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The Military We Need

A strategic approach to affordable and effective defense.

11:00 PM, Dec 22, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
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On Sunday, December 21, that paragon of strategic acumen, the New York Times editorial page, offered up its suggestions regarding how President-elect Barack Obama should shape his next defense budget. Entitled "How to Pay for a 21st Century Military," its prescription is quite simple: Cut just about everything. After all, as previous Times editorials have informed us, we have nothing to fear from other great powers--all future threats will come from guys like al Qaeda (and if you read the Times regularly, you know they really aren't a military threat but a law enforcement problem). As the Times puts it,

Since 2001, basic defense spending has risen by 40 percent in real post-inflation dollars. That is not counting the huge supplemental budgets passed--with little serious review or debate--each year to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such unquestioned largess has shielded the Pentagon from any real pressure to cut unneeded weapons systems and other wasteful expenses.

Just what are these unneeded weapon systems and wasteful expenses? With regard to the former, just about everything that the Pentagon has been developing for the past decade or so, including:

* The FA-22 Raptor stealth fighter

* The DDG-21 Zumwalt-class destroyer

* The Virginia class nuclear attack submarine

* The V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft

* Ballistic Missile Defense systems.

The Times also calls for trimming the active duty Air Force and Navy because

The United States enjoys total dominance of the world's seas and skies and will for many years to come. The Army and the Marines have proved too small for the demands of simultaneous ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are the forces most likely to be called on in future interventions against terrorist groups or to rescue failing states. Reducing the Navy by one carrier group and the Air Force by two air wings would save about $5 billion a year.

This is necessary because the Army must

Increase the size of the ground force. The current buildup of the Army and the Marine Corps will cost more than $100 billion over the next six years. Trimming the size of the Navy and Air Force, deferring the deployment of unready missile defenses and canceling the Osprey will pay for much of that.

The Navy for its part should forget about "blue water" sea control, and produce more Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), "which operate in shallow waters to support ground combat, cost about $600 million each."

The military can and must do all this, because, according to the Times, there is a budget crunch (known in the Pentagon as the "train wreck") coming, and the Obama administration will be forced to make drastic cuts in defense but will still have to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (you know, the ones the Times thinks we should end immediately). There is little risk, the Times says, because we do not face any "peer competitors" able to wage large-scale conventional war against us. But as Gordon Chang notes at Commentary's blog "Contentions"

The premise is that the United States is not going to be fighting major conflicts in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, that's an assumption we should not make. After all, history teaches us to be wary: both World War II and Korea started for us with surprise attacks.


The Times also assumes that no big power is going to take us on. Is that so? China, with a rapidly modernizing military, wants Taiwan and islands belonging to others in its surrounding seas. Moreover, it is configuring its military to fight us. Moreover, a desperate North Korea continues to covet South Korea. And is it really inconceivable that an aggressive Russia will try to grab more neighboring land?

A study of history shows that a peer competitor can emerge out of nowhere in less than a decade, assuming that economic, social and strategic conditions are right. In 1861, Germany was an aggregation of petty principalities and middle-sized kingdoms, dwarfed in importance by the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. By 1871, Germany was an empire dominating central Europe and vying for European hegemony. In 1920, Japan was a struggling country barely out of its feudal past; by 1940, Japan was in position to contest control of the Pacific with the United States. In 1933, Germany had no military substantial military capabilities, no tanks, no combat aircraft, no heavy artillery, no submarines, no battleships. By 1939, well, you know that story. . .

It is true that the "fat years" of defense spending are coming to an end. The United States today spends about 4.0 to 4.5 percent of its GDP on defense, and that percentage is not likely to increase; on the other hand, given the competition between discretionary and mandatory (entitlement) spending, it could fall very much, depending on whether the Obama administration decides to establish new and extraordinarily expensive mandates for health care and other social issues. This is what makes the Times call for the gutting of advanced defense programs--only if defense is cut to the bone can the "Change We've Been Waiting For" come to pass. And that can only happen if we limit our strategic time horizon to the next five years, a period in which we have two limited wars to fight and no real threat of a major regional war.

But no country can afford to be so strategically myopic, and looking forward, the fact is the United States must be capable of fighting the full spectrum of possible conflicts, from high intensity regional war to low-intensity counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. However, in investing its finite resources in its national security, the United States can and must weigh the potential for and consequences of each type of warfare.

