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Time to Forget the Superpower Thing?

Ideas have consequences. Especially ideas that can get you killed. Take, for example, the cluster of notions expressed by the phrase, World’s Only Superpower. Everybody says it. Everybody says it because everybody says it. Perhaps, in some ways it’s still true. But today, the military Superpower idea is obsolete, misleading, and potentially fatal.
Three big reasons why.

First, with each passing year, the United States disposes of less and less usable power. Forget the nuclear stuff. Does anybody really believe we would use nukes under any circumstances, including a strike on the United States with a few weapons of mass destruction (WMD)?

As for the conventional force: underfunded, overused, demoralized, abused, wearing out. It approaches the verge of implosion. Some systems are so old we cannot get spare parts, the companies that built them either no longer bother or simply don’t exist. New weapons take up to 20 years to deliver. Critical munitions, modernization, readiness estimates of the annual defense budget shortfall range from $10 billion to $100 billion, with the reality probably closer to the high end. A serious, sustained air-ground campaign, let alone one (or two) major theater wars could yield a catastrophe unparalleled in American history.

But there probably could not be such campaigns or wars. The CNN Effect and the Dover Test all but preclude them. The former entails more than the fact that wrong information (or disinformation) can circle the globe many times, land in the global data base, and remain there forever. It’s also the audiovisual component of the belief that the American people will not accept sustained combat when they can see it, and the inevitable result of combat, televised or not: body bags.

The Dover Test, a relatively new Pentagon buzzword, refers to the Air Force base in Delaware that receives the bodies of Americans slain overseas. All military operations must now pass the Dover Test. Not just, is it worth bleeding for, but even if it is, will the American people and/or their leaders accept it?

Bottom line. Less and less usable force, perhaps a force that cannot be used at all. The world has taken note.

The second problem involves what’s known in the trade as symmetrical threats and niche capabilities. The gravamen here is that no one else can assemble the kind of high-tech, global-reach military we can. So they will concentrate instead on WMD and negating our forces in specialized ways: attacking computers or satellites, for example, or denying naval access by mining and deploying shore-based missiles. The irony here is that our very technological superiority increases the peril. Were other nations and forces better able to compete, they might not be driven to WMD or probing for ways to collapse our system of systems.

Put differently, we are the asymmetrical threat. And much of the world is hard at work on the problem. And should one real or potential adversary develop workable solutions, others can be expected to follow . . . or buy it off-the-shelf.

And third, the United States remains dreadfully open to attack. The centuries of total invulnerability, the decades of total vulnerability, are both gone. We no longer risk (or threaten) instant annihilation. But we can still be hit awfully hard, and are subject to intimidation and blackmail thereby. Yes, there is the Dover Test. But there is also the New York Test, the Los Angeles Test, the Seattle Test.

Still, it’s not entirely gloomy. In some ways, the military’s primed for resurgence. Mr. Clinton will be going home soon enough. Mr. Bush has assembled a fine national security team. There exists something resembling a bipartisan consensus for sustained if relatively modest spending increases. Promising initiatives and programs are under way in all the services and at the joint and combined levels.

Perhaps most important, a new generation of officers is moving forward, and there are points of light among them. Yes, untold thousands of good men and women have punched out in disgust. But other good men and women, like their post-Vietnam seniors, have stayed on to redeem and rebuild.

But the chance will be wasted unless defense planners drop, or at least redefine, one of the most cherished aspects of the Sole Superpower conceit. In military parlance, it is called full spectrum dominance the belief and goal that the United States should and can be able to accomplish, quickly and easily, everything from peacekeeping and counterterrorism to combat in Third World urban megasprawls to simultaneous full-scale war in Korea or the Persian Gulf, with the forces and on the budgets available. At a conference several years ago, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger summed it well. Full spectrum dominance when you get there, call me.

But you cannot get there from here. Rather, the next administration must recognize and insist upon the new primacy of homeland defense. The Defense Department must adopt an everything is on the table approach to military roles and missions. It must recognize that full spectrum dominance, to the degree it can be achieved, requires new forms of task
organization and specialization. Then it must use the next few critical years to institutionalize the transformation.

As for the Superpower conceit, perhaps the Defense Department should gin up a stadium-style banner that reads, World Champions, 1991, 1993, hang it prominently at the Pentagon, honor the achievement, and then get back to work.

Philip Gold is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle.