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In the cover story in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, Walter Russell Mead argues that Barack Obama’s foreign policy should be understood as a channeling of Thomas Jefferson via Jimmy Carter. The cover picture makes the point more bluntly. It shows two men linked by a boldface equals sign: Barack Obama = Jimmy Carter.
The president’s supporters understand that this is not a compliment. But more important than any faculty-lounge fight over differing interpretations of Obama’s foreign policy is the actual course of Obama’s defense policy. The simultaneous release on February 1 of the president’s 2011 budget and the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review revealed the essentially Jeffersonian-cum-Carterite nature of this administration’s approach to the world; the only thing missing is a return to gunboats and coastal fortifications. The several narrower defense reviews to come–on missile defense, space, and nuclear weapons–will fill in the outlines drawn by the budget and the QDR.
Obama’s neo-Jeffersonian defense posture would reduce the profile of U.S. military power. To do this, the administration has only to let nature take its course: The U.S. armed forces have been shortchanged since the end of the Cold War. George W. Bush may have been a hawk, but he was a cheap hawk, and only in the wake of the decision to surge forces in Iraq in 2007 did he ask Congress to increase the size of the military, adding a mere 37,000 soldiers to the active rolls of the Army. Bill Clinton before him reaped a bounteous “peace dividend,” making the largest of the post-Cold War reductions.
But the defense review and budget proposal suggest that the Obama administration wants to limit future American military “adventurism” by limiting our capabilities. The president is looking to eliminate the last vestiges of the Reagan-era buildup. Once the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are “ended” (not “won”), the arms control treaties signed, and defense budgets held at historic lows while social entitlements and debt service rise to near-European levels, the era of American superpower will have passed. Mead summarized Obama’s Jeffersonian approach neatly:
Obama seeks a quiet world in order to focus his efforts on domestic reform–and to create conditions that would allow him to dismantle some of the national security state inherited from the Cold War and given new life and vigor after 9/11. Preferring disarmament agreements to military buildups and hoping to substitute regional balance-of-power arrangements for massive unilateral U.S. force commitments all over the globe, the president wishes ultimately for an orderly world in which burdens are shared and the military power of the United States is a less prominent feature on the international scene.
Because the president has yet to articulate a formal national security strategy, the defense review is the clearest statement we have of his inward-looking orientation. The QDR’s formulation of “America’s global role” is telling: “America’s interests are inextricably linked to the integrity and resilience of the international system.” This stands American strategic culture on its head; past presidents saw that the integrity of the international system depended upon the resilience of American power. But in the Obama view, international politics is not a competition for power, but an exercise in cooperation. As the review puts it, we “advance our interests by reinforcing the rights and responsibilities of all nations.”
This is an intellectual justification for allowing the U.S. military to continue to atrophy. America’s armed forces are significantly smaller than they need to be, and the major weapons systems they operate were fielded in the Reagan years. In 1990, the U.S. Army had 780,000 soldiers on active duty and operated the “Big Five” weapons systems: the M1 Abrams tank, the M2 Bradley fighting vehicle, the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, the UH-60 Black Hawk troop transport helicopter, and the Patriot air defense missile. Twenty years later the Army is only 70 percent as big; it can’t meet its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan without mobilizing about 100,000 National Guard and Army reservists. It operates the same Big Five, having failed five times to field a replacement ground combat vehicle, twice to field a new howitzer, and once to introduce a new armed scout chopper. Tens of billions invested in research have yielded very little procurement, except the Stryker wheeled vehicle and the Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected “MRAP” monster trucks that may not be very useful after Iraq.
The Navy has fallen to less than half of the 600-ship peak of the late 1980s. The Obama administration has slowed the pace of aircraft carrier production, which would be a bigger problem except that the Navy doesn’t have enough planes to fill up the decks it has. The Navy is also suffering a serious identity crisis. It should be responding to the rapidly growing capabilities of the Chinese Navy, particularly the massive number of submarines and land-based missiles that pose an imminent and lethal threat to U.S. carriers and surface combatants. But instead of preparing to rule the sea lanes of the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean–where a huge proportion of international shipping passes through several chokepoints–the Navy prepares itself for tsunami relief and the suppression of piracy. There’s nothing wrong with providing relief (imagine Haiti without the U.S. Navy) or repelling boarders, but those aren’t the primary missions for a “blue-water” navy.
The Air Force also is developing a split personality. It is coming to embrace its small-war role, particularly when it comes to unmanned systems like the Predator. But in almost every other respect, the service has fallen on hard times. The 1990s, the time of Operation Desert Storm and the Kosovo war, look in retrospect like the golden age of airpower. The future looks like a nightmare. The Obama administration’s decision in last year’s budget to terminate the F-22 Raptor program, combined with technological and program-management problems with the F-35, raises previously unthinkable questions about the American ability to assert air superiority in a modern air defense environment. Another lethal combination–corrupt procurement officials and congressional efforts at procurement “reform”–has delayed by almost a decade the Air Force’s replacement of its 40-year-old tanker fleet. The current budget contains, at last, some funding for a new bomber to replace the B-2 and the old B-52, but the money is only for studies; a new bomber, be it manned or unmanned, is decades off.
At least the QDR does not shy from recognizing that “first and foremost, the United States is a nation at war.” But this makes its fundamental failing all the more apparent: The review ducks the basic question of defense planning, How much is enough?
That’s a first. There have been four previous QDRs, if you include the 1993 “Bottom-Up” Review, and while each answered the question slightly differently, each at least gave the services basic guidance. And each defined a specific force-sizing construct, most often built around a variant of the traditional “two-war standard,” the idea that the U.S. military, with its global responsibilities, needed to be able to conduct at least two large-scale operations at the same time.
