It all sounds very retro: a return Great Power conflict, focusing on large naval conflicts, big geopolitical questions, reducing the ground forces to focus on high-technology precision conflicts. In August of 2001, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a similar call, reducing the ground forces and focusing on high-tech Great Power conflicts. A month later, the September 11 attacks happened, and altered those plans for a smaller force.
The U.S. military establishment seems desperate for a return to high-technology conflicts, where it has a crushing advantage. For the last 20 years, a succession of Presidents have rejected nation-building, stability operations, and interventions in small, weak states, only to have their foreign policies largely defined by them. Despite cuts to the ground forces in the 1990s, the U.S. military spent most of the decade sending its ground forces on interventions in weak or rogue states.
President Obama, however, wants to reorient the military to focus on the Asia-Pacific region.. It just doesn’t match with the current and likely future geopolitical reality. What is America’s place in the world going to be? How will we orient ourselves to it?
Since the end of the Cold War, Pentagon planners have been desperate for another peer competitor to orient the military around. And for almost as long, China has seemed the perfect competitor – a large country, with a large, modernizing military, and a big ocean in which to fight it. But the prospect of a major conflict with China is remote, and assuming one is inevitable poses the danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.
What should be in the new National Defense Strategy is a definition of America’s place in the world, its leaders’ vision for how to achieve and maintain that place, and a concrete plan for how the military will be oriented and structured to get it there. In some cases, like President Obama’s vision for renewing American economic vitality, the military might not be the best vehicle to achieve that. And in others, such as the need to secure access to contested areas like the Strait of Hormuz, there will be a strongrole for the military to play in ensuring American security.
The current reorientation, however, seems arbitrary and short-sighted. No one denies that the Asia-Pacific region is important to American interests, but so are a lot of other regions in the world. The Middle East remains vital to global energy security; Latin and South America are vital to our economic growth. Assuming a strong military presence is necessary tosecure American interests is typical in defense planning circles, but it, too, doesn’t always match the reality of how the world is functioning.
We can all welcome a reduction in the growth of the defense budget, as President Obama advocates. But without being smart, and thinking in the long term, we risk repeating the same mistakes in force reductions and budget cuts that we did in the early 1990s, and the early 2000s. We should have a longer view than just the next few years, or what might seem easier, if we’re to secure America’s future.
Brig. Gen Stephen A. Cheney USMC (ret) is the CEO and Joshua Foust a fellow at the American Security Project.