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.
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.
But naval shipbuilding programs are in disarray. The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and DDG-1000 (a new class of destroyer) are over budget and behind schedule, and are not well matched to the Chinese threat. It would be wiser to continue production of the current DDG-51 class of guided-missile destroyer, while investing in service life extensions for Ticonderoga-class AEGIS cruisers. Plans to reduce the number of aircraft carriers are particularly shortsighted in light of China’s plans to create its own carrier battle groups. In addition, carrier-based aircraft are rapidly aging, while the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter will not enter service (in very small numbers) until 2015.
China has also invested heavily in fourth and fifth generation fighter aircraft, which are equal or superior to all existing U.S. aircraft except the F-22 Raptor, production of which ended with 187 built. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, intended to replace most of our existing Navy and Air Force fighters, is behind schedule and over budget. Initially intended as a low-cost complement to the F-22, the JSF now costs as much or more than the F-22, but is less capable. It might be prudent to reopen F-22 production and develop both a carrier and strike variant to replace the F/A-18 and F-15E; technology from the F-35 could be integrated into new Raptors.
Now consider low-intensity conflict. Air and naval forces can play only a supporting role here; the main requirement is lots of high-quality light infantry. A small portion of the Air Force and Navy budgets could be devoted to fairly simple unmanned aircraft such as the Predator and light frigates and patrol craft, which are more suitable for counterinsurgency or counter-piracy missions and cost a fraction of manned fighters or the LCS. The burden of low-intensity conflict will thus fall on the Army, but the Army is not properly configured for what will be its primary mission. To rectify the situation, the following steps should be taken.
First, transfer most armored/mechanized units to the reserve components, retaining only enough to hedge against limited armored threats in Korea and the Middle East. Reconfigure the active forces as light and medium infantry units, which generate far more infantrymen than heavy units, allowing the Army to field more light infantry within its personnel limits. Light forces also have a smaller logistic footprint, which will allow the conversion of support personnel to infantrymen. Moreover, converting the reserves into a heavy force will make them a true “strategic reserve,” mobilized only for emergencies of limited duration, and not as a substitute for active forces in long-term operations.
Second, reorient Army procurement to meet its mission. Low-intensity conflict does not need much in the way of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, or artillery. The M1 Abrams, the M2/3 Bradley, and the M109 are sufficient to meet foreseeable threats, and with upgrades can continue to serve for decades. That means the Army has no pressing need for its Ground Combat Vehicle program or new artillery. It does need the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle as a replacement for the Humvee, as well as a guided mortar projectile, tactical unmanned aerial vehicles, and better radios—but all of these are relatively cheap.
To further enhance the Army’s combat power, we should reverse the recent policy of the Obama administration, and maximize the use of contractors for noncombat functions. Every job that does not require a man in uniform pulling a trigger can be performed by a fully competent civilian. The manpower released from administrative chores can be converted into infantry.
Finally, a word on strategic nuclear forces and missile defense. To date, China has not attempted to match the United States in long-range nuclear missiles, because the cost of matching the U.S. arsenal is prohibitive. If the number of U.S. nuclear warheads drops substantially, though, China could be tempted to seek nuclear parity. Maintaining nuclear forces at current levels would prevent this, as would the development of a more robust national missile defense system. Deployment of effective theater missile defenses in Japan, South Korea, and aboard U.S. naval vessels would serve to protect our forces from surprise attack, as well as preclude China from decoupling our Asian allies. Again, though, both nuclear forces and missile defense are relatively cheap.
Stuart Koehl is a research fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Transatlantic Relations and an independent defense analyst who has worked for the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and the aerospace-defense industry.