Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Defense Showstoppers: National Security Challenges for the Obama Administration–A Conference Report

Defense Showstoppers: National Security Challenges for the Obama Administration–A Conference Report

On February 12, 2009, FPRI’s Program on National Security held a conference on potential “defense showstoppers” for the Obama administration–critical issues that, if not fixed, could lead to a serious deterioration of American military capabilities. The event was hosted and co-sponsored by the Reserve Officers Association in Washington, D.C. Program-affiliated scholars Michael Horowitz, Michael P. Noonan, Mackubin T. Owens, and Frank G. Hoffman served as panel moderators. More than 100 individuals from academia, government, NGOs, the media, the military, and the public participated in person, and another 300-plus individuals from around the world participated by webcast. Audio and video files of the proceedings are posted at FPRI’s website; the papers presented at the conference will be published in Orbis and other outlets.

FPRI thanks W.W. Keen Butcher, Robert L. Freedman, Hon. John Hillen, Bruce H. Hooper, and Dr. John M. Templeton, Jr. for their support of the Program on National Security. The views expressed herein are those of the speakers and should not be construed to represent any agency of the U.S. government or other institution.

What follows is a summary of the major panel presentations and discussions.

PANEL 1: How Will We Fight?

Colonel T.X. Hammes, USMC (ret.), author of The Sling and the Stone, opened by noting that the U.S. has no national strategy, but rather a series of goals with no ways or means assigned to them. He argued that the Department of Defense must return to threat-based analysis after the past decade of capabilities-based analysis that he labeled “a bad fantasy.” His assumptions were that the U.S.: (1) will remain engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan; (2) will remain committed to globalization; (3) will be unable to afford its current procurement plans; and (4) will not significantly increase its defense budget.

Hammes foresees four types of probable threats: conventional conflicts, insurgencies, hybrid wars, and terrorism. While China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea are commonly listed as conventional opponents, Hammes doubted that the U.S. would be drawn into direct ground combat with any of them. And while China may be an attractive enemy for force-sizing or budgetary reasons, it is “clearly the dragon versus the whale. It’s hard for either of us to get at the other. What we can do is stay around the perimeter, and that’s why they’re focused on… anti-access program[s].”

As for insurgencies, we are currently involved with two, and others will likely grow. The biggest military shortfall in this area is the lack of advisors, but the biggest problem is that “We are not ready to do the interagency response that’s required, and that will take years to do.” Hammes defined hybrid war as a mix of conventional and unconventional tactics. It is not new, but the concept is useful because “it’s essential you understand you are fighting against a range of enemies.”

Last, terrorism will always be a problem as long as there are angry people. He argued, “They are going to at some point get lucky. WMD are coming, particularly biological.” Serious research is needed in this area, he said.

According to Hammes, DoD’s priorities should be: nuclear deterrence, protecting the global commons, conducting counterinsurgency, homeland security response and recovery, force projection, missile defense in the medium to long term, and a different approach to counterterrorism that doesn’t absorb so much money and quality personnel. His preference is for a balanced, medium-weight force that can fight both state and non-state enemies. A balanced force is needed because “Prognosticators don’t get it right! If you look decade by decade at who the [British] thought they were going to fight, they were consistently wrong.” The Army, he said, should move back to the more flexible and balanced “line division” model the Marine Corps employs, because these types of units “are just a big toolbox. You don’t have to deploy the whole division. You deploy the parts.” The Navy, for its part, should focus on the tough mix of operating in deep water at standoff distances and littoral and riverine missions. Standoff, base hardening, unmanned combat aerial vehicle heavy bombers, and tankers, along with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, should be the Air Force’s priorities. That service, according to him, “probably has the most challenging investment portfolio to manage.” The National Guard and federal Reserves should be strategic rather than operational reserve forces. Furthermore, they should have primary responsibility for response and recovery, with at least one brigade trained and focused on such duties in each FEMA district. Hammes concluded that we must “balance the force. Plan for significant budget restrictions, and then hedge against the price.”

Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed with much of Hammes’ remarks. Specifically, he agreed that the hybrid form of warfare had always been an important warfare form and that while recently states have been moving towards “guerrilla modes of operation,” “non-state actors are able to adopt some of the more important features of the war making of states.” He also agreed there was a need for medium-weight forces and was against capabilities-based planning. But he said, “the reality of the situation is that the future of warfare–looking out past Iraq and Afghanistan–really is more differentiated than the low-intensity transformation school often claims. The future of warfare is not exclusively asymmetric or irregular conflict. There really will be other opponents out there who will fight differently than that. The trouble is we’re not waging that war right now.” According to Biddle, in order to be prepared for those different realities, the U.S. “may just get stuck with the requirement for two transformations, which is not uncommon in military history for wartime great powers.”

