What To Do About National Defense
Great struggles leave their marks on the institutions that wage them.
The ambience of the cold war saturated every element of our defense establishment, including the intellectual establishment that grew up around it. Our ways of thinking, our assumptions about the world, our views of statecraft and of the American role in the world—all bore, and still bear, the imprint of the duel with Communism. American defense planners have found it far easier to scrap some of the hardware of the cold war than the software, the intellectual algorithms for thinking about defense.
When a staff officer prepares a briefing justifying a defense budget with carefully constructed scenarios of Iraq invading Saudi Arabia, he does so using a frame of reference shaped by the cold war, even if the Russians no longer figure as the enemy. When administration representatives discuss the need to “contain” regional opponents, they think in categories concocted by George Kennan and Paul Nitze at the dawn of the contest between East and West. When defense contractors offer studies to the Defense Department on “deterrence after the cold war,” they unwittingly perpetuate concepts of American strategy that have decreasing relevance to the real troubles of the new age. It will be many years before self-conscious examination of the intellectual legacy of the cold war, and the smack of reality contradicting it, breed new ways of thinking.
One of the least fortunate aspects of all this has been an oversimplification of our own strategic history. When American strategists in the late 80’s and early 90’s first set out to consider a new posture for the post-cold-war period, they were haunted by the specter of a rapid and ruinously complete demobilization of U.S. forces. This, they said, was a peculiarly American temptation.
Thus, Richard Cheney, Secretary of Defense during the Bush administration: “. . . historically we’ve always gotten it wrong. We’ve never done it right. You can’t find a time in this century when we’ve been through one of these cycles where we did, in fact, take the force down in an intelligent fashion.” In making this assertion, Cheney was merely echoing the anxieties of other American military writers who have discerned repeated “cycles” in America’s strategic posture from extreme underpreparedness, to a belated rush to arms in the face of emergency, and back again.
In fact, however, the essential American story is far more complex than this. From the time of colonial settlement, to the Founding, and throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, our strategic record was far better than is commonly supposed, and certainly superior to that of most of the European states with which we had to contend. Moreover, even in the 20th century the so-called “cycle” disintegrates on closer inspection. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, for instance, the United States returned to adequately-equipped regular services, with a considerably larger establishment than that of 1914, and a Navy on the edge of parity with that of Great Britain. America’s serious interwar military troubles began only in the late 20’s and early 30’s, when the Great Depression struck.
In more recent times, American military thinkers have found themselves transfixed not only by the theory of “cycles” but by four particular uses of force: three failures, and one success. The failures are Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia; the success was the Persian Gulf war. Many officers (and not a few civilians) read into these cumulative experiences the following half-truths or, in some cases, falsehoods: wars can be won easily if civilian authorities will set clear objectives and then get out of the way; the press is invariably hostile to the military, and should, where possible, be excluded or manipulated by it; the American people lack the stomach for casualties, and will only support war if it is conducted with the utmost speed.
Careful reflection reveals a far more complicated set of truths. The military in Vietnam had much more discretion (particularly in the south) than is usually acknowledged. When the use of force is likely to have political repercussions (i.e., always), some measure of civilian control is entirely appropriate. The press is no more hostile to the military, at least initially, than it is to any other institution of government or private enterprise; it is, in any event, an inescapable feature of modern life. And the sensitivity over casualties shown in the Gulf war stemmed far more from military officers (for a variety of reasons) than from the public, whose sons and daughters had no fear of conscription to induce in their parents a moderating aversion to bloodshed.
The cold war put an even greater premium on apodictic statements than is the norm in politics. The first task in rethinking American strategy after the cold war, then, is to develop a healthy mistrust of the shibboleths and folk wisdom of the American national-security debate. To revise our strategy in accordance with our needs will require not merely an attempt to limn our future, but a careful and, insofar as is possible, dispassionate examination of our past. This requires no small effort; most American policy analysts and decision-makers have little interest in serious study of our history, and too few military historians think they have much to contribute to an understanding of our present and future.
II. The Strategic Environment
For many people today, the world is a dismal place; the atrocities of war in cities from Bihac to Aden, and from Sukumi to Kigali remind us of that. The trends in other parts of the world—where Japan anxiously eyes a Korean peninsula soon to be kitted out with nuclear weapons, or ethnic Russians think of secession from an economically moribund Ukraine—are not terribly encouraging. But from a purely American point of view, the world is, and for some length of time promises to be, a more secure place than it was during the cold war. For now, Americans have the luxury, as peoples very rarely do in their history, to rethink their fundamental national-security policy.
The new strategic environment has three dominant characteristics: international disorder; a revolution in military affairs; and a crisis of demotic culture. Let us consider each in turn.
That the cold war imposed an order on international politics and provided a strategic rationale for American behavior is a truism. It also imposed a global logic on American defense policy: the essential decisions, in such a world, were decisions not to engage the Soviet Union or its clients. Although American leaders distinguished between areas of greater and lesser importance to the United States, they often did so on the basis of cost and benefit, rather than intrinsic interest.
After the cold war, American interests have become altogether hazier; they have also in some measure contracted. To take only two cases: during the contest with the Soviet Union, Somalia and Yugoslavia had some importance as points d’appui for military power. The United States could not be indifferent to what happened in those countries, because of repercussions for the balance of power in their respective regions. Although the immediate military consequences of a shift of either of those countries from one camp to the other would have been small, the geopolitical and certainly the psychological effects would not.
Today, the situation is different. The United States has no immediate strategic interest in either country. Its prestige does not ride on the outcome of clan warfare in Mogadishu or Sarajevo, at least as long as Washington refrains from making foolish pronouncements about what it will do in either place. Our interest in the resolution of these civil conflicts is firstly humanitarian and only secondarily, and in the long term, strategic. (The long-term consequences of the Yugoslav civil war could prove exceptionally ugly in the Balkans more generally, but that should properly concern inhabitants of Berlin, Paris, and Rome far more than residents of Atlanta, St. Louis, and Los Angeles.)
