provided for this conference by Dr. John M. Templeton, Jr., W.W. Keen Butcher, and the Hamilton Family Foundation. Many thanks are also extended to the Honorable John Hillen. Before entering government in autumn 2005, Dr. Hillen, in his role as Director of FPRI’s Program on National Security, made many contributions, intellectual and otherwise, to this and other projects.
Complex Irregular Warfare
Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hoffman, USMCR (ret.), a Research Fellow at the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities (CETO) as well as a non-resident Senior Fellow of the FPRI, began by arguing that a world of irregular (both low-end and high-end) and unconventional warfare is our future, and that this world did not start on 9/11, but rather began either in Beirut in 1983 or else in the World Trade Center attack of 1993. The U.S. military is experiencing its second age of small wars. This necessitates a resilient strategy where institutions need to be more adaptive, agile, and anticipatory.
The military — and non-military arms of the government — should be adapted to deal with a very unconventional world. The global force posture should be flexible using a light international footprint to allow for tailored responses to crises. The Army, while generally moving in the right direction in terms of being more agile and expeditionary, is still too focused on conventional threats. To address this, Hoffman stated that more investment needed to be made in infantry forces, civil affairs and psychological operations units and less emphasis should be placed in heavy mechanized force structure and investment. The Air Force brings significant capabilities to the table in terms of strategic mobility and warfighting, but its investment priorities should focus upon developing a future bomber, space capabilities, information warfare, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) rather than procuring large numbers of expensive fighter aircraft such as the F-22.
The Marine Corps should become more modular, and the current three division/three air wing force should transition to six brigades that would be more cohesive and provide a rotation base for long-term conflicts. Because small wars require small unit leaders who are more mature, more seasoned, and more experienced, the Marines need to adjust manpower policies and training to develop and retain such leaders. Lastly, the Navy needs to adjust from its surplus of strike and “blue” water (open ocean) assets and develop more “green” (littoral) and “brown” (inland/riverine) water capabilities. Three aircraft carriers should be mothballed — leaving nine in the fleet — and smaller boats should be purchased to deal with unconventional threats. Special Operations Forces (SOF) would be split off to form a distinct, yet small, service.
Hoffman compared the United States to a “one-armed cyclops.” The military tool of national power has been developed, resourced, and honed at the expense of other elements of national power. In order to rectify that situation, Hoffman made several recommendations. On the domestic side, more homeland resilience needs to be developed. Most of the National Guard should be transitioned to the Department of Homeland Security with force structure adjustments made to make it more useful for domestic operations. The Coast Guard, too, should have its end-strength increased by 10-20 percent and needs modernized equipment (e.g., ships, helicopters, and UAVs). Internationally, the State Department and other inter-agency actors need to be bolstered and need to work with the international community. Hoffman called for increased funding for State Department stabilization initiatives and more investment in threat reduction programs.
Irregular warfare is not a passing fad. Hoffman declared “complex irregular warfare is the form of conflict that gives us the most problems and will challenge us the most in the future.” The United States does not dominate all technologies and all forms of warfare and is particularly weak culturally and capability-wise in the unconventional realm. Our enemies have learned from places such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq to be more efficient, cunning, and savage. The Pentagon is thinking about a much more irregular world, but it must face the imponderables, put aside parochial illusions about the future, and “not allow our enemies to outstrip the march of our imagination, our intelligence or our resolve.”
Monica Duffy Toft, an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government and the Assistant Director of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University, argued that the idea of using the Department of Defense (DoD) to fight terrorism is, and should remain, a controversial one. The threat from non- state actors is not comparable to the threat of global thermonuclear war or even a major conventional war. “It is not clear that converting the military to resilient structure, capable of engaging complex irregular threats will give the traction we need to do well in a major conventional war,” said Toft. Enemies (whose motivations are variable), or potential enemies, will look for our strengths and try to exploit our weaknesses. Future threats are hard to discern, therefore we should make our capabilities opaque. In other words, the U.S. military should develop multiple core competencies to leave our enemies, or potential adversaries, guessing.
