By Barry M. Blechman, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Barry Blechman is co-founder of the Stimson Center and chaired the Defense Advisory Committee, the members of which are listed below and who co-signed this op-ed. The views expressed are those of the authors.
Partisan bickering in Washington has overwhelmed even the discussion of U.S. national security, an area that used to be fenced from Beltway infighting. Yet not only is national security too important to leave to simplistic posturing, it is an area that should prompt a great deal of agreement. As evidence, we – a group of 15 Republican, Democratic, and independent former policymakers, retired military officers, and academics – reached a solid consensus on a new U.S. defense strategy for the future. And even we were surprised how easily we reached it.
U.S. armed forces are now overwhelmingly superior to those of any potential adversary, or combination of adversaries, and will likely remain so for years to come because of the dedication of our uniformed men and women and the high priority U.S. taxpayers have long put on national defense. American space, air, naval, and special operations forces make it possible for the U.S. to reach virtually any spot on the globe in a timely manner, whether to destroy targets or deliver humanitarian goods – and, together with our ground components, to sustain such campaigns for considerable periods of time. These forces have unprecedented flexibility, agility, reach, precision, and lethality, providing capabilities that seemed like distant visions not many years ago. Military superiority, however, does not translate into military omnipotence. U.S. capabilities to fight protracted wars on the ground, to defeat insurgencies, to stabilize governance, and to ensure security for societies in distant regions are limited, at best. This is not because of any deficiencies in, nor malpractices by, the U.S. armed forces. The task of establishing order in undeveloped societies riven by internal conflicts is simply too hard a task, and not one for which military forces are particularly well-suited.
To capitalize on these comparative strengths and weaknesses, U.S. defense strategy and policy should be based on the following principles:
- The U.S. should maintain space, air, naval and special operations forces superior to those of any potential adversary. To maintain these forces, the United States must prioritize funding basic research in science and technology in pursuit of advanced military capabilities.
- The U.S. should strongly resist being drawn into protracted land wars. The United States must maintain competent ground forces in support of its commitments to allies and to provide the punching power to achieve specific objectives quickly and decisively. But such deployments should be conducted only to achieve the rapid defeat of the enemy’s forces and the equally rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces, as was done in the first Gulf War.
- The U.S. should shift over time from a mindset that emphasizes static deployments overseas. Instead, we should rely primarily on frequent rotations of expeditionary forces to exercise jointly with allies, to become familiar with potential combat zones, and to demonstrate U.S. resolve and capabilities.
- The U.S. should revise the Cold War nuclear planning assumptions it still uses, which would allow reductions in the size of its nuclear forces, preferably through a new treaty with Russia, and commensurate reductions in planned nuclear modernization programs. Such cuts would free resources for the conventional forces more likely to be used to defend American security.
- The U.S. should implement long-standing proposals to utilize manpower more efficiently, to reform personnel compensation systems, and to streamline the system used to acquire equipment, goods and services. Efficiency reforms already recommended by authoritative organizations could save nearly one trillion dollars over ten years, but have long been stymied by bureaucratic and special interests. Overcoming these obstacles would free up resources that can make real contributions to US security
- The U.S. owes a huge debt to all those who have served in the nation’s wars, and particularly to the men and women who have served repeatedly in Iraq and Afghanistan. This sacred debt can be honored by implementing more effective policies that better care for our service members’ health, vocational, family and other needs.
Such a consensus strategy also directly addresses our nation’s fiscal crisis. In considering what strategy the U.S. should pursue, we started from an evaluation of U.S. interests and threats to those interests and not from a budget-driven math exercise. But after reaching consensus on strategy, we looked at how that strategy could be implemented at four alternative ten-year budgets. The fiscal year 2013 budget submitted by President Obama in accord with the Budget Control Act (BCA) served as the baseline. The alternatives included a budget that would keep pace with inflation (a 4 percent increase over the baseline), a budget that smoothed the cuts required by the Sequester provision of the BCA over ten years (a 10 percent cut from the baseline), and a budget that replicated the size of reductions in defense spending that followed the end of the Vietnam War and the Cold War (a 15 percent cut from the baseline). Although risk rises with lower budgets as they allow fewer hedges against unexpected threats, we believe our strategy could be executed with acceptable risk to U.S. national security under all four scenarios.
By capitalizing on our military strengths, and avoiding our comparative weaknesses, we can implement a defense strategy that protects U.S. national security and yet also helps resolve our nation’s fiscal crisis. We were able to reach a consensus on a revised defense strategy despite our diverse points of view. We believe such an effort suggests opportunity for politicians and policymakers in Washington. At this critical time, we must not use U.S. national security as a political hostage, even while we address the very real problems our country faces. When we sat down to do it, we could. So can the President and the Congress.
Barry M. Blechman (chair) Gordon Adams Graham Allison Michael J. Bayer Gen. B.B. Bell (USA-ret) Richard K. Betts Amb. Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr. Amb. Richard Burt Gen. James Cartwright (USMC-ret) Lt. Gen. Daniel W. Christman (USA-ret) Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula (USAF-ret) Leslie H. Gelb Jessica T. Mathews Admiral Bill Owens (USN-ret) Anne-Marie Slaughter
The signatories served together as the Defense Advisory Committee brought together by the Stimson Center under a grant from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. The summary report of their findings was released Thursday and can be seen here.