The stumblings of the Clinton administration conceal a far deeper problem in the conduct of American foreign policy than the failures of a particularly inept group of politicians. The calls often heard at home and abroad for a foreign-policy “vision,” along the lines of containment in the cold war, miss the point. It is highly unlikely that anyone can or will respond. The contrast between the situation now and that of 45 years ago reflects not only the superiority of the statesmen then (a fact, to be sure); it reflects the ambiguity of a world that faces challenges far more complex, if for the moment less ominous, than those of 1945-50.
The geopolitical challenge to American policy in those years was simple: the emergence of Soviet power and its expansion in Europe. The economics of that confrontation were also fairly straightforward: the American economy accounted for a staggering 50 percent of global production, and the European countries had most of the human resources necessary to rebuild their economies. Even so, it required several direct challenges, including Communist coups, for American statesmen to devise the responses—containment, the Marshall Plan, and the rearmament prompted by National Security Council Memorandum Number 68 and the Korean war—that the times demanded.
Today the geopolitical problems before us are far more diffuse, and the remedies far less obvious. There is, and can be, no global scheme for American foreign policy, save for the vague objective of promoting an open international trading and communications order. American statesmen have no dragons to slay, or even to tame; partners may be competitors, but no state poses a direct challenge to our security or that of our allies. Moreover, in this new world our economy, although thriving, commands barely a quarter of the world’s gross product, a portion likely to shrink as growth continues to spread in Asia.
So much for the new element of international disorder. A second broad development is what defense thinkers call the “revolution in military affairs.” We are in the early stages of a transformation of warfare which, like changes in the economy more generally, will be driven by the new technologies of information.
Until quite recently—say, the 1970’s—military technology essentially resembled that of World War II, albeit vastly improved and upgraded. The advent of the microchip and various advanced materials (e.g., for the construction of stealth aircraft) now promises a far more radical change in the conduct of war.
Thus, armed forces in advanced states can deploy unparalleled capabilities to see and track opponents, and to deliver precise conventional fire. The Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, for example, put accurate navigation within the grasp of human beings almost anywhere on the planet. Satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, and remote acoustic, infrared, and other sensors have transformed the gathering of intelligence.
Above all, the networking of military organizations by electronic communications will radically alter their efficacy, even as it creates new opportunities for warfare by electronic means as varied as electromagnetic pulse weapons (which disable electronic devices by brute force) and computer worms or viruses (which do the same by stealth).
Conventional warfare in the 21st century may look very different from warfare today. It may be preceded by periods of covert warfare involving electronic sabotage. Fighting may consist of barrages of accurate long-range cruise and ballistic missiles, while mobile forces such as ships or tanks may find themselves caught in webs of “intelligent” minefields that can detect their presence in a half-dozen different ways. Rather than fighting as individual platforms, ships and planes will increasingly fight as networks, and what constitutes the high ground in such contests will be an advantage in information as much as in terrain. Attacks on command posts and on the other side’s “eyes” will be accompanied by efforts to hide through the use of camouflage and deception.
The revolution in military affairs will have a number of effects. It will enable new competitors with the United States to amass certain kinds of military power relatively quickly. For example, until recently satellite pictures that could discriminate among objects one meter long were the stuff of supersecret national organizations. Today, they are on the verge of becoming routinely available commercial products from American and overseas space vendors. Again, in the Gulf war only the United States had, in any quantity, receivers that could allow precise geolocation using the GPS. Such receivers are already widely available commercially, and within a few years will fit comfortably in a shirt pocket.
Furthermore, the end of the cold war has meant that the vast pool of scientific talent and military technology in the former Soviet bloc has become available for export around the world. And as some countries, particularly in Asia, have become wealthier, they have acquired a taste for the latest in military hardware. In the 1960’s, the Northrop Corporation could enrich itself by selling the reliable but relatively low-technology F-5 fighter to America’s allies. Today, countries like Malaysia will buy only the latest in American military technology.
These developments do not necessarily undermine the American military edge. The American defense budget still towers over all others. At some $244 billion a year, it is roughly seven times that of any major European country and about six times that of Japan. Minor troublemakers like Iran and Iraq do not spend 5 percent of what the United States spends on military power. In addition, during the cold war the United States amassed a vast capital stock which retains enormous value. Our constellation of intelligence-gathering systems in outer space and on earth, massive platforms like aircraft carriers and ships, and a technological establishment of astounding sophistication is unparalleled anywhere. Finally, only the United States has the know-how and logistical assets (including such mundane items as transport and refueling aircraft) to conduct large-scale and global operations.
In this respect in particular, analogies with the late 1940’s are erroneous; the American lead in military technology is far more extensive today than it was 50 years ago. Advances in civilian technology may eventually subvert that lead, but whether that will occur depends very largely on decisions to be made over the next decade.
Strategists rarely discuss the cultural dimensions of strategy, but these are in fact a third conditioning force in the strategic environment. For the willingness to use military power and the capacity to amass it depend heavily on a country’s culture.
During the cold war, strategic planners could take pretty much for granted the willingness of Americans to engage in world politics, and to contend with the Soviet Union for global hegemony. Even when Americans were not willing, in John F. Kennedy’s words, to pay any price, or to bear any burden, they certainly accepted a military burden unprecedented in our peacetime history. This included assigning between 4 and 10 percent of our gross national product to defense (the historical norm had been closer to 1 or 2 percent); peacetime conscription; the creation of a vast military establishment, including a large standing army; and acceptance of various real and potential infringements on civil liberties. These last included a hedge of laws to protect secrets and the creation of large agencies of government with the ability to spy on Americans overseas and, to a lesser extent, at home as well.
The price was surely worth it, but a price it was. True, Americans have shown no particular eagerness to shed these burdens and structures completely; it may be one of the lesser surprises of the end of the cold war that Americans have become accustomed to world power, and have no intention of giving it up. But it is equally true that Americans will look on global responsibilities with a colder eye, particularly if exertions of military power seem to be efforts on behalf of allies too miserly or timid to fend for themselves.
