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The Future of National Defense

2:07 PM, Sep 15, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
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The tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, if nothing else, provided a reminder of the primacy of the mission of defending the American homeland. That there has been no repeat of those terrifying attacks is both a surprise – certainly I anticipated that there might be more to come – and a testament to the efforts made. The al Qaeda organization which conducted those attacks has been badly punished and our defenses vastly improved, indeed to the point where complacency, not “overreaction,” is as big a concern. The role of the Department of Defense has often been a supporting and secondary element in the immediate defense of the United States proper, but it nonetheless has brought immense capabilities to bear in that support; the military’s intelligence-gathering contributions amount to tens of billions of dollars annually.

Second, the distinction between homeland defense and foreign operations is very slim in the case of international terrorist groups. Homeland defense must not begin at the borders, and, if it is to continue to be effective, must be tactically and operationally offensive, preventing and disrupting attacks, not merely responding to them. September 11 shattered our belief in “strategic depth,” that physical distance was sufficient to protect us against otherwise weak enemies.

Lastly, we should not forget the full meaning of America’s “homeland.” The term traditionally is meant to incorporate all North America and the Caribbean Basin; it is something we share with our neighbors. Over the past decade, our neighborhood has become more dangerous, particularly to the south, where criminal gangs and criminal regimes are increasingly enveloped in a kind of syndicate – one that can include terrorist groups – that preys upon fragile democracies and which makes for violent acts even within the United States.

One measure of the consequences of defense cuts is likely to be that the Defense Department’s “homeland commands” – Northern and Southern commands – are prime targets for reductions, consolidation, even elimination under various “reform” proposals that treat these headquarters, which are truly combatant commands, as “overhead.” But NORTHCOM is still in its infancy while SOUTHCOM has constantly been a neglected child and a source of “savings” in the post-Cold-War years. Yet these two commands reflect our oldest and most critical security interests.

Access to the ‘Commons’

Describing the maritime, air, space and cyberspace “realms” as “international commons” is an imprecise term – there are, for example, sovereign waters and air space – but nonetheless these domains are critical components of international security and also commerce. And assured access, and in terms of war, dominance and supremacy, to these realms is a critical element of U.S. national security strategy.

To observe that Americans are seafaring people or to describe the United States as a “maritime power” is hardly a controversial point. Even the most isolationist elements of the domestic political spectrum will support the power-projection posture of the U.S. Navy, despite its British imperial overtones. And the importance of secure sea lines of communication – particularly the shipping route the stretches from the Persian Gulf through the Red Sea, Indian Ocean to the Malacca Straits and South China Sea to Northeast Asia, which carries an immense and growing volume of the world’s trade – remains critical to international security. But a smaller and Navy, even one with more- capable ships but fewer overseas bases, is less frequently present in places such as the South China Sea, where who “rules the waves” is open to doubt and a matter of potential conflict. Likewise, new technologies are allowing China and others to develop a range of “anti-access” and “area-denial” capabilities that are shifting the naval balance. The U.S. Navy is as small as it has been since World War I; force reductions would both encourage adversaries and discourage allies or would-be strategic partners.

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