National Security

Defense in 2013

Who wins, depending on who wins.

No matter which man wins the presidency, the Pentagon is going to keep taking that proverbial hill. But there are some areas in which a Romney administration would take the U.S. military down a path much different than the Obama administration would. Here are a few of our picks for the people and programs that might find themselves sitting pretty come Wednesday morning:


Military Reformers - President Obama and the Joint Chiefs of Staff spent much of last fall crafting a $525 billion defense budget for 2013 with unprecedented buy-in from the top brass. It shrinks the size and projected growth of the U.S. military over the next five years with their blessing. Defense officials say they were forced to meet the Budget Control Act's spending restrictions -- meaning they were given an excuse to do what they wanted to do anyway. It's no secret both the White House and many four-star generals, including the top Marine, Commandant Gen. James Amos, were hoping to direct a post-war reset. Others, like Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and recently retired Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz, said for months that the military should do its part toward helping alleviate total federal spending. An Obama victory keeps their five-year budget proposal and the national security strategy it funds alive.

Drones - While both candidates support the aggressive use of drones in the war on terrorism, Obama already has a budget on the table that cuts traditional forces and weapons, like big ships and some missile defenses, in order to give more resources to smaller platforms. Specifically, Obama's interest will likely spur the replacement of today's slow, propeller-driven UAVs with stealthy, jet-powered drones that can survive against modern air defenses. This means the Navy may move ahead with its contest for a stealthy, carrier-launched attack drone under the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program. The Air Force will probably restart its currently stalled plans to develop a new fleet of stealthy, jet-powered UAVs to complement its RQ-170 Sentinel spy drones. General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are all ready to compete for the contracts on both of these efforts. Oh, and don't forget the new fleet of 80 to 100 long-range stealth bombers that the Air Force is developing. Versions of this aircraft are designed to be "optionally manned" -- i.e., remote-controlled.

Defense Industry Shareholders - Bear with us. Yes, Obama wants to stop the long-term yearly growth of defense spending while Romney wants to increase the Pentagon budget massively. But in the near term, the next president has to get Congress to move on sequester or the defense budget gets whacked. Obama surrogates feel that the president has leverage to break the deadlock if he wins and argue that Romney would enter with no footing on which to stand up to his own party, cementing the deadlock and making sequester that much more likely. "The fiscal cliff is much more likely to happen under Romney because he's not shown the backbone that I think we need," Rachel Kleinfeld of the left-leaning Truman National Security Project claimed. Maybe. But an Obama win does at least mean that negotiations can pick up wherever they left off. And watercooler wisdom suggests that a Romney win would force Congress to extend the sequestration deadline at the very least. So an Obama re-elect could mean a shorter glide path for a deal.

Blue Star Mothers - While the Obama campaign says the president will hew to the NATO-approved timeline to exit Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the White House gets to decide just how fast combat ends and how many U.S. troops will remain there in perpetuity. Judging by the comments of the candidates and their surrogates, a Romney presidency seems far likelier to extend a high troop-total in Afghanistan as long as possible. Romney also has repeatedly criticized Obama for not keeping U.S. troops in Iraq as a buffer for Iran. The same concern applies to post-war Afghanistan. By contrast, Obama's liberal base thinks the 2014 pullout is not fast enough, by an unbelievable margin of 98-2 percent. ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen's recommendations for the 2013-2014 troop lay-down is expected in Washington later this month, but don't expect a decision until after January. With green-on-blue attacks showing no sign of letting up, failing Afghan governance report cards pouring in, and the election behind him, the commander-in-chief could well decide to get more troops out sooner rather than later.

TriCare - The military's health program is a winner if you believe that fixing it is the only way to save it. Obama's plan to address soaring military health costs -- $19 billion in 2001; $50 billion in 2013 -- by raising premiums on some recipients for the first time since the mid-1990s is backed by two consecutive defense secretaries, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, and the Joint Chiefs. It's already before Congress. "They've got to act on it, and that's a hard political thing to act on first term," said Kleinfeld. DOD proposed to increase fees across the healthcare system, except for active duty troops, over the next four years. The Pentagon claimed it would save $1.8 billion in personnel costs. Congress has rejected the move in bills going through both houses, but Obama has fired a warning shot by including the TriCare impasse on his list of veto-bait items that must be addressed this year. 

Romney winners:

Rosie Riveters and Shipyards - Romney has said he would boost shipbuilding from nine ships a year to about 15. Overall, John Lehman, a former Navy Secretary who is one of Romney's principal defense advisers, says a Romney Pentagon would emphasize littoral combat ships, replace the FFG 7 frigates, and increase the number of destroyers built each year. "We would also include getting up to the accepted requirement for Marine amphibious lift, so there'd be an increase in amphibious ships," Lehman told Defense News. Romney's ambitious plan is seen as unrealistic by some on the other side because it would increase spending $2 trillion over the next decade. But even if Congress agreed to a fraction of that, shipbuilders like General Dynamics, Huntington Ingalls, and Lockheed Martin could see a lot more business.

The F-22, I mean the F-35. Romney had said he would "add F-22s to our Air Force fleet," making everyone from industry to the Hill to the Fourth Estate running to find out just what he meant by the comment on the controversial F-22 Raptor, for which Defense Secretary Robert Gates capped production. Turns out, says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, that he meant the F-35. "F-22 is not a winner," Thompson says. "I've talked to people in the campaign and the candidate misspoke and what he really meant to say was the F-35." It's unclear if Romney means increasing the buy of 2,400 or simply protecting it from ambitious budgeteers who think the U.S. could do with fewer of them. Either way, that could mean a big win for Lockheed Martin, which makes the F-35. Lehman said in October that it's hard to say what changes Romney would make to procurement of the troubled F-35 program. "A lot of it is going to depend on whether they get the costs under control, particularly the flyaway costs," Lehman said. Another winner: Boeing, which makes the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which Lehman sees as essential.

Uniform makers, Taco Bells, and Clubs - Romney plans to dramatically increase spending on the military and increase the size of the force by some 100,000 troops. Those troops will need services to sustain them on bases around the world. There are only two things standing in Romney's way: Congress and federal revenues. Three, if you count the Pentagon, which is increasingly appalled by the fraction of its budget (60 percent) that goes to service members. If Pentagon spending goes up, there must be drastic cuts elsewhere in the budget. But if Romney gets his way, a small city's worth of troops is certainly good for all the businesses outside the main gate.

Star Wars Fans - The Romney campaign has pointedly criticized the Obama administration's missile defense policy. And while Romney got flak for his comment about Russia being America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe," it's clear he believes in good fences for Russia -- and for Iran, including the possibility of a return to the Bush-era, anti-ICBM plan that Moscow opposed and that Obama scrapped in 2009. That plan would have put 10 long-range missile interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic. In its stead, the Obama administration opted for a "phased approach" (also opposed by Russia) that relies heavily on Aegis ships with SM-3 interceptors, which, top Pentagon officials argue, will provide more flexibility. But in the third presidential debate, Romney said, "I think also that pulling our missile defense program out of Poland in the way we did was also unfortunate in terms of, if you will, disrupting the relationship." A greater emphasis on missile defense could be good for contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin -- but possibly less good for relations with Moscow.

The PX in Bahrain - Romney has pledged a significantly increased U.S. troop presence in Central Command to check Iran. That means an additional aircraft carrier parked offshore but also likely several thousand more support troops, especially Marines, rotating through the U.S. base in Bahrain. Since the 1940s, the Navy has used the island kingdom located just across the Gulf from Iran as a key hub for watching over the region. In 2011, Centcom's Marines stood up a forward-deployed headquarters at the base from which to conduct more counterterrorism operations. Indeed, in the past several years, the base has expanded and improved its facilities for a long-haul presence, including a lovely 30,000-foot exchange that houses a food court, gym, ice cream shop, bicycle store, movie rentals, and officers clubs. It's a serene campus safely walled off from the still-ongoing human rights protests occurring across the city. Already, Special Forces contractors and Pentagon VIPs are making Bahrain a regular stop on regional tours, leading to the rise of high-end hotels and Irish pubs near the base. Romney's plans ensure more of the same to come.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

National Security

The Angry Pacific

Why the United States is not ready for conflict in Asia.

When I was in Seoul a few weeks ago, the English-language news program Korea Today broadcast a strangely fascinating story about an "I Love Dokdo" contest at Taegu University. The idea was to see who could come up with the most inspiring tribute to the patch of microislands that has been the focus of a recurring and bitter dispute with Japan. It was strange to see young Koreans sitting on a spare, modernist television set, smiling, laughing and calmly celebrating a nationalist routine. Even odder was the fact that a Mexican exchange student named Emilio, along with a multinational team, won the contest. The goal of their performance, he said on Korea Today, was to "to express our love for Dokdo," in part by showing "the people who have protected Dokdo throughout history" and demonstrating "how beautiful" the islands are.

The contest was but one example of a surge of patriotic fervor in Korea after President Lee Myung-bak visited the islands this August. Stories about the issue fill the pages of daily newspapers. A Dokdo museum has opened in Seoul. During his August visit, Lee called the islands "a place worth staking our lives to defend." At the London Olympics, after the South Korean soccer team's victory over Japan, a Korean player rushed to the center of the field and held up a sign that read, "Dokdo is our territory."

Korea's attitude toward its territorial argument with Japan is symptomatic of the central emerging strategic reality in Asia: Much of the region is passing through a sort of geopolitical identity crisis, with key regional powers determined to find a more elaborate role for themselves. Globalization and interdependence are making people nostalgic for a more secure grasp on local cultures and traditions. The result is likely to be a period whose major risks of conflict will derive less from intentional calculations of national advantage than from a boiling clash of identity, pride, prestige, nationalism, and honor.

The conventional wisdom says that the main test of American strategy in Asia is the "rise of China." In fact, a far bigger challenge may be the growing dominance of these emotional identity issues, because traditional U.S. instruments of statecraft are simply not well suited to dealing with them. A year into the "pivot to Asia," Washington has designed a strategy for a 21st century, Soviet-style deterrence challenge: cold, calculating, pragmatic. Yet when dealing with the psycho-social dramas of countries clashing over pride and identity as much as interests, America's usual m.o. may not have the intended effect. Remarkably, the major strategic risk confronting the United States in Asia today may be its insistence on thinking "strategically."

Many outsiders expressed bewilderment that South Korea could go off on a nationalist binge over a handful of jagged rocks whose sole permanent inhabitants are a single elderly Korean couple. But that, as analyst Jason Lim argued, missed the point. The significance of Dokdo "is not really about logic or reason," he explained. It doesn't primarily have to do with national interests or resources. The dispute "is about emotions," he argued, the "deep emotional trauma that occurred as a result of Imperial Japan's brutal occupation that has since been internalized into Korea's cultural narrative and represents an unhealed psychic scar that has become an article of faith with an almost religious significance." In Seoul, a perfect storm of these sorts of emotion-laden historical legacies, rising national pride and assertiveness, and the political calculations of current leadership generated a willingness to provoke a crisis.

This same treacherous combination can be found in a dozen states throughout the region. On the Japanese side -- which refers to the islands as Takeshima -- the public is not as generally engaged, but the dispute has been fodder for right-wing groups, which have harped on the issue for years as a nationalist cause. More broadly, Japan is tentatively nosing into new debates about its own identity even as it is challenged by regional counterparts who believe it has yet to come fully to terms with its past -- and the likely candidates for prime minister in Japan's surging opposition party, such as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are more hawkish nationalists than the current leaders. "Japan's beautiful seas and its territory are under threat," Abe has said, "and young people are having trouble finding hope in the future amid economic slump. I promise to protect Japan's land and sea, and the lives of the Japanese people, no matter what."

The same sort of nationalistic, prideful identity-seeking has been unleashed in China. While Beijing's interests in the South China Sea are typically viewed as hard-nosed and measurable (resources, regional influence, naval bases), in fact the disputes are increasingly being posed by many domestic commentators as a test of China's ability to throw off centuries of "Western domination." Current waves of xenophobic Chinese nationalism may be partly orchestrated by the government for short-term political ends, but the result is nonetheless a very real, increasingly violent sensibility. As politics in China becomes more open, free-flowing, and unpredictable, Beijing's ability to control this explosive factor may be declining. Millions of Chinese participate in microblogs, thousands with a distinctly nationalist flavor and many largely under the radar of government control. Hundreds of small-scale protests have broken out featuring nationalists themes, a process of grassroots activism that is becoming increasingly common in China.

Prideful nationalism is thriving elsewhere in the region. India has had a firmly established nationalist party for years and witnessed occasionally violent xenophobic outbreaks. Vietnamese nationalism builds on generations of pride and honor in the face of foreign challenge; new expressions have been tied into territorial disputes -- young Vietnamese, for example, are posting patriotic songs online indicating their fidelity to contested islands.

Such nationalism and collective identity-seeking is hardly new, but the information age has fashioned more powerful channels through which it can flow and manipulate a society. A senior analyst in Seoul told me that U.S. policy remained focused on "objective calculation of interests" -- but in an era of openness, Twitter, and an active blogosphere, "it seems to me more and more that peoples' emotion matters." As a result, another experienced scholar concluded, "territorial disputes are not strategic issues. They are about so much more" -- identity, history and nationalism, factors that tend to be "adamant and resolute" in the face of challenge, as opposed to malleable bargaining points of strategic advantage.

To be sure, pragmatic considerations remain central to national strategies. China covets resources more than nationalist self-satisfaction in the South China Sea. Beijing's official policy has focused on a consistent set of territorial claims and avoided nationalist extremes. Leaders still take actions for carefully-calibrated political reasons. Many observers expect even a hawkish new Japanese prime minister to take a pragmatic and moderate course once in office; for all his bluster, in his prior stint as prime minister Abe was known as more of a conciliator than aggressor.

But increasingly the context of Asian politics will be shaped by waves of identity politics. And as the United States deploys elements of geopolitics and grand strategy -- military forces, "enhanced credibility," diplomatic presence, "strategic partnerships" -- to deal with challenges that are essentially un-strategic, the limits of U.S. influence will be increasingly apparent. In the current Korea-Japan dispute, for example, as two erstwhile allies have traded blows and accusations for months, the United States has largely been relegated to the sidelines. Neither Seoul nor Tokyo wanted America to dictate outcomes. More broadly, states are demanding high degrees of autonomy in defense planning and don't want to be drawn into U.S. plans for regional deterrence schemes transparently aimed at China. In a context of identity-seekers, an approach of building "partnerships" or quasi-alliances will hit natural limits.

But the dangers go well past a lack of influence. Deploying Bismarckian instruments into a field of identity-seekers could be very risky. Shoving a carrier battle group into the face of an increasingly nationalistic and prideful China during a future crisis could signal the West's continued desire to repress its power and spark a violent Chinese response. There are also escalatory risks. The effect of nationalism may reduce the effectiveness of traditional U.S. tools of statecraft -- but once committed to a cause or a crisis, Washington may believe that its "credibility is on the line" and feel compelled to keep escalating, right into conflict.

An alternative would be to focus on looser multilateral networks designed to build cooperation around areas of shared interest. The United States is already doing this on issues like nonproliferation, counterpiracy, and counterterrorism. It could add norm-building on cyber threats, an initiative on alternatives to fossil fuels, and other concepts. Such efforts could draw in private actors like businesses and NGOs and provide for much-expanded Track 1.5/Track 2 and person-to-person exchange programs. The idea is to cultivate cooperation where interests overlap while building up influential groups within these states who have knowledge of and stakes in expanding security collaboration. Such a process would gradually help to convey to regional populaces that collaborative groups of experts, scholars, and officials from all their nations are working for mutual benefit -- generating a powerful habit of practice and source of evidence that will partly insulate populations against the next nationalist outburst.

Despite the potential value of such networks, U.S. policy remains focused on building strategic partnerships and shoring up U.S. deterrent capabilities. Reassuring nations about U.S. staying power has value, but to address a region marinating in identity politics, we should flip the priorities, and spend the dominant portion of U.S. diplomatic efforts, resources, and security partnering on collaborative, multilateral networks designed to address mutual challenges. Instead of negotiating new basing rights for a battalion in Australia, for example, we should be developing a regional action network on renewable energy or cybersecurity. Such approaches could address the security risks of identity-seekers by muting specific disagreements, encouraging a habit of collaboration, and undermining more extreme xenophobic nationalisms.

Doing this won't be easy. States in the region have powerfully divergent perspectives and interests and often reject outsiders trying to shape outcomes. But that's what effective diplomacy is all about -- and such a role would position the United States for another long run of leadership, not through a dominant role in alliances or an overpowering regional military presence, but by leading the region toward stability by discovering shared interests and leading toward norms and institutions. This is, after all, the role America has been playing since 1945. We just need to find new ways to keep playing it, in a more sustainable form and a tone more suited to the emerging strategic era.