Lieutenant Colonel Roger Carstens, USA (ret.), a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, also agreed with much of Hammes’ presentation. Addressing Special Operations Forces (SOF), he noted that the U.S. has very capable SOF forces for addressing myriad threats, but there are some problems. “The Special Operations Command was given a lot of extra ‘umph,’ you could say–extra authorities, extra resources, by way of the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review and by way of some good hard work from the Pentagon and Congress. Unfortunately, we didn’t always get it right…. We’re still low on helicopters. We’re low on unmanned aerial systems. We’re low on intelligence analysts.” He also noted that there was still some internal debate within SOF about whether to focus on direct action or on the so-called indirect approach of working by, with, and through foreign forces. Lack of enablers and suboptimal partnering arrangements, according to Carstens, are negatively impacting SOFs’ ability–and particularly Army Special Forces’ ability–to conduct such indirect missions.

​PANEL 2: At What Cost?

​Lieutenant Colonel Frank G. Hoffman, USMCR (ret.), a senior fellow of the FPRI and a research fellow at Quantico’s Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities, noted approvingly that Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ recent Foreign Affairs piece called for a return to the basics of strategic planning, taking into account resource constraints.[1] “The essence of strategy is the ability to make decisions … with scarce resources, with risk assessments, and with constrained dollars.” But too often this is forgotten.

U.S. defense spending, he argued, must be balanced and sustainable. Currently DoD has a spending ratio of 17:1 compared to other agencies. At present we are well prepared, stocked, and organized for fighting wars, but not as prepared for preventing wars or for responding to homeland security contingencies. Furthermore, while dependence on supplemental funding and deficit spending is acceptable during crises, it is not an acceptable way to do future business. He pointed out that the national debt over the past eight years had nearly doubled to $11 trillion and that by 2012-14 our debt will be roughly 120 percent of GDP–the same level we were at in 1946. But today we account for only 20 percent of world gross domestic output versus nearly 50 percent at the end of World War II. Mounting debt, growing interest payments on debt, and a bulge in entitlement payouts such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid worry Hoffman for the effect they might have on the DoD and the defense industrial base.

As to arguments that we should spend more money on defense, he noted that we are spending more than the next 22 nations combined and that the Pentagon has not wisely managed the resources it already has. Citing a GAO report, Hoffman argued, “in the last eight years, cost overruns, decision making, cost estimates, and perhaps mismanagement … have cost us three years of capital investment in the Pentagon.” Hoffman called for strategic solvency and said that the most important thing the Obama administration can do is “get us out of the red–metaphorically, strategically, economically and militarily.” He sees DoD making a contribution to such solvency with a defense budget of $460 billion a year–a 10 percent reduction in real terms over today’s level, with the bigger contribution coming from the rest of government and particularly from entitlement programs.

In order to realize these cost savings, he called for a reduction in: foreign basing (particularly in Europe and Korea), strategic force levels, and programs such as the Joint Strike Fighter and Future Combat System. Hoffman also offered a framework for allocating funding for future defense investments which reduced funding for traditional warfighting to enhance funding for irregular warfare, cyber warfare and sci-tech, particularly in the realms of nanotechnology, biological weapons, robotics, and directed energy systems.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a senior policy analyst for defense and homeland security issues at the Heritage Foundation, agreed that future defense budgets will be most affected by federal government discretionary spending related to the deficit and the rising costs of mandatory expenditures such as servicing the national debt and entitlements. However, she argued that the most significant problem is negative GDP growth. In the long term, economic growth is paramount to national well-being. Strategy must drive budgetary concerns, but “strategy always changes faster than force structure.” And even with a defense budget of more than $500 billion, there are still many unfunded areas that deserve attention. While increased competition and deregulation in the defense industrial community can save money, there are no quick fixes. In the final analysis, “a disconnect exists between the civilian population and the day-to-day obstacles facing the military. Many Americans may not perceive the same current or future threats as defense leaders, making them unable to properly approve the types of capabilities the military must possess…. [T]he ongoing war is not over, and the stakes extend to their lives, liberty and future prosperity.”

Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the CATO Institute and a former Navy officer, agreed with much of what Hoffman had said, but felt that “a majority of the American people do not believe that the costs of our current national strategy are outweighed by the benefits. Many, and I think most, Americans resent that our military is used primarily to protect other people’s governments, other people’s shores and air space and, increasingly, to rebuild other people’s nations.” Strategy must drive the budget, and we currently have a “gross mismatch between our on-paper foreign commitments and our physical military capacity and domestic political will to make good on those commitments.” But if there is not a fundamental shift in grand strategy in the Obama administration, “it will be extremely difficult and certainly unwise to reduce military spending to the levels that prevailed in the first years after the end of the Cold War because I don’t think it’s fair… to saddle our men and women in uniform with more missions and less money, as was done in the 1990s.”

Keynote Address: Joint Warfare in the 21st Century

General James N. Mattis, USMC, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Transformation and the Commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command, delivered the keynote address. General Mattis observed that like Janus of Roman mythology, we need to look to the past to look forward to the future. “The history that we have provides us some of our very best signposts for the future, especially if some of that history is very, very recent.” He stated that “Every military in history… that transformed, that changed, that modernized, did so on the basis of one thing: they identified a problem and solved it.” He added, “Everything I’ve learned in 35 years of wearing this uniform could be summed up in three words: when you go into a fight, improvise, improvise, improvise.”

Of course, one tries to anticipate things ahead of time. The U.S. military, said Mattis, has addressed this by developing the Joint Operating Environment to look at how our forces are employed today and how the joint force will operate in the future through testing and experimentation. Getting these concepts wrong incurs a high cost on the force, and while one can never get it 100-percent correct, “we just don’t want to get it completely wrong.”

The U.S. will wage warfare in the 21st century as a part of coalitions and must be prepared to engage enemies in “hybrid conditions.” General Mattis argued that “we do not want the U.S. forces to be dominant and irrelevant in the future,” something that could happen if we don’t get the problem and the solution right. Our forces are superior in conventional warfare, but “the area that we are not superior in is irregular warfare, and we are going to make irregular warfare… a core competency of U.S. military.”

We will need to find a right mix of soft and hard power, he said. Much of our forces will need to be able to fight across the entire spectrum of threats. “So the bottom line is we’ve identified what we think is the fundamental problem, which is gaining competency at the national level and right down to the tactical level under the strategic tactical compression in irregular warfare, without surrendering our nuclear superiority and our conventional superiority, behind which the international community gains great benefit.” The recent war in Georgia, he concluded, served as a reminder that we “surrender our superiority in conventional war at our own peril.”

​PANEL 3: Who Will Fight for Us?

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy, director of research for the 21st Century Defense Initiative, and the Sydney Stein, Jr. Chair at the Brookings Institution, opened by commending the rapid pace of organizational learning that has taken place in the military over the past several years. Overall, he said, the force was currently in “pretty good shape.” Smart, young, and career-oriented people are joining and middle-aged people are staying in the force and doing effective work, but the quality of command leadership has been uneven.

Not long ago, O’Hanlon said, he was very worried about readiness indicators and the quality of the modestly sized (compared to the total populace) force, but things have improved. Of course, he noted, some of this can be attributed to the state of the U.S. economy, but success in Iraq has made it easier to recruit because success sells, and there was an idea that the pace of deployments might ease up. While problems on the personnel front were never quite as bad as they were portrayed, he said, there are still some concerns relating to rising service member suicide and divorce rates, percentages of those severely affected by post-traumatic stress disorder, and, perhaps in the long-term, slipping levels of skills for traditional high-end warfighting.

He stated that a better job needed to be done by the military health system at taking care of Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Some sort of voucher system for mental health issues might be useful, to provide service people “more freedom to get the mental health care they need–wherever they need it, from whomever.”

O’Hanlon also discussed the issue of fairness and military service in the all-volunteer force. While he noted that it is not fair that so few out of so many serve, the issue of effectiveness is crucial. He felt that it was not quite time to lower the quality of the force and hinder effectiveness by making some kind of military service compulsory. He pointed to the military’s ability to improve the situation in Iraq over the past few ways as an example of why now is not the time to implement mandatory service.

Colonel Thomas McNaugher, USAR (ret.), senior principal researcher and director of the Supply Chain Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, agreed with O’Hanlon on the notion of fairness, but noted that the U.S. “is not a nation that ever buys a worst-case ground force”. At the same time, he felt the all-volunteer force had professionalized to the point where “the operational routines are so complicated that I don’t know how you would put a large, young, largely untrained draft force back into this without significant change in the military.”

