The U.S. military is certainly going through some changes these days. It is considering opening historically unavailable roles for women. Despite the recent NDAA agreement, it is dealing with a new reality of fewer troops and a continued uncertain budget future, affecting the Department of Defense’s ability to prioritize and plan. Add to that the military modernization of Russia (despite having budget issues of its own), the greater assertiveness of China, as well as the rising instability caused by ISIS and the recent
With that alone, America’s armed forces would have their hands full. But that’s only the near- to medium-term. What about the long term?
Luckily, despite all other issues, our military services—the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force—released documents outlining their vision for how they can be most efficient and effective in the future. While there are differences among them, their similarities reveal what our defense establishment believes is the role of the military going forward. Indeed, they unanimously believe that the world of the future will be more complex than it is today, requiring America’s armed forces to be more agile, austere, intelligent, and capable of working among themselves, with allies, and with partners. While these ways are correct, they are being used toward the wrong ends (and the means continue to be in flux). Thus, a strategic realignment that places a greater emphasis on stability and security over outright defeat should animate our armed forces.
First, to the more difficult environment. The future military (and, in a sense, the current one) will deal with non-state actors that can carry out strategically significant actions; state actors challenging the status quo; urbanization and megacity conflict; the proliferation of under-governed areas; a new global middle class that will demand energy and other resources, further straining certain societies; climate change; the improvement in new tools of statecraft like cyber; emerging disruptive technologies; and crises simultaneously popping up in multiple areas. (Sadly, that is not an exhaustive list.) As the Army admits, “our exclusive use of previous paradigms is insufficient for the task ahead,” thereby “requir[ing] a bold an innovative approach,” the Navy believes. So what is the new approach that gets our services away from past ways of operating?
The services differ, but they agree that the military needs to change. Our troops should be more agile, not only in their ability to get from place to place, but also in “breaking paradigms and leveraging technology,” as the Air Force puts it. They should be able to operate in austere environments and without many resources. In essence, they should literally get the biggest bang for their buck. To do this, more responsibility will go to younger officers, behooving the military to ensure these officers are well trained and educated early on in their careers. Finally, the services need to be more interoperable, not only with allies and partners but also among themselves. This is a function of lower budgets and the reality that with events moving quickly, any complications among militaries will slow down a crucial military response.
At base, there is nothing really wrong with any of these. But to what ends? As the National Military Strategy describes it, when America is confronted with a state actor, the military should be used to “deter, deny, and defeat.” And, when the main adversary is a non-state actor, the strategy should be to “disrupt, degrade, and defeat.” However, these harken back to the “previous paradigms” the Army lamented, meant to achieve warring goals of previous eras. To be sure, right now “about 90 percent of conflicts are civil wars.” As Dominic Tierney explains, “the shift from conflicts between countries to conflicts within countries triggered an era of American military failure” where its “military campaigns [are] ugly at best and unwinnable at worst” (italics in original). The focus on “win[ning] in a complex world,” then, should be changed. Instead, I offer a new three-worded approach: stabilize, secure, and set (similar to a previous argument made by the Defense Department in 2006).
The military must recall that it is but one tool in the American national security and foreign policy toolbox, albeit the largest one. With instability likely to be the norm within states, and with that instability likely to spread, it is imperative that the military be used to stabilize situations. But military means will not be enough. The military will have to work even closer with the State Department, the Agency for International Development, and others that can help with governance. The military will provide the space for governance to arise; it will not bring about governance simply by military defeat. Further, the military can be used to stabilize certain areas that are starting to become unstable. Using force wisely and judiciously in certain situations to stop certain problems from getting worse will likely be the main task of the American military in the near- to medium-term.
Securing the area where the military is deployed will also be vital. Like stabilization, securing the area will allow life to go on somewhat normally, ultimately leading to a more peaceful situation. Of course, security does not only mean physical security to the person, but also security in life of the individual. Here, other U.S. agencies, along with allies, partners, and friends, will take the lead. But troops will be needed to ensure a stable situation turns into a secure one. Finally, when things get back to normal, the military along with other parts of the U.S. government and agencies from other actors—state and non-state alike—will ensure the area is set so all can leave. If the area still remains slightly unstable or slightly insecure, it is not set. Being “set” could mean ensuring that an effective government is in place; that the actors involved have had their interests met and no longer use warring methods to get them; that the American interest is not threatened to a point that the costs outweigh the benefits of staying; etc. Since defeat of an outright adversary is less likely in the short- to medium-term, aiming to set a situation, and beforehand stabilizing and securing it, make more sense than aiming for “defeat.”
All that said, our military should still be able to beat an adversary. After all, having the ability to defeat other actors not only deters, but is also among the ultimate guarantors of the preservation of the nation. But, if defeating adversaries will not be required in many future missions requiring the military, then it should not strategically be set up that way. Instead, it should focus more on ensuring that bad actors do not want to test it; that bad situations do not get worse; and that bad times do not arise after the military leaves.
To do all this, the services should continue their approach of being more agile, austere, intelligent, and interoperable. These new attributes should serve a new purpose, not an old paradigm—and civilian leadership should recognize this. America’s military should still be the best and ensure that any fight it enters is not a fair one. At the same time, the services—and the military writ-large—must realize that these attributes should serve a new end. If they do not, then all the power America has vanishes, and ultimately it may lead to our own defeat.
Image: U.S. Army Flickr.