The Pentagon Needs a New Way of War

March 18, 2014

Can the Pentagon do the same with less? That seems to be what the White House expects. The U.S. Department of Defense recently released the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the Pentagon’s latest attempt to explain its global military strategy for the medium term. But far more revealing than the QDR itself was the “Chairman’s Assessment” of the QDR, written by General Martin Dempsey and appended to the end of the report. Dempsey’s tepid and qualified endorsement of the QDR (also discussed by WOTR’s Bryan McGrath) and his candid accounting of geostrategic risks that will compound over the next decade, provide a bracing contrast to the main text. In his second paragraph, he warns, “With our ‘ends’ fixed and our ‘means’ declining, it is therefore imperative that we innovate within the ‘ways’ we defend the Nation.”

Dempsey is more honest than the QDR at noting the yawning gap between what policymakers want the military to do around the world and what capacities the military possesses and will possess to achieve these goals. Bridging the chasm will require new thinking about how to use military force, which may result in some disruptive and unpleasant conclusions for established doctrine, organizations, and military cultures.

The new QDR maintains the same expansive ends that the U.S. has sought since World War II. In addition to protecting the U.S. homeland, the QDR calls for the U.S. military to “build security globally” and to “project power and win decisively.” The document projects a smaller military force by 2019, but a force that leaders in the Pentagon still believe will be capable of accomplishing its assignments, albeit with some additional risk in a few areas.

Missing from the QDR is an analysis of why the reduced military force structure for 2019 will be adequate for the expansive goals assigned to it. This missing analysis is frustrating for both dovish and hawkish military analysts. Doves see a huge defense budget (nearly as big as the next fifteen largest military budgets combined), the world’s most advanced military technology, and the most experienced soldiers, all operating in a world they believe lacks plausible military threats to the U.S. The QDR does not explain to the doves why the envisioned force for 2019, with the same ambitious goals, is necessary.

Hawks are frustrated that the authors of the QDR were largely unwilling to identify major geostrategic competitors like China and Russia by name, and that the authors were similarly afraid to describe in detail innovative adversary military approaches, such as missile-based theater anti-access strategies, because to do so would reveal a Pentagon that has been largely unresponsive to such growing threats for over a decade. Pentagon leaders will plea that they don’t want the QDR to raise unnecessary tensions or to reveal military secrets. But the result for both dovish and hawkish observers is a loss of confidence in whether the Pentagon is capable of effective strategy, a perception reinforced by the results from the last decade.

The QDR’s authors admit that the Pentagon is taking increased risk with its defense drawdown. But the document doesn’t say clearly what these risks are, only that they’ll get worse if the return of sequestration in 2016 cuts the budget even more. Dempsey’s assessment letter by contrast is refreshingly honest. He forecasts,

the risk of interstate conflict in East Asia to rise, the vulnerability of our platforms and basing to increase, our technology edge to erode, instability to persist in the Middle East, and threats posed by violent extremist organizations to endure. Nearly any future conflict will occur on a much faster pace and on a more technically challenging battlefield. And, in the case of U.S. involvement in conflicts overseas, the homeland will no longer be a sanctuary either for our forces or for our citizens.

Strategy is about setting priorities. The QDR doesn’t want to do this too explicitly because it is too embarrassing to cut allies adrift. And as Secretary of State Dean Acheson could explain after the Korean War broke out in 1950, being too explicit about your defense priorities can have regrettable consequences. But as a result, the QDR doesn’t give much guidance on what adversaries and contingencies U.S. military forces should prepare for.

Here again, Dempsey’s assessment letter does much better. He gives a rank-order list of missions, starting with “Maintain a secure and effective nuclear deterrent,” and ending with  “Conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster response.” It is with point three on Dempsey’s list, “defeat an adversary,” that the gap between what the U.S. military needs to be able to do, and what it will be able to do, may first appear.

How specifically will policymakers define “defeat an adversary”? Does this mean destroy the adversary’s armed forces in the field? With the exception of Panama in 1989, the United States arguably hasn’t accomplished that task since 1945. In Dempsey’s view, conventional military fights will be even more challenging in the future. For example, destroying mobile, land-based, long-range missile launchers in Iran or China—a necessary condition for reopening critical sea lanes during a conflict—will be an immensely frustrating task. And after more than a decade of intense effort, the United States and its partners still aren’t sure whether they have decisively defeated the amorphous non-state terror networks they have targeted.

Bridging the gap between what the U.S. military needs to do and what it will be able to do will almost certainly require more funding than current plans call for. But more money alone will not be a competitive strategy. Many adversaries—be they China or an al Qaeda affiliate—will be able to add incremental military capacity at lower costs than will the Pentagon. It won’t be competitive for the Pentagon to engage in an arms race with adversaries with lower marginal costs.

This means first starting from principles that explore new ways—new tactics, doctrines, organizations, and technologies—to directly target an adversary’s organizational capacity, its incentives, and will to fight. These have been critical “centers of gravity” since the beginning of time. But recent changes in technology and culture provide new opportunities to attack these factors directly, in some cases bypassing traditional forms of military power.

The Pentagon needs a new way of war. The traditional American ways of employing military power against an adversary’s military forces have fallen short of strategic success for many years, a deficiency that will not get better in the decade ahead. Military strategists need a fresh appraisal of the logic linking military force to the achievement of strategic goals. When done honestly, the result will likely be some revolutionary and disruptive changes in military doctrine, organizations, procurement policies, and culture. Dempsey’s frank assessment of the QDR is a start down this path.


Robert Haddick is an independent contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. He writes here in a personal capacity. In September 2014, U.S. Naval Institute Press will publish Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific, Haddick’s book on the rise of China’s military power and U.S. strategy in East Asia.


Photo credit: Secretary of Defense