Colonel John D. Waghelstein, USA (ret.), a Professor Emeritus of the U.S. Naval War College, opened by saying that opponents going asymmetric is nothing new. But the military has real trouble in dealing with this. According to Waghelstein, “this is not just the fact that we have been unprepared because of the sine wave of ’mobilization, fight the war, demobilization’ and then be unprepared in numbers and force structure and infrastructure for the next war, it has also been a preoccupation with the Army in particular of focusing on the next big war, as opposed to whatever little war might be at hand_ that is in the DNA of the Army.” He argued that keeping assets such as civil affairs and psychological operations co-located with Special Operations Forces was necessary because otherwise they might fall prey to the budgetary priorities of the big services. He remained skeptical whether the services, even the Marine Corps, would be willing to invest the time and resources into developing irregular warfare capabilities, particularly in the cultural and linguistic domains. To conclude his comments, he held that while he agreed with most of Hoffman’s position there would need to for an “insurgency” both within the DoD and from outside — probably in the Congress — in order to make the necessary reforms.
A Smaller Military to Fight the War on Terrorism
Charles V. Peña, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy and an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project, led off by claiming that the end of the Cold War ensured that the United States was relatively safe in a traditional nation-state strategic context. Our overwhelming strategic nuclear force is a deterrent and no other nation has the power projection capabilities to attack us directly. This reality allows us to think radically about how to change the military and reduce defense spending by at least 25 percent. In his opinion, the U.S. has an overcapacity in military capability. Overcapacity in defense capabilities is problematic because it leads their overuse, or misuse, by policymakers.
The U.S. should not underwrite the security of so many countries and regions around the world. The Europeans and East Asian nations should shoulder more of the burden for their security. Our global force posture should transition from a sprawling one to that of a balancer of last resort. “We would understand that crises and conflicts that develop around the world, for the most part, actually don’t threaten U.S. national security,” according to Pena. The United States would only step into crises or conflicts that truly threatened national security. National security should be more narrowly defined in general and should be seen first and foremost as protection from threats to the United States, its population, and its way of life. Al Qaeda is a real threat, but it is not a nation-state and our global presence helps to feed its popularity.
The military should be about half the size that it is today. In order to transform the military it needs to learn to do more with less. Reducing the defense budget will drive transformation because it will force tough choices that will drive new thinking and innovation. Funding from unnecessary weapons programs such as the F-22 should be reprogrammed for capabilities such as UAVs, language training, human intelligence, and SOF. Such a military should secure the U.S. from traditional threats and would acknowledge that the military is not the primary tool for dealing with the terrorism threat — either domestically nor internationally. Captain Joe Bouchard, USN (ret.), the Executive Director of the Center for Homeland Security and Defense (CHSD) at Zel Technologies, LLC, focused his remarks on the War on Terrorism. He began with the observation that the “War on Terrorism” is the wrong phrase because it implies that there is a military solution to the problem when there is not one. “What we are in these days is a clash of ideas, a clash of ideologies.” Relating this to Peña’s argument, he asserted that the offshore balancing approach is too state-centric. The ideological nature of our current protracted conflict requires active engagement around the world. He agreed that the defense budget could be reduced, but that a lot of restructuring needed to take place. He disagreed with the notion that the military should not play a large role in homeland security. Bouchard argued that the homeland arena is one area where we could lose militarily. Northern Command and the National Guard should play expanded roles and the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be abolished.
Eugene Gholz, Assistant Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin and a Research Associate of MIT’s Security Studies Program, agreed with much of Pena’s position. Gholz argued that the U.S. should be militarily “prudent” rather than “proactive.” Geographical space and distance allow us the opportunity not to act in crises or against threats that are peripheral to our security. A strategy of prudence would allow us to sit back and gather and process information about threats or potential threats. Increased information would allow us to make wiser defense investments. The quality of information would be improved “by developing a variety of views and interpretation and having real competition to understand the threat position the Americans face.” While critics might label this as risky, Gholz proclaimed that it is the status quo that is risky because it assumes that we have enough information about threats to make responsible choices. Cutting back missions would go hand-in-hand with cutting the defense budget. Lastly, he called for a reduced emphasis on jointness in the military. “One of the key ways that we can diversify our portfolio of watching other countries and paying attention to what the emerging threats are and figuring out our best response to them is if we have multiple systems being developed by different services, multiple sets of equipment, and multiple organizational cultures that are paying attention to different threats,” said Gholz. This would allow us to diversify our portfolio of strategic and military capabilities and potential responses.
Defense Strategy in the Post-Saddam Era
Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow of Foreign Policy Studies and The Sydney Stein, Jr. Chair at the Brookings Institution, delivered the luncheon keynote address. He focused on scenarios that might affect the future of American military strategy and places where we may have to fight.
Low Plausibility/Low Concern Scenarios
(1) Defending the Baltic states from a Russian invasion. O’Hanlon argued that economic coercion against Russia would be the primary response against any such eventuality.
