Strategy Change? Prove it.

Changes to the United States’ military strategy are afoot in the Pentagon, reports the New York Times:

The Pentagon’s most senior planners are challenging the longstanding strategy that requires the armed forces to be prepared to fight two major wars at a time. Instead, they are weighing whether to shape the military to mount one conventional campaign while devoting more resources to defending American territory and antiterrorism efforts.

The old “two-war” model may be on its way out, the news goes (though that model was, in fact, heavily modified four years ago), and counterterrorism is in. Now a number of defense-policy wonks have been calling for these sorts of changes for awhile: more resources devoted to fighting counterinsurgency campaigns and fewer resources devoted to Cold War-style “conventional” wars. Whether this approach is right or wrong can be set aside for the moment—though it’s important! The more interesting question, though, is whether any of these changes would actually take place, and to what extent changes in strategy are constrained by existing military bureaucracies.

Back in 2001’s Quadrennial Defense Review, Rumsfeld was hyping the “revolution in military affairs”: his vision of a smaller, lighter force that would use the latest technology to deploy quickly and fight battles rapidly. In retrospect, the idea was pretty ill-suited for the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which continue to hover somewhere between peacekeeping and war. Nevertheless, the point is that the “revolution in military affairs” never came about. As Andrew Krepinevich noted, Rumsfeld’s 2004 programs “fairly closely resemble those of previous years and the plan … inherited from the Clinton administration.” Only a few useless big-ticket items in the Pentagon’s budget—like the Comanche helicopter—were canceled, while plenty of other useless items—like our ever-growing fleet of nuclear subs—continue to expand.

In part this standstill came about because defense contractors have powerful allies in Congress, and Congress isn’t too thrilled with canceling job-creating (and campaign coffer-filling) defense contracts, no matter how useless. And meanwhile, the three services—Army, Navy, Air Force—don’t like giving up their resources. As Fred Kaplan has pointed out, the three services still command roughly the same share of the budget as they did back in 1984; not because their relative needs have gone unchanged, but because the service chiefs have a longstanding, if implicit, agreement not to trample on each other’s toes.

Both factors will almost certainly prove important for the latest review. A shift from conventional war to “antiterrorism efforts” means fewer expensive helicopters and tanks and subs. Good luck getting Congress to agree to all that. It would also mean a shift in resources from the Air Force and Navy to the Army. Again, good luck. Expect to see Navy and Air Force officials slowly hype up, say, the “inevitable” war with China, so as to help justify larger expenditures for the Navy and Air Force. (For Exhibit A of this strategy, read Robert Kaplan’s Atlantic super-alarmist piece on “How We Would Fight China.” As praktike observed long ago, it’s an advertisement for a bigger Navy budget from start to finish.) That’s not to say this is an active process. It’s more the case that military analysts who foresee a dire China threat, one that demands lots of expensive new ships and aircraft to fight or contain, are more likely to have their PowerPoint briefings passed around the Pentagon. It’s natural selection at it’s finest. And it could sharply curtail what might potentially be a much-needed shift in military strategy.


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