It is undeniable that, at present and for the foreseeable future, low intensity conflict will be the predominant challenge for the U.S. military. This category runs the gamut from guerrilla warfare, to insurgencies, to terrorism, to piracy to even more asymmetrical responses such as cyber and economic warfare. In that regard, the United States is a victim of its own success in high intensity warfare--after two demonstrations against Saddam Hussein, no minor regional power would be insane enough to challenge us symmetrically in a conventional war.

It is true that a "peer competitor" could emerge within the next two decades that had the economic resources and political will to build up a military force capable of meeting that challenge, but who would that competitor be? Russia is decrepit and in both economic and demographic free fall. India has the potential, but not the will. That leaves China. Assuming it does not implode from its own economic and political inconsistencies, China could build a modern military force with the capabilities to fight the United States conventionally to secure its national strategic objectives, which apparently include recognition of its hegemony in Asia, reintegration of Taiwan into China, and the securing of natural resource areas in and around the South China Sea.

But examine the map for a second. To the north, south and west, China is bounded by Russia, Indo-China, the Himalayan Mountains and the Gobi Desert. China lives in a strategic cul de sac, where distance, terrain, and logistics make expansion overland both difficult and expensive. In addition, the overland routes do not take China in the strategic directions it wishes to go. If China is to get out of its box, then it must go by sea or by air.

There are strategic and force structure implications here for the United States. If China cannot engage the United States by land, then conversely the United States cannot engage China by land, either. Where could we insert and sustain a substantial ground force on the mainland of Asia? Why would we wish to do so? Our only substantial mainland ally is South Korea, and we already have forces present to deter invasion from North Korea. In the event of a war with China, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps will be limited to raids and to the occupation or recapture of various islands which the Chinese may wish to occupy themselves.

Thus, the main engagement with China will come at sea and in the air. In both of these spheres, China is making substantial progress, particularly in the air, where its acquisition of the latest Russian fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missile systems pose a substantial threat to the ability of the U.S. to control the air over the Straits of Taiwan and the South China Sea, or to penetrate Chinese airspace to threaten Chinese bases. At sea, the Chinese may not have the ability to control the seas around its coastline, but it is developing the capabilities needed to deny those seas to the U.S. Navy for a limited time--the time needed to secure its strategic objectives and then declare a victorious cease fire. In the process, it may inflict such serious casualties on U.S. forces that we will accept the fait accompli.

From a strategic and defense investment standpoint, the situation calls for a bifurcation of our defense modernization programs. Clearly, the Army has the conventional capabilities needed to defeat all potential regional adversaries, who in turn will employ means that circumvent our conventional capabilities altogether. To deter, and if necessary defeat these regional adversaries, the Army must develop the same degree of superiority in low intensity operations that it enjoys in high-intensity combat. That implies reorienting the Army away from heavy forces and transforming them into the kinds of light forces needed for low intensity combat, retaining just enough high intensity capability to hedge against contingencies in Korea and the Middle East. Moving most of our heavy forces into the reserve and National Guard will allow us to surge to meet a conventional challenge that might exceed our active conventional component.

If we do that, we will find that our present inventory of conventional ground systems is more than adequate, with periodic upgrades, to meet all potential threats, obviating the need for expensive programs, such as the Future Combat System, which show little cognizance of strategic realities. On the other hand, modernizing the Army to fight low intensity combat is much less capital intense--the technologies needed, while not "low" per se, are not as costly as a new tank, personnel carrier, attack helicopter or artillery piece. Ironically, the V-22 Osprey (now gaining laurels in Iraq), one of the few new high-tech systems that really supports low intensity operations (by virtue of its ability to insert troops very rapidly at long distances from base) is on the list of programs the Times wants killed.

Therefore, with proper reorientation, the Army should be able to meet its modernization and transformation requirements for considerably less than presently projected. Moreover, such a transformed and reoriented Army would be able to generate significantly more useable combat power, and thus would not require substantial increases in its personnel top line (further increases in combat power could be generated if, as I have written elsewhere, the bulk of administrative functions were outsourced and the number of officers reduced by half).

