The Defense Exports

A new approach bridges the debate over whether America should prepare for counterinsurgencies versus large-scale armed conflicts.

American strategists are deeply divided in their assessments of what threatens U.S. national security in the coming years. For some, the ills incubated by weak and failing states are the premiere challenges to America’s peace and prosperity. Others, however, point to the rising and resurgent powers of the world to argue that in the future strong states will be increasingly in a position to challenge U.S. interests and preferences around the globe. This debate is often presented as a zero-sum approach in choosing the future direction of military forces: either one must train and equip forces for counterinsurgency and nation-building operations, or field a military that can deter and throw back the challenges of a conventionally armed opponent. The U.S. Army’s 2008 strategy, for instance, notes that an increased focus “on counter-insurgency operations (COIN)”—dealing with the challenges posed by weak states—has come “to detriment of major combat operations”—retaining the capabilities to counter the types of forces a strong state opponent might wield. Partisans on both sides make their arguments based on what they perceive is the more likely future. General Rupert Smith’s famous assertion that “war as we know it”—a large-scale armed conflict between nation-states—is no longer the reality of the twenty-first century is a central point of contention in these discussions.

If we had an environment where “money is no object,” the U.S. could simultaneously maintain large conventional forces to deter and defeat any state adversary while fielding impressive counterinsurgency and nation-building capabilities to deal with broken states and nonstate actors. Yet we do not live in such times. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called for a balanced approach, and, while its logic makes sense on paper, there is a risk that in practice a balanced approach might lead not to a rational allocation of resources, but instead lead to a “hedging approach”—where any and all capabilities are viewed as necessary. This has led Senator Carl Levin, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to complain that the Pentagon “lacks an effective, integrated approach to balance its weapon system investments with available resources.”

Given economic and fiscal realities, the United States will have to downsize and streamline its military and national security establishments. While Washington may not have to contemplate the drastic choices now being pondered across the Atlantic in London—where drastic cuts may cause the British military to abandon entire mission sets in the future—American policymakers cannot entirely ignore the choice between continuing to fund “today’s missions” (largely COIN-based) or choosing to prepare for tomorrow’s challenges (which may end up being a return to traditional great power politics).

Derek Reveron’s concept of “exporting security” (discussed in detail in a book of the same name just released by Georgetown University Press) could provide a way forward out of this impasse. Although the public’s attention is drawn to the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of what the U.S. military is doing today is strengthening the capacities of partners—strengthening their abilities to exercise effective control over their territories and coastlines and to be in a position to repel outside threats. The United States has security-assistance programs with 149 other nations. Some of it is active, kinetic support in combating insurgents, terrorist groups or drug cartels, as in Yemen and Colombia. Some of it is developing partnership and training programs to enhance the ability of nations to deploy peacekeeping forces or coast guards. It can encompass the gamut from humanitarian relief operations to creating defensive alliances. The net result of all of these efforts is to “develop enduring relations” with other states that gives the United States access to a global network of bases and platforms, but also “strengthens key partners and reduces both the need for American presence and the negative attention it sometimes generates”—and in so doing, can also reduce the burden on the United States to have to act as a global sheriff.

Reveron’s approach avoids the “stocking up” approach to military procurement, because the emphasis would be on finding ways to deploy and use assets, rather than warehousing systems “in case of emergency.” For instance, in the maritime realm, the carriers, amphibious vessels and destroyers that were designed to contain the Soviet navy and protect sea lines of communication (and which might be used in a similar role vis-à-vis China in the future) are now being used “to conduct activities ashore to improve human security.” The 2010 response to the Haiti earthquake saw an aircraft carrier and sixteen other warships deployed to provide humanitarian relief and rescue services; such “nonmilitary” missions, in turn, help to reduce the factors which can produce security threats to the United States and reinforce American ties with other states. Reveron quotes a navy official who notes that using “war” assets for non-military missions such as training and humanitarian relief means “We can show up, provide training, provide resources, and then leave very little footprint behind.” An “exporting security” approach guides future procurement decisions towards “multiuse” platforms that can combine conventional and non-conventional missions.