(2) Defending Russia (primarily Siberia) from a Chinese invasion. Again, an economic response such as a blockade or global economic sanctions would be most appropriate.
(3) Defending a reunified Korea against a Chinese land invasion because of historical border disputes. He argued that this was extraordinarily unlikely because “China is going to have a lot of other more plausible and appealing places to apply military leverage, if it ever decides it wants to.” Disputes over the resources on the seabed were more likely in his opinion.
Sufficiently Plausible/Sufficiently Important Scenarios
(4) China using an economic blockade and coercion against Taiwan in the event that Taiwan pushes more ambitiously for independence. Any blockade of Taiwan scenario would be challenging to our Navy and Air Force because it would necessitate maintaining an air supremacy, naval blockade breaking capability in the western Pacific for many, many months while China would be able to control escalation at times and places of its choosing.
(5) Intervening in Indonesia or the Philippines to prevent al Qaeda from taking large swaths of territory. This would require a lot of stability operations capability and ideally would be carried out at the invitation of the host country and as part of a multinational coalition. That said, under certain circumstances we might have to go in without permission.
(5a) An island in, or near, the Indonesian or Malacca Straits falling under the control of a Jihadi group threatening international shipping. In this scenario, O’Hanlon asserted that we would have the option of sailing around the lanes, even though it would be less economically efficient. (6) Intervening to ensure that neither Indonesia nor the Philippines become failed states. Both nations are too important to our global interests to allow them to fail, particularly if such state failure spread jihadi influence.
(7) The complete collapse of nuclear armed Pakistan. “Nuclear weapons in the hands of Pakistani Jihadis would be directly threatening to the United States in a way that would send chills up my spine … I think it would be actually a greater threat to our core security than almost any attack on any overseas ally that I can think of in a more classic sense,” said O’Hanlon.
(8) Nuclear war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. If a limited nuclear exchange occurred perhaps an international trusteeship for Kashmir could be set in place to alleviate the necessity of either country to concede defeat. A robustly sized force would be needed to rigorously control the borders.
(9) U.S. preemptive action against Iranian nuclear installations in response to increased Iranian support for terrorism and their making blatant progress towards a nuclear weapon. Iran’s reaction would likely be twofold: (a) they will continue their nuclear program in a slower manner with public support and (b) doing something else such as fomenting “more trouble inside of Iraq, to supporting more anti-Israeli terror, to attacking our interests in the Persian Gulf.”
(9a) Iran shutting down the Strait of Hormuz. This would require a more robust Navy presence in the Gulf for an extended period of time with a lot of quick response capacity to intercept ballistic missiles, to try to intercept anti-ship cruise missiles, and to be responsive against any submarines that would try to do a quick ambush and then retreat.
(10) An international trusteeship for Palestine. If the peace process broke down or stalled, this scenario, in the future, might be feasible.
(11) A jihadi coup in Saudi Arabia. This might put the eastern oil fields at risk and in today’s world the loss of that oil supply would jeopardize the global economy. The U.S. would consider unilateral intervention if no other options were available. Hopefully future energy conservation and alternative energy production would allow for a time lag that might allow the situation to work itself out internally and, if not, would allow for the development of multilateral (for legitimacy purposes) intervention force.
According to O’Hanlon, “looking out over the future, I see all four of our Services as equally important for American national security, and I see high-end combat almost as important as it has been historically. Low-end or complex combat contingencies are more important than before, but not so much more important that we can ignore the old fashioned stuff.” The U.S. must maintain robust forces across a wide range of capabilities. There are no easy choices in the defense budget because we have to keep doing a lot with limited resources.
Countering an Aggressive Rising Power
Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow in defense and security policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of Armed Forces Journal, started off by arguing that the search for strategic wisdom must begin with looking at ourselves rather than looking outward. According to Donnelly, for Americans of the post-Cold War generation “the goal of our strategy has been to preserve the amazingly free, generally pretty peaceful and extraordinarily prosperous era that has been occasioned by the collapse of the Soviet empire.” Maintaining American preeminence or primacy applies equally to the Clinton Administration as it does to that of Bush 43. Other members of the international community, however, see the expansion of our values (read: democracy) as threatening.