At the same time, it has become apparent that the United States, and perhaps the West more broadly, are undergoing a crisis of cultural self-confidence similar to those of the 1930’s and the 1960’s.1 The dimensions of this crisis are difficult to sketch, but they surely include the rise of criminality in most Western societies, the erosion of traditional means of socialization (family, church), and a perceptible decay in popular culture. The replacement of fare like The Andy Griffith Show by Beavis and Butthead is a telling symbol of a deeper and more distressing trend. One quantitative indicator is the rise of illegitimacy which (in the United States, at any rate) also translates into a rise of one-parent families. In 1970, births to unmarried women in the U.S. were 11 percent of all births; today, they are 28 percent.
These cultural trends affect national security in various ways. Among other things, they have induced American leaders to turn inward in the attempt to cope with a society that has lost much of its self-confidence. The election campaign of 1992, the first since 1936 which did not feature foreign affairs as a prominent issue, was an important sign of this change.
To be sure, the significance of the change has so far not penetrated a foreign-policy establishment that continues to hold earnest seminars on American policy vis-à-vis countries 10,000 miles away while ten blocks away thugs have driven all but the pluckiest, most foolhardy, or heavily armed citizens from the street. Indeed, the contrast between the formidable military power of the United States and its violent and disorderly cities suggests the hubris of an ambitious effort to police the world.
In the future, then, we can expect the American public to look askance at foreign adventures that aim to do for others what we have not yet done for ourselves. We can also expect politicians to learn from the experience of George Bush: no amount of success overseas will compensate for failure to solve problems at home.
The diseases afflicting American civilization have not escaped the notice of other nations. Americans tend to discount the cultural hostility of foreign intellectuals and politicians as mere window-dressing. In particular, many American intellectuals shrug off religious belief as a passing obstacle to the development of secular, humanistic, and libertarian societies. Living as we do in the oldest constitutional democracy on the planet, we often assume that American ways—our package of individual liberties and a legalistic political system—must inevitably spread to all countries. These American assumptions will probably fail in the next century. They not only attract the anger of fundamentalist groups in the Islamic world; they have also begun to elicit hostile reactions from other societies, including the far more successful states of Asia.
Conceivably, we may have passed the high-water mark of the spread of American culture around the world, as the United States finds itself increasingly at odds with countries resentful of our attempts to impose a world order that to them looks far from benign or attractive.
Indeed, in what may be the greatest strategic revolution of all, two concepts that the United States itself applied to the Soviet Union—deterrence and containment—may be applied to it. Other countries (plus substate and transnational actors) may seek not to contend with the United States for global hegemony, but to keep it out of their spheres of interest and influence. In such struggles, even modest amounts of force, if wielded dexterously and with determination, can thwart the objectives of a morose and troubled American giant.
In a “Bottom-Up Review,” published early in its term, the Clinton administration described the forces it believed the country would require. Based on a cold-war-style analysis, it called for ten Army and three Marine divisions, twelve aircraft carriers, and thirteen active Air Force wings. Civilians occasionally sneer at generals for preparing to fight the last war; here, the analysts played the generals’ part, albeit with an elaborate theoretical superstructure.
The chief premise of the Bottom-Up Review was that the conflicts for which the United States should prepare itself would be reruns of the Gulf war of 1991. This proposition, dubious enough for the next five to ten years, becomes absurd if one looks further ahead. And in any case, the projected budget will simply not allow an armed force of that size, or at least one that could be adequately paid, trained, and consistently modernized.
The Pentagon has confessed that over the next five years it will fall $40-billion short of the force called for in the Bottom-Up Review; the Government Accounting Office, probably closer to reality, makes the gap out to be $150 billion. The 1.4-million-strong force envisioned in the Bottom-Up Review, then, will not survive. In the next ten to fifteen years, the armed forces will shrink to perhaps a million men and women, about 40 percent that of the cold war.
Adjusting to the new size means giving up old structures and radically changing ways of conducting business. Some of the services are deeply reluctant to do so. The Marine Corps, for example, is clinging to a force level of over 170,000 men and women—a third the size of the Army—the maintenance of which will blot out funds for the sorely needed modernization of the Marines’ equipment.
Not only will the United States military be smaller than at any time since 1940; it will have to change in other ways as well. In particular, it will have to reduce its reliance on permanent forward deployment of combat units, a policy that was sustainable in an era of a two-million-man force but that will impose insuperable strains on a force half that size. And a smaller military will have to concede that some missions are simply too big for it to handle alone. Indeed, one of the chief strategic choices that the United States faces is that between unilateral and multilateral capabilities.
American defense policy should emerge from answers to the question, What kind of world does the United States wish to mold? But it is more likely to emerge from answers to easier questions: What calamities does the United States wish to avert? and, What goals are worth even a modest fight?
From such considerations, four “missions” emerge:
First, the United States will have to think hard about defense proper. Since World War II, American strategists have regarded defense with only episodic interest. After a vigorous effort in the area of continental air defense in the 1950’s and the attempted development of ballistic-missile defenses in the 1960’s, this strategic option lapsed into a state of somnolence. The Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative never attracted wide support, and came under severe criticism for the stress it would place on the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with the Soviet Union.
Defense in the narrow sense, however, is a long and honorable American strategic tradition. Three waves of fortification—one from the Federalist period through the War of 1812 and its immediate aftermath, another in the 1840’s, and a third in the 1880’s—provided the United States with admirable protection for its ports. In the early 20th century, much of American military planning focused on the protection of installations such as the Panama Canal.
During the cold war, the balance of American strategic thinking and military action shifted decisively to the offense, and for good reason: nuclear weapons seemed an overwhelmingly offensive military tool, and political considerations mandated a forward strategy in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. But that has now changed somewhat. The proliferation of long-range ballistic (and, later, cruise) missiles will make it increasingly possible for even small and relatively weak powers to strike at the United States. The technologies of low-level warfare—everything from car bombs to computer-hacking—make it easier to cross the oceanic distances that to this day insulate the United States from many traditional security concerns. The bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in 1993 was, most likely, a sign of things to come.
