> 63, 2011 > The Looming Crisis in Defense Planning

Paul K. Davis and Peter A. Wilson
The Looming Crisis in Defense Planning

10 2011

A period of discontinuity in defense planning looms because of a "perfect storm"—that is, the confluence of technology diffusion, geostrategic changes, and the range of increasingly well-armed adversaries (states and networked nonstate actors). These are leading to the United States having to deal with a demanding mix of counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism on the one hand, and traditional challenges on the other; the likelihood of major difficulties in projecting forces in some important circumstances; related block obsolescence of U.S. forces and concepts of operations; and the need for a new grand strategy in the Asia-Pacific region.1

Colombian army special forces at Tolemaida Air Base during technical demonstration

To make things worse, obstacles exist to taking on these challenges—notably, the demands of current wars, military complacency due to decades of military overmatch, and severe national fiscal constraints. Incremental changes will not suffice, but no consensus is yet emerging about options for the way ahead. Taken together, the problems pose a once-in-a-century challenge. All of this is summarized in figure 1. Although each of the factors we mention is recognized individually, we do not believe that either the perfect storm situation or absence of consensus on good ideas about how to move forward is yet appreciated. Currently, much of the debate within and outside of the Pentagon is over finding a new balance between investments for traditional combined arms warfare and what are now called complex operations—whole-of-government actions that involve combinations of irregular warfare, COIN, stabilization, and perhaps humanitarian assistance, usually with other nations or groups involved. As important as this balancing effort is, we believe that the national security issues now challenging the Nation are even more profound for reasons touched on by a few authors and in portions of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.2 By intent, this article is about sharpening that appreciation. Finding solutions is another matter.

Technological Developments

For decades, the U.S. military has enjoyed technological overmatch in domains from sophisticated communications through precision weapons and space systems. This is changing, as indicated in table 1, which lists classes of military technology that are now or can soon be available to some U.S. adversaries—even some lesser states and nonstate military organizations. Some of the related items are inexpensive, such as cell phones or other devices using the Global Positioning System (GPS). Precision weapons are available today to nonstate actors, as illustrated by Hizballah's use of guided missiles and other tactics in the 2006 Lebanon War.3 Precision mortars and other such weapons can seriously change what is feasible for ground forces.4 A larger country, such as Iran, can afford to buy significant numbers of advanced surface-to-air missiles. Many cyberwar capabilities are inexpensive and technically undemanding, such as denial-of-service attacks. Some antispace system capabilities are similarly inexpensive and straightforward (for example, GPS jammers).5 In some cases, U.S. responses are already under way and will have at least some success at affordable prices. However, more broadly, the trends are quite adverse. From the viewpoint of competitive strategies, the United States is now on the wrong side of the economics: It is much cheaper for adversaries to cause great difficulties for U.S. forces and operations than it is for the United States to respond effectively. This is true for both low-end and high-end adversaries and competitors.

Collision of Revolutions

To put matters into perspective, it is useful to conceptualize changes occurring in the 21st century in terms of four 20th-century revolutions in military affairs (RMAs). The strategy of industrial warfare emerged conspicuously from 1917 onward with mass production of self-propelled vehicles of all types. It matured in World War II, and its influence is central in all modern combined arms military establishments. It underlies what was long called the American way of war.6

Colombian army special forces at Tolemaida Air Base during technical demonstration

RMA II, the strategy of the insurgent, had roots in early partisan or guerrilla warfare, such as by colonialists in the American Revolution and by Native Americans in the settling of the West. However, it is associated specifically with the innovations of Mao Zedong in the 1930s when it became a form of total political and cultural warfare. A central feature of this type of war is often the sophisticated and sustained use of terrorism for coercion. A resurgence of this type of warfare has come from al Qaeda and its affiliates. Iran supports this type of strategy and related terrorism through Hamas and Hizballah.

RMA III, the strategy of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and strategic bombardment, began in World War II with nuclear weapons and long-range means of bombarding the adversary's homeland (primarily with bombers, but also with Germany's first-generation long-range ballistic and cruise missiles). Since then, nuclear weapons have proliferated and might continue to do so, perhaps even to nonstate actors. Other forms of WMD, especially biological weapons, are also a concern.

Colombian army special forces at Tolemaida Air Base during technical demonstration

RMA IV, the strategy of information technology, became increasingly visible in the late 1980s. It was marked by precision-guided weapons, information technology, and the use of space, as in network-centric warfare. It has been the central feature of military transformation since the 1990s.7 Some aspects, such as new forms of organization and operation (for example, swarming tactics) and exploitation of robotic or remotely controlled systems, have been only partially implemented.

A common impression is that a given RMA occurs within a nominal date range and is subsequently replaced by the next one. In contrast, we see RMAs as having started at nominal times but continuing thereafter in a measure-countermeasure dynamic with competition among all four of them (see figure 2).8 Industrial warfare, for example, evolved to include aircraft carriers, tank armies, and modern air forces. Warfare will again be undergoing major change, but we do not yet know whether the result will be a hybrid of all four RMAs or something new. Wealthy countries with traditional military forces will continue to invest in tanks, aircraft, and surface ships—the fruits of industrialization and combined arms (RMA I). Many state and nonstate actors, including terrorists and criminals, will continue to adopt the insurgent strategy (RMA II). They will benefit from selective acquisition of weapons and systems associated with RMA IV. Nonetheless, some states may conclude that their only reliable defense is through deterrence enabled by WMD (RMA III). A worrisome possibility is that some states, such as a future nuclear-armed Iran, might use their nuclear force (RMA III) as a shield while pursuing or supporting aggressive operations (probably indirectly) using the methods of RMA II and RMA IV. In summary, we see the future as involving a mingling, even a collision, of continuing RMAs, as well as new developments (the first genuine RMA of the 21st century).

Colombian army special forces at Tolemaida Air Base during technical demonstration

Geostrategic Developments

The geostrategic changes in recent decades are many and varied. China is now a major power with impressive, high-momentum military developments9 in addition to its economic accomplishments. China's buildup has long been anticipated and can be regarded as both natural and historically normal. It is possible and perhaps even likely that China, its neighbors, and the United States will have mostly good relations for many years into the future—strongly consistent with the interests of all concerned. Nonetheless, there are reasons to worry. Two years ago, most China experts in the United States would have referred only to hypothetical concerns based on geography and historical experiences and would have ended with a recitation of why the nations have interests in continuing peace and prosperity, and how they had—so far—shown restraint and, by and large, statesmanship. Unfortunately, more signs of trouble have arisen. Some of these are economic, some military, and some political within China. In 2010, China has seemingly taken an increasingly hard line regarding sovereignty over a number of small islands and waters, especially in the South China Sea. Although the issues are longstanding, Beijing has recently become much more assertive about its territorial claims along its littoral in the Yellow Sea (on the west side of the Korean Peninsula) and the South China Sea (between Vietnam and the Philippines), which it now claims as a "core interest" of sovereignty.10

For obvious reasons, China's assertiveness has worried such regional states as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Economic tensions are now considerable as well, and will likely continue, with even the possibility of an expanding trade war emerging as importer states consider tariffs and other measures to protect jobs and improve balances of payments. Although the future should be one of cooperation and mostly good relations, and we are not among those who exaggerate China's current power, many potential flashpoints can be identified that justify caution—especially given China's behavior over the last year.11

China, of course, is not the only rising power. India is emerging as a powerhouse in South Asia, one with its own ambitions, particularly making the Indian Ocean a sphere of influence and having significant power at chokepoints such as between the Indian and Pacific Oceans (for example, the Strait of Malacca) and between the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean (Strait of Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb).12

It is possible and even likely that India and the various regional states of East and South Asia will, along with the United States, provide a kind of balancing of China through a combination of economic, political, and military activities over time. What might emerge is a dynamic cool war of competition, cooperation, containment, and possible conflict. This will be an era of strategic improvisation and not the rigid and nearly monochromatic strategic competition of the early phases of the Cold War.

Other geostrategic realities include, of course, the continuing struggle with violent radical extremists, notably al Qaeda and a network of loosely affiliated jihadist organizations worldwide. No end is in sight for that struggle—even if U.S. withdrawal from Iraq occurs on schedule without civil war, and even if progress continues slowly in Afghanistan, which is even more uncertain—especially given linkages to the troubles within Pakistan. Osama bin Laden's death has not changed this. Nor have the upheavals of the Arab Spring, the long-term implications of which are not yet clear.

Another new geostrategic reality is the advent of new wartime theaters of operation: space and cyberspace. The U.S. military is extremely dependent on both and experiences many serious vulnerabilities as other nations improve their own capabilities in both, and as some nations, such as China, do so zealously precisely because of the U.S. dependence.

Finally, nuclear proliferation continues, despite years of unsuccessful effort and dubious rhetoric about preventing it. In some instances (North Korea and Iran among them), a major purpose of developing nuclear capability is to deter attacks by the United States. At some point, countries such as South Korea and Taiwan may come to doubt the credibility of U.S. extended conventional deterrence—especially if conventional force projection itself becomes substantially more dicey for the United States.

Block Obsolescence of Forces and Concepts of Operations

Against this background, we see the obsolescing of U.S. force structure and concepts of operations with respect both to a peer competitor and to lesser adversaries that combine methods of insurgency with modern technology. Problems exist across the board, but table 2 illustrates them for force projection. To be sure, our assessments are subjective, and uncertainties have less to do with technology trends, which are observable, than with whether in fact potential adversaries exploit them as we project.

Some key points underlie these conclusions relating to traditional forces and traditional operational concepts:13

  • Concentrated ground forces and concentrated logistics are potentially quite vulnerable to an expanding spectrum of precision weapons, including short-range guided mortar bombs, precision-guided rockets, and precision-guided short- and medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles. This has been more than hypothetical since the 2006 war in Lebanon.
  • Aircraft are potentially quite vulnerable to precision weapons if based within the countries of operations or relatively close to shore. If based at long range to improve survivability, these aircraft will be unable to maintain high sortie rates over contested areas, whether for purposes of achieving air superiority or for suppression of air defenses and support of ground operations.
  • These vulnerabilities would be exacerbated if the adversary used area munitions, such as the cluster weapons that the United States has used for decades, or fuel-air explosives, such as those developed by the United States, Russia, Great Britain, and China. Such weapons have been used recently by Libya against rebels.
  • The challenges to traditional forced entry capability will continue and worsen. Arguably, the two premier forms of theater-wide forcible entry, the mass airborne and amphibious operation mechanisms, are already obsolete for many environments. Brigade-level airborne drops have long been more of a theoretical option than something anticipated; large-scale over-the-shore amphibious assault will be seen as both risky and potentially costly given the threat from improved coastal intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, mines, and direct and indirect precision weapons. Maneuver from the sea using longer range vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, such as the V–22, will remain limited in scope because of range-payload issues and vulnerability to air defenses. Heavy amphibious forces such as the recently canceled armored expeditionary fighting vehicle will be vulnerable to direct fire guided munitions. Even seabases could be vulnerable to precision missile fires at significant ranges offshore.

Perceiving the Way Ahead, Darkly

Against this background of sobering diagnosis, we have attempted to sketch the outlines of a way ahead. That outline involves new military capabilities, concepts of operation, and grand strategy.

Colombian army special forces at Tolemaida Air Base during technical demonstration

We focused largely on issues of force projection. Since traditional concepts of operation are losing viability, we sketched three illustrative possibilities for new ones to sharpen discussion of capability needs. They stem from asking how force projection could proceed given a lethal environment (sometimes discussed as an antiaccess environment).

Make Deliberate, Phased Entry with Defense. This concept would be, in some respects, a modernized version of the classic concept. However, significant suppression of adversary capabilities would be accomplished with long-range strike platforms (and cyberwar), after which the ground and air forces deployed into the country (perhaps from seabasing) would have reliable defenses against missile and drone attacks from short, medium, and long ranges. The defenses would be accompanied by the ability to quickly detect and attack the launch sites of any attacks (by analogy with the Army's current counterbattery fire). Furthermore, there would be the need to support Army and Marine ground maneuver forces by long-range airlift flying from protected land- or seabases. Multibrigade ground forces could perhaps be supported by airlift with the new technology of precision airdrop, although that would be challenging for some classes of supply such as fuel and ammunition. Airlifters would overfly low-altitude air defenses and would not need to use forward airfields under threat from long-range precision fires. The concept of the defended seabase also appears attractive. Recently, the Navy has developed a new at-sea connector, the mobile land platform, that has conceptual promise to provide at-sea support to a multibrigade-size Marine and Army expeditionary force, although budget pressures might preclude related investments.

Surveil, Strike, Punish from Afar, and Insert Small, Networked Ground Forces. An alternative approach would be to eschew insertion of large ground forces and instead depend on sustainable strike capabilities guided by persistent surveillance from survivable platforms. Special forces and unconventional warfare operations pivoting around indigenous allied forces could also play a major role. Thus, the concept could include large numbers of small, dispersed, networked ground forces.14 Given sufficient local forces, this tack might suffice, but history continues to show the need for substantial "boots on the ground" to control territory.

Colombian army special forces at Tolemaida Air Base during technical demonstration

Make Rapid Entry. A third example would emphasize prior surveillance by survivable and possibly covert means; first strikes or preemptions in the form of sudden, decisive strikes with long-range missiles and aircraft, cyberattacks, and specialized ground forces; and followup actions by larger numbers of ground forces, both those of the country being assisted and external projection forces. Such attacks might be especially relevant to dealing with terror networks that cannot be deterred in the ordinary sense.

These possibilities are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive (for example, they do not include space-based weapons that could be used both for offensive purposes and to suppress or destroy enemy defenses), but they illustrate a range of different thrusts—each with its own severe shortcomings.

At this stage, it is not clear which or which combination of these concepts will be viable. This suggests priorities on certain types of capabilities if they can in fact be achieved at tolerable cost. The following list is itself less remarkable than recognizing how challenging the related technical requirements are (and by noting differences from current de facto priorities, such as modernization of current platform types):

  • high-confidence defenses at tactical and operational levels ranging from countering precision mortars to countering long-range missiles
  • survivable and truly persistent surveillance and reconnaissance strike (episodic coverage will be insufficient)
  • comprehensive defense suppression
  • long-range sustainable strike
  • effective munitions, including munitions for deeply buried targets
  • survivable at-sea basing
  • means of accomplishing complex operations with fewer U.S. forces, even when adversaries are embedded in populations.
Colombian army special forces at Tolemaida Air Base during technical demonstration

We see likely cross-cutting stratagems as involving dispersion, networking, and swarm tactics; major efforts to ensure network security while hedging in not-yet-identified ways against predictable network failures or penetration; and massive use of robotics and remote control systems. For each military Service, the crucial questions seem to be these:

  • What are the appropriate new-era building block units (for example, analogues to older units, such as brigades or squadrons, but often with a more joint character)?
  • What are the appropriate joint- and component-level concepts of operations? Circumstances of feasibility?
  • What is the appropriate portfolio mix of capabilities across missions (COIN versus force projection)? Circumstances of adequacy?
  • What is necessary to deal with discrete, Service-specific challenges? With joint challenges, such as network security and hedges against network failure or penetration?
  • What is the appropriate portfolio mix of Active, Reserve Component, and civilian capabilities?

Again, the generic questions are less remarkable than the specifics. Should ground force projection deemphasize large, traditional units in favor of small, networked unit (swarming) tactics? What kind of seabasing makes sense, and for what distances? What is the future role of short-range tactical air forces? How will long-distance strike capability be sustained in the event of a large and lengthy conflict? And, in the realm of complex operations, what capabilities are needed to accomplish the missions with much reduced numbers of U.S. ground forces?

Toward a New Grand Strategy

The other crucial element of the way ahead will be a new grand strategy. The most obvious need is to rethink grand strategy for the Asia-Pacific super region. We conclude:

  • Given the extent of China's developments, it is no longer appropriate to assess the adequacy of U.S. force structure by playing through simulated wars over the Taiwan Strait. The focus must change to broader conceptions of the power balance that include the arc from the Middle East through the Indian Ocean to Northeast Asia.
  • Imperatives in the new conception will include deterrence and crisis stability; deterring small and limited aggression, as well as larger scale aggression; and ensuring that, in periods of tension, the combination of the sides' lethality and vulnerability does not create perceived imperatives for preemptive action. Avoiding errors that might cause war will be crucial for the great powers and important regional powers. A major issue is how deterrence can be made stronger than it has been in the past.
  • Challenges of deterrence and, especially, extended conventional deterrence will be exacerbated by proliferation of nuclear weapons.
  • A core issue is the relative emphasis on regional cooperation and power-balancing and between formal and informal balancing. And, of course, what role should be played by both the United States and the many nations of the Asia-Pacific region?
  • The military component of strategy will seek to maintain conventional warfighting and war-winning capabilities where feasible but will include more deterrence-oriented capability, such as the ability to inflict serious pain with conventional strikes, devastate infrastructure with conventional strikes, and maintain supremacy at sea—if not in major powers' littoral waters, then certainly on a larger regional and global scale that includes the sea lines of communication to the Middle East and Africa.
  • The United States has a major decision to make regarding the degree to which it should prepare for manpower-intensive operations, such as COIN and stabilization. It is not obvious that such operations should be the primary basis for force planning, despite events of the past decade. If they are, then the economic consequences will be acute because they would come in addition to the demands of evolving balance of power and force projection issues that are themselves demanding.

Although arms control should also be an element of grand strategy, it is unlikely that it will substantially alleviate the major U.S. national security challenges identified.

Necessity-driven Experimentation

Because the way ahead militarily is unclear, we see the need for vigorous and competitive exploration and competition of ideas. The past decade's experiences have not been encouraging: Visions have sometimes gotten far ahead of technology; reason, criticism, and competition have not been sufficiently valued; and joint experimentation has been neither sufficiently ambitious nor rigorous. Ironically, at a time when U.S. Joint Forces Command is arguably needed most, a decade's disappointments caused former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to call for the command's dissolution.15 A priority should be placed on rethinking how to do the explorations needed to inform once-in-a-century decisions.

Finally, in some respects (the primary difference being the unavoidable long struggle with international violent religious extremism that threatens the United States and its worldwide interests), the Nation is in a situation reminiscent of that of the Eisenhower administration as it considered grand strategy. It seems likely that, in broad terms, grand strategy will need to evolve with an emphasis on rejuvenating and sustaining the country's economic vitality while relying increasingly on credible forms of deterrence (rather than clear-cut superiority) in certain balance of power issues; and on alliances, improvement of allied capabilities, and use of international organizations. What is needed, arguably, is a national security strategy of comprehensive balancing rather than just a rebalancing of military capabilities. JFQ



  1. This article is based on a longer and more fully referenced paper: Paul K. Davis and Peter A. Wilson, Looming Discontinuities in U.S. Military Strategy and Defense Planning: Colliding RMAs Necessitate a New Strategy, Occasional Paper OP–326–OSD (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2010).
  2. Robert M. Gates, "A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age," Foreign Affairs (January–February 2009); Department of Defense (DOD), Quadrennial Defense Review Report (Washington, DC: DOD, 2010); Michèle A. Flournoy and Shawn Brimley, "The Defense Inheritance: Challenges and Choices for the Next Pentagon Team," Washington Quarterly 31, no. 4 (Autumn 2008), 59–76; Andrew F. Krepinevich, "The Pentagon's Wasting Assets: The Eroding Foundations of American Power," Foreign Affairs (July–August 2009), 18–33; and John Arquilla, Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008).
  3. See Matt Matthews, We Were Caught Unprepared: The 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli War (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2008).
  4. See Dakota L. Wood, The U.S. Marine Corps: Fleet Marine Forces for the 21st Century (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2008).
  5. See Defense Science Board Task Force, The Future of the Global Positioning System (Washington, DC: DOD, October 2005).
  6. See Russell Frank Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977).
  7. See Paul K. Davis, "Military Transformation? Which Transformation, and What Lies Ahead?" in The George W. Bush Defense Program: Policy, Strategy and War, ed. Stephen J. Cimbala (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2010), 11–42.
  8. As examples, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization fielded tactical nuclear weapons (RMA III) to help deter perceived RMA I superiority of the Red Army during the 1950s. Modern superheavy tanks with advanced passive and active armor are an RMA I response to the proliferation of early antitank-guided munitions (an early manifestation of RMA IV). More recently, RMA IV tools and methods used as part of the Army's Task Force Odin are a response to the methods of insurgents (RMA II).
  9. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China (Washington, DC: DOD, 2010).
  10. Ibid., 26.
  11. China's behavior has included aggressive use of computer network exploitation as described in William J. Lynn, "Defending a New Domain: The Pentagon's Cyberstrategy," Foreign Affairs (September–October 2010). One reason for China's assertiveness may be an increasing military influence on government policy; see John Lee, "The End of Smile Diplomacy," National Interest, September 23, 2010. Other reasons may include Chinese domestic politics, overconfidence, and a notion of U.S. decline as discussed in Joseph S. Nye, "China seems to have made wrong call on its relations with U.S.," Scotsman, March 17, 2010. Some within China probably exaggerate the strategic significance of the tiny islands in areas of disputed sovereignty. Official Chinese documents suggest that calmer assessments prevail within elite circles; see China's National Defense in 2008 (Beijing: Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, January 2009).
  12. David Brewster, "An Indian Sphere of Influence in the Indian Ocean," Security Challenges 6, no. 3 (2010), 1–20.
  13. Most of these challenges were anticipated more than a decade ago. See Paul K. Davis et al., Transforming U.S. Forces: Suggestions for U.S. Strategy, Issue Paper IP–179 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1998).
  14. See especially Arquilla.
  15. Thom Shanker, "Pentagon Plans Steps to Reduce Budget and Jobs," The New York Times, August 9, 2010. Steps in dissolution of U.S. Joint Forces Command continue; see, for example, Cheryl Pellerin, "Odierno Details Joint Forces Command Disestablishment Plans," American Forces Press Service, February 9, 2011.