For Donnelly, there are three categories of international actors that fit the definition of aggressive rising powers and are threats to American primacy. First and foremost is the People’s Republic of China. That country’s remarkable economic growth, population, and rapidly modernizing military make it a rising great power. They are not simply a rising East Asian power; they are a rising global power with global interests — particularly in the international economy. Next, al Qaeda and radical Islamism are an aggressive rising great power. While they currently lack a state their long-term goal is the establishment of a Caliphate in the Middle East. Last, are weak states like Iran, North Korea, and possibly Pakistan. By traditional measures of power they don’t rate such status, but the acquisition of nuclear weapons has turned the traditional calculus of the balance of power on its head. “Their very weakness becomes the thing that is most of concern and most disruptive to the international order and to us in the United States,” said Donnelly.
The U.S. should follow three imperatives. The first should be to try to keep these problems as separate from one another as is possible. Next, we need to pull together a set of alliances or a global alliance to try to help preserve Pax Americana and the peace. He sees Great Britain, Japan, and India, along with the United States, as members of an emerging global alliance held together by strategic interests (vis-à-vis China and the Middle East), a dedication to liberal democracy, and a continuing commitment to the legitimacy of military force as a tool of statecraft. Last, the United States needs to have a domestic dialogue about strategy making.
Militarily, he sees the capabilities-based approach as ineffectual. We need to think geopolitically and strategically about the conflicts we are most likely to be involved in and structure forces appropriately. Crediting the Rand Corporation’s Andrew Hoehn with the concept, Donnelly stated that the U.S. needed to shift to a posture of “lateral jointness.” In other words, the Army and Marine Corps would focus on missions in the Middle East, the Navy (and also the Marine Corps) would focus on East Asia, and aerospace power would provide global fire support and reconnaissance. He insisted that dealing with the third tier of rising powers would be labor intensive and there would be no quick fixes.
Brigadier General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., USAF, appearing in a personal capacity, began by acknowledging that there is debate within the military between those who see irregular warfare as the future and those who see Iraq as “the last war.” He liked Donnelly’s notion of a balance of power that favors freedom, but added that is also the freedom to hate us. He also approved of Donnelly’s raising the issue of China. Confrontation is not inevitable, but it might be possible if China sees it as a pragmatic way of achieving their ends. Competition over resources, and particularly energy resources, would likely be the number one driver of future conflict in Sino-American relations. We need increased cultural understanding of Chinese notions of nationalism and feelings of victimhood. General Dunlap agreed that the capabilities-based approach to force structure needed to be taken off the table; threats need to be examined and prioritized. Concluding his remarks, he argued that the strength of the United States is in the free enterprise system premised upon competition. Taking this into the military realm, he agreed with Donnelly and others that there needed to be more competition in the realm of ideas and divisions of labor amongst the services so that more the clash of ideas and divergent military theories flourished to produce greater efficiency and effectiveness.
Daryl G. Press, an Associate Professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a Research Associate of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, agreed with Donnelly’s emphasis on more traditional threats by major powers in the future. Paying too much attention or placing too much emphasis on non- traditional threats now might lead us to develop the wrong suite of capabilities for ten or fifteen years down the road, when we may be dealing with major powers that have conflicting interests with ours. But Press had four concerns with a strategy of primacy. First, while it is currently indeterminate whether China will or will not become a threat, pursuing policies such as building an encircling alliance around China might greatly increase the probability of conflict or long-term friction in Sino-American relations. Second, primacy will weaken the incentives of our potential allies to stand with us or help us confront mutual threats that do arise. Third, “a militarily active approach in the Persian Gulf is not well connected to our interests and actually causes us more problems than it solves.” Too much of an American presence fuels support for al Qaeda and weakens the legitimacy of governments in the region who have their own reasons to go after jihadis. Last, while we have a strong interest in the current war of ideas, primacy takes an overly aggressive and counter-productive approach to promoting our values. Our ideology, said Press, “doesn’t need to be spread at the barrel of a gun.” There are more useful political, economic, and humanitarian tools to spread our values.
Balanced Force Structure to Achieve Liberal World Order
Colonel Mackubin Thomas Owens, USMCR (ret.), the Associate Dean of Academics for Electives and Directed Research and Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College and a non-resident Senior Fellow of the FPRI, asserted that there is a “more balanced form of primacy that is based on hegemonic stability theory that is not necessarily aggressive, but its primary purpose is to underwrite the kind of liberal world order that most of us would like.” Presently the United States faces the same sort of situation that Great Britain found itself in at the end of the 19th Century — confronting a rising Germany and policing their empire. The security environment poses the possibility of a high-end threat from a country like China and low-end threats from state and non-state actors. In the military domain, the United States must be able to react to and deal with both of those types of threat well; that is, we must practice “strategic pluralism” rather than “strategic monism.”
