Article Published in the Policy Review
In February of 1776, only months before the American Declaration of Independence was proclaimed, British historian Edward Gibbon published the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was almost immediately recognized as an important achievement, in part because of Gibbon’s ability to discern the sources of Rome’s early success and later failures over the course of a history spanning a full millennium. The sixth and final volume appeared in 1788, the same year the U.S. Constitution won ratification. Not surprisingly, several of the framers of the Constitution thought they saw lessons in Gibbon’s work for the new republic. George Washington was particularly impressed with an insight about Roman military power that Gibbon offered in the first chapter of the first volume:
The terror of the Roman arms added weight and dignity to the moderation of the emperors. They preserved peace by a constant preparation for war; and while justice regulated their conduct, they announced to the nations on their confines that they were as little disposed to endure as to offer injury. When he became President, Washington paraphrased Gibbon’s lesson in his first annual message to Congress, observing that “to be prepared for war, is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” It was not a lesson that his fellow countrymen or their descendants would learn easily. Over the following two centuries, the nation’s vital interests would be endangered repeatedly by lack of military preparedness. But in the second half of the twentieth century – – a century that Henry Luce in 1941 presciently called the “American Century” – – the United States emerged as a global military power without peer. As that century now ends, America commands more power and influence than perhaps any nation since the halcyon days of Gibbon’s Rome.
The sources of American success are not primarily military in nature. But after a century in which democracy was endangered first by imperialism, then by fascism, and finally by communism – – a century in which over a hundred million lives were lost to war and civil strife – – most Americans can readily grasp the value of possessing global military supremacy. The United States certainly has that today. Its defense budget is bigger than the combined total for the six next-biggest military powers (most of whom are U.S. allies). It is the only nation that can project military power rapidly and decisively to anywhere on earth; the only nation with a major military presence in both hemispheres; the only nation exploiting the full military potential of the information revolution; and the only nation that anyone seriously expects to deserve the title “superpower” in the early decades of the next century.
If it can sustain the economic and cultural sources of its success, America has the potential to preserve its global influence for centuries to come – – perhaps for as long as Rome did. But that depends upon also sustaining its current military supremacy. History is strewn with the remains of great civilizations that lost the capacity to protect their achievements from external aggression. The hard part for America, as for Rome, seems to be maintaining a sense of purpose when the threats recede. Given enough time, Americans are masters of military mobilization and execution. Where they have proved wanting is in preserving their might during periods of peace.
That is what this essay is about: the investments that America must make in order to preserve global military supremacy during the first half of the next century. Despite an imposing defense budget, there are signs that the U.S. military posture is losing the coherence of its Cold War years. The essay explains why the erosion has occurred, and provides a roadmap of investments that are essential to assure future military success.
Current National Strategy
The U.S. military posture is the end product of a complex analytical process. A series of vital national interests are specified and threats to those interests are identified; a strategy for coping with the threats is formulated; the strategy gives rise to military requirements, which are translated into a range of programs to provide the necessary personnel, equipment and support services; and the programs are then integrated in an operational military force. This essay is mainly concerned with the investment programs – – the equipment and technology expenditures – – that must be made over the next generation to link military requirements to actual capabilities. But it is important to understand the earlier steps in the planning process, in order to determine whether current strategy provides an adequate basis for the kind of investment program that will preserve U.S. military supremacy.
During its seven years in office, the Clinton Administration has rethought each step in the national-security planning process, arguing that the demise of the Soviet Union demanded reflection on how future security needs might differ from those of the Cold War. The administration calls its new approach a “strategy of engagement”, which it explains as a middle ground between the two extremes of isolationism and assuming the role of global policeman. The military component of this strategy is described in the report of the Quadrennial Defense Review, a comprehensive assessment of U.S. military needs completed in 1997 at the beginning of President Clinton’s second term. The Quadrennial Defense Review specified five “vital national interests” that are the starting point in defining national military requirements:
* Protecting the American homeland, especially against attacks employing nuclear, chemical or biological “weapons of mass destruction”.
* Preventing the re-emergence overseas of hostile regional powers or coalitions.
* Guarding the security of global lines of communication at sea, in the air and in space.
* Ensuring unfettered access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources.
* Deterring and/or defeating aggression against allies and friends.The administration does not present this as a complete list of vital interests, but the fact that only these five are explicitly stated suggests it considers them most important. All five are repeated in the opening chapter of the Defense Secretary’s 1999 Annual Report, which also identifies major near-term “security challenges” (threats) to U.S. interests:
* “Large-scale, cross-border aggression” by hostile regional powers such as Iraq and North Korea.
* “Flow of potentially dangerous technologies” to overseas adversaries, particularly technologies relevant to weapons of mass destruction, information warfare or space access.
* “Transnational dangers” such as terrorists and drug cartels that operate with little regard for national borders.
* “Threats to the U.S. homeland”, including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, information warfare, infrastructure attacks, organized crime and uncontrolled immigration flows.
* “Failed states” such as Somalia and Zaire where the collapse of effective government has allowed the spread of lawlessness and disorder.
* “Adversary use of asymmetric means”, in other word
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