STrategy for the common defense

By Eliot A. Cohen

America’s strategic challenges today are in some respects as dangerous as they have ever been, and certainly they are more complex. On the eve of World War II we faced two major opponents; during the Cold War one rival and its clients. Today, the United States must deal with multiple challengers of different types and motivation. As in the 1980s, a substantial increase in defense spending is required. Unlike the 1980s, however, higher levels of spending coupled with renewed resolve will be necessary but not sufficient conditions to provide for the common defense. Of necessity, a new era of American strategy is upon us.

American strategy has two purposes. The first is to defend the homeland, American citizens, and U.S. interests abroad, and to protect allies with whom we have treaties or similar bonds of obligation. The second is to preserve the international order to which we helped give birth during and just after World War II, an order characterized, at least so far as the Free World was concerned, by free movement of information and goods, relative freedom of the movement of individuals, and open access to the great commons of mankind—the seas, space, and now cyber-space.

In this sense, American strategy is conservative and defensive in character. American foreign policy may seek to transform repressive or dictatorial governments and societies into ones that are open, ruled by law, and characterized by the essential freedoms of faith and opinion, and of political rights. On the whole, however, the American military is not used directly for this purpose, except under exceptional circumstances. Indirectly, of course, the Department of Defense has an important role to play in furthering American values through military education, liaison relationships, training foreign forces in both technique and civil-military relations, and the like. But the use of American military power to further liberalization and democratization is more often a byproduct or a secondary purpose than the chief objective of our forces.

One source of complexity in the new strategic environment is the shifting weight and pattern of the American alliance system. During the Cold War the heart of that alliance system was NATO. Today, however, Europe’s economic, political, and social difficulties have turned our allies inward. One result is that for decades European defense spending has decreased both as a portion of GDP and relative to that of the United States. Although in some sectors the Europeans have improved their ability to deploy usable forces overseas, their militaries are severely limited in size, capability, and in the willingness of domestic populations to tolerate casualties and aggressive action. Today, roughly 75 percent of NATO’s defense spending comes from the United States, as opposed to the roughly 50/50 split at the height of the Cold War.

The failure of NATO’s intervention in Afghanistan has not helped. The use of NATO in Afghanistan created a convoluted, ineffective command and control system and more than helped the creation of effective Afghan security forces. The 2011 Libya conflict was also revealing. The good news is that Britain and France, assisted by several European allies, were willing to use force in pursuit of political objectives. The bad news is that they were unable to topple a deeply unpopular dictator with a third-rate military in a campaign lasting six months without substantial American intelligence, logistical support, and precision strike—all areas in which they were sorely deficient. Their unwillingness (and that of the Obama Administration) to devote military and other relevant resources to stabilize the country in the aftermath of regime change has also given rise to multiple problems emanating from Libya.

Japan’s economic stagnation has not caused the actual disarmament that we have seen in Europe (particularly in our most important ally, Great Britain), but it sets a cap on the expansion of Japanese forces and their further development. Tokyo, however, has increased its international defense cooperation linkages and begun transforming its armed forces to deal with the Chinese military challenge. It will become increasingly important as the largest friendly military power in Asia, together with India, a rising power with close if informal security ties to the United States.

Other traditional allies have improved their capabilities as well, most notably Australia, Canada, and Israel. Moreover, newer partners have emerged who possess real military capacity in their respective regions, such as Colombia, the United Arab Emirates, and Poland. Other states, particularly those threatened by China such as the Philippines and Vietnam, are open to new or renewed defense relationships with the United States. Thus, one of the first tasks of a new Administration in January 2017 will be the restructuring and reshaping of U.S. strategic alliances — not discarding old friends, to be sure, but reassessing the weight and effort we put into a range of relationships.

And what of America’s opponents? There are two great power challenger to the United States: China and Russia. China is the larger and more important power, Russia the more virulently hostile one, whose revisionism seems less constrained by institutionalized leadership. Although the two are not in formal alliance against the United States, they share military technology and sometimes act in concert to oppose us (for example, in Syria). Both identify us as their chief military rival and have threatened the use of force against allies and associates of the United States.

China and Russia reject the current world order, which they see as dominated by the United States not for purposes of supplying global security goods but for selfish reasons. Both wish sharply to reduce or to eliminate American influence, allowing them to unravel some current international arrangements and exercise greater control over slices of the global commons (such as cyber-space, particularly in the Chinese case). Moreover, each has geopolitical objectives of a territorial nature: China’s attempt to exert dominance over the South and East China Seas, in one instance, and Russia’s effort to restore informal empire in its “near abroad,” in the other. Open hostilities with either power, or with both in coalition, are unlikely but conceivable—though less probable if the United States retains its broad operational military superiority. More likely, the United States faces a period of sustained peacetime competition, occasionally edging into potential violence, with both.

The international jihadi movement is at war with the United States. Indeed, neither the current nor the next President have any excuse for failing to understand, upon entering office, that they serve first and foremost as a wartime Commander-in-Chief. The difficulty here is that the current Administration has misunderstood this problem as one associated solely with the al-Qaeda organization as it existed before 9/11. Our current enemies are a much broader, and in some cases looser organization, or loose confederation of organizations, that has experienced setbacks in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region and Saudi Arabia but has enjoyed continuing major successes in Africa (Mali and Nigeria), parts of the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen), and the Levant (most recently, Syria). Its most vibrant offshoot, the Islamic State, has has scored spectacular successes in Iraq and has also established at least symbolic branches in Africa and elsewhere, to include Libya and Afghanistan. Members of the Islamist movement have struck repeatedly, although on a small scale, in the United States, often attacking military personnel—at Fort Hood in 2009 and in Chattanooga in 2015, to take the two most noteworthy examples.

The use of NATO in Afghanistan created a convoluted, ineffective command and control system, and inhibited the creation of effective Afghan security forces more than it helped.

The United States does not have an overall strategic concept for its conflict with jihadi movements. This is despite the fact that this conflict is likely to last for decades, and will probably culminate not in a clear-cut victory, but in the dissolution, fragmentation, and moderation of a movement that remains extremely dangerous today, to some extent to the homeland but much more so to our allies and interests abroad. This challenges requires, in addition to current counter-terrorist activity, a strategy for a war of ideas, political warfare analogous to the one we used to combat communist ideology during the early Cold War years. Even in this nonviolent realm, the Defense Department will have a role to play.

Three nuclear-armed or aspirant states also pose threats to the United States: North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan. Each composes a different case, and although there are clear lines of cooperation among them—North Korea has been a provider of nuclear technology to the other two—each requires a different approach. The common threats posed by the three include direct attacks on Americans and American interests, goads to further nuclear proliferation, and indirect effects caused by the sense of empowerment that a nuclear arsenal can create (examples: Pakistan’s launching of the Kargil war against India in 1999 and North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in 2010). Moreover, a proliferated world will create dangerous nuclear standoffs (for example, Israel vs. Iran) that will weaken American extended deterrence.

Active hostilities against these three regimes are, to varying degrees, conceivable, in conflicts that could expand to regional wars. Even short of war we face a series of protracted peacetime competitions with North Korea and Iran. The challenge posed by the latter has been worsened by the Obama Administration’s July 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, which has demoralized our friends. The lifting of the sanctions that have inhibited Iran’s conventional and unconventional reach, and the feeble constraints left on its nuclear program, may well lead to a nuclear-armed Iran within the next 10-15 years, and have doubtless boosted Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions.

Ungoverned space is also a challenge that American armed forces may be required to deal with, if indirectly, in order to cope with the problem of safe haven for jihadi terrorist movements. Contested space, to include maritime regions rich in hydrocarbons or minerals, may also become arenas for international conflict. Examples include the South China Sea and the High (Arctic) North. In addition to the maritime, space, and cyber domains, however, actual ungoverned space—chaotic lands in which government has collapsed—will serve as breeding grounds and refuges for the next iterations of the anti-Western jihad and perhaps also other, non-Muslim, anti-modernist substate movements.

The United States is in the midst of its own variant of the crisis engulfing all advanced welfare states, which is characterized by budgets under increasing pressure from population bulges and unaffordable government obligations to their citizens. Because of its demographics and the underlying dynamism of its economy and culture, the United States is better positioned than most to overcome its challenges. But we have yet to resolve the fundamental problem of the entitlement state, which in a variety of ways puts excessive pressure on the defense budget.

Furthermore, after a decade of war the American people are wary of combat, and skeptical of new military commitments, particularly those that involve the dispatch of substantial conventional ground forces to largely Muslim countries. Although a basic bipartisan national security consensus remains intact, our fractious politics make it more problematic to use force than in recent years. American political and opinion leaders, by and large, mistrust intelligence reports that may conduce to the use of military force. This in turn means that even when, in theory, a smaller challenge that could be dealt with early and with limited force (the Syrian civil war is an example), the chances are that suspicion of the grounds for the use of force will mean that problems will fester.

After a decade of war the American people are wary of combat, and skeptical of new military commitments, particularly those that involve the dispatch of substantial conventional ground forces to largely Muslim countries.

Although the foregoing characterizes our strategic environment, it cannot be a comprehensive depiction of it. There is no accounting for “black swans”—unforeseeable events that might transform attitudes at home and abroad. Examples include mass-casualty events involving the use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons; the collapse of a major state as a result of internal revolt; a large-scale war (for example, a general Middle East conflict growing out of the Syrian civil war).

In such a dangerous, unpredictable, and complex environment, four principles should animate American defense policy. First, we need forces capable not only of winning today’s wars but also of dealing with each of the different kinds of future threats highlighted above. Second, we require a defense “insurance policy” to deal with unforeseen or unforeseeable threats, and to provide for expansion in time of need. Third, we must invest in capabilities and concepts that will maintain our qualitative superiority over all competitors. And fourth, we must reshape our alliance and partnership arrangements to provide in the 21st century what NATO provided in the Cold War: the coalition support that enabled the United States to sustain global order as well as its own national security. None of this can be accomplished with a defense budget that is stagnant. Spending on defense will need to rise from about 3 percent of GDP or less to something approaching at least the 4 percent of recent times.

Satisfactorily and simultaneously tackling all of the problems described above is impossible. Thus, American defense policy must be more integrated into American statecraft than ever before.  In principle, for example, it should be possible through shrewd policy to divide Russia and China, for they have different interests and no shortage of mutual suspicions. This is more the task of diplomacy than defense, but defense is ever providing the backdrop and backbone of diplomacy with adversaries. The longer-term military threat posed by China is altogether more severe. China has the capability to threaten U.S. friends and allies, and increasingly to punish or even exclude American naval forces from operating in its vicinity. It can be met only by a revitalized Pacific coalition to balance and restrain it. Moreover, both Russia and China continue to modernize their nuclear arsenals, as do virtually every other nuclear power except the United States and Great Britain.

Defense force structure must take into account the upward spending trajectory of our potential opponents and the multiplying threats we face. Defense increases, therefore, cannot simply be made, as in the past, across the board. Although all of the services need additional spending and enlarged force structure, including the Army, the United States must particularly emphasize the development of naval and air forces that can dominate the Western Pacific, as well as our cyber, space, and nuclear forces. At the same time, we will need to deepen cooperation with regional allies and substantially strengthen and extend our basing structure, to include their active defense, particularly in East Asia. In the case of the Russian periphery, the United States must ensure that even with a weakened NATO our East European allies are protected from conventional or hybrid threats.

We should expect the counter-jihadi struggle to go on for decades, and plan accordingly. As we have discovered in Iraq, threats can regrow in places where we believed they had been uprooted, and they can take new forms. A completely new assessment of the jihadi threat is required, and that includes taking its ideology, and the social structure in which it inheres, seriously. The challenge here is not so much expanding force structure as actually conducting effective operations that involve psychological and information aspects in addition to military operations. It requires consolidating and in some cases building a physical, training, intellectual, and legal infrastructure for a multi-decade effort. The ungoverned space dimension of this problem requires that we retain the capability to assist others in establishing effective government control. In desperate cases, we may need our own capability to do that for others. In any event, a new Administration should have as one of its first tasks the development of a comprehensive and long-term strategy—one with a time horizon of at least a decade—to fragment and disable the jihadi threat, even if it probably cannot be wholly eliminated.

