How much military power does the United States require and of what kind? The answer to these questions has taken on serious importance as defense budgets shrink, American forces are brought back from abroad, procurement programs are curtailed and existing capabilities are proposed for retirement. But this is only one half the problem. The decline in American power has actually been exceeded by that of our major allies. Not even a handful of NATO countries spend the agreed minimum of 2 percent of GDP on defense. At the same time, other countries, some friendly to our interests others not so much, have been increasing their defense spending and acquiring new and first-rate capabilities. Over the past five years, the overall share of defense spending by the West has shrunk from around three-quarters to one-half of the global total. Within a decade, the combined defense spending of Russia and China could exceed that of the United States.
In addition, it appears that the world is on the verge of a revolution in military affairs, one which could radically alter how military forces are organized, trained and equipped. Much of this revolution centers on advances in information technology (IT). One result is the growing importance of networks that link sensors, command and control and weapons systems together. Another consequence of advances in IT is the potential for cyber warfare. These advances along with progress in such areas as directed energy, electronic warfare, hypersonics, material sciences, robotics and synthetic environments are likely to radically alter our understanding of the elements of military power.
The need to answer the questions of how much military power does the nation require and of what kind has been with us before. It dominated defense planning throughout the Cold War. During that period, the security environment changed not once but multiple times. Defense budgets went through repeated up and down cycles. The Cold War competition was a catalyst for the development of a host of new technologies including nuclear power, jet aircraft and even the Internet.
It is time to think anew about how we evaluate the adequacy of U.S. military forces both quantitatively and qualitatively against the full range of threats and demands. At one time, the Department of Defense had a way of answering these questions not only for a given period of time but looking forward, anticipating changes in technologies, defense budgets, even alliances. This was the process of net assessment, invented to examine the balance of military power between the West and the Soviet bloc. It was developed by Mr. Andrew Marshall who created the Office of Net Assessment (ONA) in the Department of Defense some forty years ago. The process of net assessment began with a thorough understanding of both our own and other nations’ military capabilities, most notably the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. To this quantitative assessment was added an appreciation for how military forces might be employed in various kinds of conflicts, the qualitative dimension. Changes in alliance relationships, advances in technology, the ups and downs of defense budgets were also considered as factors influencing the final or net assessment of the military potential of the opposing sides.
Over time, based on numerous net assessments of different aspects of the balance of capabilities between East and West that influenced U.S. military strategy, war plans, force deployments and R&D investments, ONA also developed an approach to the long-term competition between the two sides called Competitive Strategies. The central idea of Competitive Strategies was to focus areas of U.S. advantage against those areas where our competitors were weak while simultaneously seeking to limit their ability to do the same thing to us. Over time, for this was conceived as a long-term strategy, the goal was to move the balance of military power increasingly in our favor, thereby enhancing deterrence. ONA helped train several generations of analysts and policy makers in the methodologies and ways of thinking of net assessment and competitive strategies.
It is time to revitalize the process of net assessment as part of an overall effort to establish an ongoing, publicly accessible index of U.S. military power. In many ways, doing so in the current fluid security environment will be even more challenging than it was during the Cold War. We must hone our analytic skills and define the required characteristics of current and future military forces in order to answer the questions how much is enough military power and of what kind.
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