Large segments of the American military will resist conversion to essentially defensive roles. For one thing, the dominant combat-arms organizations have grown up as forward-deployed, expeditionary forces; this is their definition of what soldiering is. For another, many defensive missions are intrinsically more complicated and less promising than offensive ones; it is easier to build and operate a long-range missile than to defend against it, easier to launch long-raid special operations than to prevent them (and more fun as well).
A second broad mission of the armed forces will be that of insurance. The United States today faces no imminent threats, except for the serious but nonetheless contained prospects of war in the Korean peninsula and renewed Iraqi adventurism in the Persian Gulf. But it does face a world of tremendous uncertainty.
Defense planners have attempted to bound such uncertainty by suggesting standards like those contained in the Bottom-Up Review, which calls for the United States to prepare to fight two nearly simultaneous “major regional contingencies.” Of course, subsequent examination has showed that American forces would have logistical difficulty enough in sustaining one contingency, and that two would exceed our capabilities. But even if the artificial standards of the Bottom-Up Review did represent achievable targets, this is the wrong way of thinking about our requirements. The essence of insurance is the preservation of certain competencies, upon which future forces could be built should they be needed.
To begin with, the United States may, at some juncture, need to deploy substantial land forces overseas, as it did during the Gulf war. In the short term, this is not too likely: following a resolution of the division of the Korean peninsula, it will become less likely still. In general, it should be the task of local allies to defend themselves on the ground, while the United States supplies various kinds of support from air, sea, and space. In a pinch, the United States might provide the high-technology core of a ground expeditionary force, and the technology and organizations capable of higher-level command and control.
The heavy portion of the U. S. Army should therefore preserve and indeed hone its expertise in ground combat, preparing to serve as the decisive nucleus for multinational forces or, if necessary in the long term, for a larger American force. Such a nucleus would not only be smaller than the Army of today, it would be different. It would consist exclusively of regular forces, as opposed to the Army’s current practice of relying heavily on reserve units to support regular units, which makes the force less deployable (because of the political costs associated with reserve mobilizations) . It would also be different by virtue of its dependence on other states in the event of a major contingency.
Another broad area of insurance lies in the realm of nuclear weapons. During the cold war, questions of nuclear strategy occupied center stage in the American policy debate. Today, our nuclear forces are the stepchild of a government eager to see them go away, and of a military establishment that has always viewed them with a certain amount of distaste. “The nuclear weapon is obsolete. . . . I want to get rid of them all,” said one Air Force four-star general recently. The Navy and Army, in particular, have been delighted to see these awkward devices removed from their European arsenals, for they required specialized handling, posed tremendous operational problems, and made each service, in different ways, unpopular with local allies.
But the genie cannot be so easily put back into the bottle. Many small states will take from the Gulf war the lesson that the best counter to American conventional strength lies in the possession of a nuclear arsenal. To deter the use of such weapons (and, perhaps, chemical and biological ones as well), and if necessary to preempt nuclear forces, the United States will require a small but always modern nuclear force of its own. This ultimately also requires a low-level testing-and-development program, particularly for tactical weapons. By failing to develop and publicly defend small, clean nuclear weapons that might be useful for preemptive destruction of the small, crude arsenals of potential enemies, the Clinton administration may be making one of its most damaging long-term mistakes.
A third mission for the armed forces is the maintenance of world order. To a degree not found in any other country, the United States combines military, economic, and cultural power. It will wish to use that power in three ways: to limit, to punish, and to excise.
By limitation I mean the denial of certain kinds of capabilities to other countries. For example, the United States, as guarantor of an open commercial order, will wish to prevent other countries (or substate actors) from blocking or interfering with the free use of the sea and air lanes. What follows from this is, say, the ability to detect and destroy ships, aircraft, or submarines laying mines in the Straits of Hormuz or the Magellan Straits.
The idea of using military power to punish does not normally appeal to Americans. But in the future the United States may not wish to change a political situation on the ground through the direct use of force—by occupying a country and pacifying it. Rather, it may wish to affect the calculations of a local troublemaker, or simply lay down a marker for future troublemakers. For example, were the United States to have used military power in the former Yugoslavia early on—at the time of the shelling of Dubrovnik in the fall of 1991—it would have done best not to have placed tens of thousands of troops on the ground but to have used its air and naval power to make the Serbian government suffer at home.
During the cold war, the use of military power for punitive purposes acquired a bad name. To hawks, it smacked of timidity in engaging one’s real opponents, and perhaps of a suspect enthrallment to academic notions of force as a mere means of signaling. To doves, it seemed innately cruel and impossible to reconcile with a concept of just war. To both it appeared highly unlikely to be effective. Indeed, the experiences of the Vietnam war seemed to bear out the suspicions of hawks and doves alike.
Here again, however, it is time to reexamine our strategic assumptions. Punitive strategies failed during the cold war because the opponents against whom they were directed were in the grip of a messianic ideology and because they had at their disposal the resources of a superpower and a dozen major clients. Such strategies frequently failed as well because the largely peasant societies against whom they were directed were less vulnerable to the kind of punishment (chiefly bombing and blockade) that the United States could deliver.
Today circumstances are quite different. In the next decade or two, the United States will find itself engaged in what the British once called imperial policing: the maintenance of some rough order in unruly parts of the world. Our future opponents will not have a superpower patron to rebuild their dams and power plants, or to buy them a comprehensive air-defense system. They will probably be more porous societies than the old Communist states—more aware of the world through the mass media—and probably less totalitarian domestically. They will have more sophisticated economies, which means they will have more to lose, and, no less important, they will know that the key to survival lies in some kind of engagement in the world economy, even if not in a completely open fashion.
Within broad limits, strategies of punishment will work to moderate the behavior of such states—to curtail (if not to stop completely) efforts to subvert a neighbor or to mistreat an ethnic minority. In addition, the technologies of precision-strike open up new operational concepts for punishment. It is probably feasible, for instance, to damage or destroy most of a country’s major road and rail bridges. To be sure, temporary bridges, rafts, and the like will enable the country to continue to function, and even to move armed forces around. But the economic dislocation will inflict considerable pain on society and, ultimately, government.
