Guest post by Mark Buehner, in response to my “Can’t Quit” post. An invitation to Coldtype for a guest post is still open.
“He who seeks to be strong everywhere will be strong nowhere.” – Military truism
By Mark Buehner
The budget of the United States is on a collision course with its mounting debt. Entitlement and interest payments are set to overwhelm the budget, and no sector of government spending will be exempt from radical re-examination. The sooner we make difficult choices, the more thoughtful we can be, and the better result we can expect.
Defense is no exception. In 2010, over 680 billion dollars have been budgeted for the Defense Department, in addition to as much as $350 billion in defense related spending outside the DOD. This accounts for over 40% of military spending across the globe. It is immaterial whether this level of spending is justified, as it is simply unsustainable given our level of debt. It is in our national interest to examine our current defense philosophy and attempt to craft an intelligent new policy in line with the realities of a new century.
With the Cold War long over and the Terror War simmering, America must first reexamine our place in the world and commitment to power projection. Winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a trillion dollar enterprise that the country shows little appetite for repeating, and once they are decided we would do well to rethink our projection posture before launching a knee-jerk procurement course in expectation of similar wars in the future. This, along with the (expensive) relics of our Cold War era thinking will overwhelm our resources and leave less room for confronting more likely threats in the coming years. Intercontinental ballistic missiles and up-armored humvees are not going to deter rogue nations or a resurgent China, largely because we will not be conducting a preemptive nuclear strike, nor another IED riddled occupation, and everybody knows it.
Instead we should be focusing on the realistic ways our technology can justifiably deter these enemies at much more sustainable costs. UAVs and smart weapons are not the wave of the future, they are the reality of the present, and they have changed our ability to project force like nothing since the invention of the airplane. These systems are affordable, humane, and proven, and they should be the front line deterrent of a new defense doctrine.
The traditional American concept of warfare may be to meet and defeat an enemy upon the (foreign) fields of battle, but it needs to be recognized that such warfare, no matter how successful, is a result of multiple failures of diplomacy, foresight, and deterrence. Perhaps the most ancient truism regarding warfare is that the greatest victories are won before a shot is fired. America needs to re-embrace this fact and rely upon our unrivaled powers and the threats of those powers long before an actual fight can break out.
In a sense, the Bosnian War should be a model for future conflicts. We can reliably and nearly instantly reduce a belligerent nation’s ability to provide for the basic needs of its people by destroying power, infrastructure, communications, and ultimately natural resource production. Coupled with embargo and interdiction, this makes provoking the military might of the United States a losing proposition whatever the potential gain in question. All this can be done for virtually no risk to American lives and less expense than a month fighting in Afghanistan.
This strategy, like any, has caveats. One certain criticism is a recognition that airpower has never won a war. This is true and will remain true in our traditional definition of conventional total victory. However, historically speaking, the idea of defeating an enemy on the battlefield and forcing his unconditional surrender is more the exception than the rule. Worse, these types of victories often plant the seeds of the next war.
Hence, classic capitulation is not necessarily a wise goal in this context. Unconditional surrender is expensive in both blood and treasure. Many times, simply being willing to leave your enemy in worse shape than you are and walk away is a more credible threat than marshalling the resources needed for regime change (much less occupation). As it is our enemies may well feel a sense of security in recognizing our binary approach to warfare, ie either peace or conquest. It is easy for rogue regimes like Iran to play at brinkmanship with us so long as they fail to incite us into full scale conventional warfare with the expectation of total victory.
On the other hand, if a rogue regime like Iran had reason to fear a limited American strike (but not too limited, as often demonstrated in our past) that would truly cripple the enemy but leave America hardly troubled, we might actually see our security and interests better protected. This requires far more than simple pinpricks, but far less than actual regime change.
International cooperation and (ideally) consent is critical, both materially and morally. A rogue nation must feel isolated and helpless for the full psychological effect to take hold. Ultimately, the physical weakening of the regime combined with the isolation and destitution of the populace (or threat thereof) will be enough to either bring a favorably negotiated conclusion, or (as in the case of Bosnia) full scale regime change.
None of this is to say we won’t fund our more conventional and traditional forces, particularly ground forces. We must and will, and they must be prepared for the worst. But full scale land battles must be a last resort, and not the first.
The United States is certain to undergo a difficult and painful reckoning in the near future. Every aspect of our relationship with government will be examined and will very likely see a reduction in accustomed resources. If this is done in an ad hoc manner, particularly regarding defense, our national security will suffer in unpredictable ways. This is not to say we should ever think to abandon the traditional winning tools of a professional multi-branch military, but instead to examine every element of these entities with a careful eye towards a forward looking strategy. And this must mean tough decisions and excepting that we cannot afford every weapon systems even if it might serve quite well. In the bigger picture, it will cost us more dearly than we think.
Now is the time to reexamine our strategic vision for our projection of power, and to reassess the tools and strategies we have developed and are developing. By embracing the technological and practical realities we are faced with, we can come through this period with a stronger defense and more robust deterrent, and indeed a safer and more peaceful world.