The Magazine

A Defense Posture We Can Afford

Strategy should drive procurement.

Jun 4, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 36 • By STUART KOEHL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Strategist Edward Luttwak noted that the United States does not have a strategy, it has a procurement system. It takes so long to develop a new weapon, the strategic rationale has often vanished before it is fielded. Because so much time, money, and reputation are invested in the system, it cannot be canceled, so it is shoehorned into the new strategic situation, whatever that might be. Our strategy debates are driven from the bottom up, by budgetary and procurement issues, rather than top-down, with grand strategy determining theater strategy driving operational methods determining force structure, tactics, and, ultimately the acquisition of new weapons.

destroyer

Newscom

Given the military’s outstanding array of weapons, it’s clear that our helter-skelter, bottom-up approach has generally served us well, albeit at a greatly inflated cost. It’s also clear that it is no longer affordable. With large budget cuts looming, the debate over military strategy cannot degenerate into another “salami slicing exercise,” with each armed service (and its congressional supporters) attempting to protect its share of the budget—its “key programs,” in particular. This approach leads to buying “all the defense we can afford,” instead of the defense we need.

What would our procurement decisions look like if instead we conducted a rigorous strategic analysis, and allowed the results to flow downward into force structure, operational method, and tactics? A cursory assessment of the threats we face over the next two decades reveals two salient facts. First, only one “peer competitor” is likely to emerge to challenge the United States in high-intensity regional conflict—China. Second, the vast majority of threats we face are going to be low-intensity conflicts similar to those we fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of U.S. preeminence in conventional warfare, only China has both the economic wherewithal and the political will to challenge us at this level; other potential adversaries have chosen to employ asymmetrical responses (such as insurgency and terrorism). The United States must be prepared for two very different kinds of war, with different operational, tactical, and technical requirements.

The Obama administration has recognized at least part of this problem with its “pivot on the Pacific”: China now looms large in the consciousness of all three armed services, but in the process hard lessons learned about “small wars” are in danger of being lost through the change in focus and the reemergence of military parochialism. Maintaining U.S. preeminence across the spectrum of conflict, from counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, all the way up to high-intensity regional war, won’t be easy. An exclusive focus on either end of this spectrum could leave us vulnerable on the other, while attempts to split the difference (as with the present budget) will leave us weakened at both ends.

What we need is a restructuring of the military to bring our force structures and capabilities into line with the full range of threats we face. If this is done, it may be possible to craft a robust defense posture at or even slightly below current defense baseline budget levels (about $550 billion). The following proposal is necessarily simplistic, but provides a general outline of that posture.

Consider China. The main pillar of U.S. strategy must be deterring or defeating Chinese aggression. Geography has placed China in a strategic cul-de-sac: It cannot conquer or intimidate the resource-rich areas it covets by overland attack; it can only reach them by sea and air. Conversely, the United States is unable to project and sustain a large ground force on the Asian mainland. Thus, any future conflict with China would be fought on the sea and in the air. China recognizes this. The bulk of Beijing’s force modernization has focused on naval and air forces, in pursuit of an “access denial” strategy to keep the United States at bay until China achieves its strategic objectives. China is also developing a nuclear missile force directed not so much at the U.S. mainland as at China’s regional neighbors, in order to deter them from either assisting U.S. policies or opposing Chinese ones.

To counter China, U.S. air and naval forces need serious reinforcements. At just 285 major warships, Washington would be hardpressed to maintain naval supremacy in the Western Pacific while meeting its necessary commitments elsewhere (e.g., in the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean), because, at any given time, only one third of all ships are deployed on station. Moreover, most of our ships were built during the Reagan-Bush era and are now reaching the end of their useful lives. Old ships have not been replaced at parity, so the fleet is shrinking at the very time it needs to expand.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers