Some Quadrennial Defense Reviews (QDRs) are “sustainers” in which the Department of Defense (DOD) refines a well-established strategy against known threats. The recent QDR had to contend with significant changes in the security environment and defense resources. The first such change is the return of China as a great power, which presents a complex blend of cooperation, competition, and concerns. What defense strategy and deterrence policy should guide the pivot to the Pacific and investments in Air-Sea Battle? The second change is the increasing convergence of rogue states, nuclear proliferation, cyber warfare, regional instability, and transnational terrorism in places such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Instead of preventive war, how should DOD deter and respond to an expanded range of hostile acts by rogue states and nonstate actors? The third change is the reduction in defense spending, which leads policymakers to reassess defense strategy and call for difficult choices about joint force structure, modernization, and readiness. What is the right balance of capabilities in Joint Force 2020?
To address these challenges, the National Security Strategy recognizes the need to “underwrite defense commitments with tailored approaches to deterrence.”1 Yet the Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG) sets a more general goal: “The Joint Force will be prepared to confront and defeat aggression anywhere in the world.”2 The DSG describes the mission to deter and defeat aggression as a doctrinal template to deny objectives and impose costs, but it does not detail whom and what to deter, or how. The DSG implicitly assumes that resources are sufficient to deter and defeat aggression everywhere, but defense cuts call this assumption into question by imposing reductions well beyond the programmed force on which the DSG is based.
To guide strategic choices driven by reduced resources, the United States should develop a defense strategy based on tailored approaches to deter the principal threats to national security while preserving flexibility to account for their uncertain trajectories and potential shocks. This hybrid approach would provide a strategic framework to ensure that defense planning scenarios are realistic and necessary, indicate the missions and forces required to execute clear policy, and guide defense spending to provide the greatest return on investment. A defense strategy based in part on tailored deterrence would thus discipline any “irrational exuberance” for operational concepts and capabilities intended to solve military-technical problems by ensuring that they remain consistent with rational foreign and defense policies.
To support the development of such a defense strategy, this article considers broadly what it means to “deter and defeat aggression” in specific cases and outlines the supporting missions and forces. As a framework, it provides direction for the development of deterrence policies and empirical analysis of supporting military plans by analyzing how deterrence is being operationalized within the force-sizing scenarios and suggesting alternative approaches. It concludes that DOD is overinvesting in offensive Air-Sea Battle capabilities beyond what is necessary and prudent to deter China from attacking U.S. allies, but underinvesting in the balanced joint force necessary to deter rogue states from conducting an expanded range of hostile acts and to secure weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in failing states.
A deterrence strategy seeks to prevent or discourage a specific hostile actor from performing specific undesirable acts by introducing doubt in its ability to succeed or fear of retaliation. As the DSG states, “Credible deterrence results from both the capabilities to deny an aggressor the prospect of achieving his objectives and from the complementary capability to impose unacceptable costs on the aggressor.”3 Linking deterrence with capability, the DSG describes a decisive joint campaign to defeat aggression that includes the ability to “secure territory and populations and facilitate a transition to stable governance.”4 The DSG implies some measure of continuity with the two-war construct by stating, “our forces must be capable of deterring and defeating aggression by an opportunistic adversary in one region even when our forces are committed to a large-scale operation elsewhere.”5 While consistent with deterrence theory and joint doctrine, the DSG does not take the next steps to specify whom and what to deter, or how, which is necessary to guide development of Joint Force 2020 given declining defense resources.
As a result, there is disagreement among defense leaders about the types of forces required to deny objectives and impose costs when it comes to force-sizing. For example, to deter a wide range of threats, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey considers that the essential task of a flexible joint force is to prevail in simultaneous contingencies wherever and whenever they occur:
Now, there’s been much made . . . about whether this strategy moves away from a force structure explicitly designed to fight and win two wars simultaneously. Fundamentally, our strategy has always been about our ability to respond to contingencies wherever and whenever they occur. This won’t change. . . . We can and will always be able to do more than one thing at a time. More importantly, wherever we are confronted, and in whatever sequence, we will win.6
Yet others contend that the DSG represents a significant change that would use air and naval forces in lieu of ground forces to deter and defeat aggression. For example, retired Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead suggests that fighting “two land wars simultaneously is not the Obama strategy.”7 His interpretation of a significantly different force-planning construct would use air and naval power to deny objectives or impose costs in emergent challenges:
The defense strategy set forth by Defense Secretary Panetta in January 2012—a significant departure from prior Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ focus on winning our current land wars—seeks to rebalance our force toward facing emergent challenges, which will be predominantly air and maritime in nature. . . . The structure of a force to meet these needs would maintain the Navy and Air Force at current objectives. . . . The active duty Army would be reduced by [an additional] 200,000 soldiers from the 490,000 planned in the FY 2013 budget.8
Military leaders have different views about the requirements to deter and defeat aggression because the DSG never moves beyond the doctrinal template for deterrence to provide specific strategic guidance. It does not define the adversary and hostile acts the United States seeks to deter or the military missions and forces to deny the (unknown) objective or impose the (unspecified) cost. Deny and defeat are ambiguous terms that vary with the strategic objective in different cases. For example, the joint force could be required to:
These examples reveal that the missions and forces required to deter and defeat aggression are highly dependent on the circumstances in specific cases. Rather than assuming that air and naval power are sufficient to deny objectives in all second contingencies, DOD should develop tailored approaches to deter the principal future challenges to U.S. national security interests as the basis for deriving realistic force-planning scenarios, military missions, and joint forces.
There is inherent tension within the U.S. strategy to engage China while simultaneously deterring aggression and assuring allies. The National Security Strategy states that the United States is “working to build deeper and more effective partnerships” with countries, including China, “on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect.”9 However, the underlying defense strategy since 1991 has been to sustain U.S. military dominance to prevent the rise of a peer-competitor.10 This desire to sustain American primacy in Asia is accelerating the security dilemma by increasing fear of containment in China.11 Furthermore, the high financial cost and risk of escalation associated with defeating China’s antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities suggest that policymakers should weigh this approach against a defensive form of flexible response that would provide more time to reach a political resolution in future crises.12
The current approach is apparently to deter China with the Air-Sea Battle concept—at least that is how Beijing sees it.13 China’s land-based missiles, which can strike aircraft carriers and air bases at extended range, create a military-technical problem. The fear is that if the U.S. Navy and Air Force could be denied access to the East and South China seas, then China could dominate Asia because the United States would be unable to deter its aggression. The proposed military-technical solution is to develop the offensive strike and cyber capabilities to destroy China’s sensor, command, and missile systems to “break the kill chain” by striking hundreds of targets on the mainland.14
The advantage of sustaining military dominance (if possible) is the ability to preserve freedom of navigation by protecting aircraft carriers and tactical aircraft operating close to China. The capability to project power despite A2/AD is necessary to defeat a rogue state such as Iran and North Korea, but attacking a great power with nuclear weapons and the second largest economy is another matter. Yet the lack of clearly articulated defense policy to deter China is resulting in a force planning process that presumes that breaking the kill chain in China is militarily necessary and politically realistic despite obvious questions and considerations.15
The political and strategic disadvantages of offensive Air-Sea Battle become clear when policymakers consider likely Chinese reactions to destroying hundreds of targets on the mainland they deem essential for self-defense. China is no more likely to accept the loss of its A2/AD system than the United States would be willing to accept the loss of its Pacific fleet without escalating and making nuclear threats. An offensive doctrine to destroy China’s A2/AD system is destabilizing because each side would have a military incentive to strike first based on a use-it-or-lose-it calculus. This incurs high risk of immediate vertical escalation, leaving policymakers with little or no room for developing political solutions to defuse a crisis.
