The United States is a global power with worldwide interests, investments, relationships and concerns. It is also the leader, primus inter pares if you like, of a community of like-minded nations, a set of alliance structures and security relationships and even of what passes for a board of directors for the international economic system. This country earned its place among free nations by helping to rebuild the war-shattered nations of Europe and Asia, promoting an open international political and economic order, aiding those suffering from humanitarian crises and providing a bulwark against regional aggression and internal subversions.
In order to provide security not only for itself but for friends, allies and overseas interests, the United States built the world’s best military, one so powerful and credible that it was able to deter major inter-state conflict between East and West from the early 1950s on. As evidenced by recent crises in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, the U.S. military is still the “go to” force, the global 9-1-1 when things get ugly.
The military we have today has served us well for more than four decades. It has responded to demands both large and small. It has maintained a strategic deterrent, provided global presence, conducted both conventional and counter-insurgency operations, supported the defense of the homeland, conducted numerous humanitarian operations and engaged in countless collaborative activities with friends and allies around the world. It is a true full-spectrum force.
This is now a military beset by challenges on all sides. It is worn out from overuse and inadequate modernization. There is a clear and growing negative tilt in the strategic military balance between the United States and its allies on the one side of the scales and rogue states and prospective adversaries on the other side. A combination of factors — war weariness, financial crises, unfavorable demographics, the growing weight on national finances of entitlement spending, the rising costs associated with modern, all-volunteer militaries and the global commons, and a failure to make the case publicly for adequate defense spending — has contributed to the pronounced decline in Western military strength.
The United States is about to tilt the scales further against its own interests. Sequestration, the law deemed too terrible ever to be implemented, is about to impose serious and poorly distributed cuts in defense spending across virtually the entire Department of Defense. The military already is dramatically reducing end-strength, retiring hundreds of airplanes and dozens of ships and drastically reducing training activities. Sequestration will only make the situation worse.
Our potential adversaries are on a different course. North Korea celebrated President Obama’s re-election by, first, successfully testing a prototype inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) and, second, conducting its third test of a nuclear weapon. There are also credible reports that North Korea has deployed a road-mobile medium-range ballistic missile and is building large new missile launch complexes that could be the launch sites for a future ICBM. Iran is busily working to build up its military capabilities, everything from small boats and sea mines to long-range ballistic missiles, drones and even a “stealth” fighter. For more than a decade, China has increased its defense spending by double digits, more even than the annual growth in its GDP. It has developed, deployed and, according to recent reports, demonstrated an operational anti-ship ballistic missile. China’s area denial/anti-access capabilities continue to grow. Beijing is deploying anti-space forces that could deny the U.S. the use of space in a future conflict. Russia has announced yet another major defense spending program designed to close the technology gap with the U.S. and its NATO allies.
The public debate on the adequacy of our national defenses waxes and wanes with every crisis. There is a high point every four years with the publication of the Quadrennial Defense Review. Unfortunately, each QDR is sui generis and, despite claims to the contrary, really only deals with near-term challenges. There is no common standard, a yardstick by which to measure the adequacy of U.S. military power over time. Moreover, even the QDR does not provide an assessment of the adequacy of U.S. forces vis-à-vis enemies and prospective adversaries. Hence, the QDR is a backward looking, out-of-focus Polaroid picture that tells us nothing about how much military power the nation needs relative to both missions and threats.
If the American people are to engage in a reasonable debate over the future of defense spending and the adequacy of the military to meet our expectations for it, a new yardstick is required. Such an “index” of U.S. military power needs to be designed for the long haul in order to track changes in military capabilities and critical technologies that can take decades to make themselves felt. This yardstick must reflect both the high-impact/low-probability scenarios as well as those that are more likely to occur but have lesser consequences. It must also reflect changes not only to U.S. forces and capabilities but those of friends, allies and, most importantly, adversaries. Thus, it must go beyond quantitative measures of military power, the bean counts, and include a net assessment over time of the ability of the U.S. military to achieve desired missions in the face of changing threats.
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