Key Risks in the New Defense Guidance: What Kind of War and Where?
January 17, 2012
On January 5, the president announced new foundational defense guidance. Fiscal challenges clearly dictated the timing of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) most recent comprehensive review. However, new guidance was essential at some point if DoD was to transition into the post–Iraq/Afghanistan world in the most deliberate and responsible way possible.
Like any change in strategy, however, the new approach has risk embedded in it. One of the more prominent risks involves the wholly predictable and complete triumph of classical realism in DoD’s future outlook. It appears that high-tech war between states is back in vogue as the single most important core planning scenario; this at a time when war within important states may be increasingly likely and, depending on location, equally impactful. How defense leaders account for and manage this risk will determine whether or not the guidance survives first contact with global uncertainty.
There is a lesson to be taken from the last administration’s first Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). Recall that it too sought to avoid extended stabilization missions; reorient toward Asia; use high-tech capabilities to overcome anti-access/area denial threats; and counter proliferation of missiles and weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration’s transformational defense outlook lasted less than nine months, before terrorism and insurgency swallowed it whole. The current administration hazards the same fate unless it takes steps to deliberately “shock proof” its new approach against what futurist Peter Schwartz calls “inevitable surprise.” Unfortunately, current DoD politics and basic defense economics make adequate shock proofing highly problematic.
Q1: Why was the new guidance necessary?
A1: Though the last comprehensive defense appraisal came only two years ago with the 2010 QDR, times have changed. Both the president and secretary of defense noted in their roll-out remarks that the United States has entered an historic period of transition. The U.S. war in Iraq is over. U.S. forces will steadily leave Afghanistan over the next two years. Iran is increasingly bellicose and capable. China routinely flexes its military muscles. The Middle East is experiencing fundamental political realignment.
And, new threats emerge daily from space and cyberspace. Closer to home, while the United States limps through a slow and fragile economic recovery, mounting public debt seems to persistently threaten its progress—so much so that even Admiral Mike Mullen, the last chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded that debt by itself was the greatest near-term threat to national security.
Combined, these forces dictated that the new defense guidance proceed from a substantially different appreciation of key strategic threats, making fundamental adjustments to U.S. defense strategy and posture inevitable. To its credit, whether one agrees with its prevailing worldview or not, the new guidance is more forward looking than was the 2010 QDR. The last QDR was, after all, still fundamentally about legacy responses to 9/11.
Q2: In practical terms, what does the new guidance do?
A2: The new defense guidance meets three immediate needs. First, it provides DoD with a transitional charter, bridging the department from its focus on persistent irregular warfighting to what defense officials believe to be a more sustainable, full-spectrum design that addresses a wider range of threats. In brief, it is DoD’s essential first step into the post–9/11 world.
Second, and much to DoD’s credit, the new guidance seems to succeed where past efforts failed, in that it establishes clear priorities against which defense strategists can now focus planning. The new guidance endeavors to establish these new priorities in light of a vastly different appreciation of strategic circumstances than that underwriting the previous two QDRs.
Priority setting hasn’t always been the Pentagon’s strong suit, especially in periods of unrestrained growth. Going forward, however, clear priorities will be indispensable to the Pentagon and its constituent service departments as they deal with declining resources, first trimming nearly $500 billion from the defense budget over the next decade and then preparing for what many expect to be even deeper cuts in the future. Specific reductions won’t be public until next month. But, according to the secretary of defense, the cuts will result in “smaller and leaner” forces.
Finally, though largely unstated in the guidance, there also appears to be tacit recognition of new limitations on where, when, how, and toward what end U.S. military power will be employed in the future. Given what appears to be significant presidential involvement in the new guidance, this new, more restrained vision of the role of military force and forces will certainly guide future decisions on capabilities and posture.
Q3: What are the key priorities emerging from the new guidance?
