March 1, 2012  

Searching for a strategy

How to maintain global power in an age of austerity

The Defense Department faces cuts of at least $465 billion — and maybe twice that staggering sum — over the next decade. Experts have offered various ways to reduce manpower or costly programs to accommodate the new budget realities. Scholars and policymakers have recommended abandoning a strategy of engagement and forward presence, and adopting strategies that promise less expenditure, greater effectiveness and less risk.

However, strategies that focus narrowly on one region, one form of warfare or one mode of stationing are not likely to be the key to coping with a severe downturn in defense resources. Even the modest recommendations of the Pentagon’s new strategic guidance will require painful belt-tightening.

The issue is not about developing or managing a single force but four forces at once. There’s today’s force, still fighting a global war on terrorism and a war in Afghanistan; the next force, five to seven years out; and the force after next, out to 20 years. In addition to those three, the past force also has a claim on future defense resources. Planners will have to think hard about retiree and veterans’ benefits, but there is a dilemma: Keeping faith with past commitments will be essential to keeping a motivated force in the future, but controlling entitlements will be essential to prudent stewardship. Something will have to give.

We are not just cutting the budget — we are engaged in realigning the strategy, the defense program and the defense budget. How well we do this will be critical to global stability, deterrence and our ability, in extremis, to fight and win the nation’s wars, as well as to clean up after them. The strategic start and end points of the realignment should be the same: The U.S. must remain a superpower, which was originally defined by William T.R. Fox in 1944 as a nation that combines “great power with great mobility of power.” A more modern definition might be that a superpower is a global power in diplomatic, military and economic capabilities, including international finance. This level of national power will require a military component with multitheater, multicontingency capabilities, not just a one-theater dynamo or a hollowed-out leviathan.

Neo-isolationist strategies, however, have also come back in fashion among a minority of experts. For example, Andrew Bacevich in his 2010 book, “Washington Rules,” has criticized what he calls the “sacred trinity” of “global military presence,”“global power projection” and “global interventionism.” Citing the example of the founding fathers, Bacevich recommends a narrow view of vital interests, “dismantling the Pentagon’s sprawling network of existing [overseas] bases” and using force “as a last resort and only in self-defense.”

The imprudent application of American capabilities is the central problem, much more than the capabilities or basing modes. Having forces overseas may tempt us to use them, but not having capabilities at hand could prove fatal. Imagine in the war on terrorism if we had to rely only on defending the homeland. Imagine if we had let up on our offensive actions and given al-Qaida the freedom of action to attack the U.S. again, or to regain its bases in Afghanistan. Neo-isolationism will save money in the short term, but it is not likely to be the best strategy for protecting long-term American interests, nor the first choice among our allies.

Other strategists have recommended changes to accommodate fiscal realities or the emerging security environment. Three such strategies have some merit: 1) a focus on Asia-Pacific, 2) a strategy of offshore balancing, and 3) a reorientation of the force to optimize it for irregular warfare. Alone or in combination, however, they are not likely to provide a clear road map to solving our current resource problems.

asia-pacific focus

Numerous analysts — echoing the recommendations of John Lehman and Jim Webb in the 1980s — advocate more attention to the Asia-Pacific region. This vast region of regions includes dozens of countries, two oceans and a number of great powers: China, India, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Indonesia, as well as the U.S., whose territory extends thousands of miles into the Pacific Ocean. Citing U.S. interests, the region’s economic vibrancy and the key roles of the regional powers, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in the journal Foreign Policy that Asia-Pacific has become “a key driver of global politics” and a key to our future strategy:

“Over the last 10 years, we have allocated immense resources to those two theaters [Iraq and Afghanistan]. In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values. One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Other experts, less diplomatic than our secretary of state, see the emergence of China as a great power with a rapidly growing defense budget as a potential threat to the U.S. Harvard professor Stephen Walt wrote in the November/December issue of The National Interest, “Beijing’s military budget is rising by roughly 10 percent per year, and it is likely to convert even more of its wealth into military assets in the future. If China is like all previous great powers — including the United States — its definition of ‘vital’ interests will grow as its power increases — and it will use its growing muscle to protect an expanding sphere of interest.”

