The Pentagon's Wasting Assets

The Eroding Foundations of American Power

The military foundations of the United States' global dominance are eroding. For the past several decades, an overwhelming advantage in technology and resources has given the U.S. military an unmatched ability to project power worldwide. This has allowed it to guarantee U.S. access to the global commons, assure the safety of the homeland, and underwrite security commitments around the globe. U.S. grand strategy assumes that such advantages will continue indefinitely. In fact, they are already starting to disappear.

Several events in recent years have demonstrated that traditional means and methods of projecting power and accessing the global commons are growing increasingly obsolete -- becoming "wasting assets," in the language of defense strategists. The diffusion of advanced military technologies, combined with the continued rise of new powers, such as China, and hostile states, such as Iran, will make it progressively more expensive in blood and treasure -- perhaps prohibitively expensive -- for U.S. forces to carry out their missions in areas of vital interest, including East Asia and the Persian Gulf. Military forces that do deploy successfully will find it increasingly difficult to defend what they have been sent to protect. Meanwhile, the U.S. military's long-unfettered access to the global commons -- including space and cyberspace -- is being increasingly challenged.

Recently, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argued in these pages for a more "balanced" U.S. military, one that is better suited for the types of irregular conflicts now being waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, he also cautioned, "It would be irresponsible not to think about and prepare for the future." Despite this admonition, U.S. policymakers are discounting real future threats, thereby increasing the prospect of strategic surprises. What is needed is nothing short of a fundamental strategic review of the United States' position in the world -- one similar in depth and scope to those undertaken in the early days of the Cold War.

A DANGEROUS GAME

The term "wasting asset" became common among U.S. policymakers in the early days of the Cold War. At the end of World War II, the United States possessed an incalculable strategic advantage: a monopoly on nuclear weapons. So when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in August 1949, it triggered a sense of panic in the United States, as the U.S. nuclear arsenal had become a wasting asset.

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