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Defense Policy

In the decade after the 9/11 attacks, the global security environment has been in great flux. In addition to reordering of global power, with the rise of state actors like China and India, non-state actors – such as Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and their affiliates – have emerged as major players in global security, while failed or failing zones have become epicenters of threat on multiple levels. Other challenges, such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, have become even more acute with the rise of global terrorism and the emergence of rogue weapons programs in North Korea and Iran. Additionally, budgetary constraints in a time of significant cuts, are forcing the U.S. defense community to tackle numerous issues with less funding. The need for civil-military planning to meet these challenges is more pressing than ever.

These transformations are all the more challenging as they are playing out in the rapidly changing context of the 21st century. Revolutions in information, communications, energy use, and bio-technology are all emerging in a period of heightened global economic competition. Many think the hallmark of the 21st century may not be merely change, but how the rate of change is accelerating – namely, at an exponential pace unparalleled in history.

The Defense project of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence (21CSI) focuses on three core issue areas crucial to U.S. defense policy today and in the future:

The Future of War. While war is enduring, the forces acting on war, its domains, and even the very actors in it are changing. Areas under investigation include the impact of globalization and decentralization of conflict groups, the emergence of new types of conflict groups (from warlords and terrorists to child soldiers and private militaries), new technologies and their impact on both causes and conduct of war (information, robotics, genetics, etc.), continuing questions of warrior ethics and professional identity in new contexts of war, and new modes and locales for military operations (from information warfare to post-conflict stability and reconstruction).

The Future of U.S. Defense Needs and Priorities. U.S. national security considerations will hardly stay static in such a rapidly changing world. New threats require new strategies. New capabilities open new policy options, but they also create new responsibilities. Areas under exploration include global defense challenges, regional security needs ranging from those raised by a rising China to greater commitments in South Asia, as well as homeland security priorities that the U.S. military and related agencies must plan for in the years and decades ahead. Integration with civilian agencies at home and abroad also is a critical aspect of the military planning processes in the 21st century. A key question is the optimal balance of resources to address rapidly changing security threats facing the U.S. today – threats as diverse as terrorism and natural disasters.

The Future of the U.S. Defense System. A better understanding of war and the expectations that will be placed upon the U.S. military and related agencies in the 21st century is crucial for informed force planning and budgeting, particularly in a time of defense cuts. Building upon the analysis of the above two areas, the Defense project examines a myriad of issues facing the U.S. defense system in light of future and possible missions. These issues include future force structure; the military budget, equipment and capacity; service recruitment and retention; and the services’ evolving training and professional needs. Each issue must also be evaluated at the national level as well as at the service or agency level. Michael O’Hanlon’s forthcoming book Healing the Wounded Giant is an example of work by 21CSI scholars in this area.

In addition to the project’s permanent scholars’ research, publications, and commentary, it also serves as an organizational hub that brings together Brookings scholarship, high level defense policy makers, operational leaders, industry specialists, and interested public audiences. The Defense project formed the foundation for what became 21CSI, hosting over 200 events in the years leading up to the Center’s creation. These events range from large public speaking engagements – including with every service chief – to more intimate discussions with members of the defense establishment ranging from Congressman Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, to retired General David Petraeus. The project has also hosted a working group focused on the national security industrial base for the past several years, in which participants, both in private and public forums, have examined defense budget cuts and their impact on security.

The Defense project is also home to the Afghanistan Index. Widely used by both the media and the government, it is the leading dataset of open, public information for ongoing operations. The dataset allows a fact-based analysis to be made on contentious policy areas.

The Defense project has a special portal to the policy community as host of the Federal Executive Fellows program. The FEFs are career officers from each military service, the Coast Guard, CIA, and National Counterterrorism Center, who spend a year in residence researching and publishing on cutting-edge defense topics. The program provides valuable policy feedback that helps 21CSI craft and disseminate realistic, applicable policy recommendations relevant to each agency or service. FEF research and publications have focused on such topics as:

  • Military compensation and benefits reform in the context of budget cuts and potential sequestration;
  • Command and control of the Department of Defense’s cyber forces;
  • Rebalancing Australia’s defense capabilities to better support joint regional operations with the United States;
  • The strategic impact of High Value Targeting operations against enemy insurgents; and
  • The evolution of the military concept of seabasing and its relevance to modern defense strategy.

The Defense project is led by Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research for 21CSI. He is joined by Vanda Felbab-Brown, a leading expert on illicit networks and counterinsurgency.

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