Politics & Policy

Strategic Bankruptcy

Someone has to stop working among the trees and focus on the forest.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column addressing the fact that in an era of fiscal restraint, policymakers and strategists needed to think harder about U.S. strategic priorities. One commenter stated that my piece was a slur on admirals and generals who spend considerable amounts of time thinking through this nation’s strategic options. Anyone who believes this is actually what generals and admirals do has a poor grasp of how things work.

In fact, the Pentagon’s new Number 2, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, immediately after being sworn in last week created the Deputy’s Management Action Group (DMAG) to guide decisions on critically important issues such as the Pentagon’s five-year investment plan, force structure, global posture, and space and nuclear deterrence. One must therefore assume that the already-established Deputy’s Advisory Working Group (DAWG) was not up to the task. One of the key tasks Mr. Carter wants his new group to undertake is determining “strategic choices,” and he has established a special committee for that purpose. One would have assumed somebody in the Pentagon would already have that job. One would have assumed wrong.

What the military does very well is plan. Given any theater of operations, the Department of Defense will show you joint capstone concepts, joint operating concepts, joint functional concepts, joint integrating concepts, etc. What it does not do very well is think strategically. In fact, strategy documents coming out of the Pentagon are typically lists of aspirations, which are never linked to ways and means — that linking being the very basis of good strategy.

Trust me, I am not slandering the capabilities of our senior officers by saying that they are not doing much strategic thinking. The fact of the matter is that their daily activities do not leave much room for the type of strategic thinking required to guide this nation through the dangerous currents ahead. Even for those of them who might have the skills required for first-rate strategic thinking, the tempo of fighting two wars along with all the other demands of military service does not allow the time required to reflect and develop far-seeing strategic concepts. One might hope that from time to time the likes of Adm. Harold Stark, who in a single weekend worked out the underlying strategy for our involvement in World War II, will arrive on the scene. But as every military person is repeatedly told, hope is not a method. In fact, Gen. George Marshall, World War II’s “architect of victory,” despite being a first-rate strategist himself, knew that neither he nor his staff would have the time to do the type of in-depth strategic thinking required for military success. To make sure that this thinking did get done, Marshall created the Joint Strategic Survey Committee under retired general Stanley Embick. Throughout the war, this group had no responsibility except to think deeply about strategy. While everyone else worked among the trees, Embick and his team kept their focus squarely on the forest.

To a large degree the United States still farms out much of its strategic thinking. However, now it is mostly done by Washington think tanks and civilian strategists who are hired as consultants. Moreover, these outside opinions are often given more credence by policymakers than are the opinions of professional military officers.

Unfortunately, too many of these civilian thinkers have been infected with American Decline Syndrome. In their developing worldview, not only is America’s uni-polar moment over, but we have already entered an era of terminal decline. Considering that the United States still produces 25 percent of all global wealth, reports of our demise may be a bit premature. America still has the wherewithal to afford a military establishment capable of continuing the Pax Americana well into the 21st century and probably beyond. The so-called “Rise of the Rest” need not be synonymous with American decline. Great Britain, for instance, remained the 19th century’s dominant power despite having to contend with powerful European rivals.

As our current wars wind down, the defense budget will be cut. The question is: How deeply? Getting the right answer means taking a long look at global trends, deciding what we want to accomplish in this uncertain and increasingly dangerous world, and, finally, determining what capabilities are required to accomplish these goals. In a time of fiscal constraint, it may become necessary to prioritize among the nation’s goals. But any cuts must be based on a thorough global strategic assessment.

The worst thing this nation could do is just start cutting military budgets without tying the cuts to any strategic plan. This, however, has not stopped organizations such as the CATO Institute from recommending that we cut our nuclear arsenal by 50 percent, cut over a quarter of a million men from the Army and Marines, scrap three aircraft carriers, and eliminate six air wings. At no point does CATO even attempt to link any of its recommended cuts to any analysis of what we may need, either to maintain global peace, or to fight and win a future war. This is cutting for cuts’ sake, and it makes no more sense than it would to just say we are going to cut every third item listed in the defense budget.

More recently, the Pentagon’s favorite think tank, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), has issued Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity, which claims to offer a plan to cut defense spending responsibly while maintaining the United States’ security. CNAS presents four different defense-budget scenarios. These range from bad to crippling. In each of them the Army and Marine Corps take the overwhelming majority of the cuts — never mind the fact that almost every U.S. military engagement in the past five decades has predominantly called for boots on the ground. One might hope that any document calling for a huge reduction in ground power would explain why the next few decades will be different from the last five. CNAS never bothers.

Amazingly for an organization whose former members now populate many key Pentagon positions, many of CNAS’s recommended cuts are not based on any realistic strategic requirements. Rather, CNAS’s analysts cut many Defense-wide activities by a fixed percentage across the board. For instance, intelligence activities are cut $53.1 billion in the first scenario and then by $70.8, $80.5, and $106.2 billion in successive scenarios. At no point does CNAS try to determine what intelligence capabilities the country may need in the future. Rather, a meat cleaver is swung indiscriminately at the budget, and let the cuts fall where they may. Afterward, policymakers can decide what the remains may be used for.

This is not strategic wisdom. Rather, it is mental bankruptcy. For American global decline to become a reality requires two things: a political decision to cut defense spending as a percentage of GDP below what President Clinton considered prudent (4 percent), and the continued failure of our nation’s strategists to determine the best way to spend the nation’s investment in its security.

— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author of the recently released The First Clash and Keep from All Thoughtful Men. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.


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