A3: The president and secretary were clear about the need to continue applying relentless pressure on al Qaeda and its affiliates. In addition, the new guidance argues for a substantial defense rebalancing in favor of the Asia-Pacific region, maintenance of significant military presence in the Middle East, maintaining access to the global commons, countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and finally, innovatively building partner capacity to hedge against more substantial challenges emerging outside of the Middle East or Asia. From a functional perspective, the guidance lays out 10 “primary missions” that define what the force must do—“capability” in military parlance. Yet, it also acknowledges that only 4 of these will be used to determine the future force’s size or capacity. These “sizing” missions are counterterrorism and irregular warfare; deter and defeat aggression; nuclear deterrence; and homeland defense and security.
Q4: What are the principal risks associated with the new strategic guidance?
A4: At its core, strategy development is an exercise in risk management. As DoD draws down, an important measure of effectiveness will be whether or not joint forces preserve and enhance the capabilities necessary to do what they must be able to do, even if that means sacrificing some capacity to perform those missions to the extent defense leaders might under different conditions find more satisfactory. The jury is still very much out on this question.
For example, DoD leadership appears to have chosen to accept very little risk with respect to speculative high-intensity conflicts with major regional powers like China, North Korea, or Iran, opting instead to accept significantly more risk in the hybrid “messy middle.” After 10 years of persistent irregular warfighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, a rebalancing is both inevitable and prudent. An aggressive rebalancing program, however, that assumes away potentially urgent Pentagon business is a recipe for unnecessary future strategic shock.
The principal wager in the new guidance seems to be that the most important threats to U.S. interests spring from unfavorable order and the armed forces of adversary states who are increasingly reinforced by ongoing revolutions in military technology, space, and cyber space. The language used to describe both the “deter and defeat” task and the posture and missions in Asia and the Middle East makes clear that the U.S. military will again optimize for war—new age or otherwise—between the United States and major regional powers. Indeed, one cannot review the guidance without reading China and Iran between the lines.
This strategic shift is occurring, however, at a time when consequential disorder and proxy hybrid violence may pose more immediate and equally dislocating defense-relevant challenges. Here lethal constituencies militate against U.S. interests by operating below, adjacent to, or in lieu of states. They are networked—by accident or design—through advanced communications technologies and methods and are often armed with state-like military capabilities. They may emerge according to some purposeful design or appear suddenly and more haphazardly as a result of unanticipated trigger events. If the contagious, tech-enabled revolutions in the Arab world, Iraq’s resurgent unrest, or violence in Mexico are at all harbingers, there is a wide range of challenging contingency futures to consider in this regard. For example, a single band of civil wars running from Yemen, across both sides of the Persian Gulf, and all the way to the Mediterranean is not inconceivable. It seems at least as likely to trigger significant future military contingencies as access-based conflicts with Iran or China.
Too often the risk choice presented to public officials pits large-scale, high-tech conflicts against extended counterinsurgency campaigns, as if these were the only models DoD had to choose from to size and shape future forces. Frankly, if these were the only or most likely demands, the new strategic guidance might be lower risk. Unfortunately, contemporary conditions indicate that DoD is much more likely to have messy hybrid conflicts forced onto its agenda that are substantially less “ordered” than conventional war between states and substantially more lethal than counterinsurgency. Under these circumstances, defense responses might include opposed stabilization in key regions in the face of lethal but disordered opposition, seizing and securing critical foreign infrastructure or dangerous military capabilities, and/or active denial of criminal, terrorist, or insurgent sanctuary.
DoD has responsibilities in securing core interests and the commons, hedging against high-end threats, forcefully meeting aggression, protecting the homeland, and providing decisive assistance to civil authorities in the event of catastrophe. Meeting these obligations in the most responsible and effective way requires consideration of a wider range of conflict models than current defense planning is inclined to entertain. Failure to do so, however, may again result in gross under-preparedness.
Nathan Freier is a senior fellow in the New Defense Approaches Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a visiting research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
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).
© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.