In other words, recommending the use of Air-Sea Battle to break the kill chain in China would offer the President an escalatory option in the same vein that Helmuth von Moltke the Younger offered Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1914 (execute the Schlieffen Plan), Douglas MacArthur offered Harry Truman in 1951 (bomb mainland China), and Curtis LeMay offered John F. Kennedy in 1962 (bomb Cuban missile sites). American policymakers today should realize that their predecessors rejected similar options because there is no credible theory to “defeat” a great power with nuclear weapons at acceptable risk, especially when the Chinese threaten “unrestricted warfare” to defend their core interests. Policymakers should therefore drive the creation of more acceptable military options to defend U.S. interests while minimizing the incentives to strike first and escalate attacks.
An alternative approach would start by recognizing that A2/AD works in both directions. The United States could leverage the inherent cost and technical advantages of A2/AD to deter China by providing defensive options to protect U.S. allies (that is, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand). The United States and its partnersshould invest in A2/AD to interdict Chinese ships, aircraft, and missiles that could be used in an amphibious assault or punitive strikes.16 In effect, the “near seas” would become contested commons in which both sides could deny access, but neither side need strike first to protect their forces. Submarines, bombers with long-range missiles, and land-based antiship missiles could defeat the Chinese navy at less cost and risk; thus, it is not necessary to use aircraft carriers and tactical aircraft to achieve this objective.17
To provide survivable and reinforcing joint fires, the Army could develop land-based antiship missiles for its existing rocket artillery systems, consider investing in antiship cruise and ballistic missiles, and increase the number of Patriot batteries in a new theater A2/AD brigade. It could then train with partners to develop A2/AD capabilities and tie them into U.S. systems if mutually beneficial. Partners would become more capable of deterring China while the close relationship would demonstrate U.S. commitment to extended deterrence. Even if China invests billions to project power despite our A2/AD defenses, the risk of escalation, including the use of nuclear weapons, would be sufficient to deter aggression.18
This part of a deterrence strategy in Asia based on flexible response is similar to the defensive posture that deterred the Soviet Union from attacking the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.19 U.S. conventional forces were never built to attack and defeat the Soviets in a decisive joint campaign; on the contrary, the United States recognized its ground forces in Europe were vulnerable to attack. Their strategic purpose was to prevent a rapid fait accompli and trigger the uncertain process of escalation at a local conventional level. Thomas Schelling explains why the “manipulation of risk” succeeded in deterring the Soviets from attacking the isolated garrison in Berlin, which was surrounded by overwhelming force in multiple crises:
It has often been said, and correctly, that a general nuclear war would not liberate Berlin. . . . But that is not all there is to say. What local military forces can do, even against very superior forces, is to initiate the uncertain process of escalation. One does not have to be able to win a local military engagement to make the threat of it effective. Being able to lose a local war in a dangerous and provocative manner may make the risk . . . outweigh the apparent gains.20
Having enjoyed freedom of navigation in the Pacific since 1944, the Navy and Air Force are concerned about their growing vulnerability as a result of China’s A2/AD capability in the near seas. Allies may also be concerned about America’s ability to project power to reinforce their defense. Yet because China is a rational actor with high-value targets that can be held at risk, it is not necessary to eliminate this vulnerability to deter aggression. Washington only needs to nurture its alliances with forward presence as a sign of commitment to extended deterrence, help partners develop defensive measures capable of limiting Chinese power projection, and sustain a credible nuclear arsenal. Instead of praising Air-Sea Battle and unrestricted warfare, policymakers on both sides have a more immediate need to develop the diplomatic and military protocols to manage crises and minimize the risk of miscalculation and escalation.21
Policymakers should recognize that the goal of sustaining U.S. military dominance over China is an expensive illusion. Both countries are already mutually vulnerable, militarily and economically, in a manner that would constrain rational actors. This leads not to Chinese domination of Asia, but to good prospects for a stable relationship based on mutual deterrence, which presents clear advantages. A defensive approach nests better with U.S. foreign policy to engage China. It supports allied desires to trade with China and avoid a cold war, but still hedge with the United States to maintain their political independence. It provides allies with an acceptable operational concept as a foundation to build military partnerships. It mitigates the security dilemma and possibly avoids an arms race by not threatening to disarm China’s ability to defend itself. Instead, it enhances stability by developing capabilities that do not threaten China per se, but rather its ability to attack U.S. allies, thus decreasing the benefits from first-strike options to defang Air-Sea Battle before it could be used.22 Because it leverages the technical and fiscal asymmetries that favor A2/AD defense over offensive power projection, it is cheaper to sustain and technologically more likely to succeed than breaking the kill chain. Adopting an A2/AD defense of allies, partners, and the commons would thus force China onto the wrong side of the capability and cost curve if it wants to pursue a foreign policy based on military aggression. Finally, this approach provides resources for a balanced joint force to counter more likely threats.
