Today’s earthquake in Japan and the resultant tsunami that swept across the Pacific stand as an immediate reminder of how swiftly unexpected events can change the circumstances for individuals, nations and entire regions of the globe. Although earthquakes cannot be predicted, Japan had planned for such events. As a result, most buildings were designed for such an eventuality. There was an automated tsunami warning system in operation that probably contributed greatly to limiting the still tragic loss of life.
Just as geophysical changes or “mother nature” can upset the best economic projections and plans, so too can political or strategic events upset military plans and projections of defense spending. The political “earthquake” of the 1990s was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its 2001 equivalent, of course, was September 11. In both instances well-established defense plans and programs as well as projections of future defense spending were totally upset. More recently, there have been political upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, unrest in Bahrain, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. There is North Korea’s attack on South Korea, China’s military buildup and demonstration of advanced weaponry and Russia’s acquisition of advanced Western military capabilities from countries such as France. Finally, there is the declining defense potential of the West as represented first by the British Strategic Defense review and second by the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass a defense budget. It seems as if the rate at which political and strategic events of seismic significance are occurring is increasing. It also appears as though their scale and power are growing too.
In times of stress and uncertainty on those countries, strategies and military establishments that have built-in resilience, just as Japan did with respect to today’s earthquake/tsunami are likely to do well. Japan’s mistake would have been planning for only one kind of disaster, say a typhoon but not an earthquake or an earthquake but no tsunami. But instead, it created robust and flexible capabilities to address an array of surprises.
The United States faces the challenge of trying to plan for an uncertain future while pressure on the defense budget continues to mount. The typical way for planners to deal with this challenge is to assume away some threats, particularly those judged to be low probability, even if their impact would be quite severe. Even as multiple, potential epicenters for political or security quakes are emerging, there are mounting calls in Washington to slash the defense budget. Even worse, many of these proposals come with specific recommendations for programs and weapons systems that should be reduced or eliminated entirely. The results of such proposals will be a military that is both smaller and less capable than that which will be needed when this country faces a political or strategic tsunami.
But the impact of even seemingly small reductions in capability can have dramatic effect on the U.S. military’s ability to respond to major political or military challenges. The decision was made in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union to reduce the number of aircraft carriers in the fleet. Now as the Pentagon tries to juggle support for conflicts in Southwest Asia, exercise in Northwest Asia and the growing political upheaval in Libya, the Navy is coming up short with respect to a carrier for the Mediterranean to respond to the emerging crisis. Similarly, the decision to truncate the buy of F-22s to 187 aircraft means that there is a relatively small pool of assets to employ for such missions as enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya.
The U.S. needs a military that can help this nation withstand the political and strategic earthquakes that are in our future. Because the origins of those tectonic shifts are most likely to be in places far from our shores, the U.S military needs to be able to project serious air, land and sea power to great distances. It needs flexible capabilities that can be employed across a range of scenarios. It also requires advanced capabilities that can allow it to prevail in the low probability but very high consequence conventional crisis that could impact the security and even survival of the nation. These include the F-35, Virginia class submarine, next generation bomber, Aegis-based missile defenses and modern unmanned aerial systems. It also must include a robust strategic nuclear capability to provide a clear and unambiguous deterrent of any nuclear threat.
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