America Must Fight in the Real World

Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, seems to have a great job. His armed forces possess a budget equal to those of the planet’s next eight military powers combined. Most of those eight—as well as 55 other countries—are close US friends or allies.

Mr Rumsfeld works for a pro-defence president in a country that is enjoying peace, budget surpluses and remarkable technological opportunities. He has always been considered a master bureaucratic operator and manager to boot.

Alas, all is not well. During his first six months in office, Mr Rumsfeld has been widely criticised as insular, arrogant and ultra-conservative. And for all the problems he has already faced, his biggest challenge lies ahead. The defence secretary must replace stocks of ageing weaponry, fashion a new military strategy for the 21st century—and do so under surprisingly constraining fiscal conditions.

Unless President George W. Bush wants to run for re-election as the president who did little but cut taxes while engineering a peacetime military build-up, the annual Pentagon budget is likely to remain $20bn to $50bn below where Mr Rumsfeld would like it to be.

For some experts, the strategic prescription is obvious. They sense a revolution in military affairs helped by advances in technology. They suggest a broad shift in US security policy, from Europe to Asia and from land armies to long-range weaponry, missile defences and space warfare. Within many American think-tanks, these ideas have been popular for a decade. But it was not until Mr Bush began his presidential bid in 1999 that such ideas found their way into the political spotlight. And it was not until Donald Rumsfeld took over the Pentagon that the octogenarian Andy Marshall, resident iconoclast and chief promoter of radical military innovation, finally gained the defence secretary’s ear.

Unfortunately for Mr Rumsfeld, the real world is more complicated. The US military will have to keep doing most of what it already does while preparing for new challenges. A bold and sexy new defence strategy for the US will probably not work. Consider each of the radical claims often made by military reformers, and the problems with each:

The US military should change its focus from Europe to Asia. This has already happened in large measure, so any potential for a further shift is modest. Neither of the places where it is commonly assumed that the US might have to fight major wars—the Gulf and Korea—is in Europe.

True, the US still maintains roughly as many troops in Europe as in Asia. But the presence is largely for political purposes and the cost of keeping troops in Europe as opposed to the US constitutes less than 1 per cent of the defence budget. That is a small price to pay for America’s leadership role in European security affairs.

The US no longer needs a two-war capability. It is true that current US military strategy dwells too much on Iraq and North Korea. It assumes that deterrence could fail simultaneously in two places where America’s commitments are unambiguous and its forward-deployed capabilities considerable. It also assumes that each war would require half a million GIs, even though Iraq is only half as strong militarily as a decade ago and North Korea’s gross domestic product has halved since 1990.

That said, some type of two-war capability still makes sense. While fighting a given war in one place, it is important to be able to deter would-be aggressors elsewhere. And to deter, one needs a credible combat capability. That may not require the prompt means for overthrowing an enemy government. But it does require the ability to establish a robust defensive position and carry out some counter-offensive operations.

The US needs to anticipate possible future conflict with China. Again, there is something to the reformers’ argument. Taiwan would be unlikely to need US help to repulse a Chinese invasion, given the inherent difficulties of amphibious assault, Taiwan’s substantial defences and inhospitable beaches and China’s limited means for carrying out such an attack. But Taiwan could require assistance to break a naval blockade designed to coerce it into accepting a conditional surrender.

However, the US already has most of the requisite forces for carrying out such an operation today. Moreover, it need not prepare to wage war on Chinese territory. The US knows it would never fight to protect Tibet the way Nato went to war over Kosovo, or bomb nuclear-armed China the way the west bombed Belgrade. Even once one accepts the need to focus more military attention on China, radical change is not necessary.

High technology will replace the foot soldier and the future American military will feature long-range weaponry based on US soil or in space. It is true that smart munitions, stealth aircraft and advanced satellite systems provide great opportunities. But their limits can be seen by considering specific scenarios.

Protecting Taiwan against a blockade would require establishing continuous control of the airspace and waters surrounding the island. B-2 bombers cannot accomplish those tasks. Long-range weaponry may some day be able to stop Saddam Hussein from invading Saudi Arabia. But it will not work as well in the complex terrain of Korea.

Nor will stand-off weapons and missile defences suffice if coalition forces some day march on Baghdad or Pyongyang to overthrow an enemy government in a future war or conduct a stability operation in Indonesia, South Asia or the Middle East.

Do not feel too bad for Mr Rumsfeld. He is likely to get a $30bn increase in next year’s defence budget—real money even by Pentagon standards. And today’s US military measures up well to likely challenges. But Mr Rumsfeld will have to find a way to make modest additional cuts in forces, cancel a few prominent weapons programmes and make the Pentagon more efficient.

There is nowhere near enough money for everything and there is no new US military strategy that will magically save the day. For most of America’s allies looking on, that is probably just as well.