Decoding the new defense strategy

Decoding the new defense strategy

Posted on January 12th, 2012 in Blog, News, Top Picks

On January 6th, with a good deal of fanfare (a rare visit by the President to the Pentagon), DoD released a strategy (5.4 MB PDF) that supposedly will guide investment and military employment decisions through the next few years. Most observers were disappointed–there was little in the way of explicit prioritization, and no details on implementation. And of course, the SecDef himself undermined the idea that somehow strategy drives the budget–not vice versa–by saying that if sequestration takes effect, the whole strategy will go “out the window.” But looking carefully at the document–and reading between the lines–there are important signals in the new strategy.

The first, as almost all commentators have remarked, is the rise of Asia as a priority. While in some ways it seems obvious–pundits were proclaiming an “Asian Century” 20 years ago, and the Administration has been telegraphing this for months–and it also avoids making China the direct focus, the strategy does say the US will continue to make the “necessary investments” to ensure access and freedom of operations. Taken literally, this would suggest more relative emphasis on air and sea forces. Of course, taken literally, it might also suggest that the currently planned air and sea investments should be re-examined in light of a geographically extended, high threat environment. Do we need the planned LCS buy and 50 Predator/Reaper “orbits” in this context?

Other language in the document  makes it clear that the US is moving away from the recent emphasis on counterinsurgency (COIN), and essentially reversing the buildup of ground forces that has taken place since 2003. Inside Defense reports a target of 182,000 Marines and an Army of 480,000-490,000–a cut of about 75,000 in addition to the reductions SecDef Gates announced a year ago. These reductions alone won’t save much money–we at DI estimate the savings at about $90 billion over ten years–so other savings will have to be found in O&M and deferred or foregone modernization.

All this notwithstanding, the strategy document still lists 10 “primary” missions of the US Armed Forces, including stabillity operations–albeit limited in “location,” “frequency” and “scale.” The missions are not prioritized–a piece of deliberate ambiguity that leaves DoD some room to adjust funding. However, it may also reflect an unwillingness (or inability, given the Pentagon’s internal dynamics) to make any explicit hard choices. Most likely, these choices will be made incrementally, and by default, as the Pentagon tries, despite protestations to the contrary, to keep all options open. But there are some signals: deterrence might be accomplished “with a smaller nuclear force,” “work with domestic and international allies” is highlighted in the section on operations in space and cyberspace, and overall sizing will be based on a “subset” of the missions.

Bottom line: The strategy falls short of explicit or dramatic change, and is more than anything else a belated acknowledgement of reality. It is a first step away from the priorities of the last 10 years, but only a start. And yet–it does signal a shift. DoD must find a way to redirect resources, and has little room to maneuver in terms of allocating future budgets. Force structure reductions, while necessary, will not close the gap between modernization needs and availiable budgets. No investment area is likely to grow…but the strategy document provides some initial clues as to what things will be first on the chopping block.