Last War Standing

Why preemption is the only thing that can keep America safe.

The three tools of security strategy most heavily relied upon for the past 70 years -- deterrence, prevention, and preemption -- have never worked very well. Today they are on life support, sustained because of their appeal to civilian policymakers' and military strategists' habits of mind and institutional interests. There is no more pressing need today than to rethink these concepts, perhaps even to jettison long-accepted practices associated with them.

The Latin root of "deterrence" is the word for "to terrorize," and that was certainly how the first nuclear weapons were used: to kill hundreds of thousands of innocents at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and intimidate Japanese leaders into surrendering. The stated goal: preventing an even more costly, large-scale conventional invasion from becoming necessary. Whatever the true impact of these nuclear attacks, the idea of preventive action -- striking before threats could arise or dire consequences could unfold -- became attractive. Soon there were plans for mounting atomic attacks on the Soviet Union -- communist China. too, after Mao came to power.

But once the Russians obtained their own nuclear weapons, American ardor for preventive war cooled. As President Dwight Eisenhower put the matter in 1954, the Soviets could be "destroyed but not disarmed," and he gave up on preventive war in favor of a policy of deterrence. Still, it was deterrence based on the notion of engaging in "massive retaliation" -- that is, it had a large preventive flavor based on the belief that the threat to nuke enemy lands into radioactive dust for even minor acts of aggression would keep the peace. It didn't. Massive retaliation did little to stem the rising tide of insurgencies that have dominated the landscape of war over the past half-century. As Thomas Schelling summed this strategy up in his Arms and Influence, massive retaliation was "a doctrine in decline from its enunciation."

With the rise of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the rapid growth of arsenals of nuclear warheads, it soon became clear that the only real value in possessing these weapons lay in deterring their use. Quite the paradox, acquiring a capability so as never to use it. Still, given the "law of the instrument" (when one has a hammer, more and more things start looking like nails), strategists and policymakers expended huge effort trying to figure out how to wage nuclear war. A key element here was getting the drop on the enemy with preemptive strikes -- hitting first in anticipation of an imminent attack. The high point of this sort of thinking came in Jimmy Carter's Presidential Directive 59. But given the vast size of American and Russian arsenals, this was all nonsense. However successful a preemptive first strike might be, there would always remain enough -- on both sides -- to rubble-ize the enemy's country.

So, through the end of the Cold War, deterrence worked only when it came to keeping the nuclear peace; many conventional and irregular wars erupted throughout the world. The idea of waging preventive war faded like another darkening dream, abandoned early on. And the extended flirtation with preemption was ended decisively by Ronald Reagan who asserted that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." Reagan instead focused on improving classical defense, in the firm belief that the best path to security lay in rebuilding the conventional U.S. military -- the Special Operations Command arose on his watch, too -- in the wake of its post-Vietnam doldrums.

But all that was then. Since the turn of the millennium and the onset of the long conflict with al Qaeda, the hope has been that deterrence, prevention, and preemption might somehow prove more useful than ever before. With the principal enemy being a network rather than a nation, deterrence now focused on the basic principle of denial rather than punishment. A network has no clear homeland that can be threatened with nuclear or other forms of retaliation, so the focus must be on making it seem so hard to reach a target -- "denying" it to the enemy -- that attackers call off their operations or strike elsewhere. To some extent, American homeland defensive measures have achieved a bit of this kind of deterrence. But this has not deterred terrorism overall, just redirected it. Indeed, there is now so much more extremist violence today than there was a decade ago that it can be truly said that the war on terror has morphed into terror's war on the world. Recent closures of so many American embassies and consulates across a swath of Muslim countries only reinforce this point. Deterrence may be working, but only a little, and in a very limited way.

What of preventive war? Fifty years after Eisenhower rejected it, George W. Bush brought it back in his invasion of Iraq. While the Bush administration called it "preemptive war," this was a misnomer given the absence of any imminent threat. The war was really preventive, the idea being that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would keep him from developing nuclear weapons and would somehow create a less permissive environment for the future growth and sustenance of terrorist networks. There is little need to detail the costly failure of this preventive campaign, beyond noting that today the U.S. military is out of Iraq, al Qaeda is back, and that tortured land has become a hothouse environment for the growth of violent extremism.

With deterrence on life support, and preventive war fully discredited, preemption is the world's last, best hope for security. While it is a concept that proved poorly suited to strategies for the use of weapons of mass destruction, an era of "mass disruption" caused by small terrorist cells and hacker networks cries out for preemption. A raid on a terrorist training camp or safe house, a cyberstrike on a malicious, hacker-controlled robot network, these are the ways in which preemption can be used to reduce the threats that so imperil our world.

The beauty of the kind of preemptive operations that are possible today lies in the very low material costs of such a strategy. The challenge lies in the need for knowledge -- indeed, increasing knowledge over time -- to enable these sorts of strikes to be conducted. And the fact that preemption can only function on the basis of accurate insight should make the case for governments around the world to continue to amass and employ big data to search out the small cells that bedevil our era. One can only hope that the mass publics of the world will come to see the purpose, and the promise, of the information systems that support the only pillar of international security still standing.  

Reynaldo Ramon/US Air Force via Getty Images

National Security

The Pentagon's Ten-Percent Solution

The sequester isn't a problem if you know what to cut.

Three years ago, I advanced the argument in a Foreign Policy article that the defense budget should -- and could, without endangering the republic -- be cut by 10 percent annually for several years before leveling out. As Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made clear on July 31, this is now precisely what is happening. Well, not exactly. My preference was, and is, for reductions to be made more selectively than by the meat-axe methods of sequestration. Hagel and his advisors intend to operate more flexibly, too; that is, they want to be allowed to make choices between what they call "capacity" and "capability." This more deliberative approach, Hagel hopes, will govern the roughly $500 billion of across-the-board defense budget cuts that are currently scheduled to unfold over the next 10 years.

By "capacity cuts," the Hagel team -- which conducted a comprehensive internal strategic review this past spring -- means basically numbers. Of troops, tanks, ships, planes, and so on. "Capability cuts" refer to quality-oriented matters, ranging from modernization of weapons, transport, and information systems to expanding capabilities in such key areas as special operations and cyberwar. The underlying sense of the review is that the U.S. military now confronts something of a zero-sum situation: Holding on to capacity means sacrificing capability; emphasizing capability requires loss of capacity. The example that Hagel cited last week entailed having to mothball three aircraft carriers to create budgetary space for further investment in force modernization.

One can easily grasp how these grim calculations work, at least in a rough sense. Keeping current authorized active-duty servicemember levels at a total of about 1.5 million overall means continuing to bear a roughly $250 billion annual personnel cost on the books (around 40 percent of the current defense budget). In the face of looming real spending reductions of $50 billion per year, this inevitably means that something has to give on the systems side of the equation. Conversely, keeping a very expensive procurement program in place -- like the F-35 fighter plane, with production costs of about $400 billion, and even more in operations and maintenance -- imposes pressure to reduce troop levels. This is how the Hagel team has put the matter to the American people -- perhaps in the hope of gaining an exemption that would curtail continuing defense spending cuts. 

But the "10 percent solution" should be considered more carefully, each element separately. It is important to weigh capacity, in terms of troop numbers, as a factor in its own right -- not as locked in reverse synchrony with modernization. In fact, reducing active-duty forces is a good idea on its own merits. Why? Because small units have already become greatly empowered by existing smart weapons. Because, in countering insurgencies or terrorist networks, the key is not numbers but knowledge. And because, even in large engagements, nimbler and more networked forces can make mincemeat of big enemy formations. For those who want to fight massive, old-style opponents more traditionally, the cost-saving, hedging strategy is to move heavy units more and more into Reserve and National Guard formations. If they're needed for a reprise of World War II, there will be plenty of warning time to mobilize them.

The pattern of active-duty force reductions has been ongoing for many decades. In the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, the U.S. armed services reduced manpower by 40 percent, from 3.5 to 2.1 million active servicemembers. In the wake of the Cold War, another third went away, taking the number down to 1.4 million. The efficiencies of information-age technologies and the prevalence of small wars suggest an ability to reduce the overall force yet again. This is simply in line with a steady trend. And it's not only true for the U.S. military: The Russians and the Chinese have also been steadily reducing their overall active-duty numbers as well.

Beyond independent treatment of such capacity issues as personnel numbers, there is good reason to consider capability matters separately as well. Here the trade-off should not be seen as between technologies and troops, but as between competing technologies. For example, as early as last year Sen. John McCain offered up an alternative to the cost-overrun-ridden new Ford-class aircraft carriers coming into production: Extend the life of the Nimitz-class. The Fords use the same hull, anyway. And there is much debate about the future of the super carrier, what with its growing vulnerability to supersonic anti-ship missiles, smart sea mines, and supercavitation torpedoes. The point is that not all investment in new systems is created equal, and major expenditures in areas of diminishing returns -- like big aircraft carriers -- should be viewed with much skepticism. Cancelling the Fords would save well over $100 billion.

Even absolutely cutting-edge new systems should come under some scrutiny -- in this instance, from the perspective of what I like to call "technology strategy." The F-35 is a case in point here. This aircraft will, when produced, be, by far, the most advanced in the world. But is it needed? Since the end of the Vietnam War, the United States has had only one fighter plane shot down by an enemy jet. Is the need for a new one compelling, or can we stretch out the edge currently enjoyed without having to spend a trillion dollars we don't have -- counting production, operations, and maintenance costs? At least we may not have to spend this staggering amount yet. Indeed, with the increasing capability of "off-boresight" weapons -- missiles that can be shot from a plane at angles different from its direction of flight -- the need for the very latest new jet is truly diminished.

There are many other systems that can be similarly examined. Does the Navy need to spend tens of billions on a ship designed to fight in coastal waters the aluminum superstructure of which will burn to the waterline when (inevitably) it is hit by an anti-ship weapon? Is it necessary to spend tens of billions on a new generation of nuclear weapons at a time when deep cuts in arsenals -- even their verifiable abolition -- are under active consideration? The need now is to consider these matters on their own merits, without being needlessly tied to personnel cuts or other capacity issues. That said, reducing the active forces should also be seen as a matter worthy of independent consideration -- not simply as a required sacrifice that would then give the green light for greater weapons spending.

As ham-handed as sequestration is, the basic idea of steady, real cuts in defense spending has great merit. Not only will a smaller defense burden help with economic recovery; declining budgets will also foster more critical analysis of needs and encourage innovation in the military-industrial sector. And in the end, we are likely to find that keeping defense spending on "automatic pilot" feeds a dangerous complacency about military and security affairs in our time -- and in years to come. Sequestration -- and hopefully a smarter, more flexible version of it -- will enforce the 10 percent solution we need while at the same time pointing out that defense is not just a zero-sum numbers game.