In Praise of Lesser Evils
Can Realism Repair Foreign Policy?
"TRANSFORMATION" IS A LUXURY WASHINGTON CAN'T AFFORD
Andrew Krepinevich's essay "The Pentagon's Wasting Assets" (July/August 2009) highlights a number of critical questions facing the Pentagon as it prepares its Quadrennial Defense Review. But his astute observations about operations and technology are no substitute for a larger appreciation of the requirements of U.S. strategy. What might seem "wasting" in the longer term may actually be quite useful or even necessary at the moment. And given what futurism has done to military affairs -- most notably yielding the school of "transformation" as propounded by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- perhaps the United States ought to hold on to a more traditional approach.
Krepinevich's strong suit is his focus on emerging operational challenges, in particular the problems with retaining overseas access to strategic regions. Indeed, Krepinevich was among the first to call attention to these issues years ago, for example, in his 1996 report Air Force of 2016, published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. But designing operations -- an area in which strategy and policy intersect with tactics and technology -- is a very slippery art.
Consider Krepinevich's reference to the military's war simulation Millennium Challenge 2002 and the difficulties of projecting U.S. power in the Strait of Hormuz. Thanks to closer analysis, better tactics, and new investments, a conventional scenario in the Strait of Hormuz would be less dire today than it appeared to be in 2002. Moreover, the possibility of using land-based forces -- whether located in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere in the region -- is now considerably greater. To be sure, the capabilities of U.S. forces have not changed much, but Washington's ability to use them has. The United States has learned to employ traditional systems in novel ways, allowing supposedly "wasting" assets to have broader applications than originally thought. This is true of the F-16, for example, which began in the 1980s as a daylight dogfighting aircraft but has since been adapted for use in a variety of bombing, close-air-support, electronic-combat, and other missions.
The United States indeed faces a challenge in East Asia, where the Chinese military has invested heavily in the kind of systems that Krepinevich rightly worries about, such as ballistic missiles and attack submarines. But in addition to investing in the new, less vulnerable forces that Krepinevich anticipates, such as long-range stealthy unmanned bombers -- which, in any case, will take a long time to develop and field -- the United States must discover, as it has in Iraq, how to maximize the value of today's forces. It is a strategic requirement to do so in East Asia. Disturbingly, a recent white paper by the Australian Department of Defense spoke of a need to "hedge" against the retreat of the United States' presence in the Pacific. When a longtime ally speaks such a plain truth, Washington should pay attention.
Krepinevich and other advocates of transformation overemphasize revolutions in military affairs and discount continuities. As the guarantor of the international system, the United States cannot afford to substantially scale back its current responsibilities, whether in Europe, where Vladimir Putin's Russia casts a pall on the general peace; in East Asia, where China is rising and North Korean provocations are almost regularly scheduled events; or, of course, in the greater Middle East. Krepinevich admits that the United States must remain the guarantor of the international system, defining its strategic aim as the preservation of the current liberal world order. But this imposes requirements that make Krepinevich's proposal of divesting from "wasting assets" problematic. It would be both difficult and imprudent for the sole superpower -- the one nation with the ability to stabilize the international system -- to walk away from its commitments.
The United States must adapt to changing circumstances, such as China's rise, while preserving sufficient day-to-day strength to win the wars it is fighting now, provide the backbone for old and new coalitions, and otherwise manage risks to its security. Washington faces an ever-changing threat environment; it does not have, nor will it ever have, the luxury of moving wholly from one clearly defined regimen of warfare to another.
After the experience of the Bush years, Americans ought to be deeply skeptical of transformation. At least Krepinevich has dropped his idea of a 20-year "strategic pause," which he developed in 1997 while on the National Defense Panel, a body created by Congress to assess the first formal Quadrennial Defense Review. The central proposition of this idea was that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. military should concentrate on deterring a future great-power competitor, primarily by means other than manpower -- including high-tech weaponry, special operations forces, and relationships with allied foreign forces. (Large U.S. land forces, on the scale that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have required, were already considered "wasting assets.") But for all that has changed since the 1990s, Krepinevich's prescriptions remain the same: invest in technology (especially for long-range precision strikes), avoid land-force commitments (especially in long-running irregular conflicts), and reshape strategy in light of limited means (rather than increase spending). This approach has been tried, and it has failed. Krepinevich confuses what is more or less constant -- U.S. strategic behavior -- with what varies: the particular military means Washington is able to employ at any given moment to achieve its strategic goals.
Krepinevich also makes unfortunate use of the term "wasting assets." The Eisenhower administration developed a "wasting assets" framework and then launched the disastrous "New Look" strategy, which drastically reduced defense spending and relied so heavily on nuclear weapons that even small Cold War confrontations threatened to quickly become Armageddon-inducing crises. Today, although Krepinevich and many Obama administration officials have positively cited Dwight Eisenhower's example, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is promoting a new-look vision of his own, this is no model for American defense strategy.
THE NAVY IS VITAL FOR POWER PROJECTION
Andrew Krepinevich's essay is a reasonable call for revising U.S. strategic doctrine. Although Krepinevich overstates his case by implying that this strategic moment is as poignant as that which produced NSC-68, his call is especially welcome at a time when public support for preemptive wars and adventurous nation-building exercises is waning.
Krepinevich is correct to insist that the United States begin reckoning seriously with emerging powers -- especially China and Iran -- that are developing capabilities to limit or block access to areas of vital U.S. interest, such as the Taiwan Strait and the Persian Gulf. Whether powers with anti-access capabilities would ever actually undertake to deny passage to U.S. forces is not the point. Those very capabilities may, in a time of crisis, deter Washington from deploying forces to defend its interests and meet its commitments to key allies.
Unfortunately, Krepinevich's argument reinforces a long-standing intellectual campaign against those naval forces that have played an important role in projecting U.S. influence around the globe since World War II. In 1993, I argued with Krepinevich before the Senate Armed Services Committee about what type of presence the U.S. military should have in and around the world's key waterways. Then, as now, Krepinevich failed to appreciate the combat and deterrent capabilities of mobile platforms equipped for power projection from the sea.
Krepinevich's article argues that the Millennium Challenge exercise proved that current U.S. naval forces were "wasting." But his account of the exercise is selective and ignores the detailed criticisms of numerous participants. "Swarms of Iranian suicide vessels" could not prevail in the real world -- as they did in the exercise -- against a properly dispersed, alerted, and networked U.S. fleet. The only sure outcome in such a scenario would be the attackers' suicides.
Regarding the value of submarines, Krepinevich exaggerates. Some submarines would indeed be essential to fighting an enemy's submarines, but they are otherwise of limited use. A submarine's initial attack against anything but another submarine may compromise its location (making it a "flaming datum"), quickly rendering it vulnerable to retaliation. And the utility of submarines in missile- and air-defense scenarios is unproven.
When it comes to air power, Krepinevich argues that the short range of U.S. Navy airplanes limits the usefulness of manned aircraft because sea bases must be positioned near enemy territory, in areas vulnerable to enemy attack. His prescription is to field unmanned, longer-range strike vehicles from distant bases. But this ignores the likelihood that high-altitude drones would be relatively easy prey for an adversary's fully alerted air defenses. Further, even as the United States fields new manned and unmanned aircraft, it urgently needs to improve its ability to defend against diverse missile threats, which are at the heart of access denial.
Krepinevich commends Defense Secretary Robert Gates' decision to limit the number of Zumwalt-class destroyers, but his position reveals a lack of understanding of the Zumwalt's bearing on the projection of naval power in the twenty-first century. The Zumwalt is the only surface vessel currently in design or in production with both sufficient technology and sufficient stealth to operate in areas where U.S. interests are threatened by sophisticated adversaries. Only the Zumwalt has the hull, the deckhouse, and the power-generation capacity to accommodate the larger missiles and powerful radars needed to cope with modern missile threats. Gates' decision may mean that the navy will not rely on Zumwalts to counter powers that could deny U.S. access, but future vessels will need the critical technologies that were developed for that ship.
The naval force needed to assure U.S. access will be defined not by numbers but by the U.S. military's ability to penetrate, and project power credibly in, any ocean area important to Washington and its allies. This means having a force that can provide adequate defense against existing threats and conduct offensive operations to neutralize or destroy any systems employed to limit U.S. access. Building and improving that force is a strategic imperative.
