When President Obama began his second term he took what was then viewed as a justifiable victory lap for having ended the U.S. military involvement in Iraq. In addition, he sought to articulate a new national security strategy, one distinct from those pursued by his predecessors all the way back to Truman. No more Cold Wars, no long war against global terrorism. As he stated in his second inaugural address “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
Apparently, no one informed the world’s tyrants, terrorists and authoritarian regimes of President Obama’s decision. In less than two years the administration’s meme appears to have shifted from enduring security and lasting peace to perpetual war. In a recent revealing interview in The Atlantic, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated “Tyranny, terrorism, the challenges and threats to our country … is going to be with us. . . It’s a reality. I see these things continuing to stay out of there.” The article’s author, David A. Graham, drew the following conclusion from his interview with Secretary Hagel: “Hagel didn’t seem especially sanguine that it would end anytime soon. In other words: Get used to endless war.”
This Hagel is at odds with the one who in his interview with the President prior to being nominated for Secretary of Defense allegedly warned that the Pentagon would try to push the old agenda of a highly dangerous world and the need for militarized foreign and security policies. “We are at a time where there is a new world order. We don’t control it. You must question everything, every assumption, everything they” — the military and diplomats — “tell you. Any assumption 10 years old is out of date. You need to question our role. You need to question the military. You need to question what we are using the military for.” Two years of reality has a way of mugging our dreams.
In a world of endless war and multiple crises, environmental and biological as well as political, economic and military, we must consider anew our understanding of the role of military power as an instrument of U.S. foreign and security policies. Over the past six years, administration officials and academics have pooh-poohed the importance of U.S. military power relative to other policy instruments even putting forth the hoary saying that just because you have the best hammer in the world doesn’t make every problem a nail. This formulation ignores the reality that the military is not a tool but a tool box, really more of a deployable Home Depot able to support a wide range of missions.
Another mischaracterization of the utility of military power is that defense spending comes at the expense of the government’s ability to maintain a strong economy. No less a figure than the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen echoed this absurd notion. It is possible to disagree about which types of discretionary spending better stimulates the economy and generates jobs. But there can be no dispute regarding one fundamental truth: without security there cannot be successful political or economic development. We learned that lesson fighting the Barbary pirates more than 200 hundred years ago and relearned it time and again, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The prospect of endless war should cause us to rethink how our military is organized, trained and equipped. Should the military be focused on low likelihood but high consequence conflicts with peer competitors or instead on the much more probable but individually less significant fights with rogue regimes and terrorist groups? If conflicts are ongoing rather than episodic, this says a lot about the way the Active and Reserve Components should be structured. This paradigm also raises a host of questions regarding our alliance structures and choices of coalition partners.
If we are in a period of endless wars how do we avoid bankruptcy? President Eisenhower sought to address the fiscal problems associated with a strategy of long-term containment of the Soviet Union by emphasizing the role of nuclear weapons. Outsourcing certain conflicts or security operations in particular parts of the world to allies or even to the private sector is one way of bringing down the overall costs of operating a global defense. Some experts believe that advanced robotics holds out the potential for low-cost, bloodless warfare.
Endless war has significant implications for the future of the defense industry and relations between the government as monopsony buyer and the private sector that sells to it. It argues for a radical restructuring of current acquisition regulations and contracting practices in order to allow for better access to commercial producers and to spur innovation. The management of platform and systems life cycle costs should take greater significance as should evolutionary vice revolutionary change in capabilities.
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