It’s Time to Think About Strategy

September 18, 2013

Choices are hard.

In a recent op-ed on the Strategic Choices Management Review (SCMR), I challenged those who expected more definitive choices in the review (or those I suspect want to avoid definitive choices).  The SCMR was really about establishing a framework for choices that the next QDR must actually make and explain.  It’s a two-step process, and I thought that review had set the stage for what will I think prove to be a critically important Pentagon effort for the remainder of this year.  We clearly need to match our aspirations more coherently with the resources we will be allotted.

Otherwise, we will remain “strategically insolvent” as my colleague at NDU, Professor Mike Mazarr, has argued in The Washington Quarterly. To improve our solvency, we will have to make some tradeoffs and come to appreciate risk better.

Strategy is all about making the right choices ― choices about what objectives to pick, what our priorities are, what risks we must actively reduce, and those we may hedge or simply have to live with. Retired Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, quipped that in the doubling of the defense budget, “we’ve lost our ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades.”

Well, we may be rusty, but sequestration is going to bring a can of WD-40 to the Pentagon’s program and budgeting shop real fast.

One of the major working groups in the SCMR was tasked with exploring tradeoffs between the size of our force and a more modernized force.  This was the so-called Capability vs. Capacity issue team.  The Pentagon usually examines this tradeoff between the readiness of today’s force (training, exercises, spare parts, personnel) against modernization investments for a better force (research and development, acquisition, etc.).  Since we outspend the rest of the planet, the Pentagon has rarely had to make such tradeoffs lately.  But those days are over—sequestration is all about appetite suppression and decisions.

Viewed from the outside, the SCMR appeared to be a necessary stepping stone towards a meaningful QDR that reinvigorates our ability to think and plan strategically.  We need to reestablish a genuine competence at making hard choices and focusing our resources on our interests in some priority order. I realize that some members of the national security community do not believe that resources are part of a strategy process, but instead that strategy merely creates requirements to be budgeted.  However, resources must be understood as the “means” in the effort to achieve coherent balancing of “ends-ways-means” of strategy.  To divorce resources from strategy is tantamount to removing oxygen from breathing.

Check out the related paper by General David Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel at the Center for a New American Security. In their CNAS commentary, “Decisions Deferred: Balancing Risks for Today and Tomorrow,” they pose clear questions. Should DoD invest in size and capacity, or in capability? Or does the United States face less risk now than it may face 20 years from now, and thus should invest more in developing future capabilities?”

In essence, should the US primarily invest in today to buy down risk now, or tomorrow to offset greater risk then?  This is a great question to wrestle with, and the ultimate answer is not at the two extremes but a balance of focused investments, managed risk, high-low capability mixes, and a prudently constructed force posture.  From my perch, these are exactly the kinds of choices the SCMR framed out for this fall’s QDR.  The SCMR has apprised Congress of the scale and scope of the tradeoffs that are before us, and the hard calls that have to be made if the Budget Control Act stands.  I expect the Policy and resourcing folks at the Pentagon understand this very well.

But the Pentagon cannot make all these choices themselves.  The White House needs to frame our national security interests with some clarity, and Congress needs to weigh in.  Some have called the choices framed in the SCMR an illusion.  But the real illusion is to think that serious strategic planning is simply hoping the Pentagon gets more money or that choices about major programs and force structure do not have to be made.  To think that we can stand still, preserve the rigid Service shares, sustain our costly overhead structure, stand pat on rising personnel costs, or maintain our Cold War forward basing posture – those are the illusions.


Frank Hoffman is a Contributing Editor to War on the Rocks, and serves as Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research, at the National Defense University, Washington DC.  These insights and comments are his own.


Photo Credit: Jean-David & Anne-Laure,Flickr