The Future of U.S. Military Power

Andrew Krepinevich's essay "The Pentagon's Wasting Assets" (July/August 2009) highlights a number of critical questions facing the Pentagon as it prepares its Quadrennial Defense Review. But his astute observations about operations and technology are no substitute for a larger appreciation of the requirements of U.S. strategy. What might seem "wasting" in the longer term may actually be quite useful or even necessary at the moment. And given what futurism has done to military affairs--most notably yielding the school of "transformation" as propounded by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--perhaps the United States ought to hold on to a more traditional approach.

Krepinevich's strong suit is his focus on emerging operational challenges, in particular the problems with retaining overseas access to strategic regions. Indeed, Krepinevich was among the first to call attention to these issues years ago, for example, in his 1996 report Air Force of 2016, published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. But designing operations--an area in which strategy and policy intersect with tactics and technology--is a very slippery art.

Consider Krepinevich's reference to the military's war simulation Millennium Challenge 2002 and the difficulties of projecting U.S. power in the Strait of Hormuz. Thanks to closer analysis, better tactics, and new investments, a conventional scenario in the Strait of Hormuz would be less dire today than it appeared to be in 2002. Moreover, the possibility of using land-based forces--whether located in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere in the region--is now considerably greater. To be sure, the capabilities of U.S. forces have not changed much, but Washington's ability to use them has. The United States has learned to employ traditional systems in novel ways, allowing supposedly "wasting" assets to have broader applications than originally thought. This is true of the F-16, for example, which began in the 1980s as a daylight dogfighting aircraft but has since been adapted for use in a variety of bombing, close-air-support, electronic-combat, and other missions.

Given what futurism has done to military affairs--most notably yielding the school of "transformation" as propounded by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--perhaps the United States ought to hold on to a more traditional approach.

The United States indeed faces a challenge in East Asia, where the Chinese military has invested heavily in the kind of systems that Krepinevich rightly worries about, such as ballistic missiles and attack submarines. But in addition to investing in the new, less vulnerable forces that Krepinevich anticipates, such as long-range stealthy unmanned bombers--which, in any case, will take a long time to develop and field--the United States must discover, as it has in Iraq, how to maximize the value of today's forces. It is a strategic requirement to do so in East Asia. Disturbingly, a recent white paper by the Australian Department of Defense spoke of a need to "hedge" against the retreat of the United States' presence in the Pacific. When a longtime ally speaks such a plain truth, Washington should pay attention.

Krepinevich and other advocates of transformation overemphasize revolutions in military affairs and discount continuities. As the guarantor of the international system, the United States cannot afford to substantially scale back its current responsibilities, whether in Europe, where Vladimir Putin's Russia casts a pall on the general peace; in East Asia, where China is rising and North Korean provocations are almost regularly scheduled events; or, of course, in the greater Middle East. Krepinevich admits that the United States must remain the guarantor of the international system, defining its strategic aim as the preservation of the current liberal world order. But this imposes requirements that make Krepinevich's proposal of divesting from "wasting assets" problematic. It would be both difficult and imprudent for the sole superpower--the one nation with the ability to stabilize the international system--to walk away from its commitments.

The United States must adapt to changing circumstances, such as China's rise, while preserving sufficient day-to-day strength to win the wars it is fighting now, provide the backbone for old and new coalitions, and otherwise manage risks to its security. Washington faces an ever-changing threat environment; it does not have, nor will it ever have, the luxury of moving wholly from one clearly defined regimen of warfare to another.

After the experience of the Bush years, Americans ought to be deeply skeptical of transformation. At least Krepinevich has dropped his idea of a 20-year "strategic pause," which he developed in 1997 while on the National Defense Panel, a body created by Congress to assess the first formal Quadrennial Defense Review. The central proposition of this idea was that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. military should concentrate on deterring a future great-power competitor, primarily by means other than manpower--including high-tech weaponry, special operations forces, and relationships with allied foreign forces. (Large U.S. land forces, on the scale that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have required, were already considered "wasting assets.") But for all that has changed since the 1990s, Krepinevich's prescriptions remain the same: invest in technology (especially for long-range precision strikes), avoid land-force commitments (especially in long-running irregular conflicts), and reshape strategy in light of limited means (rather than increase spending). This approach has been tried, and it has failed. Krepinevich confuses what is more or less constant--U.S. strategic behavior--with what varies: the particular military means Washington is able to employ at any given moment to achieve its strategic goals.

Krepinevich also makes unfortunate use of the term "wasting assets." The Eisenhower administration developed a "wasting assets" framework and then launched the disastrous "New Look" strategy, which drastically reduced defense spending and relied so heavily on nuclear weapons that even small Cold War confrontations threatened to quickly become Armageddon-inducing crises. Today, although Krepinevich and many Obama administration officials have positively cited Dwight Eisenhower's example, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is promoting a new-look vision of his own, this is no model for American defense strategy.

Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army/Spc. Sean Kimmons

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