Adaptability will have to fill in for money and manpower
In a speech this week to senior leaders of the National Guard, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey revealed his outline of U.S. military strategy for the remainder of the decade. Dempsey's task is to reshape the military to accomplish anticipated missions, respond and adapt to surprises, and do all this with much less funding than previously expected. Fewer soldiers with fewer new weapons will be expected to do a wider variety of tasks. Whether the Pentagon can organize itself for such flexibility and whether soldiers can learn to be "jacks of all trades" remains to be seen.
In a recent essay for Foreign Policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that the Asia-Pacific region will be the new center of U.S. policy. Dempsey's military strategy will support Clinton's diplomatic plan -- he announced that the Pacific will be his top military priority. It is comforting to know that the diplomats and soldiers might finally be cooperating on grand strategy.
But Dempsey reminded his audience that in spite of the emphasis on the Pacific, the United States remains a global power with worldwide responsibilities. Risk will likely rise in those areas where resources are thinned. Dempsey discussed three strategies to get more out of his remaining forces.
First, he called for a reformulated relationship between active-duty and National Guard and reserve forces. Implied in this proposal is a transfer of many active-duty Army forces, especially heavy tank and mechanized units, into the National Guard and reserve. With demand for such forces expected to drop following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, defense budget planners no doubt see this move as a way to save money on active duty personnel and training costs. The Air Force and Marine Corps will also likely be asked to similarly contribute. But a remaining concern is how quickly the Pentagon will be able to reconstitute reserve forces into effective combat units during a crisis.
Next, Dempsey called for a transformed relationship between special operations and general purpose forces. He noted that the capabilities of these forces have already been merging over the past decade. On a per soldier basis, special operations forces are expensive to train, equip, and maintain. Relative to its total budget, the Pentagon could achieve modest savings by having lower-cost general-purpose soldiers perform some designated special operations missions, such as foreign internal defense training. Such occasional substitution would free up special operations capabilities for missions requiring highly technical or covert skills. Dempsey was also likely referring to enabling support for special operations, which in the future may be provided in more cases by general purpose forces.
Dempsey's broadest and most-challenging strategy is to build a force that is capable of quickly executing military operations along the entire spectrum of conflict, from peacekeeping and training partner forces through high-intensity ground combat, including exotic capabilities such as cyberwarfare, defending space assets, and long-range strikes against heavily defended targets.
The Pentagon will have some amount of military capacity at all of these points on the spectrum of conflict. The challenge for Dempsey and his planners is whether the department will have on hand the needed quantities of particular capabilities when a crisis demands them. That is a forecasting problem, made more difficult by looming fiscal austerity, the full extent of which is still unknown.
Complicating the task are thinking adversaries, who attempt to exploit weaknesses. Inevitable forecasting errors and thinking adversaries create the need for rapid adaptation. Dempsey experienced this personally; he arrived in Baghdad in June 2003 to command a high-tech armored division designed for open country warfare, only to find himself in the middle of a growing urban insurgency. The Army and Marine Corps eventually adapted in Iraq, but it arguably took years to complete at a painfully high cost.
Dempsey and his colleagues are planning for less money, fewer troops, but no significant rollback in the Pentagon's global responsibilities. They will look to places like the National Guard and the past decade's operational experiences for savings and efficiencies. But this decade will throw up its own surprises. The Pentagon used to solve surprises by throwing money and manpower at the problem. Now, adaptation will have to do the job instead.