Finally, the maintenance of world order will require a capability to excise certain kinds of capabilities, specifically weapons of mass destruction. In 1991, when the United States went to war against Iraq, it lacked the intelligence and, in some cases, the specialized procedures to attack storage sites for the Iraqi nuclear- and biological-weapons programs. When the war began, American planners had only two Iraqi nuclear targets on their hit lists; by the time International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors had finished their work, sixteen main facilities had been identified.
From a purely technical point of view, locating and destroying the capability of countries to use weapons of mass destruction is likely to be an extremely difficult task; this is particularly true in the case of biological weapons, which can be manufactured in small laboratories and distributed clandestinely. But should we ever witness the actual use of such weapons, there will be no choice but to move swiftly, and even at high cost, to prevent their repeated use.
The fourth and last mission of the armed forces will be coalition-maintenance. The U.S. is unique not only in its raw military power but in its ability to call on a wide variety of allies for assistance. These allies, in turn, often make claims on our own military capacity. It is in the American interest to provide key elements of support both to our core allies (for example, the British) and to occasional partners with whom we may have a more mixed relationship.
Indeed, one feature of the new international politics is a far greater ambiguity in our alliances. Thus, while American aircraft operated from Italy to surveil Yugoslav air space, American soldiers in Somalia were wondering whether their Italian colleagues were tipping off the Somali warlord they were attempting to track down.
But it would be almost as foolish to walk away from assisting allies when it is in our interest to do so as it would be to ignore such events when they occur. The United States will want allies for many reasons: to ensure political support at home and minimize opposition abroad to certain uses of force; to tap unique skills or local knowledge; to minimize our own weaknesses; and to shift some of the burdens of world policing to others. At the same time, there are some things that the United States does so well, or some goods it has in such quantity, that other countries will have to go on depending on us for support.
These, then, are the likely purposes of American military power: defense, insurance, the maintenance of world order, and the maintenance of coalitions. What choices will the American government have to make if a much smaller military is to serve these purposes adequately?
The first question for consideration is that of forward presence. During the cold war, the United States became accustomed to stationing vast forces overseas—a third of a million in Europe alone, more than a half-million all told in the mid-1980’s. Since the end of the cold war the United States has still kept a substantial force stationed overseas (more than 300,000 men and women all told) and has made increasingly frequent temporary deployments of troops for peacekeeping (as in Macedonia), so-called peacemaking (as in Somalia), and humanitarian intervention (northern Iraq and Rwanda). We have also staged training or showing-the-flag exercises designed to reassure friends or build relations with other countries (e.g., deployments to Kuwait).
This trend has given no sign of abating, as the occupation of Haiti by 10,000 American troops makes clear. Meanwhile, the administration promises to send tens of thousands of American troops to Yugoslavia in support of a peace settlement there, and diplomats talk loosely of a brigade or two on the Golan Heights in support of an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty.
It may be some time before the truly pernicious effects of this overstretching are felt. But one effect is already evident, in the strain imposed on service marriages and on morale. Specialized units suffer particularly: for example, airborne warning-and-control crews deploy overseas 170 days a year, whereas the normal limit is 120. The more forces are tied down in missions that are incidental to war-fighting, the less time and opportunity they will have to develop their combat skills.
One might argue that such activities may serve the purposes of American foreign policy, and provide a sense of mission and purpose for the men and women who undertake them. And it may be argued that in the next decade or two it will be less important that American forces sharpen their skills for all-out warfare.
Nonetheless, such activities exact a price on the organizations that sustain them—including a monetary one. The Haiti escapade will cost at least $250 million this year in direct costs, not to mention a billion dollars of planned aid to that pathetic demi-island. The deployment to Somalia alone cost $2.2 billion from 1991 through 1994, and the emergency movement of aid and troops to Rwanda in 1994 gobbled up several hundred million dollars within a couple of months. The recent suspension of all Naval-reserve training because of a shortage of funds to pay reservists is one of the smaller consequences of these unforseen expenditures. Such costs come on top of less visible drains, like the Clinton administration’s effort to take $300 million from the defense budget as a contribution to the United Nations’ peacekeeping efforts.
What is all too little realized is that these sums come out of the operations and maintenance accounts of the armed services, and have begun cutting into the ability of American forces to train and to keep their equipment in good operating condition. Humanitarian adventurism induces an insidious kind of muscle fatigue, consuming sinew in what appears to be a beneficial exercise.
It is a cliché of American strategic thinking (and one to which I largely subscribe) that the United States will henceforth fight increasingly as a member of a coalition. But we will find ourselves choosing among different kinds of coalitions—those brought together under the banner of the United Nations; those locked in formal mechanisms of military cooperation such as NATO; and those constructed on an ad-hoc basis.
During the Gulf war the Bush administration set a precedent which appears likely to last, and according to which the United States will frequently use the cover of the United Nations for its military actions overseas. The U.S. has benefited both at home and abroad from the air of legitimacy this authority has provided. But if the atmosphere at the United Nations were to deteriorate—for example, if China should choose to exercise its veto in the Security Council—the United States might wind up embarrassed by these precedents. The proper course is likely to be one of pragmatic use of the United Nations if it will provide the necessary support, but a periodic reaffirmation (and even demonstration) of American willingness to act even without its endorsement. A reflexive appeal to the United Nations for legitimacy even in cases abutting the American mainland—as has occurred in Haiti—sets precedents that will be used to confine and restrict American power in the future.
NATO remains the most durable and important of formal American coalitions. In the long run, however, unless Russia reemerges as a threat to the security of Europe, NATO is bound to deteriorate slowly. Europe, as it expands, is likely to have more, not less, difficulty in agreeing on a common foreign and defense policy; the debacle in Bosnia is ample evidence of that. So, too, are the persistent disagreements between Germany and some of its Western neighbors on the expansion of both NATO and the European Union to the East.
Europe’s difficulty in acting collectively does not diminish American interest in keeping NATO alive, but alive less as a command structure in time of war than as a means of harmonizing procedures and familiarizing soldiers with one another in times of peace. NATO’s most useful work takes place when soldiers, sailors, and airmen agree on standardized means of issuing orders, controlling air traffic, or managing naval operations.
