Addressing Tomorrow’s Challenges with Yesterday’s Budget


Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of WOTR’s featured column, Strategic Outpost.


Last week’s release of the 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS) capped a big week in the world of defense. On Monday, the Obama administration submitted its $4 trillion federal budget request for Fiscal Year 2016, which included a hefty $534 billion base budget for the Department of Defense (DOD). On Wednesday, Defense Secretary-Designate Ash Carter found himself defending that budget in front of a largely adulatory Senate Armed Services Committee. The Friday NSS rollout topped this remarkable trifecta. But in many ways, the defense budget seems to be built for the challenges of yesterday. In a world where conflicts now are waged in ways that demand unconventional responses and means – and as the NSS notes, that require all elements of U.S. power – DOD’s huge budget represents a collection of spending priorities still heavily weighted toward conventional conflict.

Ideally, the NSS would precede and serve as a framework for U.S. defense strategy documents and budgets requests. The long delay in releasing this NSS (which was originally promised for early 2014) meant that it did neither. It remains extraordinarily valuable, however, because it provides a compelling picture of the broader context of the global environment that sets future demands on the U.S. military.

This NSS is a long-term document, one intentionally set above immediate crises and daily headlines. It appropriately focuses on the nation’s broad portfolio of strategic strengths beyond military power alone. It reaffirms the four enduring national interests identified in the 2010 NSS – security, prosperity, values, and the international order – and that these will remain the linchpins of U.S. national security policy well into the future. President Obama noted in the preface that the challenges outlined will “require strategic patience and persistence” and that “not everything will be completed during my Presidency.”

The NSS was also notable in its distinct worldview. As Brookings analyst Thomas Wright has observed, the authors of the NSS placed themselves squarely in the camp of those who reject the notion that the future will be dominated by a breakdown of the international order – a return to geopolitics evidenced by Russian revanchism, accelerating chaos in the Middle East, more aggressive behavior from a rising China, and increasing global instability. Instead, he argues that the Obama administration sees the world more positively – that the current crises are a collection of troubling but not world-changing events that must be managed without dominating America’s long-term agenda.

Regardless of which worldview ultimately turns out to be correct, the NSS implicitly designates the U.S. military as the nation’s hedge against the worst strategic risks. The new strategy identifies these risks as: a catastrophic attack on the U.S. homeland or critical infrastructure; threats or attacks against U.S. citizens abroad and U.S. allies; a global economic crisis or widespread economic slowdown; proliferation and/or use of weapons of mass destruction; severe outbreaks of global infectious disease; climate change; major energy market disruptions; and problems arising from weak or failing states (including mass atrocities, regional spillover, and transnational organized crime).

Not all of these threats are amenable to military force, but they all have some implications for DOD. Even those challenges that may not require traditional military power have utilized defense resources, such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Given its remarkable diversity of capabilities and global reach, the U.S. military has in some ways become the nation’s “strategic shock absorber” in a world of mounting non-traditional threats.

However, the DOD budget rolled out last Monday does not adequately prepare for many of these threats. The $534 billion base budget request for the U.S. military is massive – around the same amount as the rest of the U.S. discretionary budget combined. Yet its fundamental orientation is in many ways little different than defense budgets five, 10, or even 20 years ago. In a world now dominated by unconventional threats – extremists snapping up chunks of Syria and Iraq, Russian proxies battling Ukrainian forces, Boko Haram terrorizing civilians in Nigeria – the DOD budget once again devotes the bulk of its resources to conventional weaponry and legacy combat capabilities.

As but one example of these distorted spending priorities, the entire 2016 base budget for U.S. Special Operations Command – the global combatant command that oversees counter-terrorist operations and unconventional warfare capabilities – is a mere $8.1 billion, not including its $2.5 billion share of Overseas Contingency Operations funds. By way of comparison, the 2016 budget line for just one aircraft – the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – is $10.6 billion to buy 57 warplanes. The Navy will similarly spend $11.6 billion to buy nine new ships, and $3.4 billion to buy 16 submarine-hunting patrol aircraft. Conventional capabilities continue to consume most of the defense budget, regardless of the rapidly shifting nature of global security challenges facing the United States.

Conventional conflicts remain important. The U.S. military must remain strong to deter traditional wars among states, and if deterrence fails, to prevail rapidly in those wars. However, the nation’s deterrent strength has rarely been more robust in terms of its conventional, combat-experienced capabilities. The U.S. military has more operational wartime experience after 13 years of war than any other military in the world. The power projection and strike capabilities of the Navy and Air Force meet many deterrence and warfighting requirements, while also providing valuable support for of a range of other missions – such as bombing runs against Syria and Iraq launched from Navy carriers and Air Force land-based airpower. The Army continues to hold thousands of tanks and armored vehicles in reserve to deal with the most demanding wartime battle tasks – both in the active Army and the Army National Guard.

But as the demand continues to grow for capabilities to deal with irregular threats on land – Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and central Africa, to name a few – Army and Marine conventional forces may not be structured correctly to be able to effectively address irregular challenges and threats. These two ground-oriented services may be over-invested in their expensive “big war” capabilities in today’s fast-changing world of irregular conflicts.

At the NSS release on Friday, National Security Advisor Susan Rice stated that the United States aims “to avoid sending many thousands of ground forces into combat in hostile lands.” Yet while the demand for advisors and trainers to buttress regional militaries in the face of al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and even the Taliban continue to grow, the U.S. Army and Marines still have shown little appetite for this mission. Small numbers of skilled U.S. advisers and trainers provide a vital catalyst to help local forces fighting deadly adversaries around the world. Yet after 13 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that required these U.S. capabilities year after year, neither the Army nor Marines have built any full-time capabilities dedicated to this continuing global mission requirement.

The Army, for example, recently sent a brigade of paratroopers from the famed 82nd Airborne Division to Iraq, to serve as ad hoc trainers to help improve the ability of the Iraqi Security Forces to counter ISIL advances. These infantrymen were hastily trained up in complex advisory tasks that demand cultural understanding, language skills, and the effective mentoring of foreign soldiers and their leaders. These are radically different skills than the night parachute jumps, airfield seizures, and infantry assaults for which 82nd Airborne paratroopers train extensively and at which they excel. Security force assistance – advising and training foreign militaries – has traditionally been a task for special operations forces (SOF). But the already-high demands on SOF and increasing global demands for security force assistance will require more and more of these capabilities to be drawn from the conventional forces. In short, the Army and Marines need to adapt.

The new National Security Strategy – the final one of the Obama presidency – paints a compelling picture of a world that is much different from those faced by preceding presidents. It correctly recognizes that for the United States to prevail in this world of new challenges, all instruments of national power will be essential. Yet the 2016 defense budget request may be wrongly designed to meet the military requirements needed to sustain U.S. power and influence in this new era. Sustaining outsized conventional investments and legacy force structure choices seems almost assured to fall short in an era that demands more innovative, and often indirect, approaches to addressing the growing number of non-conventional threats to U.S. security interests.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.