The Pentagon is gearing up for another congressionally-mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) next year. The exercise is supposed to provide a fundamental analysis of military requirements and capabilities that can guide defense spending through the end of the decade. But the last QDR was mismanaged, producing a “capabilities-based” posture that failed to anticipate the key military challenges of the following four years. This time around, Secretary Rumsfeld’s beleaguered but wiser team has figured out it needs a coherent threat assessment before it starts specifying which capabilities are most needed.
So it has devised a four-quadrant matrix of future threats that subsumes the major categories of danger America could face in the years ahead. Unfortunately, it is the usual mix of fashionable but subjective ideas from transformationists. The matrix indicates that the likelihood of traditional (conventional) military challenges is receding, while the danger of unconventional challenges is growing. These include “irregular” threats like the Iraqi insurgency, “catastrophic” threats like terrorists wielding nuclear weapons, and “disruptive” threats where enemies undercut U.S. power with breakthrough capabilities (like infowar).
That’s a fine compendium of the fears troubling the defense intelligentsia today, but the big thinkers seem to have missed some obvious features of the global landscape. The most important emerging threat to U.S. security is that the economic foundations of military power will gradually ebb away to the nations of the western Pacific. That process has been underway for a generation, but somehow is doesn’t figure in the Pentagon strategic calculus. The second most important threat is that countries in the Middle East will block U.S. access to oil, the lifeblood of the U.S. economy. Apparently Rumsfeld’s team hasn’t absorbed the full meaning of the fact that Arabs don’t like us.
A second flaw in the Pentagon’s framework is that it is based on an optical illusion. The reason that conventional threats seem muted is that America has invested heavily in conventional forces. But if the Bush Administration fails to adequately fund armor, air power and sea power, it’s inevitable that troublemakers will eventually see an opportunity. For example, the Air Force’s top-of-the-line F-15 fighter is so aged that it operates with flight restrictions to guard against metal fatigue and rotting insulation on wires causes short circuits. The Air Force of India repeatedly defeated U.S. F-15’s in recent exercises. Nonetheless, policymakers want to cut funding for its F/A-22 replacement because the U.S. enjoys “excessive overmatch” in air power.
A third problem is that policymakers don’t seem to grasp how their own biases exacerbate the dangers they describe. For example, proponents of high-tech warfare tried to cut the size of the Army in the last QDR, even though the Army was already too small for a major counter-insurgency campaign. They embraced grandiose space initiatives that threatened to drain money from near-term warfighting needs while making the military too dependent on a handful of vulnerable satellites. And they shifted warfighting emphasis into the realm of web-based networking where even teenagers can pose “disruptive” threats to U.S. military power. Given this track record, the possibility of more congressional micromanagement of the Pentagon looks like a good thing.
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