From this common basis NATO members can operate in ad-hoc coalitions on the fringes of Europe, even if not under NATO auspices. The Gulf war, in which the United States managed to coordinate the activities of a half-dozen air forces with the procedures and planning tools devised for use in Europe, demonstrated the value of this experience.
To generalize from the case of NATO: American coalition operations should most often take place through the medium of temporary or local alliances, operating in some cases under a diffuse authority granted by larger organizations, but not dependent upon them.
If the path to America’s future coalitions is relatively clear, one cannot say as much for military acquisition. The issue here is not so much how the Pentagon develops and buys hardware (William Perry’s Defense Department deserves credit for trying to streamline a cumbersome process) as in what it buys.
There are three broad trade-offs. One is between what one might call mega- and micro-systems. The United States did very well in the cold war with exceedingly large and complex military platforms—aircraft carriers, for example, but also such marvels of modern military technology as the B-2 bomber, the JSTARS surveillance aircraft, or even the M-l Abrams tank.
For a time, in the 1970’s, military reformers argued that the United States was ill-advised to build larger and more complex systems. They pressed instead for the purchase of cheaper aircraft like the single-engine F-16 fighter, or simple diesel-electric submarines, rather than the far more costly F-15 or the Navy’s standard nuclear-powered submarine. The “military reformers” were proved wrong, at least insofar as hardware was concerned. In the Gulf war, the more sophisticated aircraft such as the F-lll and the F-15 far outperformed the F-16.
Ironically, however, the tide may have turned in the reformers’ favor after they have been driven from the field, thanks to the “revolution in military affairs” discussed earlier. In brief, and to repeat, the advent of “smart weapons”—cruise missiles that can fly hundreds of kilometers and hit with an accuracy of a few meters; off-road mines that can listen for moving vehicles and attack them; remotely-piloted vehicles that can locate targets and bring in artillery fire; cheap glide bombs that can pick their own targets or hit predesignated ones—has wrought a transformation in warfare. Just as massive mainframe computers have lost a great deal of ground to networks of smaller computers engaged in parallel processing, so, too, the future of military technology may turn away from the megasystems and toward networks of smaller and cheaper systems linked together by the new information technologies.
This trend toward warfare by micro-system points to a second trade-off, between quality and quantity. As the defense budget falls, the tendency will be to concentrate on smaller numbers of high-value platforms. These are not only aesthetically more satisfying and imposing, but politically more comprehensible. But the true indices of power in the future may lie in the possession of large numbers of cruise missiles and sensors. For as impressive as the performance of individual pieces of equipment may be, the key to their effective use will be their deployment in quantity.
This will be so because of those elements of war which Clausewitz termed “friction”: malfunctioning of equipment, inadequate intelligence, and enemy countermeasures.
Thus, the January and June 1993 punitive attacks on Baghdad used 69 Tomahawk land-attack missiles and ate up $75-million worth of ordnance for uncertain, if not negligible, effects. To have real military and hence political effect, American generals will need to be able to launch hundreds of strikes repeatedly over time against enemy targets. Not only will scarce defense dollars have to go to keeping adequate stocks of munitions; the United States will have to be willing to spend large sums on manufacturing technology in order to drive down the costs of individual rounds. Further refinements to a Tomahawk cruise missile may matter much less to its utility as an instrument of military power than to reducing its cost from $1.2 million to a tenth of that figure.
Large-scale acquisition of the new technologies will be difficult in the face of pressure to keep up substantial forces and to maintain their operations tempo. Indeed, it is acquisition of new hardware that is taking the hardest hits from the Clinton cutbacks. Furthermore, the imperatives of day-to-day operations create pressures contrary to those of a sound, long-term strategy.
From a long-term point of view, for instance, it might be worth having the Navy invest in so-called “arsenal ships”—large, stealthy, semi-submersible vessels densely packed with missiles in vertical launch tubes. Such vessels—which might carry hundreds of rounds, plus reloads—could lurk hundreds of miles from their targets, reprogram their missiles using information transmitted by satellite, and open fire. Yet although an arsenal ship might be a handy vessel to have for actual war-fighting, it is considerably less valuable for showing the flag or administering a blockade.
In the same vein, it makes sense to purchase more than the twenty B-2 bombers now on order by the United States Air Force, and in general to do everything possible to make up for the retirement of older bombers such as the Air Force’s F-111 and B-52, and the US Navy’s A-6. Bombers, however, have little utility for shows of force, and none at all for humanitarian rescues or peacekeeping operations.
The last set of choices before the American defense establishment concerns its most important constituent elements: the armed services. Over the last decade, a consensus has emerged that equates the services with parochial and self-seeking behavior, at odds with the requirements of joint action in war and sound administration in peace. The Goldwater-Nichols Reorganization Act of 1986, itself the product of several years of debate prompted by congressional dissatisfaction with the Department of Defense’s internal management, crystallized this disenchantment.
From Goldwater-Nichols there emerged a system that put increasing power in the hands of the chairman, and even the vice chairman, of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, together with the Joint Staff itself, which increasingly came under the direct control and supervision of the chairman. When Congress in 1994 created a commission to examine the roles and missions of the armed services, it complained once again about duplication of effort by the services, and the supposed inefficiencies of their mutual competition.
One might infer from much of the contemporary debate that the ideal armed service would consist of one kind of soldier wearing one uniform. Canada actually experimented with such a system in the mid-1960’s, and soon discovered that even in its tiny military there was a natural breakdown among land, sea, and air services. It further discovered that morale suffered from even apparently minor matters like the discarding of traditional uniforms, a decision reversed twenty years later in 1985. (The U.S. Navy re-learned this lesson in 1977 when it reinstated the cherished bell-bottom trousers and white sailors’ caps taken away in 1971 by a chief of naval operations zealous for efficiency.)
