Let Strategy Drive Procurement

July 29, 2013

Strategists are keenly aware of the necessity to match ends, ways, and means in times of war. Unfortunately, in peacetime, strategy is often subordinated to the politics of defense dollars going to Congressional districts or the inertia of programs of record.  Yet it is equally important to consider strategy in peacetime – particularly since it should drive force structure and procurement decisions.  Unfortunately, The National Military Strategy of the United States of America, while labeled as “strategy,” provides no prioritization of the means it intends to use.  It provides a general discussion of ways it will deal with various threats, but does not discuss specific strategies.  Thus it provides no priorities to drive planners’ or procurement officials’ decision-making.  For the United States, the failure to have military strategy direct procurement was not a major problem as long as the defense budget remained at record highs.  Abundant resources allowed the U.S. military to prepare to fight under a range of operational concepts and across the spectrum of conflict without having to tie any concept to a specific enemy or develop a coherent strategic vision.

Even if the sequestration deadlock is resolved, the Pentagon should expect continued deep spending cuts.  For several years, public opinion polls have indicated that the majority of Americans prefer defense cuts to cuts in domestic spending.  In July 2012, 74% of Republicans and 80% of Democrats wanted cuts even larger than those required under sequestration. To allocate these reduced resources wisely, U.S. defense planners need to develop military strategies for the variety of threats they face and structure their forces accordingly. One could argue that strategy documents must be classified, but in a democracy as skeptical of government as the United States, an unclassified expression of strategy is essential to justify defense spending to an increasingly skeptical public.

Austerity does not mean political leaders will reduce the goals and ends they set for the nation.  Thus military planners have to think carefully about the ways they can achieve the same political goals with the limited means imposed by reduced budgets.  Further complicating the budget situation is the fact that military personnel costs have doubled in the last 12 years, taking up about $180 billion per year – one-third of the Pentagon’s base budget. Further, there is currently no appetite in the Congress for controlling the cost of pay and benefits for service personnel.

On the procurement side, massive cost overruns have become routine and new weapons are costing more than double those they are replacing.  And, of course, Congress continues to force the Pentagon to buy equipment it does not want.  Thus the only options for reducing costs to meet the budget are major personnel and force structure cuts.  These will inevitably mean less capacity in each mission area.  But the force cannot just be smaller, it must be different.  We must seek different ways to deal with both predicted and unpredicted threats.

In doing so, the Pentagon can choose risk in either capabilities or capacities.  It can maintain a wide range of capabilities with little depth. Or it can focus on maintaining robust capacity in a few areas while retaining no capability in others.  In either case, the choice should be driven by the military strategies selected to deal with various threats.  As always, there will be a temptation to focus on current threats and thus to optimize forces to deal with them — to select deeper capacity over wider capability.  However, U.S. experience shows that we are poor at predicting the character and timing of the next conflict.  Thus it is more prudent to retain capabilities across the spectrum of conflict and develop risk mitigation approaches to compensate for the lack of depth.

Maintaining a broad spectrum of capabilities means the nation will not have sufficient forces (capacity) for specific conflicts. In fact, the Obama administration recognized this in its January 2013 planning guidance.  The administration stated that it will not size U.S. forces to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.  It seems to have calculated that the American people will not support such an operation so maintaining forces for that approach is a waste of resources.  This choice is not without risk.  Such a reduction in ground forces means that if confronted by an insurgency, initially the only counterinsurgency strategy the Pentagon will be able to employ is the much less resource- and personnel-intensive approach of advising and assisting the host nation.  In this approach, relatively small numbers of experienced officers and NCOs provide advice to host nation institutions.  The host nation personnel will actually execute the counterinsurgency plan.  To execute a large-scale direct counterinsurgency, the Pentagon will have to wait until it can mobilize and train sufficient forces.  Given that outside powers have not yet succeeded in conducting a direct, large population-centric counterinsurgency operation, this may not be a bad thing.  But it illustrates how applying a different approach can provide less expensive forces to achieve the same strategic goal.  It also illustrates how resource decisions can lock out some potential strategies.

Even as the administration reduces the requirement for ground forces, many U.S. analysts want the Pentagon to increase spending on naval and air forces.  They see China’s rising power as a threat to American interests in the Far East.  Some have even proposed developing an aggressive military strategy for such a conflict.  This strategy would see U.S. forces using Air-Sea Battle capabilities to strike directly into China to defeat it.  Such a strategy would rely heavily on major new investments in air, space, cyber, and sea systems.  Yet, even if the United States makes such investments, none of its proponents have expressed a theory of victory for this approach, as I noted last week on War on the Rocks.  They have expressed a tactical/operational and procurement preference, but failed to express a strategy.

The new budget realities mean the United States needs a military strategy that does not demand major new investments.  Such investments are unlikely to be approved, which means any concept based on them is not a strategy, since it lacks means.  Instead, the United States needs to seek a means-limited strategy against the very unlikely event of a conflict with China.  As I explained here before, Offshore Control, my proposed military strategy, focuses on defending allies in the first island chain while cutting off the bulk of Chinese trade to the world.  By approaching the conflict in this very different way, the United States can dramatically reduce the means needed.  Offshore Control is only one possible approach, but highlights the requirement to bring coherence to ends, ways, and means.  In short, we should develop a military strategy before deciding on a procurement plan.

The United States has a similar choice for counter-terror operations.  It can maintain its large, global terror hunting organization of intelligence assets, special operators, and drones to kill or capture terrorists.  Alternatively, it could focus on advising and assisting other nations in dealing with terrorists within their territory while maintaining the capability to act unilaterally in a limited number of cases.

Planners must assume that counter-terror operations will not always succeed and consider what military forces might be required in a response and recovery operation after a successful attack.  With proper changes in legislation, training, and activation processes, these forces can be primarily National Guard units.  The emphasis should be on response and recovery, not on providing high profile, but essentially useless, domestic security operations like those seen post-9/11. Again, it is a matter of reallocating current resources rather than making major new investments.

In addition to developing forces based on strategies for likely contingencies, the strategist must ensure that forces are prepared for the inevitable unforeseen conflict.   The United States clearly did not anticipate the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan Wars.  None was an integral part of the military strategies of the day.  In fact, some were specifically excluded as possible military operations.  Yet in each case, America’s political leadership decided to commit forces to the conflicts – and in each case did not have a well-thought out military strategy to create a more favorable peace.

Thus the key is to build a flexible force with capabilities across a wide range of possible conflicts within the limited means provided.  With the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States should return the National Guard and reserves to their traditional role of strategic reserve and use them to mitigate the capacity risk.  If a major conflict starts, the relatively small regular forces will have to hold the line until reserves are activated, complete pre-deployment training, and deploy.  At the same time, the nation will have to start mobilizing to expand the regular establishment to sustain the effort.

The Secretary of Defense has already told Pentagon planners to expect that contractors will make up half of any future deployed force.  Contractors can fill part of the gap, but should only be used outside the conflict zone.  The very nature of a combat zone makes it virtually impossible for a contracting officer to properly monitor the performance of the contractor.   Both Iraq and Afghanistan have illustrated the major problems this can cause.   However, contractors can be highly effective in handling the routine training, maintenance, and logistics functions outside the combat zone – thus freeing armed forces personnel to deploy into the combat zone.  For instance, in event of mobilization, contractors could run all bases, transportation networks, ranges, and maintenance facilities.  As the active duty forces deploy, contractors will backfill these support functions to allow the mobilizing reserve and Guard units to focus on training their troops.

Another key element in mitigating capacity risk is to assume that initial combat deployments will be longer than one year.  The requirement to rotate forces every six months to one year has been a driver of force size for the last decade.  While appropriate for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not a hard and fast requirement.  This was not a planning factor for WWI, WWII, or the initial stages of the Korean War.  By assuming active duty and early activating reserve forces will be committed until the nation can raise and equip sufficient forces to replace them, we can align the size of the active force with the limited resources available.

Strategy is not just about aligning ends, ways, and means in wartime.  Just as critical, and perhaps even more difficult, is aligning ends, ways, and means in peacetime.  The strategist must ensure that the military structure the population is willing to pay for is well aligned with the likely contingencies while remaining flexible enough to deal with the inevitable surprises.  In times of austerity, such strategies must start with limited means and devise different ways to achieve the strategic goals.


T.X. Hammes is a War on the Rocks contributor. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. He served 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.