Planning Future Defense: Time to Confront the Cold War Mindset

Thomas L. McNaugher

Quietly a new defense debate is taking shape, prompted by widespread recognition that the stable budgets Republicans and Democrats have promised the Defense Department cannot keep current forces ready to fight while financing a major round of weapons buying to replace the services’ aging arsenal.

The problem here has been called the “defense train wreck,” because it involves the impending collision of two categories of defense spending. One train, already racing down the track, is high spending on current readiness, enough to keep U.S. forces prepared for two nearly-simultaneous “major regional contingencies,” as outlined in the 1993 “Bottom Up Review” (BUR) of U.S. force requirements that still governs Pentagon planning. The other train, looming on the horizon, is a surge in spending on new weapons. We have been able to forgo such spending for nearly a decade because Reagan-era defense investments left military inventories flush with new hardware. But those weapons are getting old and need to be replaced or improved. Barring an unexpected increase, the defense budget cannot afford both readiness and weaponry. Something has to give.

Although this debate probably won’t pick up until after this fall’s elections, early positioning in the debate suggests that U.S. forces may get smaller to accommodate more weapons procurement. Indeed, Secretary of Defense William Perry has said as much recently, although he appears to have only modest force cuts in mind. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a prominent congressional voice on defense, would go much further. In a recent letter to his colleagues, McCain lamented “the alarming practice of postponing essential modernization programs” and suggested that the nation plan to meet just one major contingency while aggressively modernizing its weaponry to produce high-tech forces able to deliver firepower from long range with minimal ground force commitment.

Whether or not this is the right answer, it’s the wrong way to frame the issues. Visualizing procurement spending as a co-equal “train” in this collision amounts to treating the future as if we knew it. Procurement spending amounts to long-range planning, after all, since it buys weapons that won’t even enter our force posture, in some cases, for a decade or more. At a time when Pentagon briefings routinely begin with the adage that “the only constant today is change,” one is justified in asking why we are committing so much money to new weapons that will be with us for decades to come.

The answer lies less in a vision of the future than in habits and commitments linked to the past. We got used to treating the future like an advanced version of the present during the Cold War, when Soviet forces provided a well-understood, slowly advancing focal point for long-range planning. We are still doing that, even in the absence of any firm vision of the future. Even the discussion of current readiness bears witness to Cold War concepts of risk that no longer capture the realities of what our forces are doing.

This is not meant as criticism.The BUR has served admirably to maintain U.S. commitments in crucial regions of the world and to forestall the massive demobilization that has traditionally followed America’s wartime victories. In any case, Cold War habits cannot be expected to change overnight, especially when so many of them were successful. Yet if the emerging defense debate focuses so intently on the image of colliding trains that it fails to question how we deal with a different present and very uncertain future, we will have lost a chance really to get beyond the Cold War. The costs of that mistake will mount for some years to come.

The New Meaning of Risk

The two “generic” contingencies defense planners had in mind as they formulated the BUR soon became linked to wars with Iraq and North Korea. Meeting these threats virtually simultaneously still justifies most of today’s force structure, as well as higher spending on current readiness (training and maintenance) per capita than during the Cold War. While we might debate how well or poorly present U.S. forces might fare in such circumstances, cutting force structure will increase the risk of failure or setback should these wars occur.

No one is anxious to incur more risks. Yet during the Cold War, facing a war immeasurably more costly than the two we face today, the United States never purchased the so-called “minimum-risk force” its defense planners thought was needed (even in combination with allies) to defeat the Soviet threat. Indeed, we are much closer to having such a force today than we were during the Cold War—the more so if we give some credence to critics who assert that simultaneous crises don’t happen that often and that current warplans underestimate the value of air power in the Persian Gulf, the South Korean contribution in Korea, and U.S. reserve forces overall.

Still, while “risk” is lower now than it was during the Cold War—no one now threatens the United States with nuclear destruction—it is also more real. War with Iraq or North Korea, for example, is more likely than the global cataclysm we faced during the Cold War. Regimes in these countries are less predictable than Moscow, and probably less deterred by America’s nuclear arsenal. While the stakes in these wars are lower, they aren’t trivial. War in Korea, in particular, could be a very bloody affair, not only for Koreans, but also for U.S. forces. Cutting forces could raise casualty levels among both.

In any case, the nation already has fewer forces for these contingencies than it thinks, since some units are engaged in so-called “peace operations” like Bosnia, or before that Haiti and Somalia. The General Accounting Office recently argued that such units will probably remain stuck in such places too long to be of use in the Gulf or Korea. Although the Pentagon officially rejects that conclusion, it is hard to imagine the First Armored Division withdrawing quickly from Bosnia, not only because only one active unit (the 7th Transportation Group) is available to pull it out (no easy task), but because it may make more strategic sense to leave it there.

Above all, cutting forces will aggravate imbalances in the present force structure that arise from a gap between Pentagon plans and strategic realities. While the services plan for major conventional wars, they have seen a steady diet of peace operations that, relative to conventional war, call for people more than heavy weapons, and support units (air and sealift, trucks, military police, civil affairs, water purification) more than combat units. The GAO has documented higher-than-expected stress among these kinds of units, and Army officials complain that some are operating at strikingly high tempos. The Cold War is over, but some units are busier than ever.

