A strong and focused national security strategy

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US Army soldiers wait as a CH-47 Chinook helicopter approaches them for a hook up of an M777A2 howitzer at Forward Operating Base Hadrian in Afghanistan on June 18, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Why would the US voluntarily damage its national security through defense cuts?

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  • What happened to America's "peace through strength" consensus?

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  • On the basics—on the importance of leadership, clarity, and capability—there should, and can, be a consensus

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When President Obama took office, the armed services of the United States had already reached a fragile state. The Navy had shrunk to its smallest size since before World War I; the Air Force was smaller, and its aircraft older, than at any time since the inception of the service. The Army was stressed by years of war; according to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, it had been underfunded before the invasion of Iraq and was desperately in need of resources to replace its capital inventory.

Since the president took office, the government has cut $1.3 trillion from defense budgets over the next ten years. The last such reduction was embodied in sequestration. At the time sequestration was passed, the top leaders of the military, and of both parties (the very people who enacted sequestration), warned that it would have a devastating effect on America’s military.

And so it has. The defense sequester was the worst possible thing to do to the military, at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way. Coming on the heels of the reductions from 2009–2011, it has resulted in large cuts to the Pentagon accounts that support day-to-day readiness. The Navy is routinely cancelling deployments. Earlier this spring, the Air Force grounded one-third of its fighters and bombers. The Army has curtailed training for 80 percent of the force. Our strategic arsenal—the final line of national self-defense—is old, shrinking, and largely untested. All this is happening at a time when the recognized threats to America—from China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, the inaptly named “Arab Spring,” and a resurgent and spreading al-Qaeda—are manifestly rising.

This study begins by asking the essential question. Why? America is a wealthy nation. Its affluence and unique commitment to human dignity make it the prime target of aggressive forces throughout the world. It depends on global financial, communications, and transportation networks that are easy to attack and hard to defend. In an age of asymmetric weapons, its very homeland is vulnerable to attack as never before. Its Constitution requires its central government to defend the nation. Why would such a government, with so great a capacity for self-defense and so much to lose if its defenses fail, voluntarily take steps that its own leaders admit are subjecting its people to unacceptable risk?

The answer, we believe, is a lack of clarity on a strategic level—an escalating failure over time to define the interests that together give meaning to the term “national security,” to identify the threats to those interests, and to define the basic strategy and operating principles of a foreign policy that will effectively defend America over time.

There was a time when America had such clarity. In the decade following World War II, America’s leaders realized that the United States could no lon¬ger play a secondary role in world affairs outside of the Western Hemisphere. There was too great a risk that threats would result in open aggression, that open aggression would result in conflict that would spread, and that yet another world war in an age of nuclear weapons would result in unthinkable destruction.

So they moved America to the forefront of world events. They adopted a strategy of managing and mitigating risk in a way that deterred aggression, or at least confined it to limited conflict. To that end, they built alliances, developed the tools of “soft” power, and maintained a much stronger standing military capability—not so that America could win a world war, but so that our national security establishment could effectively anticipate threats and give American Presidents a spectrum of options, short of a general war, to use in defeating them.

In the process, they identified three priority national interests that the strategy was designed to defend: defense of the American homeland, protection of the common areas of the world through which Americans traded and travelled, and preservation of political equilibriums in parts of the world vital to American security and prosperity, and particularly in Europe and Asia. They also midwifed the emergence of a norm-based international order, which in turn created more tools by which nations with an interest in peace and human rights could cooperate in achieving those ends.

These were goals, and a strategic architecture, which both parties could support. To be sure, there were a number of tactical and operational failures over the years, and these resulted in setbacks abroad and division at home. But the strategy was right, and it was perfected during the Reagan years, which led to defeat of the Soviet threat.

Since that time, however, our presidents—whose backgrounds have been in domestic policy and who were chosen for their policies and leadership qualities in that area—have failed to adapt the “risk management strategy” to the exigencies of the post–Cold War world. In the absence of strategic clarity, the tools of national power were allowed to atrophy. The size of the armed forces was cut in the 1990s to questionable levels; far worse, the government failed to recapitalize, much less modernize, the inventories of the services. At the same time, deployments of the military rose dramatically in an unstable world where American leaders struggled to anticipate dangers and use the tools of soft power effectively.

Then in 2011 a president was in power who questioned the efficacy and even legitimacy of the use of American power, and a Congress panicked by the specter of rising deficits came to power. Without a clear understanding of why defense was important, they gave way to the assumption that it was only one in a set of competing priorities. The gradual decline in American power became an unprecedented rush to reduce the defense budget, with little long-term analysis of the impact on military strategy or national security.

This study examines these trends in detail and recommends near-term steps to recover the situation.

We look first at the development of American foreign policy, with a special emphasis on the strategy that was adopted to protect America without a general conflict in the years following World War II and the general drift since the Cold War.

We then summarize defense policies, and their effect on the military, from World War II to the present. We explain how and why capabilities have declined, relative to risk, in the past twenty years.

We survey the known threats America faces: the current trajectory of radical Islamist terrorism, the rising power of China in support of Chinese national ambitions, the danger of rogue states that have acquired or are acquiring asymmetric capabilities, the danger of conflict as nation-states compete for resources, and the risks presented by failed and failing states.

We trace the development of the current “national military strategy.” Since the end of the Cold War, administrations of both parties have affirmed the principle that, in order to deter conflict, America’s military should be able to fight two wars at or near the same time—while at the same time reducing their capabilities to do so.

We show that, under the Constitution, providing for the national defense is the priority, mandatory, and exclusive responsibility of the federal government.

We examine the need for stronger national defense in the context of the current debt crisis. Our argument is that the shrinking military budget is a symptom of the growing federal debt rather than a solution to it, that the readiness shortfalls caused by the recent cuts will cost far more to remedy than they have saved, and that, in the current global environment, American weakness is contributing to a rising tide of conflict that will undermine economic growth.

Finally, we outline the near-term steps that should be taken to recover the situation. The Pentagon should be tasked with conducting a thorough review of the current condition of its forces and developing a plan for a force structure that will protect America’s vital national interests against the known threats for the foreseeable future. Pending that evaluation, we urge the President and Congress to build up the Navy, complete a global missile defense system, and reform the acquisition and compensation systems of the Defense Department—all steps which will certainly be necessary, regardless of what else the Pentagon’s review may conclude.

Our goal in all of this is to lift the national security debate above the trees—important but tactical and divisive issues—and focus on the forest. What are America’s strategic goals? What is the United States trying to protect? What are the threats to those interests, and what capabilities are necessary to protect them? Those are the higher-order questions. Confronting them directly is the first step toward a national security policy that will keep us safe.

Read the full paper. 

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