Op-Ed: Future Defense Budget Choices Require Clear Strategic Priorities
(Source: Lexington Institute; issued September 3, 2010)

(© Lexington Institute; reproduced by permission)
The United States cannot afford its national security strategy. Which may be a fortunate thing since it is the wrong strategy. It is the wrong strategy because it assumes that the U.S. is the centerpiece of the strategic universe and, as a result, must have a role to play in every political-military issue of consequence anywhere in the world.

It is also wrong because it requires that equal attention be paid to all potential threats from the so-called super-empowered individual to the potential peer competitor. So, the U.S. must have the capabilities to go anywhere to do almost anything against just about every possible threat.

The U.S. defense establishment learned the wrong lesson from September 11 and Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. Having been surprised by Al Qaeda in the first case and the robustness of local insurgencies in the second, it swore never again. Surprise became the Pentagon’s new enemy. Defense planning documents spoke of a security environment dominated by uncertainty, the code word for surprise. Uncertainty is a product neither of the environment nor of the threat. It is the result of decision makers and military leaders failing to make choices and set priorities. The United States cannot afford and the people will not pay for a military that can do battle with uncertainty.

As a consequence of the need to do battle with uncertainty, emphasis was placed on a military that can cover all bases and do all things. This would not be a wise strategy even if resources were unconstrained. Not all threats are equal. Nor are all interests equally important. Finally, it is possible to make reasoned and reasonable judgments regarding how the future security environment will unfold and define a set of demand signals that would require shifting strategic priorities.

In the past, when U.S. leaders refused to make choices they allowed the military to shrink symmetrically, by cutting every program or service a little. That approach is self-defeating. It makes no sense to keep a so-called full spectrum military but continually reduce it in size. That approach leads to a force that is incapable of meeting any threat. We are already approaching a situation in which critical elements of our force structure -- attack submarines, long-range bombers, heavy lift helicopters -- are in danger of falling to such low numbers that they cannot accomplish some of their most important missions.

The impact of establishing priorities should be self-evident. Examine the results when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made winning the current fights (Iraq and Afghanistan) his department’s first priority. The military got MRAPs, M-ATVs, additional Stryker brigade combat teams, expanded acquisitions of Predator, Shadow and Scan Eagle UAVs and more Blackhawk helicopters. Establishing the current fight as priority number one also led to modifications in the Army’s force generation process program for modular brigades.

So the first thing to do is to prioritize threats and responses. On what should the military focus after the current fights? I happen to believe it is the rising threats posed by rising regional powers such as Russia, China and Iran. The balances of economic and military power are shifting around the periphery of Eurasia. This is the priority strategic problem. Instability, insurgency and terrorism must take lesser priority. The consequence of this means focusing more on capabilities related to air and sea power, outer space and cyber space.

Another way the U.S. can establish priorities is in how it deals with friends and allies. Every administration speaks of the importance of alliances. This one added the very smart idea of building partnership capacity in order to enable those countries to do more for themselves and rely less on the U.S. However, the priority has generally been on less capable nations fighting instability, insurgencies or terrorism. But it is equally important, one might even argue more important, to build the capacity of our major friends and allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It is this community of free, mostly democratic nations that held the Soviet Union at bay and will oppose the rise of regional hegemons in the future. A strategic priority for this country should be improving the ability of friends and allies to defend themselves and our common interests.

But to work effectively with major allies and to ensure that they are provided with the means they need for self-defense and regional collaboration, the U.S. needs to think strategically. What critical capabilities do these allies have and what more do they need? What is needed in the way of agreements, procedures, tactics and systems to enable greater collaboration among allies and with the U.S.? What can be done to improve interoperability such as has been achieved among the NATO countries?

Even if we keep the answers to ourselves, this is the basis for establishing priorities in export control reforms, future foreign arms sales, collaborative international weapons programs and military-to-military contacts.

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