Perhaps not surprisingly for an Obama administration product, this review prefers nuance and complexity to clarity and simplicity. In place of a force-sizing construct, it offers a force-sizing philosophy. The philosophy itself isn’t wrong, just vague. Rather than winning two wars, the military must “aggregate capacity” to “balance risks” across four “priorities.” In the Pentagon, the philosophy is known as the “Four Ps”:
Prevail in today’s wars. It’s hard to argue with this, and indeed Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been stalwart in focusing on “winning the wars we’re in,” spurring the Pentagon to buy much-needed gear like the MRAP even though it is unlikely to be a long-term asset. And to his credit, President Obama has committed to a “surge”–even going so far as to use that term, with its Bush-era connotations–in Afghanistan, to the great consternation of his leftwing base. On the other hand, the administration’s commitment to Iraq does not clearly extend beyond making a graceful withdrawal of “combat” forces. But the real question is whether prevailing in the many campaigns in the “Long War” for the future of the greater Middle East requires further adjusting our long-term defense plans, not just continuing to fight with the force we have. It was not until the Iraq surge in 2007 that the Bush administration agreed to a 10 percent increase in the size of the Army. Even though, because of the Afghanistan surge, the number of troops deployed is greater now than in 2007, the QDR reinforces the Obama administration’s decision to limit force size and structure.
Prevent and deter conflict. Again, this is hardly controversial; it’s been the central priority of past QDRs. But past reviews considered deterrence to be based on U.S. military supremacy, sending a don’t-even-think-about-it signal to potential adversaries. The Obama administration believes that
advanc[ing] common interests without resort to arms is a hallmark of [America’s] stewardship of the international system. Preventing the rise of threats to U.S. interests requires the integrated use of diplomacy, development, and defense, along with intelligence, law enforcement, and economic tools of statecraft, to help build the capacity of partners to maintain and promote stability.
Setting aside this potted interpretation of American “stewardship of the international system”–as though our role were more akin to managing a nature preserve than to waging World War II and the Cold War–this is strange guidance to give defense planners. The mission appears to be to work well with others, be they agencies of the U.S. government or players abroad. The message is that military power isn’t so special. Granted, this is an administration addicted to “soft power.” But the Pentagon is in the hard-power business.
Prepare to defeat adversaries and succeed in a wide range of contingencies. This is arguably the most difficult task facing the U.S. military. Today’s force is small, but it’s been able to prevail–and prevail rapidly and decisively in conventional operations–because of its technological edge. Fortunately, the failure to build a new generation of systems hasn’t yet had the worst consequences; al Qaeda and the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan are inventive, but they’re making the most of very limited tools. Other potential adversaries, from Hezbollah to Iran or China, would be just as innovative but would employ more modern weaponry–precise missiles in large numbers; air defenses lethal to “fourth generation” aircraft like the F‑15, F-16, and F-18; and quiet submarines. In China’s case, a conflict would likely begin in space and cyberspace.
With its embrace of “defense transformation,” the Bush administration tried to turn “skipping a generation of procurement” from a necessity to a virtue. To its credit, the current QDR slips the traditional two-war standard into its prescription for the future. And it rightly argues that “the future operational landscape could also portend significant long-duration air and maritime campaigns.” But as the Obama budgets have made plain, the generation-skipping is far from over. That the level of defense spending is the same as during the Bush administration is not really something to boast about.
Preserve and enhance the All-Volunteer Force. The current QDR, like its predecessors, talks about “taking care of our people,” meaning the people of the armed forces and their families. In the ninth year of the post-9/11 war, that’s with good reason: Seldom have so few done so much for so long. Students of the American military used to wonder how the All-Volunteer Force would fare when tested by a fight that wasn’t quick and decisive. Now we know that it’s amazingly resilient, and we’d better hope we can keep it so.
The QDR promises that “our preserve-and-enhance efforts will focus on transitioning to sustainable rotation rates that protect the force’s long-term health.” But achieving sustainable rotation rates was an argument against the Iraq surge in 2007; the Afghanistan surge will also make it impossible to lighten the deployment load. In other words, the “prevail” imperative takes precedence over the “preserve” impulse.
More broadly, there is an inherent tension among the Four Ps. The QDR’s “defense strategy” is self-contradictory. It fails to do what strategy is supposed to do: set priorities.
The offense is compounded by the QDR’s assertion that the way out of the conundrum is to “balance” or “manage” risk, as though charting strategy were like keeping a stock portfolio sound. Thus, the review concludes with an extended analysis of the kinds of risk the Defense Department faces: operational risk in current conflicts; “force management” risk to the force; institutional risk, including the increasingly tenuous health of the defense industry; and “future challenges” risk as the U.S. technology edge erodes. But the section ends with an optimistic assessment. The Defense Department, it says, “is positioned to successfully balance overarching strategic, military and political risk between the near to midterm and the mid- to long term, as well as across the full range of military missions required to protect and advance national interests.”
The assertion would carry more weight if the QDR described how this balancing act would be performed. But even if it did, the measure of strategy, and the purpose of defense planning, is to make sure the level of risk is acceptable, not to keep it balanced. It’s the amount of risk that really matters, not the distribution.
A Jeffersonian approach to military power made some sense when America’s primary strategic interest was westward expansion, and the country could build its trade surplus under the sheltering sails of the Royal Navy–although that reliance nearly cost the young republic its life during the War of 1812. Walter Russell Mead tempers his critique by imagining that there’s a tension between the president’s come-home-America impulses and his occasional endorsement of a more energetic liberal internationalism. But then, American exceptionalism without American muscle is the very definition of Jeffersonianism.
Thomas Donnelly is a resident scholar and the director of the Center for Defense Studies at AEI.
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