The U.S. military must avoid preparing for the wars that it wants to fight rather than the wars it is going to have to fight. Even after 9/11 the military has focused too much expenditure on high-end threats. In order to minimize irregular threats and counter a rising China and develop a liberal world order, we must invest in providing security that is necessary for prosperity and economic advancement. Endorsing the views of Thomas Barnett, Owens’ said that we must “export security from the core … on the one hand, to try to make that part of the world more secure, and at the same time, take whatever steps are necessary to try to accommodate the rise of China.” Problems arise, however, if China does not want to be accommodated.
A strategy of balanced primacy will require robust forces and investment. The Army will probably need at least 48 maneuver brigades — an addition of 5 brigades from current planning — and the National Guard should focus on homeland security. The Marine Corps would maintain its current size but would bifurcate its roles to focus on expeditionary capabilities on the one hand and act as “colonial infantry” on the other. Naval forces will be critical for power projection. The size of the Navy should remain about the same as it is today — which provides about seven times the firepower as the larger Navy of the 1980s — but we need more capabilities such as the Littoral Combat Ship to operate closer to shore. The Air Force will require long- range bombers for strike and loitering capabilities and some F22s — although fewer than are presently proposed. In the nuclear arena we need smaller yield warheads on deep penetrators to get at targets that are difficult to reach. SOF should not be expanded too much, nor too quickly, in order to avoid a qualitative tradeoff in their capabilities. Overall, the most important thing we can do is maintaining properly trained forces that are survivable on a lethal battlefield.
Maintaining and cultivating allies is important to the overall strategy. We must do whatever we can to attract allies to “bandwagon” with us. For all the talk about the problems of primacy, Owens pointed out that no one has tried to counterbalance against us. To conclude his remarks he argued that in order to fund the strategy of balanced primacy the U.S. would probably need to maintain a defense investment of at least 4.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product. The costs of balanced primacy in terms of budget deficits, and so on, are not overwhelming because “the idea of primacy and economic prosperity are self-reinforcing.”
Elizabeth A. Stanley, an Assistant Professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University, argued that the United States needed balanced national power capabilities rather than larger balanced military capabilities. She stressed that primacy was not sustainable economically (particularly as federal entitlements expand after 2011) nor domestically (over costs and casualties) and may not be the best way to plan forces under current uncertainty. Currently our forces are over committed around the globe. The threats we have today, even traditional threats, are transnational in nature. Stanley argued that these threats are best dealt with in four ways: (1) in a preventive proactive way, (2) multilaterally, (3) across elements of national power, and (4) we must be willing to work with people while respecting their dignity and preferences so as not to exacerbate grievances and resentments.
Because of the underlying ends-means mismatch, she contended that the U.S. military should use Stephen Peter Rosen of Harvard University’s approach of “type two” planning under uncertainty. This path would allow us to hedge against risk by using resources to buy information about what is technologically feasible on the battlefield and also advanced strategic warning intelligence capabilities rather than investing in capabilities that might be wrongly suited to the emerging strategic environment. Finally, the U.S. needs to recognize that the world is a complex, interrelated system and that the best strategy to deal with this is to work with allies and third parties to attack contributors to world instability and disruptions.
Bruce Berkowitz, a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, observed that the current environment, as opposed to the Cold War period, makes force planning more difficult for three reasons. First, there are more fundamentally different types of opponents (e.g., North Korea, Al Qaeda, possibly China, etc.). The U.S. has not figured out how to link offensive and defensive capabilities and because there are so many threats we cannot design a total force capable of dealing all of them. Second, the very nature of asymmetric threats “makes it difficult to measure what you need to do to deter your opponent, because he is actively taking steps to make that calculation certainly difficult to calculate, and also much more difficult to define.” Last, it is very difficult to measure the critical capabilities of cultural intelligence, tracking individuals, and appropriate levels of language skills. Berkowitz argued that for these reasons the U.S. had to rely upon a capabilities-based approach. Capabilities have to be measured against what we think are useful against most of the opponents we face today and assess those against what we have and then decide upon an investment strategy. He identified precision strike and intelligence persistence (i.e., the ability to surveil or gather intelligence on a given area or target for a long period of time) as two useful, measurable capabilities that we have today and need to develop more of. The Regional Combatant Commanders, as consumers of capabilities, needed to have input into force structure requirements.
A Smaller Military to Fight the War on Terrorism, by Charles V. Peña
Private Military Companies and the Future of War, by Deborah Avant
The Mismatch Between National Security Needs and Resources, by Murray Weidenbaum
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