An influential Center for New American Security study, “Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity,” by retired Army Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, Nora Bensahel and Travis Sharp, was even more direct. Calling on the administration to prioritize key regions, they wrote: “The U.S. military should focus on the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean and broaden engagements along the Pacific Rim, largely through a stronger maritime and air presence as well as the strategic use of ground forces to support key allies.”

These Asia-Pacific proposals have much to recommend them and feature prominently in the Pentagon’s new strategic guidance. Wars in Central Asia and the Middle East have diverted us from the importance of the Asia-Pacific region. War-fighting requirements in Asia-Pacific are also the most difficult of any regional requirements, calling for long-range systems capable of dealing with highly capable near-peer and peer competitors. A war in Korea would be a war against a potent, and often bizarre, nuclear power. Finally, an Asia-Pacific focus by necessity favors the Navy and the Air Force, both of whom were bill payers for the war on terrorism.

Some caveats about an Asia-Pacific approach are in order. First, we are rich in allies in the Asia-Pacific region. The region is ripe for more concerted alliance activities. Developed nations such as South Korea, Japan and Australia — as well as our European allies — can help us do more for the common defense. It is also not clear if we put Asia-Pacific first whether we save any money. More ships and long-range air platforms may prove expensive. Raising the profile of the Asia-Pacific region will incur additional expenditures and complicate budget cutting.

Second, the prosperous areas of great power competition are not likely to be areas most prone to conflicts. For example, we fought in many places during the Cold War, but never in Europe, which was then our top regional priority. U.S. wars in the next decades are not likely to be in Asia-Pacific, although an improbable large-scale conflict there — in Korea or over Taiwan, for example — could easily threaten our most vital interests.

Finally, predicting conflicts is an uncertain art. We don’t have a good record of even being half right. In nearly all of our wars over the past six decades, there was surprise associated with either the locations where we would fight or the character of the war itself. The notion that somehow we can severely cut our small Marine Corps and Army in the future — or put much more of it into the reserves — also flies in the face of the experience.

Even the cuts called for in the new strategic guidance will incur considerable risk. Without exception, wars take place on or emanate from land. Most wars require ground forces, ours or someone else’s or both. Doing more for the Asia-Pacific region is essential, but a superpower must avoid a single-theater fixation. As a global power, we can’t put all of our eggs in one theater — or into two services.

offshore balancing

A number of scholars — Walt, John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape and Christopher Layne among them — have called for the adoption of a strategy of offshore balancing. Taking a page from Great Britain’s strategy in the 19th and early 20th century, offshore balancers avoid or abandon forward stationing and partner with strong regional powers. If regional balances are threatened, American leaders would direct mobile, offshore forces to intervene in the region to protect our interests. The advantages of this strategy are that it could be cheaper, and it removes the onerous presence of U.S. forces in areas where they may be unpopular. Not being forward deployed at all times may also reduce the temptation to intervene in some cases where our interests are unclear.

Walt, for example, points out that the U.S. had a low-cost, unobtrusive successful strategy of offshore balancing in the Middle East before the Gulf War. He recommends the readoption of this more modest approach on a larger scale in the future: “Instead of trying to be the ‘indispensable nation’ everywhere, the United States will need to figure out how to be the decisive power in the places that matter.”

This is sound advice, if we are able to figure out where the places that matter are going to be. For example, no major strategist would have singled out South Korea or Afghanistan as a likely destination for American combat troops in 1950 or 2001.

Among the other downsides of offshore balancing is that it has been known to fail as a deterrent. For example, British ground forces were underrated by their adversary and failed to deter conflict in both world wars. Offshore forces— such as U.S. carriers during the Indo-Pakistani War in 1971 — can give an ambiguous signal, whether or not such ambiguity is the intent. Being offshore may encourage some nations to bandwagon with America’s onshore competitors.

