The new administration takes office in a time of great complexity.
Our new President faces a national security environment shaped
by strong currents: globalization; the proliferation of new, poor, and
weak states, as well as nonstate actors; an enduring landscape of violent
extremist organizations; slow economic growth; the rise of China and
a revanchist Russia; a collapsing Middle East; and a domestic politics
wracked by division and mistrust. While in absolute terms the Nation
and the world are safer than in the last century, today the United States
finds itself almost on a permanent war footing, engaged in military operations
around the world.
We tend to think first of the military when pondering national security,
but our political system and economic strength are its true wellsprings.
Whatever our internal political disputes may have been, in former times
a consensus on how best to address the most formidable security threats
obtained. Against great threats we were able to come together. That consensus
was shattered by the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, a 24-
hour news cycle, and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Our polarized domestic
politics represents a clear challenge to our national security. Political
fissures will always exist in our constitutional system. But without broad
coherence and accommodation, sensible and sustained national security
and defense policy is gravely impaired.
A parallel threat is our inability to rise above local and partisan political
considerations to more effectively manage the defense budget,
programming, and acquisition processes. The U.S. defense budget approaches
$600 billion per year, dwarfing China’s $150 billion defense
budget and Russia’s $70 billion. Yet we get far less capability than the
numbers suggest. Political opposition to base closures, rising personnel
and program costs, and excessive influence by defense industries on
defense acquisition limits decision space. Our inability to pass defense
budgets on time further complicates programming and budget execution.
More broadly, continued growth in nondiscretionary spending on
entitlements and debt service will, in the next generation or so, begin to seriously crowd out defense spending if not brought under control.
Meanwhile, expanding staffs and organizations sap resources from the
fighting forces. Defense spending matches the height of the buildup by
Ronald Reagan but can only support a force two-thirds the size. New
systems feature exquisite technology but are so costly that we can afford
far fewer of them, while cost overruns, delayed fielding, and system flaws
are endemic. These are serious issues that cannot be solved without congressional
action and determined Presidential leadership.
In a similar vein, the interagency process employed in national security
decisionmaking increasingly faces criticism. Some see an inability to
overcome parochialism on the part of departments and agencies in the
interests of optimum policy development. Others see dramatic growth in
the National Security Council staff leading to operationalizing the White
House and curtailing the prerogatives of Cabinet officers and combatant
commanders. In this view the excessive centralization of power in
nonconfirmed White House staff marginalizes the expertise and statutory
authority of the departments and degrades congressional oversight.
The net effect is held to be suboptimal interagency performance that
Turning to national security strategy, perhaps the key question for the
new administration is whether to remain engaged as the guarantor of
the international economic and political order. For the previous 8 years,
caution was seen as the order of the day; military interventions have
been few and limited essentially to airpower and trainers or infrequent
special operations and drone strikes. In the heated 2016 political season,
calls for “offshore balancing” and even withdrawal from overseas commitments
were heard more loudly than in many decades. In the best of
times, breaking crises and unforecasted events will tend to crowd senior
leader agendas and decision space. Yet a broad strategic framework, emphasizing
alliances, forward basing, active diplomacy, and military and
economic preponderance, has characterized U.S. national security for
almost a century. It is difficult to see how continued disengagement from
world affairs will redound to improved national security. As we have
seen, a proliferation of failed and failing states and the rise of nonstate
actors have created political vacuums around the periphery of the former
Soviet Union, eastern Congo, South Sudan, large parts of northern Africa,
and the Middle East (among others), leading to massive population
displacement, loss of life, security threats, terrorism, and instability.
A holistic approach to dealing with this security environment will not
be easy to contrive but will be needed if America’s security posture is to
improve. For some years, defense leaders have used a “4+1” construct as
shorthand for the most serious threats: China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia, and violent extremist organizations like Daesh and al Qaeda.
Though the rebalance to Asia specifically highlighted that region as a priority,
in all likelihood the national security establishment will continue
to orient on all these in the near and midterm. In this regard, containing
and deterring adversary states will be called for. Armed conflict with any
would represent a failure of both policy and strategy of the first order.
Thus, U.S. approaches should seek to create the perception in the minds
of adversary decisionmakers that the costs of any challenge to core U.S.
interests will outweigh any benefits.
Peaceful economic and diplomatic engagement will remain important,
but we should not be under any illusions. The temptation to treat
these nations as simultaneously benign partners and aggressive adversaries
may hamper effective strategy. Russia in particular has repeatedly
demonstrated a willingness to use force to overturn or set aside international
norms, while China’s muscular assertion of sovereignty in the
South China Sea has roiled our traditional partners and allies in the region
and called into question U.S. leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.
Iran pursues a hegemonic agenda deeply rooted in a strategic culture that
is many centuries old, exacerbated by a militant Shia impulse directly at
odds with the Sunni world. On the Korean Peninsula, an unstable and
erratic nuclear regime threatens an increasingly fragile peace. Throughout
the Middle East—and indeed the world—terrorist organizations like
Daesh and al Qaeda remain potent threats that demand serious attention.
Other regions such as Latin America and Africa have traditionally enjoyed
lower priority but cannot be ignored. In both the rise of more
globalized transnational criminal organizations has eroded state control,
increased corruption, and provoked mass immigration. Pandemics originating
in these regions must also concern strategists and policymakers.
Terrorist groups have gained a growing foothold, while stable and functioning
democracy remains elusive in some quarters. Neither region will
assume top priority in U.S. national security policy anytime soon, but
both will require sustained engagement going forward.
When today’s most senior military leaders entered the force, space
and cyber began to emerge as distinct domains. Today they are crucial
to our military success and to national security writ large. Our military
is dependent on space for navigation, targeting, communications, and
strategic intelligence gathering and early warning. Protection of our information
networks (private and public, civilian and military) is a first
order priority as is an offensive capability to target adversary networks
in time of war or confrontation. Loss or degradation of these key capabilities
offers war-winning advantages to China and Russia in particular.
Amid many competing priorities these must be championed.
On many of these fronts, diplomatic, informational, and economic
instruments will matter greatly, but hard military power will count most.
How much is enough? On the nuclear front, the deterrent force is aging,
and large investments will be needed if the intent is to preserve the nuclear
triad going forward. A survivable capability to deliver unacceptable
levels of destruction is the sine qua non of deterrence. Yet the projected
costs of replacement systems such as the Long Range Strategic Bomber,
Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, modernized intercontinental
ballistic missiles, and nuclear-armed cruise missiles may approach $1
trillion, forcing hard choices on the Department of Defense.
Conventionally, the U.S. military finds itself repeating a familiar pattern,
with land forces declining following more than a decade of exhausting
deployments. As noted in the most recent Quadrennial Defense
Review, this factor poses a high risk. At sea and in the air, U.S. forces
remain clearly preponderant—particularly when the forces of close allies
are factored in. As a force-sizing construct, this volume argues that the
force should be balanced among land, sea, and air forces and sized to
conduct two major conventional campaigns simultaneously. (Since the
end of the Cold War this construct has been progressively relaxed as the
size of the force has declined.) The compelling argument is that a “one
major war at a time” force reduces the United States from a global to a
regional power, impairing deterrence and reassurance of key allies. Post–
Cold War trends have also seen the force come home from many of its
forward bases. Projecting force from the homeland to distant locations is
now the norm, and airlift and sealift as well as prepositioned stocks will
remain essential building blocks of American grand strategy.
If all these capabilities are important, what are our true strategic priorities?
Effective nuclear deterrence must top the list, along with modernized
space, cyber, and command, control, communications, computers,
intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems and communities.
With the majority of our combat forces no longer forward deployed,
power projection in the form of sealift and airlift as well as prepositioned
stocks must be resourced. Given our strong preponderance in seapower
and airpower, the next administration has an opportunity to revisit program
acquisition decisions in these domains, though ground forces are
far less dominant or modernized and will need help.
No formal document describes a grand strategy for the United States,
and indeed, many academics deny that one exists. Yet a close look at
our history as a world power suggests that core interests and how we
secure them have remained generally consistent over time. If grand
strategy “rises above particular strategies intended to secure particular
objectives,” many decades of focusing on nuclear deterrence, power projection, alliances and partnerships, and military and economic strength
probably constitute the underpinnings of a coherent grand strategy. How
we employ and leverage these instruments of national power to protect,
defend, and advance the national interest is, after all, the essence of
grand strategy. In a dangerous world, these pillars have provided a strong
foundation for national security. If our domestic politics can achieve consensus
on future threats and solutions, America is well positioned to lead
and prosper in a world that will remain both dangerous and uncertain.
R.D. Hooker, Jr.
Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies
National Defense University