Thomas Donnelly and Admiral Philip Dur raise many important questions, even as I take issue with some of their arguments.
Donnelly's history of the Eisenhower years is inaccurate. He asserts, incorrectly, that the Eisenhower administration, having developed a "'wasting assets' framework," instituted "drastically reduced defense spending." In fact, prior to the Korean War, in fiscal year 1950, annual defense spending was $126.6 billion (in today's dollars). Following the postwar drawdown, in fiscal year 1955, annual spending was $221.7 billion. And in fiscal year 1960, at the administration's end, spending stood at $265 billion -- hardly a reduced figure. Donnelly also characterizes the Eisenhower administration's New Look strategy as "disastrous." Yet he offers no evidence of any ensuing disasters.
Donnelly is correct that I believe the military should "invest in technology . . . , avoid land-force commitments . . . , and reshape strategy in light of limited means" rather than increase spending. He asserts that "this approach has been tried, and it has failed," but he notes no specifics to support his claim. Donnelly's approach to existing and emerging challenges is to increase spending -- to do more of the same, in other words. This is fiscal moonshine. Defense spending has increased by more than 45 percent this decade, and the Office of Management and Budget is projecting deficits in excess of $9 trillion over the coming decade. The best strategies involve thinking smarter than one's enemies, not merely throwing more money at one's problems.
Good strategies also identify, develop, and exploit areas of competitive advantage. For the United States, technology is one such area. Donnelly does not sufficiently recognize this point. For example, he questions my emphasis on long-range aerial strike capabilities, even while acknowledging that the United States will indeed have increased difficulty retaining access to bases in far-flung overseas regions.
Donnelly advocates a larger army, but the United States does not have the advantage of surplus manpower. Rather, the U.S. advantage lies in having relatively small numbers of highly trained commissioned and noncommissioned officers. Therefore, Washington should maintain its commitments but pursue, wherever possible, an "indirect approach" to irregular warfare. U.S. troops, then, would primarily train and advise allied and indigenous forces in such conflicts, rather than seeking to assume the costly lead role.
Admiral Dur and I differ on a narrower set of issues. The principal difference is that Dur discounts how much the character of naval warfare has changed since the United States began losing its near monopoly in precision weaponry. A century ago, developments in submarine and torpedo technology rendered several of the British Royal Navy's strategies obsolete, especially regarding close blockades. Likewise, recent developments in various states' anti-access/area-denial capabilities have increased the costs of projecting power into narrow waters such as the Persian Gulf or beyond the littorals of major powers such as China. This, in turn, demands that Washington make serious changes to its maritime forces.
Regarding the Millennium Challenge exercise, Dur rightly notes that swarms of suicide boats in narrow waters could not severely damage today's U.S. fleet. However, a grave threat would arise from a combination of suicide boats, advanced antiship mines, swarms of high-speed guided antiship cruise missiles, submarines operating in noisy waters, and (in the case of a conflict with China) ballistic missiles. And this problem will become more serious with time.
Dur also criticizes my support for developing long-range unmanned strike aircraft, asserting that "high-altitude drones would be relatively easy prey for an adversary's fully alerted air defenses." This is true -- but the navy plans to make its new aircraft stealthy, which would render Dur's concern moot. Moreover, because the range of the unmanned aircraft far exceeds that of current carrier aircraft, carriers would be able to operate further out to sea, reducing their vulnerability.
Lastly, Dur opposes Defense Secretary Robert Gates' decision, which I support, to cancel the Zumwalt-class destroyers, arguing that only the Zumwalt can "cope with modern missile threats." To be sure, the Zumwalt's radar systems are superior to its predecessors'. But the Zumwalt carries far fewer missiles than other ships with missile defense responsibilities. This makes it more vulnerable to enemy saturation tactics, which simply overwhelm the ship's defenses by using large numbers of missiles. And were the Zumwalt to address this weakness by including more interceptor missiles in its limited inventory, it would detract from its ostensible land-attack mission. As Dur rightly notes, the navy can incorporate many of the Zumwalt's technological advances in future ships.
Both Donnelly and Dur prefer to stay the course rather than adjust to shifts in fiscal reality and in the character of military competition. They would do well to heed the warning of Sir Francis Bacon that "he that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils."