Cost Imposition and U.S. Strategy

Shortly after I published my latest Reuters column on how to think about the national security landscape, my friend Simon Chin kindly passed along a comparative historical analysis he co-authored with Andrew Krepinevich and Todd Harrison on “Strategy in Austerity.” Specifically, the report compares the U.S. in the era of détente and Britain as it sought to adapt to the relative economic rise of Germany, Russia, and other rival powers. The report identifies seven broad approaches embraced by both powers:

> Allocating more resources to defense;

> Employing defense resources more efficiently;

> Enhancing force effectiveness;

> “Outsourcing” to Allies and Partners;

> Increasing risk and divesting commitments;

> Cost-imposing and time-based competition; and

> Negotiating with the principal rival.

My column focused on the closely related goals of employing defense resources more efficiently and enhancing force effectiveness, and to a lesser extent on increasing risk and divesting commitments. “Outsourcing,” which tends to be a focus of strategic debates, has its limits. It is a plausible strategy for the Korean peninsula and (perhaps) the Western Pacific more broadly, but it is somewhat less likely that the European democracies will shoulder more of the burden of providing extra-regional security, particularly in light of the rising economic burden of aging populations. The most interesting insight of the report, by my lights, is its focus on cost imposition:

Both the British and the Americans proved fairly adept at cost-imposition. Britain, for example, leveraged its industrial base to produce ships of high quality quickly, thereby complicating rivals’ planning. American investments in stealth and bomber aircraft in the 1970s compelled the Soviet Union to pay a substantially higher price to continue guarding its airspace from any intruder. Given the length of the Soviet Union’s border, the longest in the world at over 12,000 miles, maintaining the required density of air defense systems over that distance would impose enormous costs on the Soviet military budget.

At present, there is no indication that the United States is pursuing cost-imposing strategies either in the January 2012 planning guidance or otherwise. That said, this does not necessarily mean the U.S. Defense Department is not pursuing such strate- gies, which are often not publicized.

The current strategic environment rewards defenders of territory, as the vulnerability of critical energy and information systems makes modern urban societies very brittle. And so Krepinevich argued in his recent Foreign Affairs article that the U.S. and its allies should take a page from rogue states and invest heavily in A2/AD capabilities:

In recent years, a number of states have studied the American way of warfare and are developing anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities to undermine the U.S. method of power projection. At its core, the A2/AD threat is to U.S. forward bases, but it also involves challenging assured access to littoral regions and maritime chokepoints as well as to space and cyberspace during wartime.

So we should turn the tables:

The challenges that China and Iran pose for U.S. security lie not in the threat of traditional cross-border invasions but in efforts to establish spheres of influence in, and ultimately to control access to, critically important regions. What the Pentagon should set its sights on, therefore, is not optimizing U.S. forces to be able to produce regime changes through counterinvasions but a return to the more modest objective of forward defense: deterring regional aggression or coercion and protecting the global commons from major disruption. 

With this shift in focus, A2/AD capabilities — which favor defense — become not problems for the United States and its allies but tools to be used by them, since the onus of power projection would fall not on Washington but on its opponents. Toward this end, the United States should work with its allies and partners in the western Pacific and the Persian Gulf to create local air- and sea-denial networks that would make aggression difficult, costly, and unattractive. [Emphasis added]

That is, don’t even try it. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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