For more than two years, the Department of Defense and the armed forces of the United States have been undergoing what the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, termed a process of finding balance. Secretary Gates announced his new approach to defense planning in an article in Foreign Affairs in late 2008 titled “A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age.” The Secretary made the case that this nation’s defense strategy, force structure and budgets had to achieve a balance between competing objectives.
The need for balance among the nation’s different security objectives naturally led to the idea of rebalancing the force. Secretary Gates asserted that the U.S. military had been overly focused on large-scale conventional conflict, essentially a continuation of the Cold War paradigm, even as the threats had migrated to both irregular warfare and high-end asymmetric conflict. In addition, he asserted, rebalancing was required due to the soaring costs of many weapons systems and the delay in getting critical capabilities to those engaged in current conflicts. The Secretary’s back-of-the-envelope metric for a rebalanced force was 10 percent dedicated to irregular warfare and related activities, 40 percent focused on major conflict, including the high-end and asymmetric anti-access/area denial threats and 50 percent able to swing both ways. But clearly, the part of the force that would have to take the hits to support rebalancing was that focused on major conventional conflict.
Rebalancing the force was enshrined as a central aspect of force development and modernization in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The QDR argued that the threats to U.S. security had fundamentally changed over the past several decades. The U.S. military must balance resources and risk among four major objectives: prevailing in today’s wars, preventing and deterring future conflicts, preparing to defeat adversaries and preserving the All-Volunteer Force. Rebalancing also had to include additional capabilities to support a number of missions of growing importance such as support to civil authorities, countering proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and protecting cyber space.
The case for rebalancing was based on two assumptions. The first was that the threats to U.S. national security were now fundamentally different than during the Cold War both in degree and in kind. Because of our conventional superiority, potential adversaries would avoid competing with us in this form of conflict. Thus, the risk of conventional conflict had declined while those posed by irregular warfare and high-end WMD, space and cyber conflict had increased. The second assumption was that DoD would have sufficient resources to support both the effort at rebalancing the military while also maintaining a spectrum of capabilities with which to address the full range of threats and contingencies that could confront the U.S.
It is no longer clear that either assumption holds true. Regarding the first assumption, if the last two years have taught us anything it is that the threat from people who cannot even light their underwear or use fire crackers as a trigger for a car bomb is less than we expected. Instability and failed states will exist but their relationship to threats to the United States or its interests are uncertain, at best. The greater danger is posed by so-called hybrid threats, those adversaries such as non-state actors employing a mix of irregular and sophisticated conventional capabilities. On the other end of the conflict spectrum, most of the emerging threats are counters to U.S. conventional superiority. In the event of a conflict with the United States, those pursuing these options want to use them to achieve a superior conventional balance of forces and win the war. Like Willie Sutton’s old adage about robbing banks, if everyone else is focusing on countering U.S. conventional superiority then maybe that is where we should be focusing our attention, rather than looking elsewhere.
With respect to the second assumption, it is increasingly clear that there will not be sufficient resources to allow the military to maintain a balanced posture. The Secretary of Defense fired a warning flare about budget problems in his speech on Monday. Moreover, despite repeated warnings of problems to come, the authors of the QDR failed to address the rising cost of entitlement spending (military pay, retirement, health care and other benefits) within the defense budget. This spending is taking a growing bite out of every defense budget. Couple this problem to a flat or declining top line and the result is reduced procurement and the erosion of U.S. conventional superiority.
Bluntly put, the U.S. can no longer afford a rebalanced military. It can barely afford to maintain one that can fight and win future conventional conflicts (along with a moderate nuclear deterrent). Rebalancing will only produce a force less capable of fighting future wars.
Find Archived Articles: