Defining and Operationalizing “Balance” in Defense Strategy

The U.S. secretary of defense often invokes “balance” when discussing future Department of Defense (DoD) capabilities, readiness, and risk assessment. In his view, a “balanced” force operates in totality effectively across the entire spectrum of conflict. There are significant details to iron out on this subject. The future structure and mission of American forces hinges on how he defines and operationalizes “balance” in the on-going Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).

Q1: What is “balance” in the context of defense strategy?

A1: In general, this is a key unrecognized or underappreciated question in the current defense review. Given contemporary strategic circumstances and the defense demands they portend, the secretary’s most important institutional challenge actually might be defining what he means by balance. More precision on the subject in terms of strategy, policy, and programming will help identify for important defense and defense-interested communities where and how DoD will accept increased risk—and, by implication, how the national security community might help DoD effectively mitigate some of that risk by employing “smart power.” Properly defined, Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new balance can be yet another line in the sand against excessive defense and military conservatism—a fresh, risk-informed reprioritization of new and old defense missions and associated programs.

In the past, balance implied achieving common levels of readiness across all service departments for the most intense, traditional challenges. It was an idealized form of balance. Contingency cases of maximum stress challenged the various service components equally. Recall, for example, the “2MTW” (two major-theater wars) construct or “2-1” in the previous administration’s “1-4-2-1.” Both concepts split the force down the middle, under the most demanding conditions, sending near-identical force packages into two similar theater warfights. DoD maintained balance both within and between service departments to account for these high-end traditional demands.

A valuable step forward is that the current interpretation of balance accounts for a wider and more complex set of defense challenges ranging from high-tech, asymmetric threats posed by aggressive great powers to messier irregular conflicts against insurgents and terrorists. But it too distributes responsibilities for addressing these wider full-spectrum challenges nearly equally across service departments. It suggests that services should cover down on “all possible wars,” spreading their capabilities evenly to contend with them all.

Q2: Why is increased precision in the definition of “balance” so critical now?

A2: First, a new and more precise appreciation of balance—promulgated across and socialized deeply within the department—will help the secretary shape DoD culture consistent with his vision. Second, through it, he can also endeavor to meaningfully align service programs, capabilities, and structure with that vision. Again, it just might be his most important line in the sand. This is critical now precisely because balance currently is left to the eye of the advocate and not the strategist. In a recent conversation on defense policy, one participant remarked, “Balance is the new transformation.” It was obviously pejorative. The implication was that Secretary Gate’s notion of balance is akin to the under-defined and over-used concept of defense transformation. In other words, “balance” like “transformation” hazards becoming yet another catchy phrase lacking both focus and rigor, the killer PowerPoint bullet employed by all sides in the department to justify almost anything. Without considerable policy-level focus, this is a significant hazard.

Q3: Are their other views about “balance” on the table?

A3: Absolutely. For example, I favor QDR outcomes that result in balance defined by some service specialization or focus on specific (and different) challenge archetypes—irregular conflicts, high-end asymmetric threats, etc. Aggregation of gross service specialization results in full-spectrum readiness department wide and not necessarily within each service component. Balance is achieved between departments—not always within and between them as in the past. This is not wholly new. We have always had significant service specialization in key areas of warfighting (e.g., strategic nuclear deterrence, general purpose land maneuver, etc.). New, however, is the idea that future U.S. defense challenges and responses may demand different contingency vectors for the four services—their adjusted core competencies remain intact but generally orient against different contingency demands. Ultimately, this would result in one set of contingency bins centered on the U.S. Army and Marine Corps and yet another on the U.S. Navy and Air Force.

Clearly, we have learned a great deal since 9/11. Prudence indicates that future contingency plans focus on less expansive strategic and operational objectives. Destroy, replace, stabilize, and totally rebuild might reasonably give way to defeat and punish, compel, disrupt, coerce, influence, and/or judiciously stabilize. If true, this argues strongly for increased risk-taking in DoD’s capacity for hasty, under-resourced regime-killing warfights. And, it frees up room for the services to focus on different points along the conflict spectrum.

Under the most demanding contingency conditions, greater specialization might see land forces (including special operations forces) optimized for reversing disorder—forcible entry and opposed but limited armed stabilization in states where legitimate authority is weak, failing, or failed. Whereas, sea and air forces optimize for redress of unfavorable or hostile order—coercive campaigns against states operating outside international norms or law. Against the latter, regime reprogramming is valued over regime replacement. This modest level of new specialization (more de facto acceptance of the current status quo) recognizes that future contingencies will often stress service departments differently. Two big “wars” may well remain a valid measure of maximum defense stress. However, the two likeliest “wars” are also probably going to be distinct in type from one another as well. This view rejects pre-9/11 force planning and risk assessment biased in the direction of mirror-imaging; instead, it offers a contingency and force planning paradigm focused on defense response to simultaneous, dissimilar events.

Optimization is not the same as exclusivity. All components of the joint force will still contribute in meaningful ways to favorable outcomes across contingency types. Service departments optimized for one set of contingencies will make significant contributions to and weigh risk against their part in others. There are, after all, still critical joint interdependencies. However, greater service specialization will allow for more focus than the current full-spectrum mantra allows. Overall, the service departments may simply have to accept a new or newly defined sine qua non.

Nathan Freier is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, and a former U.S. Army strategist.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2009 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Nathan Freier