If we ever confront states that use, or are prepared to use or merely to share the nuclear weapons they have, our calculus of acceptable risk will change dramatically. Indeed, this will occur even in the case of nuclear weapons used against a third party. The United States therefore needs the ability to detect and prevent the transfer of nuclear weapons, and in some cases to disable states’ nuclear arsenals. We require, in short, the capability to successfully conduct preemptive attacks on the small nuclear arsenals of particularly dangerous countries like North Korea and Iran, whether at the cusp of regional crises or, possibly, in other situations. We may also need to react to the regional conflicts these states may spawn, so we must plan seriously for how we will react to the use of nuclear weapons against a third party.

A completely new assessment of the jihadi threat is required, and that includes taking its ideology, and the social structure in which it inheres, seriously.

Given our financial constraints, and the attitudes of the American people, it is inevitable that we will fall short in some areas. We face a wide variety of opponents and an equally wide variety of possible conflict types, from nuclear exchanges to terrorism and everything in between. It is therefore necessary that the United States recover its traditional strategic concept of mobilization, albeit in modern form. This should include thinking about the ways in which civilians with unusual talents or expertise, to include cultural familiarity, could be quickly brought into the DoD as civilians or in uniform, and ways to either develop new weapons very quickly or mass produce weapons we currently produce in small quantities, and even to replace losses in key air and naval platforms. In the event of large-scale cyberwar, for example, we should be able to mobilize from the private and non-profit sector the civilian experts whose skills are equal or in many cases well beyond those accessible to government.

Our war plans do not, by and large, envision protracted conflict, but that has generally been our actual experience. This, too, needs to be an element of mobilization thinking. We may need to do more than surge; we may need to sustain.

Furthermore, it is important that the next President and his cabinet officers explain to the American people the insurance function of defense spending. It will therefore be incumbent upon the next generation of American leaders to describe accurately and realistically the dangers of a world that includes states and non-state actors deeply hostile to the United States.

Defense policy must address our allies strategically. Many of our programs (military educational exchanges, for example) do not focus on cultivating particular allies or developing special strengths in those that do. We tend to manage our non-NATO alliances on a country-by-country basis rather than holistically and comprehensively. We should think of defense partnerships not only in terms of foreign requests and our considered responses, but active efforts to shape or enhance the capabilities of key allies. This may have implications for force structure, acquisition (stockpiles of munitions, more extensive exports of our best arms, greater co-production of key platforms) as well as training, military assistance, and so forth. Particular attention should be paid to non-traditional allies and partners, such as India, who will assume an increasingly important role in our overall strategic concept.

For the past decade the leaders of the Department of Defense have concentrated on managing two medium-sized wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) and chronic global counterterrorism while maintaining the health of an overstrained active-duty force. They have made some effort to reorient to Asia, but, given the constraints of time, attention, and above all resources, they have done so with only limited success. The real “peace dividend”—the large margin of global military superiority that the United States possessed when the Soviet Union collapsed, and before China had risen—has been spent, and overspent. It is time to rearm, but to rearm differently than we have done before.

The coming era will pose large and in some respects unprecedented challenges. As has been the case for the past 15 years, the new Secretary of Defense will have to be a Secretary of War as well as a deft and hard-nosed administrator. At the same time, the Pentagon’s leadership must attend to the reconstruction of our armed forces for an era that will be as different from the post-9/11 decade as that period was from the Cold War that preceded it. This includes rebuilding the intellectual infrastructure of defense—the array of internal analytic organizations, military educational institutions, and allied academic organizations outside DoD. Whereas in the past defense leaders could either wage the current war or, in a breathing period, overhaul institutions to prepare for the next, the next President and Secretary of Defense will have to do both. A new Administration should undertake its duties not simply, however, in the spirit of remedying its predecessors’ omissions and failures, but with a mind to reshaping the military for a complicated and, in many respects, perilous age. Alas, many types of military force will have to be made ready, and some will certainly have to be used.


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