While the 2018 National Defense Strategy charts a more honest and realistic priority set of threats and challenges for the U.S. military, it is still purely additive. Like every post-Cold War strategy before it, the document simply piles on newer and harder missions without meaningfully reducing or shedding others deemed less important.
Pentagon leaders should be applauded for fresh thinking around 21st-century challenges. But at the same time, we should accept that the strategy was a codification of the obvious, lacking in hard choices and details, and under-resourced. Rectifying the bulging strategy-resource mismatch will require fewer demands on U.S. forces, innovative thinking and planning to turn it into concepts and guidance, and more traditional and cutting-edge investments.
The Newest Straw Men: Competition vs. Conflict
The National Defense Strategy takes a narrower view of America’s strategic requirements, one overly concerned with the growing operational and tactical challenges posed by Russia and China, to the detriment of almost everything else. This myopic view tends to fall apart under the pressures of politics, time, and bureaucratic friction or inertia.
With a few exceptions, the debate over the National Defense Strategy has devolved into discussions about which futuristic technologies are most exciting, with a side of decontextualized budget figures and a sprinkling of buzzwords about “great power competition,” “lethality,” “modernization,” and “gray-zone” competition. Complex questions of force development boil down to “capacity vs. capability,” and debates over technology and equipment beg the question by defining “modernization” of the force mostly as targeted investment in development of future weapons.
Though the National Defense Strategy rightly calls for additional efforts to prepare for high-end conflict against Russia and China, it underestimates the force demands of day-to-day assurance and deterrence on America’s military and skews the Pentagon’s modernization program in favor of riskier transformation. These fundamental shortcomings ripple through thinking about how U.S. military forces should be sized, shaped, modernized, and ultimately resourced.
Proponents of the strategy frequently argue that the military should cease growing or even shrink to pay for making existing forces “more lethal.” However, because policymakers are unlikely to decrease the demand signal for military forces, trading away capacity—especially before the promised next-generation technology arrives primed and ready—will create a hollow force.
“The tendency to fall back on seemingly simple high-tech solutions and fuzzy concepts…is partly the result of a Pentagon lacking the analytical ability to provide clear choices to lawmakers.”
Feigned Hard Choices vs. Reality
The tendency to fall back on seemingly simple high-tech solutions and fuzzy concepts like “dynamic force employment” is partly the result of a Pentagon lacking the analytical ability to provide clear choices to lawmakers. This inability to characterize trade-offs between force structure, readiness, innovation, and modernization renders force development discussions fruitless. It also leads to an underemphasis on what “competition” and “conflict” mean, not only against China and Russia, but also in a global context and by service.
The National Defense Strategy’s new force planning construct measures the adequacy of U.S. forces largely by their ability to defeat and deter two great powers while fully mobilized, even as the force maintains deterrence in a third theater. By not explicitly attempting to measure the stresses of everything else the military must accomplish, this planning construct cannot give decision makers the tools to evaluate the necessary size and shape of U.S. forces at varying levels of risk. Under a flat budget and without a reduction in mission demand, capping the size of the military or shrinking it to pay for qualitative improvements will result in its inability to meet likely requirements and a perpetual readiness problem as units are overused.
One popular interpretation of National Defense Strategy priorities is a shift away from capacity and toward advanced capabilities, or to take more risk in the present day to buy the future. But defense planners cannot assume that politicians will follow their preferred priorities. Take as evidence the sustained congressional interest in maintaining a robust U.S. military presence in the Middle East. Risk translated actually means longer wars, higher casualty rates, loss of major capital assets, and worse. As the National Defense Strategy Commission highlighted, the U.S. military might “struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia. The United States is particularly at risk of being overwhelmed should its military be forced to fight on two or more fronts simultaneously.”
The defense strategy does not account for the unique demands, which often differ by military service and region, of a three-theater demand on forces. To remain a global power, the United States must preserve a favorable balance of power in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. America cannot lead the world by pivoting or swinging among theaters nor by retreating home.
We need permanently forward-based forces that provide the front lines of deterrence in Europe and East Asia and that are sufficient for both decisively reversing the jihadist tide in the Middle East and frustrating Iran’s hegemonic designs. These demands are consistent and will be long-term. The military must also retain a large, varied, capable, and joint set of forces based in the United States that would be able to deliver rapid and perhaps repeated heavy blows in case deterrence fails or if, in a crisis, the demands for direct action in the Middle East increase. Finally, the Pentagon must retain a sufficient mobilization base to ensure the ability to sustain wars in extended theaters and to hedge against strategic surprise.
The Pentagon’s “Small” Change
That makes the original sin of the National Defense Strategy its failure to recognize that U.S. national security leadership is unable to make “hard choices” at the strategic level. Pentagon policymakers have not made convincing arguments, let alone succeeded in enacting change, about the trade-offs that would allow the military to prioritize great power competition under a flat budget.
Accounting for inflation, the original 2020 defense budget request of $733 billion represents no increase from the 2019 level of $716 billion, which itself did not grow from 2018. While the 2018 spending level jumped significantly from 2017, the increase merely began to repair military readiness after the Pentagon lost $550 billion in buying power under the Budget Control Act. In the future, the administration’s plans show the defense budget declining, despite its own recommendations for 3 percent to 5 percent real growth to buy the new strategy.
