Policymakers, military leaders and members of Congress are making choices now that will determine the size and capability of the future U.S. military. Because of the government debt crisis, the armed forces are shrinking quickly and extensively, amplifying the long-term effects of any bad choices.
As always, the downsizing process is political. No member of Congress wants to lose jobs in his or her district when a base closes or the military stops buying a locally made product. That said, Pentagon leaders, both civilian and uniformed, think more in terms of strategic factors, prioritizing capabilities by projecting what a future president might expect the U.S. military to do. This is important but only half the picture. In identifying which military capabilities the United States is willing to abandon, the architects of the future armed forces must also consider the policy options that could be taken off the table as a result of these choices. Thinking this way can lead to some different—and grim—conclusions.
The architects of the future military cannot know exactly to expect; “black swans”—unexpected, game-changing threats—are possible. Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, for instance, military leaders and defense policymakers were designing a force optimized for precision standoff strikes and what were called “network-centric operations.” Then the hijacking of four airliners shifted the armed forces away from fighting other conventional militaries to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. Now the trajectory is shifting back in the direction it was headed before Sept. 11. Once again, the American armed forces are being tailored for quick, precise attacks on the armed forces of other nations.
The good news is that U.S. military probably will retain its technological edge over other conventional armed forces, although the American advantage will shrink as technologies like drones, robotics and sensor networks proliferate and as military innovation increasingly involves adapting private sector breakthroughs. After all, any state or organization with money will have access to much of the same technology as the U.S. military.
But despite holding a qualitative edge over the armed forces of other nations, a significantly smaller U.S. military optimized for long-range strikes will face three big shortfalls. First, it will be hard-pressed to seize and occupy large swaths of territory, particularly areas with a high population density. Second, it will find it difficult to fight a long war. Enemies will know that if they can withstand the initial American assault for a few months or maybe a year, it will take the United States a long time to rearm and field new units with an adequate level of technological proficiency. Third, a small military will have a difficult time making major adjustments quickly because, like industry, it will have lost its excess capability in the quest for efficiency. Training a military unit or organization to do something new will mean pulling it away from whatever it was doing and possibly leaving the old task undone. The “just enough” and “just in time” principles that increasingly characterize both the military and industry work against both expansibility and risk-taking. Leaders will be loath to put scarce resources in harm’s way even when necessary.
So what might this mean to an American president in, say, 2024? Imagine a large-scale crisis that threatens important U.S. national interests, whether the invasion of a friendly state, a massive humanitarian crisis or a major internal conflict in an important place. The president would ask the Pentagon to develop military options. What he or she hears would not be good.
The collected generals and admirals might tell the president that the U.S. military could do what it does best: attack identifiable targets from long range for a relatively short period of time and hope that is enough to address the threat or that other nations that share American priorities and objectives will step in to finish the job. Another option might be to deploy whatever ground forces the United States has kept and hope that the conflict abates or other nations intervene before the American forces are exhausted. If no other nations became involved, senior military leaders might tell the president, the United States would be forced to disengage whether or not the threat was ameliorated and stability restored. The U.S. president would have to trust someone else to protect and promote American interests.
If the combination of long-range strikes and the hope that someone else will fix things on the ground sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what the United States has done during its conflict with extremists based in Pakistan and Libya. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked well in either place and is unlikely to perform better anywhere else. Yet the U.S. military’s current trajectory of change may leave future presidents without alternatives, making Pakistan and Libya the model for U.S. military operations by default rather than by choice.
Decisions being made today, then, are driving toward a U.S. military adept at short operations and standoff strikes but little else. The assumption seems to be that future presidents will only use the American armed forces that way. History suggests otherwise. Over and over, adversaries who expected to confront the United States did exactly what the American military was not optimized for, and presidents committed the armed forces to types of conflict that military leaders had not prepared for.
Military leaders hate to tell a president, “We can’t do that.” They prefer to find a way to do what they are asked even if their forces are not prepared for it. That worked when the U.S. military was preponderant and large enough to take on new missions while still doing its old ones. A “just in time and just enough” military might not be able to. A future president may face military leaders openly saying they cannot do what is asked of them even if it involves important national interests. The next decade’s presidents will have fewer strategic options than their forebears. The challenge will be convincing them to downgrade their strategic ambitions to reflect military limitations.
Steven Metz is a defense analyst and the author of “
Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy
.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons
, appears every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz