Dempsey and other military leaders will note that U.S. forces have benefited greatly from the Pentagon's investment in research that has allowed U.S. forces to substitute technology for manpower. For example, a few U.S. Army artillery cannons, firing a small number of precise satellite-guided shells, can produce battlefield effects formerly requiring an entire artillery battalion. A single jet fighter with laser-guided bombs now does what a squadron was assigned to do 25 years ago. And the Undersecretary of the Navy, Robert Work, has asserted that the 300-ship Navy he plans for later this decade will be more powerful and as present in as many places as the 600-ship navy of the 1980s. This is the administration's reasoning for why it can shrink the military while still fulfilling all of the required missions.
However, policymakers have also committed the U.S. military to obligations spanning the globe. The United States has taken on responsibility for patrolling the "global commons," such as international waterways and airspace vital to global commerce. These duties require the Pentagon to invest in expensive expeditionary capabilities, and in sufficient quantities to maintain a meaningful presence at important places in the global commons such as the South China Sea. The dispersion of military technology that Dempsey described will allow a greater number of potential adversaries adjacent to the global commons (most of whom will not have to spend money on globe-spanning expeditionary capabilities) to narrow the technological gap versus the U.S. forces, negating what Pentagon planners assumed was an enduring U.S. advantage. American quality might no longer be an efficient substitute for quantity.
More worrisome is the disparity between the rapidly evolving nature of the security environment described by Dempsey and the plodding, status quo nature of the Pentagon's Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP). The imminent end of the war in Afghanistan has provided the Defense Department with the opportunity to make a bolder adjustment for the future world Dempsey described. The FYDP, by contrast, continues long-established weapons programs (albeit at reduced funding), makes few notable changes to the structure or organization of U.S. forces, and largely ignores the question of whether the legacy organization and procurement priorities it maintains are well-suited to the distributed military threats that Dempsey described.
The inevitable result will be U.S. military forces tasked to do much more with less. Dempsey boasted of a force capable of defeating "threats at every point along the spectrum of conflict." But under his assumptions, there will very likely be many more of these threats at several points along the spectrum as the cost of acquiring entry and mid-level military power continues to decline.
There is a gap between the world Dempsey has described and the forces and doctrines that will be available to future U.S. military commanders. His remarks envisage an expanding set of threats. Many of these will not end up being serious enough to merit attention from the Pentagon. Policymakers should define which security problems merit the Pentagon's notice and those that allies and other agencies should monitor. Such clear guidance will help the Pentagon focus on the threats that can alter the global strategic balance as opposed to those that are non-strategic nuisances.
For those that remain on the Pentagon's plate, planners should ponder whether the FYDP's forces, organizations, and weapons are really a good match for the world Dempsey has described. Aside from spending cuts, the administration's new plans are not that new. The next team to arrive at the building will have some leftover work to catch up on.