National Defense Panel: New Ideas Needed


On July 31, the National Defense Panel, a congressionally chartered bipartisan committee of former defense policymakers and generals, released its critique of the Obama administration’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). Initial reporting (such as it was) on the panel’s work focused on the committee’s harsh (and unanimous) denunciation of sequestration and the consequences of the budget war still simmering between the White House and Capitol Hill. According to the panel:

… the defense budget cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, coupled with the additional cuts and constraints on defense management under the law’s sequestration provision, constitute a serious strategic misstep on the part of the United States. Not only have they caused significant investment shortfalls in U.S. military readiness and both present and future capabilities, they have prompted our current and potential allies and adversaries to question our commitment and resolve. Unless reversed, these shortfalls will lead to a high risk force in the near future.

In spite of such a dire warning, this audit of the government’s national security stewardship received little media attention. Washington’s budget wars are tiresome and for the moment seemingly not newsworthy, ironically because the media is transfixed on crises abroad. Although leaders in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill agree that the return of sequestration in 2016 would be ruinous, there has been no change to the bitter ideological standoff over the federal budget. If the panel’s report is simply a plea for more Pentagon funding and better management, where is the news in that?

But the panel offered more than that. Perhaps even more ominous than a mere shortfall in funding, the panel observed a dearth of new ideas in the Pentagon. Seven times the report called for new “operational concepts” to address challenges that the armed forces will soon face. Calling for new operational concepts is an admission that traditional approaches to solving military problems no longer work. That is a much more interesting conclusion from the panel, and perhaps more alarming than fiscal challenges, simply because downward pressure on the defense budget is unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. And even if that were not the case, if military commanders lack realistic operational concepts to address military challenges, simply providing more money unattached to workable battlefield concepts is a recipe for waste.

The report’s first plea for new operational concepts concerned China and its development of access-denial capabilities in the Western Pacific. The report noted:

… the growing technological capabilities of China’s developing force will require substantial investments in new technology and operational concepts, as well as more innovative approaches to basing, access, and building partner capacity.

What these new technologies, operational concepts, and innovative approaches will specifically be, the panel left to others to figure out.

But we can see, specifically, what the region’s emerging military problems will be, and why legacy operational concepts will soon be in trouble. For example, the panel’s report, the 2014 QDR, and the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance all list maintaining access and freedom of action in the global commons as a top military mission. For this, the U.S. Navy’s surface warships will have the task of establishing control over sea lines of communication. Likewise, the U.S. Air Force will be held responsible for maintaining air and space superiority, a requirement that in the panel’s view is increasingly in doubt. By next decade, China’s land-based mobile missiles and airpower will hold American fixed air and naval bases and surface warships out to almost 2,000 kilometers from China at risk, thus potentially denying U.S. commanders their ability to achieve one of the top military missions assigned to them in that region. The panel specifically called for new operational concepts for the Asia Pacific region, for air superiority, and for space operations, apparently concluding that legacy approaches for achieving required military missions in these areas are in trouble. The report makes one mention of the emerging Air-Sea Battle (ASB) operational concept, designed to address some of the challenges just described. But given the pages the report commits to describing the looming problems U.S. forces will face, it is evident the panel does not consider ASB by itself to be a problem-solving panacea.

U.S. ground forces also face looming conceptual limitations and are similarly in need of new ideas. It is safe to say that the large-scale, manpower intensive stabilization campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are not models that policymakers and planners will look to should a similar stabilization requirement present itself. If not, then what? The patient, small-footprint approaches successfully employed in Colombia and the southern Philippines seem more appealing, even if the circumstances in those cases were highly sui generis. The larger point is that operational concepts for political warfare, unconventional warfare, and stabilization missions are particularly unsettled now in light of frustrating experiences over the past 18 years. Unworkable or debatable operational concepts for irregular warfare are likely contributing to the confusing and muddled responses displayed by policymakers over Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and other irregular conflicts.