Many support units were lodged in the reserves during the Cold War, on the assumption that they would be mobilized and available quickly in a global war with the Soviet Union. The BUR maintains this practice, yet it is harder to sustain reserve support for frequent, low-key peace operations.

This is hardly the first time U.S. forces have been used for unplanned contingencies. Indeed, if planned forces effectively deter most likely threats, it is almost axiomatic that they will be used in unplanned ways. That happened during the Cold War, but forces configured for major war were large enough then to handle smaller contingencies as “lesser included cases.” Today’s shrinking forces are less able to span the gap between the two kinds of operations.

We ought to rebalance our forces, both by moving more support units into the active force and by making those left in the reserves more accessible. And we need to study whether and to what degree conventional war and peace or stability operations call not just for a different balance among forces, but perhaps for totally different kinds of units.

The BUR impedes this adjustment. So does the fact that making it will require cuts in combat units. Above all, the adjustment meets stiff institutional resistance in the Pentagon from military services that see peace operations as a messy, potentially endless distraction from planning for “real” war. Painful memories of Vietnam hover always in the background. All would rather concentrate on major wars.

Ironically, however, both of today’s “real” wars could easily deteriorate into major stability operations. North KoreaÕs defeat or collapse would precipitate a huge humanitarian relief operation to a population high on ideology but acutely low on food. South Korea would lead the effort, but with significant U.S. support. Meanwhile, if Iraq again attacks its neighbors, most Americans would probably want to go to the source of the problem, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. But removing Saddam could create anarchy inside Iraq, inviting U.S. forces to impose order, perhaps even provide for the country’s external defense.

Significantly, official studies of force requirements for Iraqi and North Korean contingencies took no account of the demands of postwar stability operations, though they may be the most likely of any the services face.

Thus although we routinely accepted greater risk during the Cold War, doing so today involves a higher probability that we may be called to account. Perhaps there is still room to cut force structure. Even Secretary Perry seems to think so. But we should do it knowing clearly how it affects the full range of current and possible future operations.

Wrestling with the Future

In any case, we should be wary of cutting forces merely to finance a major procurement surge, much of which is unwarranted by current uncertainties. Pentagon briefers are right to highlight the prominence of change. The Soviet Union’s collapse launched the international system into a period of transition whose end remains unclear. We may ultimately see the emergence of new great powers, but we may also be headed toward a much more fragmented system strewn with new transnational actors and civil conflict in disintegrating states. Some predict a future of urban warfare, while others worry about “cyberwars” involving clandestine intrusions into vital domestic U.S. communications links.

A burgeoning global economy is linking states in ways that may change the very nature of world power. The overall role of military force and the kind of forces required are up for grabs.

Military predictions are further complicated by the uncertain but perhaps revolutionary effects of advancing communications technologies on the structure, weaponry, and roles of military forces. The revolution could touch likely adversaries too. Even small and less developed countries (or transnational organizations) can buy most of these technologies on the global marketplace and could use them to solve narrowly defined strategic problems (like “how do we keep the United States at bay?”) in novel ways.

Because it focuses on the present—threats that are in many ways rather old-fashioned—the BUR is of no help in dealing with these uncertainties. While this might suggest the need for a new, forward-looking BUR, the future we face is not different, but uncertain— more uncertain, in more ways, than any we’ve faced in several decades. Thus the next defense planning guidance should be grounded in a variety of plausible but different visions of the future. It should leave plenty of financial support for experimenting with and testing new weapons technologies and doctrines, both within each service and jointly.

Given prevailing strategic uncertainty and the incredible speed with which technologies are changing, only a country that felt severely threatened would actually buy one, or perhaps several, of these alternatives. The United States did this, to some extent, in the 1950s, a time of great technological uncertainty. Today, by contrast, the Pentagon confronts budget pressures but no technically advanced or numerically superior threat. The logic in this case is quite the opposite: buy as little as possible to keep options open while experimenting realistically with new technologies and concepts and waiting for the world to sort itself a bit.

Particularly in the weapons area, where decisions have especially long-range consequences, it makes sense to delay big new programs until we have a better sense of future technical possibilities and strategic realities. Aging weapons now in service inventories could have their service life extended or be replaced with younger models of the same sort. This would also keep production bases warm in case we still need those kinds of systems.

While the surge in procurement money now under consideration includes a certain amount of replacement, most of the money requested will buy new and more advanced systems that entered development during the 1980s (the Army’s Comanche helicopter, the Air Force’s F-22 “stealth” fighter, for example) and develop wholly new systems like the joint advanced strike technology program, which will lead to the joint strike fighter.

What justifies these commitments? The main rationale for current modernization plans appears to be the desire, expressed by Edward L. Warner, III, assistant secretary of defense for strategy and resources, to buy systems “that are more capable than the current generation of systems they will replace.” In some cases the rationale also includes a desire to preserve the nation’s defense industrial base.

