Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Discriminate Power: A Strategy for a Sustainable National Security Posture
Discriminate Power:  A Strategy for a Sustainable National Security Posture

Discriminate Power: A Strategy for a Sustainable National Security Posture

This study began with the proposition that U.S. national security policy faces a looming means-ends gap with interlocking financial, political and strategic elements.  Left on its current trajectory, our posture will be unaffordable, misaligned to emerging challenges, and increasingly dominated by patterns of spending that do not directly support the most relevant forms of national power.  While fiscal and budgetary pressures are most immediate, more fundamental constraints lie in the rising multipolarity of the international system and the fact that leading challenges, from fragile states to cyber harassment, are less subject to influence by traditional instruments of statecraft.

The study concludes that the current debate over U.S. national security policy suffers from a false dichotomy:  that the United States can be “either” strong “or” discriminate and selective.  A basic conclusion of this analysis is that it can—and must—be both; that we can continue to play a vibrant global role while addressing the ways in which we pursue our objectives.  Austerity need not undermine what the United States does, if we are prepared to think creatively about how we do it.  We must deal with the widening gap between ends and means, not by abandoning American leadership, but by repeatedly asking how we can accomplish existing tasks in new ways.

The study undertook an assessment of the strategic environment over the next decade.  Basic findings included:

  1. The essential systemic reality of the coming decade is the emergence of a dominantly multipolar context.  More states and non-state actors want growing influence in setting norms and resolving complex challenges.  This reality demands a more shared approach to leadership, and investments in the tools to accomplish it—from vibrant diplomatic and economic instruments of power to personal relationships and international institutions.  The United States will have to be more comfortable in a catalytic role, allowing others to lead and to have the running room they increasingly desire.  Yet there is a clear tension:  Even as the environment demands working with partners, many emerging powers have not yet demonstrated a true appetite for leadership.

  2. The need to deter consciously-directed, aggressive inter-state war, while still an important role for U.S. power, is likely to remain moderate.  The potential for aggression will not disappear; in at least one context, the Korean Peninsula, it remains an urgent concern.  And the risk of conflict through inadvertent escalation is rising in some regions.  But the barriers to intentional major war—its declining utility, the likelihood of multilateral responses and continued U.S. military dominance—mean that, to the extent major military power can help deter it, this task is over-determined by U.S. military strength.

  3. This era will see growing risks, threats and opportunities in areas other than classic state-on-state conflict, such as cyber, biological pathogens, terrorism, identity politics and psycho-social grievances, space systems, economic aggression, and manipulating the information environment to affect societies.  These threats will underscore the growing vulnerability of advanced, networked societies to various forms of homeland attack and systemic volatility.  Increasingly political leaders and populaces may view these nontraditional threats as the leading security priority.

  4. An essential characteristic of the emerging environment is volatility—the potential for a wide range of developments and scenarios.  Over-investing in capabilities focused on one or a narrow range of possible futures risks being unprepared for the unexpected.

  5. Key categories of emerging technologies (robotics, cyber, 3-D printing, bio) will become more diffuse and allow a wide range of actors to have strategic effect.

  6. In dealing with issues ranging from disputes over territorial claims, fragile states, radicalism, nationalistic and prideful rising powers, and nontraditional security threats, the military instrument of power will be unable, on its own, to resolve problems.  Taking counterterrorism as an example, it is the combination of international financial enforcement, covert and clandestine operations, intelligence, multilateral coordination, and domestic law enforcement that will keep the United States secure.

  7. Socio-psychological forms of insecurity and conflict—from nationalism to resentment at the intrusive effects of globalization to grievances connected to economic crises—are likely to pose a serious danger over the next decade.

These realities suggest a number of major implications for strategy, which helped to guide the recommendations below.

  • Substantial and potentially growing sources of uncertainty, tension and volatility require a continuing American leadership role to help underwrite international order.  U.S. global interests and commitments leave its security bound up with the international system; aggressive retrenchment would create certain and unnecessary risk.

  • As a result, resolving the ends-means gap by abandoning ends—commitments—risks creating higher insecurity.  With means more constrained, the basic route to addressing the ends-means gap is through more innovativeways.  Key reforms lie not so much in what the United States seeks to do, but how it pursues those objectives.

  • The United States must improve its resilience in facing nontraditional security challenges.  The priority of these categories of national security, relative to regional contingencies, must continue to increase.

  • A central answer to uncertainty is to invest in flexible qualities and capabilities (including human capital and awareness) that provide responsiveness against many possible futures.

  • A fundamental strategic goal is to bring a number of key rising powers into the management of the international system in more profound ways.

  • The key challenges in the global environment prioritize a wide range of non-military tools of power.  The United States must develop synergistic combinations of civilian tools of statecraft, while the role of the Department of Defense must become more streamlined.

  • Emerging technologies in a variety of categories favor the small, fast and agile over the large, slow and ponderous.  This will demand a shift in U.S. approaches to defense planning.

  • The coming decade represents an opportunity to rebuild the foundations of U.S. strength and rebalance our assets to prepare for emerging threats, rather than to express the highest degree of deployable military power to deter immediate dangers.  Some of the most important emerging challenges do not require expensive capabilities centered on the Defense Department, but widely distributed, diverse investments across society.

