Belmont Club

The US Government Tries to Formulate Strategy

At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services committee 5 witnesses offered up their strategy on how best to meet the challenges of the next decade. From their organizational affiliations it will be readily apparent to the reader the major points of Washingtonian view were represented, as well as some genuinely wildcard ideas.  The question they sought to inform was: what kind of security strategy and force structure should the United States have in the near future? Present were:

  1. Mr. Thomas Donnelly,  American Enterprise Institute
  2. Mr. Shawn Brimley, The Center For A New American Security
  3. Dr. Andrew F. Krepinevich, Center For Strategic And Budgetary Assessments
  4. Dr. Christopher A. Preble, The Cato Institute
  5. Mr. Dakota L. Wood, The Heritage Foundation

You can view the CSPAN video of the hearing here. Their diagnosis was identical.  All five witnesses agreed that American defense policy was sick.  It faced challenges that could not be meet without either increasing defense spending drastically or changing strategy. Where they differed was in the proposed cure.

Christopher Preble of Cato argued that in order to survive America had to give up primacy. “For the most part, American taxpayers, and especially American troops, have borne the burdens of primacy, while U.S. allies have been content to focus on domestic spending, and allow their underfunded defenses to languish. Because U.S. security guarantees to wealthy allies have caused them to under-provide for their own defense, they also have less capacity to deal with common security challenges.”  The only way out the mismatch between the means and ends of American strategy, he argued was to reduce the ends, to shelter behind an adequate Navy, merely a surge force and leave the world to fend for itself.

Dakota Wood of the Heritage Foundation took the view that thinking about strategy was an exercise in futility, because every 15 years the world presented the United States with a challenge it never anticipated.  He quoted Ashton Carter’s rueful observation that American strategists had a perfect record of predicting the future: they never got it right.  The good news was there was another constant. All the world crises since World War 2 were roughly the same order of magnitude.  Therefore the only sane thing to do, was think about it like an insurance problem.  It was impossible to anticipate what particular misfortune would befall.  But what you could do was purchase insurance of a certain size.

Instead of trying to predict where forces might be needed and for what type of conflict, we chose to look at what history tells us about the actual use of military force. … What we found was that from the Korean War onward, the United States has found itself in a major war every fifteen to twenty years and in each instance used roughly the same size force. Likewise, each of the nine major studies came to roughly the same recommendations for end strength, major platforms, and large unit formations. In general, the historical record and these studies indicate the U.S. needs an active Army of 50 brigade combat teams (or an end-strength of approximately 550,000 soldiers), a Navy approaching 350 ships, an Air Force of at least 1,200 fighter/attack aircraft, and a Marine Corps based on 36 battalions. This size force would provide the U.S. the ability to fight a major war or handle a major sustained contingency while also having sufficient capacity to sustain large-scale commitments elsewhere or respond to an emergent crisis should a major competitor try to take advantage of a perceived “window of opportunity.” In other words, this force enables the country to handle one major crisis while deterring competitors from acting opportunistically. I find this especially interesting in that this record spans sixty-five years, encompassing decades of technological advancements, various geographic regions, enemy forces, economic conditions, and shifts in political control of the executive and legislative branches of government.

Wood emphasized that “size matters” because too small a force was apt to be destroyed when it ran into one of these 15-year catastrophes. He warned that the policy of fielding very small numbers of exquisitely armed forces opened them to destruction from an excessive operational tempo.  The worst thing America could do was be underinsured.

Andrew Krepinevich of the Center For Strategic And Budgetary Assessments gave an intellectually stimulating presentation. He maintained that despite the near impossibility of predicting the future, it was always better to go forward with a strategy because it created in the national leadership a habit of analysis without which it would proceed with the aimlessness of monkeys. The future might not turn out as anticipated, but if you mind was ready for anything, it would be a good thing to have on the day of reckoning.

The first thing one had to do was decide who one was likely to fight and how. He offered up some ideas in this regard. In truth, he said, not everything was unpredictable. Basic geography meant America would face three major theaters: East Asia, Eurasia and the Middle East.  Given this, the main near term challenge would come from three powers. Russia, China and Iran.

In East Asia, China’s continuing economic growth has fueled its revisionist ambitions and enabled a large-scale, sustained military buildup, one that is beginning to shift the local balance of power in its favor. As a result, Beijing has been emboldened to act more assertively toward its neighbors, as reflected in its expanding its territorial claims, which include not only Taiwan, but also most of the South China Sea and Senkaku Islands.

In Europe, Russia’s recent behavior suggests that its 2008 military campaign against Georgia was not an aberration, but rather an initial effort to overturn the prevailing regional order. By seizing the Crimea, waging unconventional warfare in eastern Ukraine, and engaging in military deployments that threaten its East European neighbors, Moscow has made it clear that it does not accept the postCold War political order in Europe. Russia’s recent deployment of forces to Syria suggests that it is once again both willing and able to employ its military to advance its aims beyond its “near abroad.”

Finally, Iran continues to support extremist groups that seek to destabilize friendly regimes across the Middle East, while questions remain about its willingness to accept stringent restrictions on its capacity to build nuclear weapons. Moreover, the region remains wracked by ethnic and religious tensions instigated by Iran and its proxies, and by radical Sunni Islamist groups.

One might think Krepinevich’s advice about anticipating a likely enemy to be trite, but it would be useful to note that the Pentagon only put Russia back on the list of potential enemies in the last few days.  “Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the top military officer at NATO and the head of US European Command (EUCOM), said Friday that the intelligence community has begun reforming itself to better adjust to Russia after nearly two decades of treating the eastern nation as a potential ally, rather than an adversary.”  There is no mistake so basic as that Washington can’t make it.

America had “solved” the three-theater problem in terms of the Cold War, but that victory left it with only the modes of thinking and force structure of the past with which to face the new threats.

The Senate Hearing is one of many hundreds that are heard in Washington.  That is not to say it was useless. Like the Blind Men attempting to describe the elephant, all the experts were to a degree correct in their own way. Preble is probably right to say that some new alliance relationship must replace the current habit of dependency. Krepinevich’s point about the necessity of strategy was borne out by the history of the Cold War — and indeed all warfare from the beginning of time.  Perhaps Wood is on to more than he thinks when makes the case for the importance of maintaining forces of a certain size as necessary insurance.

Force size probably mattered not in itself but because it gave America time to figure things out. Just as America took about two years to figure out how to defeat the Axis Powers it probably took till the 1970s for the United States to learn how to win the Cold War.   America’s still figuring it’s way out of this new challenge. The sad truth is that the American political system never figures out strategy the Hollywood way,  from the learned presentations of defense experts or from the bon mots of geniuses.

Rather it horse-trades itself to wisdom, its vast fabric of contractors and bureaucracies and politicians learning but slowly from the experience of policy failure and success until, almost by trial and error, it hits upon the way to go.  The United States can survive almost anything except continuous self-deception.   The mills of its mind turn gradually, but like the wheels of fate, grinds exceeding fine.

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