But existing systems and the industries that produce them embody past choices. The success of U.S. forces in the Gulf war suggests that past decisions were generally wise ones, to be sure, but if we are truly entering a revolution in military affairs, past choices may not be relevant to the future. We should be especially wary of the desire to improve present capabilities, a drive grounded in the absence of sophisticated enemies to justify technological improvement. Marginally improving existing capabilities is what large organizations do best. It is also why they often miss truly revolutionary change.

A more forward-looking rationale appears to be the press to develop highly accurate sensors and long-range munitions to try to reduce U.S. casualties by firing from afar in future conflicts—a goal that appears in McCain’s proposal as well as in new Pentagon documents. That goal is hard to dispute, but also impossible to achieve completely. Thus the drive to achieve it could invite the open-ended pursuit of technological sophistication at almost any cost—a deeply ingrained Cold War habit that looks strange indeed in today’s world, with the United States technologically far ahead of potential adversaries.

New technologies do, in fact, promise remarkable improvements in precision surveillance and firepower. But the high-firepower, low-manpower force they promise embodies an American penchant, almost as old as the airplane itself, to seek to influence events overseas by bombing alone and to rely on allied forces rather than our own where ground commitments are needed. Thus far this approach has failed. Every major war has required ground forces to compel enemy surrender. Ground forces have been still more useful in peace and stability operations of the sort we face today. And allies have been understandably suspicious of a nation that wants to stand off and bomb while they do the “dirty work” on the ground. Perhaps the idea’s time has come, but past failure should encourage us to experiment extensively before making major procurement commitments to it.

With no clear guide to the future, we are falling back on the past at a time when dramatic changes on several fronts call the past’s usefulness sharply into question. We should emphasize replacement, not modernization, while experimenting aggressively with new concepts and technologies.

Organizing for the Future

The services are in fact experimenting with new technologies and doctrines, albeit within fairly narrow technical niches and readiness constraints (Army experimental units, for example, must pass readiness tests for possible wartime contingencies). Experimentation on the scale demanded by future uncertainties would beneÞt from forces dedicated to the testing process.

More broadly, such experimentation might benefit from changes in the way we organize for defense, especially for procurement. After all, it is hard to imagine a service chief or secretary getting very far by offering a carefully nuanced program of hedging options and experimentation to a political process anxious to reduce the federal deficit. Even during the Cold War, when money was less scarce, budget politics encouraged the services to eliminate programmatic alternatives early to amass organizational and political support for a single major program or set of programs.

The tendency to rule out alternatives has been reinforced by Pentagon reorganizations that have slowly imposed greater unity on Defense Department decision making. The most recent, the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, has successfully brought the services together to produce a “joint vision” of future military needs.

This legislative effort may have made more sense during the Cold War, when the nation faced a unitary threat. Today we need creativity in the absence of threat. And while the military services might find it hard to open several options, the American political system has been particularly adept at encouraging diversity and innovation—less because of careful analysis or unity of effort than because of the inherent messiness of American pluralism. Precisely that pluralism has long made it hard to eliminate interservice rivalry or to suppress options from competing firms or to fully “kill” alternatives unwanted by the military. All these things are “wasteful,” but also creative.

While the Goldwater-Nichols Act brought beneficial unity of command to U.S. military operations, the same degree of unity applied to planning may be less useful in today’s uncertain environment. To organize for uncertainty, ironically, it may make sense to disorganize.

Given the price of today’s defense “options”—fighter aircraft and helicopters costing tens of millions of dollars each— interservice rivalry and the generation of multiple options look completely unaffordable. But the communications technologies most in need of exploitation are not the most expensive; many are available “off-the-shelf.” Current acquisition reform seeks to make these more accessible to a procurement process teeming with regulations and uniquely military specifications. Reform should aim to improve access of small operational units to such technologies, since much of the commercial innovation in this area comes from small organizations, not from the top down.

The real procurement challenge is the one that underlies the current procurement surge—major weapon “platforms” like aircraft and tanks. These are uniquely military—and uniquely complex and expensive after years of Cold War evolution. The Cold War acquisition process for these items generated new and better models for production every 20 years or so. The post-Cold War optimum would be a process that kept options open without going into mass production. There is considerable debate about the feasibility of this idea. But because we have not purchased many platforms recently, and because interest has focused mainly on communications technologies, acquisition reform has not yet touched the realm of platforms. Reformers could start by reshaping the upcoming modernization surge.

Can We Overcome Cold War Habits?

Structural and political reforms of this magnitude no doubt sound wildly impractical. And they surely are in terms of the speed with which deeply imbedded routines and habits can change. But they are far less radical in terms of the Pentagon’s own pronouncements about uncertainty and a veritable”revolution in military affairs.” Indeed, on this front the burden of proof should be on the Pentagon to justify essentially Cold War habits of force planning and modernization when the world has changed and is changing so radically.

No one will have to justify anything, much less confront the need for change, however, if next winter’s defense debate retains its focus on “trains” and conflicting budget priorities. We have some time to think about these issues, and the emerging defense debate would be a good place to start. But we need to push well beyond current metaphors if we hope to get anywhere.