Ground forces might be assigned seemingly less-murky missions, such as punitive raids against various transgressors, or seizing stray weapons of mass destruction. Here, the growing problem of simply achieving access to the theater (discussed above), heretofore taken for granted in most cases, will complicate the ground forces’ ability to conduct successful raids. In addition, falling prices and increased access to moderately advanced weapons, such as the guided missile pro-Russian rebels used to shoot down a high-flying airliner, will increase the potential lethality of nearly all adversaries, including non-state actors. Finally, the ground forces continue a decades-long, yet unresolved, struggle over the tradeoffs between firepower, protection, and rapid strategic mobility. Indeed, the tradeoff between these three factors continues to literally bear down on the individual soldier, Marine, and special operator who is asked to trudge over high mountain passes with over a hundred pounds of body armor, weapons, and equipment only to frequently encounter enemies with more firepower and quicker mobility. The ground forces’ unresolved dilemma over firepower, protection, and mobility is yet another example of the need for “new technology and operational concepts, as well as more innovative approaches,” whatever those might be. If solutions were obvious and affordable, they presumably would have been implemented already. Since they have not, someone needs to do some deeper thinking.

Rapid diffusion of advanced military technology to potential adversaries is quickly disrupting how U.S. military forces have planned to achieve their missions. The panel has two responses to these adverse trends. First, it calls for funding the force structure recommended by the 1993 Bottom Up Review (BUR), namely an Army of 490,000 active-duty soldiers, 182,000 active-duty Marines, and 323 to 346 combat ships for the Navy (a goal far beyond current shipbuilding budgets). For the Air Force, the panel’s recommendation was more vague, with a call for “increasing the number of manned and unmanned aircraft capable of conducting both [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] and long range strike in contested airspace.”

The panel’s second recommendation is for the U.S. military to

… to commit itself to a plan for technological innovation and operational experimentation … The only way to achieve a proper balance between near-term needs and long-term innovation is to sustain sufficient research, development and procurement investments and to incentivize concept development and experimentation across the services.

This is a subject that panel co-chair and former Defense Secretary William Perry knows well. In the late 1970s, Perry was the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering and promoted breakthrough advancements in stealth, precision munitions, satellite navigation, and numerous other technologies that are taken for granted today by U.S. forces.

At a time when new ideas, technologies, and operational concepts are desperately needed, the logic for more research, innovation, and experimentation should be clear. The logic supporting increased funding for legacy assets, systems, and their decaying operational concepts is more debatable. For example, some may reckon that building more expensive surface warships that are vulnerable to cheap yet smart anti-ship missiles is a textbook example of an uncompetitive strategy. Chinese commanders are likely to be quite pleased when the United States wastes money on targets for its missiles rather than allocating the funds to research on systems and concepts that could hold Chinese strategies at risk. Similarly, the panel’s call for holding firm on the size of labor-intensive ground forces may seem dubious without some politically sustainable operational concepts for such forces.

The panel reasoned that the current global security situation is much more treacherous than it was when the BUR force structure was designed in 1993. Given this, the panel looked to the BUR levels as a reference point rather than the 2014 QDR’s diminished force. And although it is true that U.S. military units are more powerful than they were two decades ago, so too are those of America’s potential adversaries. Thus the panel reasoned that Congress should fund roughly the BUR force structure, along with a more robust research and experimentation plan.

Perhaps the better reason for bulking up legacy capacity, even if wasteful, is for the message it would send to friends and adversaries. As mentioned at the beginning, the panel is convinced that the projected budgets “have prompted our current and potential allies and adversaries to question our commitment and resolve.” That is a development Perry might also recognize from his time in the Carter administration, which to its credit took steps to reverse near its end, in sharp contrast thus far to the current negligence in Washington.

Should the international security situation continue to deteriorate, policymakers may have no choice but to spend money on legacy military assets and concepts whose effectiveness is quickly wasting away. What’s needed now more than money is new ideas, concepts, innovation, and technology. That’s not always a pleasing response in Washington, nor an answer that provides much comfort. But it is the only way to get past the disturbing inflection point the Pentagon has now reached.


Robert Haddick is an independent contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. He writes here in a personal capacity. On September 15, 2014, 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: David B. Gleason (adapted by WOTR)