The community of national security experts is consumed with debate on the appropriate size and configuration of the American military. Seldom does a week pass without some new report, commission or conference offering solemn advice on this complex issue. Policy journals and op-ed pages are awash with articles on it. Such vigorous discussion is a good thing, but it may be focused on the wrong issue—ultimately the size of the armed forces matters less than what they are asked to do.
There are analysts, though, who are grappling with the type of conflicts the U.S. military may be ordered to fight in the next few decades. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster recently penned a powerful essay reminding Americans of what he calls the "pipe dream of easy war," in which easy victories are "achieved by small numbers of technologically sophisticated American forces capable of launching precision strikes against enemy targets from safe distances."
McMaster always deserves serious consideration: He is one of the U.S. military's most important strategic thinkers with a profound grasp of both the technicalities of warfighting and the politics of war. His reminder that armed conflict will remain complex, dirty and protracted is important. But that alone it is not enough to drive military force and concept development. Military leaders know that the defense budget and the size of the armed forces will decline. They know that sustaining existing military capabilities will be challenging and developing new ones will be difficult and time consuming. But the challenge is identifying which capabilities to develop and which to abandon.