The Army’s force size coming into the 21st century (482,000 Soldiers) was set for a style of war that was “nasty, brutish, and short,” but now we find ourselves using this force for wars that are “nasty, brutish, and long.” While former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s departure allowed for an increase in Army end-strength, people are still very expensive. In addition, the Reserve Component has shifted from a strategic to an operational reserve and that has caused some friction that may not be sustainable in the long-term. While the recession, along with a downturn in casualties abroad, has helped for recruiting and expanding the size of ground forces, even an expanded force will have difficulties if mastery of too many styles of warfare is expected from it. Increased demands on service members may make us need to reconsider and lengthen the notion of what makes a military career. He concluded by discussing the issue of fairness and military service, saying, “One thing we all could do is maybe pay for the war… instead of having our kids pay for it and our grandkids pay for it. We could at least start there.”

Frederick W. Kagan, a resident scholar in defense and security policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed with O’Hanlon that too much has been made about the lack of quality in the force. “The notion of the reduction of quality of force does not survive contact with the force…. This is the best Army that has ever existed from the standpoint of carrying out the kinds of missions that it’s carrying out…. There has never been a better force than this, so whatever we’ve been doing has not been harming the quality of the force on the ground.” However, he was adamant that both ground forces and the defense budget are too small. Iraq and Afghanistan “are… the first wars that we’ve fought, to my knowledge, for which we have not mobilized at all beyond those who have already volunteered for service, and we have not increased taxes to pay for them and we have not increased baseline defense spending by any measurable margin. We’ve tried to do all of this year to year on the cheap–we’ve tried to slide through.” He concluded by saying that if we can spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the economic stimulus, then we can spend more on defense, which will have a positive economic effect and meet “national security interest[s] and a moral imperative” for the U.S.

​PANEL 4: Brother, Do You Have a DIME?

Janine Davidson, an assistant professor of public policy at the George Mason University, former Air Force office, and the author of The Fog of Peace (forthcoming), began by thanking both the men and women in uniform and the civilians operating side-by-side with them. “It reminds me of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. They say that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. Think about deploying to the field the way some of these civilians do, without the kind of support that the military has, … without health care, without the life insurance that the military has, without logistical support and, most of all, without the understanding and the appreciation from the American people that the military gets today.”

She cautioned that interagency structures and architectures might not be the most important areas of emphasis. “We can get more people from more agencies. We can spend a lot of money. But once we get there, if they’re operating off of different sheets of music, then we’re no better off, so it doesn’t really matter what our architecture looks like.” In addition, there are several uncomfortable truths. First, the U.S. is still at war and the economy is in crisis, so even if we wanted to reorganize at this time we might be unable to afford it. Next, the U.S. government’s system of checks and balances rightfully places brakes upon optimizing bureaucratic and organizational efficiency. Reform is hard and takes time. Last, enthusiasm for reforming the system gives some people an excuse for not working on the things that need to get done while they await the 100-percent solution. “We can’t afford to wait but we can’t really afford to start over, either.”

With the above in mind, she focused on four things already in place or that could be implemented to improve interagency performance. First, we should expand the definition of “veteran” status and benefits to civilians working in the conflict zone and extend to them the support they need in the field. Next, we should modify and fund the Consortium for Complex Operations as an interagency hub for capturing and disseminating lessons learned. We must also continue to do the “heavy thinking” on developing and improving interagency doctrine. “A lot of people like to pooh-pooh doctrine… [but] like planning, it’s the process sometimes that’s almost more important or at least as important as the product.” Last, we need to expand upon and improve civilian expeditionary capacity and the Provincial Reconstruction Team models.

In doing all this, however, we need to take a number of steps, argued Davidson. One of them is to clean up our terminology. Terms such as “shaping,” “pre-conflict,” and “irregular warfare” can have negative effects on relationships with allies and host-nation governments. Another is to reexamine the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization and re-craft it in order to make it work. Finally, Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds need improved coordination in order to better target them to achieve strategic objectives.

She concluded by stating that we must do a better job at building government strategic planning from the top, improving information sharing across diverse actors in the field that can be hindered by different forms of cyber security and encryption, and improving the Interagency Management System for contingency planning and crisis management. “We shouldn’t confuse our frustration over this problem set with the fact that what we’re trying to do around the world and in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially, is just really hard.”

Ambassador Thomas Schweich, a visiting professor of law and ambassador in residence at Washington University in St. Louis, opened by noting that during his service in the George W. Bush administration as ambassador for counternarcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan, the Washington interagency process was by far the toughest part of his job which also included working in Afghanistan and coordinating with European allies. He described the interagency process–both in the U.S. and in dealing with allies–as either “uncoordinated lack of action” or “action without coordination.” In the U.S. the National Security Council “has the coordinating role among the interagency, but …the way it was formed and staffed, it wasn’t really designed for coordinating major roles all at once.” Enforcement of agency behavior is also difficult. Bureaucratic infighting and funding imbalances, Schweich said, are major factors affecting interagency relations. There has to be a “better recognition of how the funding ought to flow so that the experts can actually do the job.” Lack of strategy, he added, is not always the problem. The problem often is the lack of implementation and the unwillingness of some actors within the interagency process to be followers, rather than leaders.

Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, USA (ret.), a writer, strategist, and commentator, stated that “Woody Allen famously said that 90 percent of life is just showing up. Well, so is the interagency.” He argued that the Army and Marine Corps does not want to be in charge on the ground, but that if no one else shows up, then they are the American representatives by default. He felt that CERP funds needed to be directed by commanders at the tactical level. Furthermore, he argued that the military does not have to be in the supporting role in counterinsurgency operations, calling its role that of “a deep, firm foundation without which everything collapses.” One could pull out from Iraq or Afghanistan State, DEA, or Treasury, and the effort would have problems, but it would not collapse. “Pull out the military, and see what works.” What is important is for a clear chain of command, not necessarily military, to be in place.

Peters cautioned those who point to the General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker model in Iraq should be careful. “Don’t institutionalize something that worked because of a wonderful personal relationship. Those guys were the best tag team in modern U.S. history, but normally somebody’s got to be in charge.” Strategy and strategic planning, rather than increased resources, are key for getting things done. “The interagency is like herding cats, and when you come to the table, you can’t just come with a set of emotional beliefs and prejudices. You’ve got to come with skills and abilities.”


Harvey Sicherman, the president of FPRI, summed up the panel discussions as follows:

  • Roles and Missions. “The thesis was put forward that we need a balance of capabilities that is somehow going to be derived from less money, to which we have to apply certain hedges. But there was a big argument over the relationship between what we had to do to fight the current conflicts and the changes that we have to make for the future. So the transformation notion is now breaking down into two segments–the current battle and problems of the future.”
  • Defense Economics and Procurement. “It was pointed out that while the defense budget is a smaller percentage of GDP than it used to be, it is in gross terms higher, and it has to be placed in the context of the general federal budget crunch, which might be described best as entitlements versus the rest. The U.S. spends what is equal to 22 of the next highest level of expenditures by other countries, but we do not pass the solvency test, which is the relationship between resources and what we have to do. The various reasons why include the ever more difficult procurement process. The general conclusion was that we are in a crucial phase of recapitalization that will be necessary after the recent strains and stresses.”
  • Joint Warfare in the 21st Century. “General Mattis gave us some idea of what he expects the operational environment to be in the future– coalition warfare, hybrid wars, that we had to make irregular warfare… a core competency. But we have to avoid, at all costs, a situation where we are dominant but irrelevant to the crisis that might confront us.”
  • Personnel. “It seems that we’re in better shape than we thought with respect to the force and our ability to get the right recruits into it and put the right people in the field. Nonetheless, an important social and ethical issue was raised, those having been done by so few for so long, along with the question what relationship that American society would have going forward with this kind of volunteer force. We don’t have the option anymore for expanding this force very rapidly through a draft, and the point was also made that we’re not doing enough for those who have been through the latest round of fighting, particularly after they come home.”
  • The Interagency Process. “We heard a presentation on truths, mainly the difficulties of the current situation, what has been done and done right, the people who were involved, the PRT model, and what needs to be undone, including the terminology and … what the core mission is actually supposed to do. The interagency process emerged from this discussion as an attempt to legislate leadership, and it is very important to note that in the absence of such leadership, what was at best a difficult system becomes rather impossible, so people go around it. But if this system were to work in the future, an important part of it would be to get people with some kind of an integrated background, and we were enlightened to the effect that the federal government is actually trying to do something about that.”

 Michael P.Noonan is managing director of FPRI’s Program on National Security and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

[1] Robert M. Gates, ” A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age ,” Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb. 2009.