The more likely challenge to U.S. vital national interests is what Admiral James Stavridis describes as the “convergence” of rogue states, WMD proliferation, regional instability, cyber warfare, terrorists, and criminal networks.23 The National Security Strategy and DSG state, “there is no greater threat to the American people than weapons of mass destruction, particularly the danger posed by the pursuit of nuclear weapons by violent extremists and their proliferation to additional states.”24 While deterring terrorist organizations is difficult if not impossible, these converging challenges are expanding requirements to deter hostile acts. They include deterring:
Some caveats are important. Deterring these complex challenges requires a coordinated effort by joint, interagency, and multinational partners. A strategy of selective engagement should aim to deter conflict in critical regions including Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, but avoid large-scale, long-duration interventions in preventive wars of choice such as Iraq. The object is not to view every geopolitical problem as one that requires a solution based on regime change. Instead, the question is whether the credible capacity to defeat two regional powers is still necessary to preserve peace and security through deterrence.
The DOD force-sizing scenarios have shifted emphasis away from decisive joint campaigns to deter and defeat aggression. Currently, DOD planners are sizing the force to conduct two air-naval conflicts, but only one combined arms campaign in which a partner supplies the majority of ground forces and there is no significant prolonged requirement for U.S. forces to conduct stability operations. There is no second contingency that requires significant ground forces. There is no force-sizing scenario to secure WMD in a failing state. Despite assigned missions and active threats to vital interests, there is no ground force-sizing scenario in the Middle East or Europe. This is consistent with recommendations to shift the burden of major combat operations to air and naval forces in a second contingency, even though their effectiveness in complex conflicts such as Syria and Ukraine is debatable.26 On this basis, Admiral Roughead and some defense analysts in the Office of the Secretary of Defense contend there is excess capacity in ground forces.
While the DSG is generally sound, the current approach to implement the guidance by sizing the force to deter and defeat aggression is based on a number of assumptions that are exceedingly optimistic but necessary to justify reducing the Active-duty Army significantly below 490,000 Soldiers. In particular, Admiral Roughead’s assertion that air and naval technology can counter emergent challenges without the need for significant ground forces warrants more analysis.
There is little historical evidence that air and naval power alone is sufficient, but much to suggest that a unified joint force can deter and defeat aggression quite effectively. Since Giulio Douhet first theorized that airpower could win wars by itself by terrorizing a population and causing a government to capitulate (that is, “shock and awe”), these theories have repeatedly failed, been updated, and again proved wanting. Strategic bombing failed to defeat aggression by Germany and Japan, but air superiority enabled decisive joint offensives to defeat their military forces. While Operation Linebacker had greater coercive effect than Rolling Thunder, the Vietnam War would not have ended without integrated air-land operations that defeated the 1972 North Vietnamese offensive on the ground. In Desert Storm, air operations failed to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, but degraded the enemy and helped ground forces achieve campaign objectives in 100 hours with 148 U.S. battle deaths. In Kosovo, airstrikes were a critical component of a successful coercion campaign, but they were insufficient to compel Slobodan Miloševic´ to halt ethnic cleansing or agree to terms without the credible threat of ground operations.27 In Afghanistan, strategic air attacks failed to defeat the Taliban, but precision close air support enabled Afghan allies with U.S. special operations forces to seize Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul. In Iraq, airstrikes failed to “shock and awe” Saddam Hussein and his security forces into surrender, but they enabled and protected dispersed small units operating over wide areas.
Thus the leaders of North Korea, Iran, and Syria may well conclude that sanctions and airstrikes alone are not sufficient to deter them from attacking neighbors, killing civilians, launching catastrophic cyber attacks, or supporting terrorist attacks against the homeland. If adversaries believe they can achieve their objectives by exploiting irregular tactics or complex terrain, then the threat of airstrikes may not “deter by denial.” If adversaries believe the cost of agreeing to U.S. terms is unacceptable and remain willing to endure hardships, then the threat of airstrikes may not “deter by punishment” or compel them to concede. The United States typically demands a significant sacrifice from an adversary without considering his reaction—for example, a dictator must abdicate (for example, Libya and Syria) or relinquish an important territory (Kuwait and Kosovo). In cases in which a leader’s survival depends on his or her demonstrated power to rule, resistance may well be preferable to surrender.
If the optimistic force-sizing assumptions about the efficacy of smart power prove invalid in future contingencies, there would be significant military risk to defeat aggression and respond to another contingency, and higher risk if continued budget cuts reduce Active-duty end-strength well below currently programmed levels or compromise readiness. This means that combatant commanders would lack the forces required to achieve strategic objectives, or Reserve forces would be deployed in combat before they are fully trained, or land forces would remain in direct combat much longer than evidence suggests could be reasonably endured by volunteer citizens without compromising the quality of the force.28
The alternative approach to deterring and defeating regional aggression would restore emphasis on decisive joint campaigns within the force-planning construct while still including other missions such as irregular warfare, counterterrorism, peacekeeping, and homeland defense. Specifically, Joint Force 2020 would be sized to conduct operations as joint campaigns that stress all Services in terms of critical capabilities (see table).
The force-planning construct shown in the table offers advantages that enhance regional deterrence. In cases of conflict with North Korea and Syria, ground forces enable the joint force to:
These advantages are relevant in deterring the emergent challenges defined above. For example, to deter nuclear transfer and terrorism,
target states should announce they reserve the right to take large-scale military action, to include invasion and occupation, against territories of central importance to any non-state actor that attacks them with nuclear weapons, and any entity that provides the attackers with substantial material or financial support.29
This decisive joint capability would introduce uncertainty into adversary calculations, as well as the calculations of their hosts and supporters should they be nonstate actors and cause them to consider the consequences of their actions beyond enduring airstrikes.
The result of this alternative approach is a balanced joint force with the credible capability to deter and defeat aggression by rogue states, secure WMD in failing states, and still deter China from attacking U.S. allies. It provides the President with more flexible options to respond to unforeseen events. The disadvantage for some defense planners is that disproportionate cuts to ground forces were intended to pay for offensive Air-Sea Battle capabilities to defeat China in a war for which there is no credible theory for victory, and given the risk of mutual economic or nuclear destruction, one that no President or Secretary of Defense would willingly enter.
U.S. national security and defense strategies rely on deterrence, yet the DOD force planning process is not based on a tailored approach to deter threats in realistic strategic context. The Department of Defense defines neither the aggressors and hostile acts the Nation seeks to deter nor the objectives to be denied and the costs to be imposed to achieve this effect. As a result, the force-sizing scenarios reflect implicit assumptions, operational concepts, and programmatic priorities more than clear defense policies based on the actual threats to the United States. This force-sizing construct has questionable utility. In particular, this overarching analysis of how the Nation should deter the principal threats to its national security suggests DOD is currently:
To prioritize limited resources in accordance with actual defense policies and threats, DOD should develop the tailored approaches to deter specific threats to U.S. national security interests. Rigorous analysis should determine the sufficient and credible forces required to deter these threats, and defeat them if deterrence fails. Supporting military plans should consider the major operations and tactics required to execute key tasks. Defense leaders would then have confidence that the future joint force can execute specific missions at acceptable risk. JFQ