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Matching Resources to Defense Commitments

It hasn’t gotten much attention, but this week Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has released a new “National Military Strategy of the United States of America.” There is, in truth, little that is especially new or provocative here — but then, you would not expect that, because, for all the changes in political control at the top, the military strategy of the United States generally remains pretty constant over the years.

Mullen’s document is mainly a list of all the roles and missions the armed forces must carry out, foremost among them protecting “the security of the American people, our territory, and our way of life,” but also including a multitude of related assignments — e.g., “facilitating U.S. government agencies and other organizations’ efforts to advance our Nation’s interests.” There are no shortage of threats to confront, ranging from “non-state actors such as criminal organizations, traffickers, and terrorist groups” to states such as China, North Korea, and Iran. The report notes:

China’s decades-long economic growth is expected to facilitate its continued military modernization and expansion of its interests within and beyond the region…. North Korea’s nuclear capability and potentially unstable transition of power poses a risk to regional stability and international non-proliferation efforts. In the Middle East, a nuclear armed Iran could set off a cascade of states in the region seeking nuclear parity or increased conventional capabilities; that could lead to regional conflict….

States are developing anti-access and area-denial capabilities and strategies to constrain U.S. and international freedom of action. These states are rapidly acquiring technologies, such as missiles and autonomous and remotely-piloted platforms that challenge our ability to project power from the global commons and increase our operational risk. Meanwhile, enabling and war-fighting domains of space and cyberspace are simultaneously more critical for our operations, yet more vulnerable to malicious actions.

All in all, this strikes me as a pretty accurate and comprehensive overview of all the challenges we face in the future. Missing from this document is the $500+ billion question: Where are we going to find the funds to maintain all these commitments?

The Obama administration is pushing for a cut of 70,000 in our ground forces, along with the cancellation or scaling back of major weapons systems. Yet there is no suggestion that our responsibilities will shrink. That suggests that the trend of the past couple of decades — ever since the end of the Cold War — will continue: to wit, an overly small military being subjected to a punishing deployment tempo. So far, the armed forces have borne up remarkably well under the strain, but it is not a smart bet to overstress the men and women in uniform indefinitely. Better to give them some breathing space by adding a few more troops, building a few more ships and aircraft, providing some newer equipment so that they can better meet their global responsibilities. But that’s not the way things are drifting in Washington.

The Washington consensus seems to be: Let’s do everything we’re doing now, but do it with fewer people and less money. There is little political will in Washington to adopt the isolationist policies of the Cato Institute, yet there seems to be a good deal of interest in adopting Cato’s penny-pinching approaching to defense. That doesn’t add up. Mullen and his successor (he is due to retire this year) will have no easy task trying to square this circle.