The Blog

The Future of National Defense

2:07 PM, Sep 15, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

But the cardinal virtue of U.S. military power – and, in the age of the aircraft carrier, even of naval power – has been the quality of American air power.            Two decades ago, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, U.S. air supremacy reached its zenith, fabled not only for its firepower but its unprecedented precision; war from the air was a uniquely American way of war. At the core of this mystique was the ability to mass and synchronize large swarms of tactical aircraft. This method of operations built a mountain of effects out of a molehill of airplanes, relying on access to bases in the theater of operations. The same technologies that threaten surface ships now hold these air bases at risk – but also, the swarms of “fourth generation” F-15s, F-16s and F/A-18s are aging and their numbers are shrinking. The cuts in view could result in a fighter force half the size of the “Desert Storm”-era armada. And the generation-long failure to modernize is felt most directly in the tactical air forces: the F-22 program was stopped at 187 Raptors when 750 were once planned, and the F-35 would certainly be the prime target of future cuts.

Access to space – which has long been “militarized” much to the advantage of the United States – is no longer a sure thing. And even where access might be retained, military dominance and supremacy are uncertain. This is a critical vulnerability for U.S. forces, whose weapons, operations, communications and more depend on it. As observed above, intelligence satellites are essential in even the smallest, most irregular operations against the tiniest terrorist groups, but the loss of larger networks in a conflict against a more sophisticated foe – and China is at the forefront in developing and recently testing anti-satellite systems – would be catastrophic.

Strategic and operational thinking about “cyberspace” is still being developed, but the best analogies and precedents are to be found in regarding this realm as similar to the maritime domain. The Internet is indeed much more a venue for commerce and civilian communication than a military asset, though it is that; sharing information has been a key to the process of “transformation.” It has already been a domain for private “pirates” and used, notably by Russia, as a battlefield. No one is quite sure what it means to “secure” cyberspace, but suffice it to observe that the failure to do so in a significant way would be a critical test of international politics and an easily imaginable provocation to war.

In sum, even as the “common” realms where commerce, communication and security intersect are expanding and the burdens of “securing the commons” or “assuring free access” to them appear to be growing, the U.S. military is already at full stretch. A fading of American power would inevitably result in a contest to control these commons.

Continental Balances

The corollary of the commonplace observation that America is a “maritime power” is that U.S. strategic posture has been – and should return to – that of an “offshore balancer,” intervening only in conflicts across the Eurasian landmass to prevent a “hostile hegemon” from dominating Europe or the Middle East or East Asia. But, as quickly became clear to the members of the QDR Independent Panel, close attention to these continental balances has been the core of American strategy-making for decades.

The most obvious example and most obvious success is to be found in Europe – a continent that has been intertwined with the American security since the discovery of the “New World.” The pursuit of a “Europe whole and free” was the central goal of the Cold War, but even that was a recognition that World War II left the situation across the continent dangerous and unstable. Conversely, the end of the Cold War appears to have put a punctuation mark on centuries of conflict; it is hard to imagine a large-scale war in Europe, and that is a direct result not only of American “offshore balancing” but American presence and alliance-building since 1945. U.S. military presence in Europe is a shadow of its former self, though it remains critical as a “lily pad” for deployments elsewhere – Libya is the most recent example, but all the recent operations in the Middle East were enabled by Europe-based forces. And the unprecedented peace of Europe is itself a great blessing that comes at low cost.

Likewise, the American commitment to the “Middle East” – a very loose term – has grown even as we have been able to draw down in Europe. In 1979, U.S. Central Command did not even exist; the Carter Administration cobbled together a “Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force” in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that could neither deploy very rapidly nor bring much force to bear. Every president since then has found reason to take a larger hand in a very volatile but important region, from the 1987 reflagging of oil tankers to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. In particular, we have come to see the region as many theaters in one. The focus of most efforts of the last generation has been on the Arab world, but it is increasingly clear that South Asia is a problem unto itself; we walk away from Pakistan only at extreme peril.

Finally, our engagement in East Asia, north and south, on Pacific islands and ashore, is as long-lasting and, over time, as large as that in Europe. But no event is of greater geopolitical import than the rise of China; how we respond to that – and the course of China itself – is the salient issue of the moment and for the future. We have treaty allies in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere, whose safety, prosperity and – perhaps surprisingly but assuredly – democracy depend upon our regional posture and our military power. What is not surprising is that China is lately making the most mischief in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia, where we were once constantly present and supremely powerful. Ironically, the one nation to resist U.S. force, Vietnam, is leading the call for America to return to the scene.

The Global Good

One of the supreme reasons why the American exercise of military power attracts even former adversaries is that, at least in contrast to others, we can and do use our forces not only to deter, punish and defeat but to relieve, aid and develop. Be it a response to a humanitarian crisis – a tsunami, a nuclear meltdown or a combination of the two – or an uncertain and open-ended attempt to replace what John Quincy Adams called “derelict” states with legitimate government, contributing to a common good beyond the strict national interest has been and ought to remain an important mission for the U.S. military.

To protest that, especially in tough times, we must conserve our strength only for those occasions that demand “warfighting” capabilities or the kind of sophisticated operations and high technologies only possessed by our armed forces is, if experience counts for anything, to expect too much – or too little. Given the character of our political principles and the extent of our power, the kind of hard-nosed “realism” of the international relations professoriat is a theory that American strategic practice is unlikely to fulfill. It is not realistic to expect the United States to be like Bismark’s Prussia.

Moreover, the failure to act in pursuit of a global and common good would make the practice of harder power more difficult. The rest of the world sees how we behave – indeed, they spend most of their own strategy-making energy in first trying to figure out what we will do – and behaves accordingly. If the United States falters in its attempts at making the world a better place, if we think we can “lead from behind,” we will find it harder to make it a very safe place.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I look forward to the committee’s questions.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers