The U.S. military has been thinking very hard about the future of conflict and the missions it will have to perform. Joint Forces Command has just published its Joint Operating Environment 2010 or JOE 2010. Frankly, it is a better analysis of the future than the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. This document describes the future security environment, identifies a range of challenges to U.S. national interests and its physical security, and discusses their implications for the U.S. military. It grapples with the implications for the military of a number of trends that have become obvious to every reasonable observer of the international environment: demographics, proliferations, economic globalization, technology diffusion, irregular conflicts, climate change and political instability. Taken together, these trends portend a future security environment that is likely to be highly dangerous.
But, the JOE underplays the change in the international environment that is most threatening to U.S. interests. Buried on page 62, almost at the end of its discussion of war in the 21st Century, the JOEmakes the following remarkable statement:
“The United States has dominated the world economically since 1915 and militarily since 1943. Its dominance in both respects now faces challenges brought about by the rise of powerful states. Moreover, the rise of these great powers creates a strategic landscape and international system, which, despite continuing economic integration, will possess considerable instabilities. Lacking either a dominant power or an informal organizing framework, such a system will tend toward conflict. Where and how those instabilities will manifest themselves remains obscure and uncertain.”
Actually, the situation described in the JOE, if anything, is even direr. According to its analysis, the United States is on a fiscally unsustainable course of chronic budget deficits. As a result, the JOE warns, “interest payments are projected to grow dramatically, further exacerbated by recent efforts to stabilize and stimulate the economy, far outstripping the current tax base . . . Interest payments, when combined with the growth of Social Security and health care, will crowd out spending for everything else the government does, including National Defense.”
So, our potential adversaries are growing stronger precisely at the moment when the United States will become weaker. But the U.S. government and the Department of Defense are conducting themselves as if the era of U.S. political-military world dominance could never change. They are making no serious effort to enhance our relationships will traditional allies — arming them so they can play a greater role in their own defense — or to find new ones. Nor is the Pentagon looking at shrinking the size of the military to fit expected budgets or reducing the range of missions for the Armed Forces. In fact, since the world is becoming less stable, demands on the military are growing. Thus, according to the JOE, the U.S. military faces a dilemma: “This report describes a future in which the Joint Force will be continually engaged, yet the larger economic outlook is one of increasing pressure on discretionary spending of which the DOD budget is a part.”
The JOE is absolutely clear on two points. The first is that the security environment a decade or two hence will be markedly different than the one that exists today. The second is that war, including between states, will certainly be a part of that environment. What it is most uncertain about is whether the U.S. military will have the means to operate successfully in the future environment and, most important, whether it will be able to win the wars of the future.
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