Money saved on Army modernization should be directed to the Navy and the Air Force, where the situation is the reverse of the Army's. These services will have to carry the burden of deterring and defeating the "peer competitor", but on the other hand, can have only a limited role in low intensity combat, mainly that of supporting the ground forces. Much of this can be done using relatively low cost unconventional assets, such as UAVs for surveillance and attack, or fast patrol boats for inshore interdiction and anti-piracy operations. In low intensity operations the naval and air environment is relatively benign, and therefore relatively simple and inexpensive systems can be used to generate the combat force needed.

On the other hand, both services are going to need top of the line capabilities to meet the Chinese in the air and on the sea. Contrary to the assertion of the Times, the latest models of the F-16 and FA-18 are no match for the Sukhoi Su-30s and Su-35s of the Chinese air force (exercises against less advanced Indian Su-27s make this abundantly clear). We should therefore invest much more in the next generation of combat aircraft, particularly the FA-22 Raptor, which has far more developmental potential than the smaller "design to cost" F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (which, contra the Times once more, will never be a superior fighter on par with the Raptor).

Meanwhile, the Navy must get its shipbuilding house in order and complete the design and construction of a new generation of destroyer and attack submarine capable of dealing with the panoply of current and emerging Chinese mines, torpedoes, submarines and anti-ship missiles. The Times is right about that--the Zumwalt-class DDG and the Virginia-class SSNs are relicts of the Cold War and should be terminated. On the other hand, the much vaunted LCS is too big and too expensive to actually perform the inshore mission in support of ground forces: at $600 million each, it's almost as expensive as an Aegis destroyer, and thus too valuable to expose in the littoral. A new and affordable destroyer, and a smaller, more modern SSN are needed to meet the Chinese navy, while a fleet of expendable patrol craft are created for counter-insurgency and anti-piracy operations.

Perhaps a word is needed here regarding ballistic missile defense, which the Times would reduce to the level of a research program. The Times posits that missile defense is useful mainly against North Korea, and that our current capabilities are sufficient in that direction. The Times makes the mistake of seeing missile defense as only being defense of the territorial United States. However, missile defense should be part of a broader American strategy of extended deterrence against erstwhile regional nuclear powers such as Iran that threaten U.S. allies and interests. An extended missile defense umbrella would add defensive deterrent capabilities to existing U.S. offensive capabilities, making the latter far more credible while devaluing small nuclear arsenals such as that being sought by Iran. As for the Times's suggestion that the U.S. should seek Russian cooperation on missile defense, we have made this offer on several occasions and have been rebuffed at every turn.

In a similar vein, the Times's notion that deep cuts in the Russian and American strategic nuclear stockpiles will somehow save money and enhance stability are hardly worth the time of day. Strategic forces account for barely 5 percent of the U.S. defense budget, including all personnel, training and maintenance costs. Not too much money to be saved there. Moreover, as stockpiles decline, the vulnerability of the residual deterrent increases, creating greater instability unless, of course, that remaining deterrent is protected by an effective missile defense umbrella. The Times wants to have its cake and eat it, too.

Overall, then, the Times editorial is an exercise in strategic fatuousness, full of errors of fact and of reasoning. It is, really, nothing more than the same sort of appeal we saw throughout the 1980s and 90s--that we cannot afford an effective defense, therefore we must design a defense that we can afford, effective or not. How much we can afford depends entirely on where your priorities lie. If you believe that the principal role of government is the defense of our country, then the current spending level of 4 percent stands as the barely acceptable minimum; if you believe that the main purpose of government is providing everyone with free health care, free college education, a lavish retirement and excursions into environmental extremism, well, 4 percent is more than we can afford. The Times has made its choice, but we don't have to follow.

Viewed from a rational, strategic perspective, our defense R&D and procurement priorities must focus on the Navy and the Air Force, while the Army must accept the idea that its future lies not in "big wars" involving tanks and tracks, but smaller operations such as counter-insurgencies, stabilization and reconstruction, and even the dreaded humanitarian assistance. The challenge for the Army is maintaining its hedge capabilities in conventional high intensity combat at the same time, because the Army has never really been very good at doing these two things concurrently--it either shifts from one extreme to the other, as we saw before, during and after the Vietnam war. Perhaps a new generation of leadership will be able to break this cycle. But we won't get there if President Obama takes the advice of the armchair strategists at the Gray Lady.

Stuart Koehl is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.