Offshore balancing also downplays peacetime diplomatic and military engagement, both of which in concert are important in reassuring allies, creating deterrence and posturing U.S. forces logistically for future operations. In many countries — Kuwait, Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea, for example — the presence of U.S. forces is highly valued by the governments and much of the population. Military-to-military contacts are valuable technically, but they also aid in the development of civil-military relations in democratizing states.

Finally, a strategy of offshore balancing is no guarantee of prudent decision-making in capitals. Presidents can blunder with onshore or offshore forces. Massive cuts may force us to consider offshore balancing as a global or regional approach, but advocates need to detail how this strategy might work in the 21st century. It remains to be determined how many formations and how much money can be saved by abandoning forward stationing in favor of offshore forces.

big and small wars

One final strategic notion starts with the belief that all future wars are likely to be irregular wars, and that we should therefore adapt our strategy and force structure to that fact, saving billions on high-tech systems and increasing spending on forces or gear to improve homeland defense and our mastery of war in the shadows. This notion — declining in popularity as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars fade — is premised on the fact that nations should prepare for the most likely conflicts. But this is only half the requirement. Nations must also prepare for the larger, less probable wars that may threaten their most important interests. Deterring or dealing with the largest and most destructive conflicts still requires considerable attention. Furthermore, insurgencies can be tackled at a number of levels. The best interventions here are early and small. Indeed, counterinsurgencies that feature long-duration, foreign expeditionary forces are problematic, costly and usually unsuccessful. In the future, expeditionary force counterinsurgency is much less likely than small-scale, training and advisory efforts — “COIN Lite.” Our recent efforts in Yemen and the Philippines are more likely to be the model for the future than our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

None of this should suggest that we should abandon our pursuit of excellence in irregular warfare. Abandoning the lessons of the immediate past would replicate the dysfunctional post-Vietnam experience of turning our backs on the important but costly and painful lessons that we learned. A 21st-century superpower must be able to operate successfully at every point on the spectrum of conflict, though not every unit or service member must have such qualifications. Continuing our pursuit of excellence in irregular warfare is an essential task for the future, even if not a strategy, per se.

Given our inability to predict the future, we must put a premium on having a balanced force, capable across the spectrum of conflict — a very tall order in a time of dwindling resources. Changing or altering our strategy, in and of itself, does not seem to be a silver bullet powerful enough to resolve the problems of the defense downturn. Regardless of old or new strategies, the Defense Department’s leadership will have to wrestle with the key issues on its plate, which include end-strength cuts; military entitlement reform; the fate of the most costly systems, such as the three versions of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; and the recapitalization of large segments of the force. As noted above, smaller, mobile forces might benefit from having an offshore strategy, but such a strategy will have to find ways to make up for the benefits of peacetime diplomatic and military engagement, as well as its lower capacity for the reassurance of allies.

An examination of alternative strategies, however, does point to some unexplored possibilities. Our allies all over the globe are our ace in the hole. Whether the issue is Europe, Asia-Pacific or the Middle East, we have greater possibilities for burden-sharing and combined action with powerful friends and allies. Our major potential adversaries — China, Russia and Iran, to name three — are all notable for their lack of potent and reliable state allies. Indeed, in the Asia-Pacific region, the emergence of Chinese power has sparked an upsurge in the attractiveness of defense relations with the U.S. All over Asia, smaller or less powerful states are growing wary of emerging Chinese power. Even North Vietnam, our toughest battlefield opponent in the latter half of the 20th century, now seeks deeper defense relations with the U.S.

A survey of strategies also reminds us of the importance of prudence. Bad intelligence, untested assumptions and imprudent objectives can make for poor decisions in Washington and disaster in the field. Whether we are focused on Asia-Pacific or the Middle East, whether our forces are onshore or offshore, in fighting wars or shaping peacetime programs, there is no substitute for high-quality decision-making that leads to prudent judgments on formulating ends, determining ways and applying means in defense of the national interest. AFJ

JOSEPH J. COLLINS teaches strategy at the National War College. A retired Army colonel with a decade’s service in the Pentagon, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations from 2001 to 2004. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of any government agency.