Soldiers, sailors, and airmen inhabit very different worlds, and have very different cultures. This differentiation of service cultures is inevitable, bred by the physical environments in which soldiers, sailors, and airmen operate. It is also highly desirable. There may be no compelling operational requirement for a distinct Marine Corps (armies can conduct amphibious operations with adequate training), but the Marines’ elan and professionalism, combined with the peculiar organizational forms they have evolved, make them a unique and invaluable asset. Even when they do the same things the Army does, they do them differently, and occasionally better. And as anyone who has associated with both services knows, each often attracts its own kind of people.
We take it for granted in business that customers will get better service from three or four competing franchises than from a monopoly; we do not call the existence of several national newspapers a deplorable failure of rationalization, or regard the existence of bicameral legislatures as evidence of inefficient government. In the same way, it is a good thing and not a bad thing to have services compete with one another for such missions as counterinsurgency or theater ballistic-missile defense.
In any case, much of the so-called duplication of the services does not represent unnecessary effort. If the Air Force controlled all combat aircraft, we would probably still have pretty much the same number of airplanes at sea on aircraft carriers, albeit supported by an organization far less familiar with the operating environment than the Navy. Because of the technological flux that characterizes military developments, it makes good sense to let competition, and not a master plan, shape the choices about which organizations take on which new missions.
This does not mean, however, that the current array of services is inevitable or desirable. There may be a case for expanding the number of the services by creating one devoted solely to space and long-range missile operations. And it is surely desirable to shape the competition among the services, which, after all, do not produce their own revenues.
But it must be remembered that it is the services that have the longest-term view. Goldwater-Nichols gave more power to the theater commanders-in-chief (the so-called CINC’s), including a voice in making budget decisions. By the nature of their tasks, however, theater commanders, and to some extent even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have to look to immediate operational concerns and problems—whether, for instance, there is enough airlift to send soldiers to a trouble spot tomorrow. By contrast, a chief of staff of one of the services worries about equipping the force ten years from now.
One supposedly obsolete element of the service structure is the continued existence of service secretaries—civilian heads of the different departments. Too often these posts go to valued presidential campaign contributors, or to figureheads who enable an administration to score points with assorted constituencies. For their part, the uniformed services know very well how to lull their nominal civilian superiors with endless rounds of ceremonial speeches and enjoyable excursions—driving tanks, flying airplanes, conning a submarine.
Yet the secretaries of the services are potentially the most important figures for asserting civilian control over the military. They control (in theory, at any rate) the service personnel and promotional systems. They can, and sometimes do, know the general officers far better than a busy Secretary of Defense or his deputy. And if they do their job well, they can turn military tourism into an intimate knowledge of the working conditions, spirit, and needs of both officer and enlisted ranks.
Admittedly, most civilian secretaries do not measure up in all these ways, but occasionally some do. John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, and Don Rice, Secretary of the Air Force during the Bush administration, though very different men, are examples of just how much important work a competent service secretary can do.
V. Civil-Military Relations
One reason good service secretaries are needed now more than ever is that American civil-military relations seem to be undergoing long-term deterioration. This has been noted by a number of observers and is evident in dozens of incidents: the failure of Admiral Frank Kelso, chief of naval operations, to retire despite the request of his superior, Secretary of the Navy John Dalton, that he do so; the instruction by General Barry McCaffrey, commander of U.S. Southern Command, that his subordinates report to him and not (as the law requires) to the ambassadors in their respective countries. The Clinton administration has managed at once to show a lack of understanding of the military and on occasion even a contempt for it, while meekly submitting to insubordinate behavior by all too many of its members.
But the problem goes far deeper. It was evident in the willingness of Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly to oppose government policy in Yugoslavia, and it appeared in the generally hostile attitude of military staffs to both press and civilian policy-makers during the Gulf crisis. It has been reported as well in the writings of thoughtful officers like Colonel Charles Dunlap, Jr., especially in his disturbing (and prizewinning) fantasy, “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012.”2
What are the sources of the contemporary distemper? One is the trauma of Vietnam. Only 40 percent of draft-age men served in the military during that war; of this group, only a quarter (that is, 10 percent of all draft-age men) went to Vietnam, and a rather small minority of these saw combat. The artful public reconciliation of the Reagan years, replete with parades and the construction of a Vietnam memorial, together with the mere passing of time, has smoothed over the overt consequences of that war. But if one probes deeper, down to the organizational culture of the American defense establishment, one finds scars that will not fade.
For American soldiers—even for those who did not serve during the war—Vietnam is an ur-memory. Believing as they do that the United States had never before lost a war, American officers feel a certain humiliation at the failure of American arms to reduce to submission an impoverished country with barely a tenth of our population. Many, and probably most, are convinced that this failure stemmed in large part from the interference of civilians in the conduct of the war, and from the failure of politicians to assign clear guidelines for waging it.
The debacles of the Lebanon intervention in the early 1980’s and the Somali intervention a decade later, though far smaller in scale, have only confirmed these lessons. Quixotically conceived and erratically executed acts of social work masquerading as strategy, such as the Haitian occupation, reinforce soldiers’ suspicion that politicians do not understand the military instrument’s limitations, or comprehend the damage that misuse does to it. And officers are very well aware that the Vietnam experience corroded the morale, discipline, and professional expertise of the military itself. It took at least a decade to repair the damage.
On the other side, politicians, particularly those of the Vietnam generation who evaded service there (probably the majority in both parties of that age cohort), are often shy of exerting strenuous civilian control. Accepting, as many do, the military assessment of the war—an evaluation that actually has less merit than one might think—they fear the penalties of putting a now-popular military in harm’s way under any but benign circumstances. For both soldiers and politicians, the model of the Gulf war is the one to follow: conducting a war for nominally limited and concrete (although in reality ambiguous) objectives, with overwhelming force, against an enemy who has been completely isolated and who, indeed, practically invites attack.
There is a further factor to be considered here. The American government, and in some ways even the military itself, poorly comprehended the enormous relative advantage we had over the Iraqis in the Persian Gulf. For military technology is becoming increasingly obscure, and military assessment increasingly recondite.
