Presence vs. Warfighting: A Looming Dilemma in Defense Planning


The advent of a new administration and a new Defense Strategic Review will soon provide an opportunity to rethink defense policy from the ground up. The dominant challenge, as it has been for a decade or more, will be matching declining means to rising challenges. And the most intense ends-means mismatch may be something that has so far received little sustained attention: the collision of two fundamental components of U.S. military strategy — presence, with all it entails, and expeditionary warfighting.

The warfighting task has defined the U.S. global military role since World War I. The United States maintains large, ready forces and a reserve in order to gather up a decisive force, rush to the scene of a conflict, defeat an aggressor, and win the nation’s wars. The United States sizes its forces based on some number of these contingencies — at the moment, as noted in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, one war plus an ability to “hold” in a second. The warfighting task calls for a large, mostly U.S.-based force, prepared for major combat and sufficient to defeat peer competitors. It demands strategic lift and mobility to get to the fight, and operational concepts for winning it.

This is where we encounter the first part of the means-ends challenge: The United States faces serious and growing shortfalls in its warfighting capabilities. In terms of pure capacity, taking the Army as an example, the United States would be hard pressed to respond with sufficient force to overlapping contingencies in Europe and Korea, to win one while holding the other. It does not have enough forward-deployed forces in Europe to deny Russian objectives in a fait accompli in the Baltics. In technologies ranging from active protection for armored vehicles to long-range fires to short-range air defense, the U.S. Army is falling behind its peer competitors. U.S. concepts for major theater war are dated, and arguably do not take into account potential adversaries’ area-denial capabilities.

In prior eras, the United States might have closed these gaps by doubling down on the warfighting mission. That is the default setting of the U.S. military, after all: to be ready to “fight and win the nation’s wars.” But over the last half century, presence — understood as deep engagement in service of global stability — has become an ever-more important part of U.S. defense strategy, and a major demand signal for force posture. It now requires equal, or nearly equal, billing to the warfighting mission, vastly complicating the defense planning challenge.

Presence is traditionally understood as “showing the flag,” but it has become much more than that. It involves global military deployments to counter potential aggressors, reassure allies and partners, and underwrite extended deterrence. It involves broad-based engagement and capacity-building programs to enhance allies and partners’ capabilities. It includes training, direct support to allied military operations, ongoing stability and counterterrorism operations, the conduct of exercises, rotational deployments and more. Increasingly, too, various categories of presence will define the U.S. response to gray zone and hybrid operations: Such campaigns call for capabilities on the scene —sometimes led by non-military capabilities, but deployed forward and engaged on a daily basis.

This expanded presence mission is now arguably as important, in terms of its stabilizing and deterrent effect, as the warfighting one. It is through the many sinews of global presence that the United States underwrites the security aspects of the rules-based international order in the most direct, obvious, and persistent ways. It is the primary day-to-day tool used to develop other nodes of security, and to dampen sources of instability.

Yet here, too, U.S. force posture falls short of requirements. This is partly an issue of capacity. To use the Army again as an example, the service lacks sufficient forces to fulfill an imposing range of steady-state presence missions, and keep sufficient forces ready for large-scale warfighting tasks at the same time.

But the emerging shortfall is also a matter of capability and focus. A major lesson of the last 15 years is that presence missions, like training, engagement, partnering, and participation in long-term, ongoing stability operations, demand specialized preparation and tailored units. To be effective at such tasks requires skills, mindsets, and sometimes language and cultural awareness, but units cannot acquire these and remain at high readiness for major war at the same time. This is why the Army’s worthwhile experiment with regionally aligned forces has been so challenging: For a unit to become really “regionally aligned,” with the necessary skills, long-term relationships, and local operational experience, has serious opportunity costs for other Army missions.

U.S. operational concepts for presence operations also have a long way to go. Many deep engagement missions demand integrated whole-of-government campaigns, but there is still no template for such campaigns, let alone well-developed non-military tools to execute them.

In all these ways, then, there are very real tradeoffs between presence and warfighting. There are not enough brigades, carriers, or air wings to go around. The units needed for major warfighting are often not the same kind as those required for presence missions (though there is some overlap). Steady-state presence missions drain time and resources that could be used to keep units ready for large warfighting tasks. When carriers are at sea conducting presence missions, as just one example, they cannot be undergoing maintenance or air wing training. Another tradeoff is in service culture and career development: Services tend to create career “gates” designed to produce warfighters, not officers and enlisted members who specialize in the presence side of the mission set.

These tradeoffs are not absolute, of course. Some forward presence missions demand the same sorts of units, doing the same kinds of things, as major combat. Some exercises can help a unit prepare for its warfighting mission. Fantastic leaders can excel across the spectrum. But the tradeoffs are very real. Mishandled, they could produce a force unable to do either warfighting or presence to the standards the nation should demand.

U.S. defense planners have three dominant options for dealing with this risk. They could prioritize one of the two mission areas over the other — focusing on warfighting tasks, for example, and preparing for presence only on the margins. Yet both mission sets are now too important to downplay one of them.

A second option would be to add capacity to the services, beginning with the one most challenged by this dilemma — the Army. With more personnel and forces, the services would be able to plan more comfortably for potential major combat while sustaining demanding steady-state presence missions. The case for a larger Army in particular is becoming more persuasive every day — but it is not clear whether future administrations or congresses will significantly boost defense spending, or whether they would use such additional resources to increase end strength.

U.S. defense planners may therefore need a third option — finding clever ways to balance presence and warfighting missions on the cheap. The United States could, for example, dedicate a small, manageable portion of the Army and Marine Corps — perhaps a brigade- and battalion-equivalent respectively — to permanent focus on training, engagement, and partner development missions. An infantry company could be deployed to a specific nation over a long period, for example, to develop deep linguistic and cultural skills and build personal relationships. The Army could form one or more “cadre” brigades composed of noncommissioned and commissioned officers, which could be used for training missions in peacetime, and as the foundation for more rapid mobilization of additional brigades in case of major war.

Services could reform development and promotion policies to allow enlisted members and officers alike to hone the skills and experiences most aligned to presence missions without career penalty. All of them, but especially the Army, could find more creative ways to meet commitments for the presence mission — building on the National Guard’s successful state partnership program which pairs Guard units in particular states with foreign militaries. The Defense Department could continue to beg, urge, and demand friends and allies to do more, both for their own security (to ease our warfighting requirements) and to help with presence missions in third countries. It could accelerate efforts to build rigorous operational concepts for a range of presence-oriented missions.

None of these steps alone would resolve the growing tension between presence and warfighting. Taken together, an agenda like this might make some difference. But just as important as any policy proposal is the more general need to take seriously the problem — to stop thinking of presence as merely a “lesser included” part of warfighting, and understand the tradeoffs between the two tasks. Striking this balance in the best way possible will be one of the most important — and vexing — priorities for defense policy over the coming decade.


Michael J. Mazarr is an associate director of RAND Arroyo Center’s Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program, and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.


Image: U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Daniel Parrott