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The Future of Defense

Original Article

A Beltway commission is not without honor. Save perhaps among those whose
activities it’s trying to reform. Whatever else can be said about America’s
post-Cold War defense dilemmas, they’ve spawned no shortage of official
studies. BFS, BUR, CORM, QDR I, NDP, NSSG, QDR II . . . all adding up to a
fine example of the Military Law of Inverse Brevity: the smaller the force,
the more gets written about it. Call it the weapons-to-words ratio.

Don’t fret what you call it. Most of these studies aren’t worth the
downloading, mere apologies for the status quo, i.e., a smaller version of
the Cold War/Industrial Age structure and budget. True, the 1997 National
Defense Panel (which Congress created to critique Quadrennial Defense Review
II because they knew it would be a whitewash) risked unilateral rationality
by proposing a transformation strategy and suggesting that homeland defense
might be nice.

Last month, the National Security Study Group (NSSG), which Congress created
to critique QDR II pre-emptively and to offer suggestions to the next
president, released its second of three reports. Media indifference has been
loud, official hostility palpable. Still, it would be a mistake to ignore
this report. For, despite its studied vagueness (the hard recommendations
come next year) it provides a reasoned and prescient view of what America
should be doing in the world.

The real name of the NSSG is the United States Commission on National
Security/21st century, a k a the Hart-Rudman Commission. The commissioners
and staff are good people, expert and earnest. Their Phase I Report, “New
World Coming,” (Sept. 1999) summed up the problem with a single sentence: ”
. . . for many years to come Americans will become increasingly less secure,
and much less secure than they now believe themselves to be.” Last month’s
Phase II Report, “Seeking a National Strategy,” gets into the kinds of
things the United States needs to do.

It is easy to read the report as mere laundry lists of desirable actions and
conditions. But two recommendations and one premise deserve serious
consideration. The recommendations have already been scorned and dismissed
by senior Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary William Cohen and
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Hugh Shelton. The premise? Curiously, no,
amazingly, no one seems to have grasped its implications.

The first recommendation entails abandoning the two-war sizing construct
officially beloved of Pentagon force planners, and considered delusional by
nearly everyone else. This holds that the United States must be able to
fight two nearly simultaneous major theater wars, presumably in Korea and
the Persian Gulf. Few if any competent analysts believe that the United
States has that capability with present forces levels in their present
condition . . . or the air and sea lift to move and sustain them. In one
sense, there’s nothing new here. American sizing requirements have always
been more useful justifying the budget than planning for combat. What is new
is that this is the 21st century.

Why are we even still planning to fight bloody and protracted 20th century
land wars? Can we think of nothing else to do? “Seeking a National Strategy”
recommends abandoning this archaic fantasy and adopting a capabilities force
tailoring some forces for heavy but brief combat, others for rapid
intervention, others for constabulary duties. And that constitutes the
second source of Pentagon hiccups. Especially Army hiccups. That service
decrees its force’s general purpose, i.e., if you prepare for the most
demanding contingency (read here, sustained combat), lesser problems will
take care of themselves.

Unfortunately, long-term humanitarian, peace-keeping, and peace-enforcing
operations chew up combat forces. A separate active/reserve/Guard division
(or maybe corps) devoted to these operations would protect and preserve
other units. The Army counters, with some justice, that they’re too
short-handed already to specialize thus. Still, the idea makes sense and,
properly implemented, could save the Army the endless problem of rotating
combat units in and out of armed baby-sitting duties.

These recommendations notwithstanding, the report’s greatest insight may be
found between the lines, more in a sensibility than in a strategy. Or
perhaps the strategy lies in the sensibility. The report quotes Shakespeare:
“O, it is excellent/To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous/To use
it like a giant.” (“Measure for Measure,” Act II, Scene 2)

The overt meaning is obvious. The United States should not careen about like
a planetary school yard bully. Whenever possible, the United States should
forebear; should work to develop local and regional arrangements and
understandings; should let others be strong. While the United States must
protect its security and interests, and sometimes must act to protect the
security and interests of others, in the long run the best world for America
is a world which has no need of superpowers.

Not everyone will find this notion congenial. Certainly, those who tout the
one indispensable nation viewpoint, who hold that history plainly intended
us to serve forever as the world’s policeman and/or therapist, who define
America’s purpose as leading the lesser, won’t like it. However, perhaps the
time is approaching when these folks, and the nation generally, might
consider a proposition well enough known to addicts of a physical sort.

If you need it . . . you don’t need it.

Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute and president of
Aretea, a Seattle policy and cultural affairs research center.