In the old days one could in some fashion count items—battleships, tanks, heavy bombers—and have a rough sense of what kind of power they purchased. Today, one missile may look very much like another, and a great deal of combat takes place invisibly, in the jamming of radars or the cloaking of planes, ships, and tanks by exotic materials and design. And as fewer and fewer politicians bring any kind of military experience of their own to bear, civilians find themselves increasingly dependent on military staffs. At the same time, civilian leaders put a premium on finding senior officers who mouth the right formulas about matters of gender and race.
This mixture of politicians’ incomprehension on the one hand, and their desire for sycophancy on the other, poses long-term risks. One can imagine the emergence out of this of an officer corps, leading members of which identify themselves, if not with political parties, then with politicians. Indeed, in the 1992 election this occurred, as retired officers lined up behind presidential candidates with little thought to the pernicious consequences of their actions.
The evolution of warfare itself may produce further challenges. As we have seen, one of the few burgeoning areas of military thought and activity is “information warfare”—the conduct of conflict through the manipulation (and not merely the interception or exclusion) of information. Future tools of information warfare will include satellite television broadcasts, the disruption of financial systems, the forging of all kinds of electronic messages, and the corruption of databases. It is the kind of activity that mischievous teenagers and greedy computer wizards have engaged in for decades now. The military, being as large and efficient as it is, can carry such activities to new heights, and increase the role played by the American military in a variety of everyday transactions.
At a lower level, other kinds of frictions will occur. Elite commando units worry about their members—trained in the black arts of breaking and entering, not to mention other, far nastier criminal skills—going bad. It has rarely happened, in part thanks to successful screening and training; but as the military breeds more information warriors, one wonders if such screening will continue to be effective. The temptations of computer hacking are far wider and stronger (among other things, it is much less violent and can be far more lucrative) than, say, assassination for pay. Far more worrisome, however, is the possibility that a military fighting the shadowy battles of “information warfare” may find itself engaging the country in foreign-policy tangles of a particularly messy kind.
None of this is to suggest that the United States has a rogue military, or anything like it. Quite the contrary. In many ways this is the most acutely self-aware armed force the country has ever known, and one which (in part) worries a good deal about its relationship with the broader society. As the Gulf war demonstrated, its leaders are far more politically astute and sensitive to the imperatives of foreign policy than their predecessors of bygone generations.
The difficulty is much more on the other side, in the absence of a civilian class familiar with military matters and comfortable with military people. As a generation that served in the military yields its place in public life to one whose members not only have not served but probably do not know anyone who has, an unfortunate gap grows. It is the civilians, not the soldiers, who have abdicated their responsibilities.
How to remedy matters? One recourse may be to increase the intermixing of civilians and soldiers by sending more civilians—not just civil servants but journalists, congressional staffers, business people, and others—for year-long stints in the country’s war colleges. Another might be the deliberate creation and preservation of routes for brief active duty or longer-term reserve duty by young men and women who will, later on, become this country’s civic leaders. Yet another course might be a more extensive use of programs that place soldiers in educational and even business institutions for a year or two at a time.
One of the chief legacies of the cold war was a narrowing of debate about national defense to an obsession with weapon systems (should we buy cheap single-engine fighters or more costly twin-engine fighters?) or simply the bottom line of the defense budget. This cramping of debate resulted from the existence of an altogether desirable consensus about the essential parameters of the defense problem. All responsible people agreed that the United States should have a very large military, that it should be forward-deployed, that it should be embedded in NATO, and so on.
That consensus helped win the cold war. But it has resulted in the atrophy of our capacities for a debate of the kind that occurred at the turn of the century, when the United States became a great power, or in the late 1940’s, when the United States accepted its status as a superpower.
In the absence of events forcing our hand, we may find it hard to engage in such comprehensive self-scrutiny, and it is even conceivable that in the short term we will pay no large penalty. In a longer view, however—say, twenty years—matters may be different. If Francis Fukuyama’s famous verdict turns out to be right, and we do in fact reach the end of history, defined as the rise of essentially pacific liberal-democratic states, all this concern about defense will seem an atavism, a survival of an older and bloodier age. The greater wisdom, however, may rest with Winston Churchill, who once wrote:
Certain it is that while men are gathering knowledge and power with ever-increasing and measureless speed, their virtues and their wisdom have not shown any notable improvement as the centuries have rolled. The brain of a modern man does not differ in essentials from that of the human beings who fought and loved here millions of years ago. The nature of man has remained hitherto practically unchanged. Under sufficient stress—starvation, terror, warlike passion, or even cold intellectual frenzy, the modern man we know so well will do the most terrible deeds. . . . We have the spectacle of the powers and weapons of man far outstripping the march of his intelligence; we have the march of his intelligence proceeding far more rapidly than the development of his nobility. We may find ourselves in the presence of the strength of civilization without its mercy.
In the wreckage of Saddam Hussein’s extensive nuclear program, in the dimly glimpsed transactions of Russian plutonium merchants, in the anonymous ferocity of those who bomb office buildings in New York and Argentina, one catches flashes of what “the strength of civilization without its mercy” may look like.
Beyond these menaces of the next decade, others may await us. Soon science will open up fantastic new possibilities—say, in the development of biological weapons and in the manipulation of human life itself—that some men or states will almost certainly turn to evil ends. Surely, it would be rank folly to shrug aside the possible rise of a Napoleon, a Hitler who would cunningly exploit “perverted science,” as Churchill called it. And lesser men—the Milosevics, Husseins, and Aidids—will make trouble enough.
All the more reason, then, to break the habits of the cold war and prepare to meet a possibly less dangerous but almost certainly more turbulent age.
With this essay we continue the series inaugurated in September with James Q. Wilson’s article on crime, followed in October by Gertrude Himmelfarb and Chester E. Finn, Jr. on education.
1 For evidence, one need only look at the spate of articles in Foreign Affairs (September/October 1993) triggered by Samuel P. Huntington's “The Clash of Civilizations” (Summer 1993).
2 Parameters (Winter 1992-93). See also Dunlap's article, “Welcome to the Junta: The Erosion of Civilian Control of the U.S. Military,” Wake Forest Law Review (Summer 1994).