While the Obama Administration is seeking to cut several billions in defense spending, an independent review panel last week determined that the United States are inadequately preparing for future warfare. Does the American military really need more of everything though?
The Independent Quadrennial Defense Review Panel, chaired by former defense secretary William Perry and former national security advisor Stephen Hadley, presented its report to the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday. Tom Donnelly, who is with the American Enterprise Institute’s Center for Defense Studies, worked on the report and is blunt in his assessment that the Pentagon has “failed to properly prepare for the future.”
Donnelly explains the premise which shaped the review panel’s findings; that the American military’s strategy is fourfold: “defend the American homeland; retain assured access to the so-called ‘commons’ of the seas, air, space and cyberspace; preserve a favorable balance of power across the Eurasian landmass; and provide for the global ‘common good.’ The panel’s consensus,” according to Donnelly, “was that these strategic principles should be followed in the twenty-first century as well, and that ‘America cannot abandon its leadership role.'”
The results which stem from this presumption are predictable. Donnelly is again refreshingly sincere. “Having determined what they wanted the future to look like — rather than attempting, as past such reports have done, to precisely predict the future — the panel then found it fairly easy to understand the challenges of the coming decades.” One would think so.
In the face of persistent global terrorism, the rise of China and India, a nuclear Iran and a likely scramble for resources, particularly oil and natural gas, throughout Eurasia, American “hard power” will still be called upon. What’s more, “no other nation has the ‘system operator’ capacity,” according to Donnelly — which, of course, is the perfect opposite of hard power — “to provide anything like the guarantees that America gives.” China and India, for example, “have little immediate desire to take on such responsibilities; they have the ability to disrupt the current order, but not the power to bring order out of chaos.”
Having — correctly — assessed all that, “the panel looked back to the very first post-Cold War review […] as the minimum expression of the requirements for American global military power.”
Hasn’t the world changed in the last seventeen years? Aren’t the military challenges of the decades ahead, so neatly predicted just now, rather different from those when Bill Clinton took office? And weren’t those post-Cold War planners at the time really still of a Cold War mindset? At Defense Tech, Greg Grant quotes Andrew Krepinevich and Bob Work who wrote, in A New US Global Defense Posture for the Second Transoceanic Era (2007), that although the 1993 review cautioned against planning for the last war, “it proceeded to do just that. In essence,” they believed, “it used Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm to help explain and justify a regionalization of the Cold War military problem of forward defense along the inner German border and the demilitarized zone that separated North and South Korea.”
Regionalizing the Cold War planning problem thus ensured that little substantive change would come to the American defense program beyond shaving force structure and the total numbers of weapons systems. After all, weapons and systems designed for fighting along the inner German border were likely to be just as relevant against regional aggressors fielding combined-arms, mechanized forces like Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards. More importantly, however, it made American defense planners lazy; they had little new thinking to do other than concentrating on winning regional wars as efficiently as possible.
The laziness is perpetuated in the latest defense review panel which professes that the United States should “maintain the capability to respond to the full spectrum of threats, and prepare for the threats and dangers of tomorrow.” So not only has the Pentagon to anticipate small, perhaps proxy wars; the panel would rather, in Grant’s words, that it “maintain a force that was designed to fight a massive land and sea war against a monolithic, hyper-militarized Soviet Union.” In the face of the much dreaded end of American ascendancy the panel exhibits an irrational Sinophobia, preparing either to ignite a new arms race or ultimately wage war against China.
In their report, the panel is correct to point out that American hegemony in the Pacific “has enabled India and China to emerge as rising economic powers.” Under the American security umbrella, nearly the whole of East and Southeast Asia experienced a prolonged period of peace and stability which allowed them to prosper during the last half century. That’s not to say that the United States “should plan on continuing that role for the indefinite future” however. To the contrary. Only by recognizing China’s right to assert itself in the region can the Americans avoid future conflict there.
The authors of the review panel obviously beg to differ. If instead one regards every step by China toward becoming a superpower as inevitably in conflict with America’s interests, “the inadequacies of the Obama Administration’s defense plans are plain” indeed, “particularly,” according to Donnelly, “in regard to the Navy, now just 288 ships, whereas the Clinton Administration planned for 346.” The Navy, after all, is America’s foremost extension of power in the Pacific and if there is to be a war with China, it will largely be a naval war.
Such numbers fail to take into account that the world has changed. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained in May, the Navy may have shrunk since the end of the Cold War but “the rest of the world’s navies have shrunk even more.” In relative terms then, the United States is strong as ever.
More important is that size alone won’t matter. “Potential adversaries are well aware of our overwhelming conventional advantage,” said Gates, “which is why, despite significant naval modernization programs underway in some countries, no one intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the United States to a shipbuilding competition.” The Navy will have to prepare for a future of irregular warfare instead which requires “more diffuse weapons and units that increasingly rely on a series of networks to wage war.” In short, “Do we really need eleven carrier strike groups for another thirty years when no other country has more than one?”
The same principle applies to the other armed services. In July of last year, Gates made a similar argument with regards to the Air Force.
At the time, Gates pointed out that by 2020, the United States is projected to have nearly 2,500 manned combat aircraft of all kinds. “Of those,” he noted, “nearly 1,100 will be the most advanced fifth-generation F-35s and F-22s.” China, by contrast, will likely develop no such aircraft during the next ten years while from 2025 onward, “the gap only widens.” The USAF will then have about 1,700 of the most advanced fighter planes versus a handful of comparable aircraft for the Chinese.
That didn’t stop critics of the administration from complaining that Gates would leave the Air Force in “crisis” though. He retorted:
If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.
Gates was right then and he would be right now to deploy the same rhetoric against the review panel’s advice.