A centerpiece of the U.S. defense strategy as articulated in the recently published Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is building the security capacity of allied and partner states. This sounds like something this country has been doing since the end of the Cold War in our defense relationship with allies such as NATO countries, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Egypt and now even India. However, what the Department of Defense (DoD) is really focused on is what is called “security force assistance” which means working with, training and even equipping the security forces of weak states confronted by instability and even insurgency/terrorism. This is a marked shift in defense strategy away from major allies, traditional and new, and towards a new set of countries.
This change is not just in policy; it is also affecting DoD’s plans for force structure, acquisition and the training of U.S. military personnel. For example, the military is increasing the size of its special operations forces, expanding its education programs in foreign cultures and languages, creating new units such as Army aviation brigades and developing specialized capabilities to train foreign militaries.
One area of some controversy is whether or not the Air Force should acquire a fleet of fixed-wing platforms for strike, armed reconnaissance and advanced aircraft training in support of Irregular Warfare. While the Air Force is already buying light aircraft for intelligence collection and even airlift, the real issue is acquiring a light combat aircraft, particularly if it is propeller-driven as most of the potential candidates are. Such an aircraft would reduce the strain on the existing fleet of combat aircraft as well as provide a basis for working with and equipping the air forces of a number of states that do not need and could not use high-end fighters.
What DoD and the Services are doing to build partnership capacity at the low end of the conflict spectrum is necessary and smart. But where is the equivalent strategic approach to building the self-defense capabilities of major friends and allies? If the logic of building partnership capacity is to make friends and allies more self-sufficient, reduce the demand on U.S. forces and the day-to-day U.S. footprint overseas, doesn’t this apply equally well in helping friends and allies who may face major conventional aggression? The QDR and defense officials say all the right things about strengthening alliances, working with allies and tailored regional deterrence strategies, but where is the beef?
The U.S. government needs a strategic concept for enhancing the self-defense capabilities of our major friends and allies. This concept must start with the recognition that the United States is going to be more dependent in the future than in the past on those friends and allies to maintain regional deterrence and act as the first line of defense in the event of aggression. The key to stable regional deterrence is a favorable balance of forces. DoD needs to do a net military assessment of each key region, identify critical capability gaps and seek ways of providing those capabilities to friends and allies. These friends and allies need the best equipment available, preferably U.S. systems so that there is interoperability and we can provide key enablers. The U.S. must still have forces forward deployed and maintain its commitment to the security of our friends and allies. What needs to change is the way we provide for their security.
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