OPINION: A defense strategy for our time

As the dust settles on proposed cuts in the Pentagon budget and a new national security strategy focused on the Western Pacific, some persistent voices of concern have been heard. So, perhaps it’s time to put the new strategy and proposed cuts in perspective.

First, there is no absolute standard for “how much is enough.” During the Cold War, the United States regularly fielded fewer Army divisions, ships and air wings than “required” by our war planners, because we couldn’t afford more. We considered the difference between what we could afford and what we required “risk.” But the point is, we won the Cold War despite the risk.

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Second, the United States always downsizes ground forces at the end of its conflicts. We did it after World War II, after Korea, after Vietnam and after the Cold War. Always. And here we go again. Why? Because no matter how much old soldiers like me cherish those combat-experienced troopers in uniform, when the fighting ends, there are other claimants for the nation’s resources. Moreover, in a time of crisis, reserve formations can be called up and, over a longer period, major new forces can be built. What matters is keeping the “critical mass” of leadership, training and education systems intact, as well as having sufficient forces to handle the first blows of a new conflict.

Third, it is necessary at the termination of a conflict to reexamine U.S. interests, challenges and threats, as well as other environmental, geostrategic and technical factors to determine whether we have the forces, strategies and technologies necessary to provide us all the security we need, and not more than we can afford.

So, in the early 1990s, at the end of the Cold War, we committed to a new strategy of two nearly simultaneous regional contingencies. Later, to strengthen the emphasis on planning and preparation, we focused on two major theaters of war. But at no time did we intend to build and sustain in times of peace the active forces for two prolonged ground wars. We all understood that if that were to happen, we would have to adapt and cope with it — and we did.

And now, while the United States has withdrawn from Iraq and is working on its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the strategic environment is changing. Worldwide economic development, new nuclear powers and aspirants such as Iran and the evolving nature of the terrorist threat must be addressed. Rapidly growing countries, most notably China, are resource-starved and seeking access to oil and minerals, which raises tensions and risks in some areas. 

North Korea is a nuclear state now, in a perpetual struggle with the outer world and against its own people, and a likely nuclear and missile technology proliferator as well. It must continue to be deterred from action, and its proliferation efforts thwarted. Iran is exercising its long-held nuclear ambitions, too, injecting risk and uncertainty into a volatile region. The United States must maintain capabilities to execute all “options” potentially necessary to deal with the threat from Iran. And there remains the ever-transforming elements of al Qaeda, which must be countered directly and through work with allies.

So, a new strategy is mandated. And after a decade or more focusing on ground combat in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, that requires shifting at the margins our resourcing and attention to air and sea and the Asia-Pacific. This is precisely the strategy recently articulated by the Department of Defense and endorsed by our nation’s uniformed military leaders. Army and Marine manpower will be cut, and forces redeployed away from Europe and the Mideast, back to the United States and the Asia-Pacific region. Space, air and naval modernization will be prioritized, while the land forces undergo recovery and refitting. Special Operations Forces will continue to receive the highest priority and likely remain actively engaged. Long-standing relationships in the Asia-Pacific will be reaffirmed and strengthened.

Yes, it makes us old soldiers weep a little to see our battle-tested formations whittled down and our experienced warriors released from active duty. But it should be no cause for national alarm, and no fodder for partisan quarreling. Our armed forces will remain the strongest, most capable in the world, with the finest technology and leadership. The United States will remain stronger than any other power, or combination of powers, and with our network of alliances, should be more than capable of protecting our national interests and meeting our obligations abroad. The bottom line is, this new strategy provides us the security we need with the resources that we can afford.

Clark is the former NATO supreme allied commander Europe. He is currently a senior fellow with the Burkle Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.