The purpose of a defense strategy is to outline priorities in enough detail that those charged with implementing and resourcing the strategy understand the risk of making trade-offs between threats and missions. Under a flat budgetary outlook, arguing for prioritizing conflict against China and Russia without specifying which current missions to jettison amounts to having your cake and eating it, too. What would a realistic trade-off look like? Such prioritization could take two forms: reducing the demands on U.S. forces or developing cheaper methods of achieving a given mission set, such as using light attack aircraft or Security Force Assistance Brigades. Evidence of either is not in abundance. Even when presented by the Pentagon, they often die quickly on Capitol Hill.
Strategy proponents often argue to reduce demand in the Middle East and Africa, but these are risks policymakers have been unwilling to tolerate to date. Another choice has been to focus on war-fighting readiness over symbolic assurance and presence missions. But these hopes are largely unrealistic in light of the history of American defense commitments and the current political and international security environment.
Not only does the new strategy underestimate the long-term mission demand on U.S. forces because it rests upon faulty assumptions about the behavior of American political leadership, it also misjudges the likelihood of surprise in the nature, location, and simultaneity of future conflicts.
Spending priorities that focus on readiness today for the “fight tonight” plus futuristic research and development experiments and technologies for the war of 2030 or beyond are missing the medium term. This “barbell investment strategy,” which emphasizes the weights of the immediate present and—distant future, ignores the long bar of the interim wherein most strategy and military risk lies. Most of the military’s modernization projects involve investing in the next 3 to 15 years, including through the building or rebuilding of fleets of ships and vehicles, inventories of fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, new nuclear and space assets, and hundreds of small upgrades.
How Much Is Enough? Beyond “Capacity vs. Capability”
Defense observers have long discussed the fundamental trade-offs between force structure, readiness, and modernization—the so- called Iron Triangle. The triangle is often boiled down even further into direct trade-offs between capacity—the size and composition of the military—and capability, or how well the force is equipped and trained.
The National Defense Strategy moves away from sizing the force based on regional threats. Instead, it advances conflict with China and Russia as the main challenges to deter and defeat if needed. Yet it is much vaguer about how to size U.S. forces to meet the full suite of missions and challenges—including these two, but also above and beyond.
A force planning construct should help measure the adequacy of U.S. forces to achieve overall mission demand, but force development arguments have never been more muddied. The superficial nature of this debate owes much to the absence of a coherent force planning, development, and budgeting process at the Pentagon.
The National Defense Strategy’s force development plan does not advance a conversation with nuanced appreciation for the complex interaction of force structure, readiness, and modernization— specifically over different time periods and against different threats. Rather, the discussion over how to size, shape, and modernize U.S. forces has devolved into a vague sense that the current U.S. military should be capped in size or even shrink to pay for investments in advanced technology. In the absence of a coherent and clearly articulated force development process, observers construct straw men against which to argue.
Revolution in Military Affairs = Military Transformation = Third Offset Strategy
Even in the murky swirl of current force development, Congress should press pause on the idea that trading away capacity for capability represents a sound defense planning choice. Competing with and preparing to fight China and Russia clearly ranks as the most pressing challenge facing the Pentagon, but it is only one of many.
Proponents of the National Defense Strategy also argue for riskier transformational modernization of the U.S. military in which legacy weapons are cut to pay for bets on developmental technologies. This approach, while not without merit, suffers from four flaws: (1) it discounts developmental risk and focuses on technology before operational concepts; (2) it ignores massive deferred modernization bills coming due now; (3) it assumes a supine Congress; and (4) it underinvests in sustainable equipment choices. Even if successful, it will result in a force with tiered modernization incapable of carrying out the full ambitions of the strategy.
Like it or not, over three-quarters of the fighting force of today will be the same forces fighting in 2030. Transformational weaponry and operational concepts will undoubtedly prove integral to the deterrent credibility and combat efficacy of future U.S. forces. But sound defense planning must incorporate caveats to such transformational efforts with a sober appreciation for the risk inherent in such efforts. The identification of selected future technologies—e.g., hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, directed energy—precedes the development of operational concepts detailing how the military will use them. But a variety of factors conspire to inevitably delay the timeline for development, fielding at relevant numbers, and integration of these selected future technologies into the force and the way of war.
A coherent force modernization strategy must also take into account the overall health of the force. Principally, that means understanding that the need to develop new capabilities comes just as the U.S. military faces massive deferred modernization bills—often called “bow waves”—that come due in the 2020s A huge chunk of this problem stems from continual reluctance to deal with aging gear from the Cold War era, either through recapitalization or true modernization.
This reluctance creates two pressing issues for the department.
1. By not spreading modernization efforts across time, it has created a unique spending spike. The Department of Defense faces at least four partially overlapping modernization bow waves: nuclear, naval shipbuilding, Air Force aircraft, and infrastructure.
2. The continued inability to incrementally modernize the force makes future modernization choices worse, as the investment budget necessary for modernization gets strangled by the exponentially increasing costs of older equipment. The Pentagon is in an operations and maintenance spending death spiral, which grows with each fiscal year.
This latest attempt at military transformation should be pursued with a healthy dose of skepticism, an appreciation of history, and a balanced suite of other investments, new operational concepts, and more genuine efforts to reduce demand on the force. Even if transformation were to succeed, if it is zero-sum, it will create an unbalanced military, reduce the efficiency of the acquisition system, and leave future policymakers with worse and fewer choices.
Simply “doing more with less” will prove difficult, if not impossible, in practice. Plus, if the new strategy is simply additive in its demands, why isn’t its associated budget purely additive in dollars? It is past time for the honest and uncomfortable conversation about what is needed and what is affordable. The answer is simple, but it is not easy.