On the basis of these findings, the U.S. global role should be guided by the strategic concept of discriminate power—the practice of sustainable global leadership through more collaborative, focused and selective ways, especially in the application of military power.  The United States could seek discrimination in three broad categories:

  • Pursuing targeted, catalytic areas of competitive advantage, both capabilities and practices, that we bring to relationships or challenges;

  • Pursuing existing goals and interests in more innovative, selective and asymmetrical ways, becoming more discriminate in our concepts for the application of power; and

  • Enabling and spurring others to do more in the combined, multilateral approach to crises, conflicts and persistent challenges.

The cardinal principle of strategy under this concept will be to discover the capabilities, issues, and moments that possess the highest leverage potential.  Cardinal mistakes will be wasting strategic effort on secondary problems, measured according to several criteria of significance and the potential of U.S. power to make a difference; investing in capabilities that can be neutralized with modest expenditures; or buying systems that achieve for vast expense and high sophistication what could be done for far less of both.

Based on the nature of the strategic environment and the concept of discriminate power, this report makes a number of recommendations for U.S. national security strategy.

  • The United States should modify its approach to forward presence to focus on more streamlined deployments optimized to develop the capacities of others rather than large-scale forces-in-being for the purposes of short-notice warfighting.

  • On technology and acquisition policy, the United States should pursue a “high-low mix” focused on tailored comparative advantages—keeping many highly-effective current systems or capabilities; buying a small handful of catalytic “wedge” systems at the high end; and pushing a general rule of “lowest cost / technology level necessary.”

  • The United States should deemphasize highly ambitious and resource-intensive concepts for employment of power in favor of more restrained and if possible asymmetric approaches that put the United States on the right side of cost-imposing dynamics.

  • Especially in its military services, the United States needs a reformed approach to personnel policies—career paths, qualifications for promotion, education and training—to provide more flexible, innovative careers that broaden perspectives and keep the prospect for senior leadership open to a wider range of personnel.

  • To maximize comparative advantages, the United States should prioritize its security investments in areas of particular strength and disproportionate impact.  Our judgment of the qualifying capabilities appears in the text box below.



Capabilities to Meet Security Challenges of Emerging Environment

  • Capacities for resilience against new array of threats to societies—cyber, bio, economic

  • Nonmilitary instruments of power—foreign service, aid, public diplomacy, economic diplomacy, capabilities that build networks and relationships, diplomatic organization and size to build new norms and rules of the road on key international issues; but reformed and rethought

Capabilities of Comparative Advantage

  • Diplomatic skill to build new norms and rules of the road on key issues
  • Human capital and quality of personnel
  • Research, development and innovation
  • Intellectual capital of the national security enterprise (education, training, research, awareness)
  • Global awareness—transparency, ISR, intelligence; increasingly open-source
  • Wedge capabilities in selected areas:  Advanced tactical air, C4/ISR
  • Timely stand-off strike
  • Survivable space systems
  • Classic Special Forces for training, partner relations, long-term advising
  • Maritime forces, though with different balance than today’s service


We believe that the United States can take additional risk over the coming decade in a number of specific areas of defense policy and capabilities.  These include:

  • The active/reserve balance in ground forces relative to expected long-term ground contingency risks, and particularly the role of the United States as provider of large-scale, short-term ground surge forces from the active inventory.

  • The use of aircraft carriers as on-station providers of deterrence and as the default timely strike platform in time of war, which would allow a reduction in their number.

  • The degree of investment in next-generation technologies now on the drawing board or beginning production as the centerpiece platforms for the next decade.  This requires a rethinking of the scope and scale of purchases of a number of leading-edge systems.

Based on these considerations, the leaders of the U.S. defense and security establishment could take several initial steps to signal the need for change in ways of doing business:

  • Develop new concepts of integrated civilian power across domains to achieve U.S. objectives and reflect U.S. presence in key regions.

  • Work with other agencies to help sustain and expand investment and a more coordinated interagency process on a key nontraditional security risk, such as biological pathogens.

  • Develop a plan to transform the military personnel system to promote creative and innovative career paths, sensible assignment patterns, and related goals.

  • Propose an initiative designed to symbolize a commitment to multilateral efforts, promotion of stability and crisis management; one example would be an open-access ISR and awareness network in the Pacific.

  • Develop an elaborated concept for timely, long-range strike across domains to bolster global deterrent and warfighting capacity when local deployments may shrink.

  • Reverse recent cuts in military education, research and exchange programs to promote critical thinking leaders across the national security enterprise.

  • Request a plan for the long-term collaborative enhancement of defensive area denial capabilities in the hands of allies and partners, such as an integrated BMD network in Asia.

  • Request a plan for increasing the emphasis on basic and applied research within Defense RDT&E as opposed to systems development.

  • Order the Army to go back to the drawing board on its plans for future combat vehicles.

  • Order the Navy to plan for a future fleet of similar overall size, but based on a more comprehensive power projection concept that relies less on large-deck carriers and restricts or eliminates further purchase of the Littoral Combat Ship.

  • Order the Air Force to develop a revised modernization plan using a modest purchase of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters as a “wedge” capability while continuing to modernize with additional purchases of current generation strike aircraft.