Scraping Rust From the Iron Triangle: Why the Pentagon Should Invest in Capability


Since the Cold War ended, the United States has assumed that its dominant military-technological advantages were a given that would not be challenged in our lifetimes. But that time has arrived sooner than expected. As Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has noted, America’s military strength is not a birthright and the United States cannot afford to be complacent. A continued failure to respond to the challenge with a fairly substantial modernization program will only continue the erosion of U.S. credibility and deterrence, with serious consequences for American security, prosperity, and liberty.

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, detailed in these pages what the United States deserves from its next defense strategy several weeks before the document’s release. He noted that greater clarity in terms of threats and missions was needed, but stressed that what was most important was greater precision regarding what capabilities the U.S. military should acquire. The recently released National Security Strategy provides the necessary framing for the Pentagon and the National Defense Strategy, signed by Mattis, provides the priorities for required military capabilities of this age.

Both documents embrace the necessity of facing up to a more competitive era with calls for renewal and larger security budgets. But few believe that the United States can buy its way out of this problem by simply building up the force it had in the 1990s. McCain himself pointed out that “[l]arger budgets will not relieve us of the duty to prioritize and make difficult choices about the threats we face and the missions we assign to our military.” He expected the National Defense Strategy to provide those priorities and choices to confront growing threats in an era of renewed great power competition.

Capacity Versus Capability

One of the major priorities facing the United States is choosing between growing a larger force for this age or modernizing its capabilities. There are calls for rapidly expanding the size or capacity of the U.S. military to a much larger army and a 355-ship Navy. Such investments should be considered and the National Defense Strategy does not appear to exclude a larger military. But a larger force that lacks training and is outmatched qualitatively does not deter aggression and presents more risk. Instead of reflexively increasing capacity, the United States should begin to seriously build up the capabilities of its military. America needs a better force, not just a bigger and ultimately unsustainable force.

Some dismiss the choice between bigger and better as a false one. It is, but only if you can spend the same dollar twice. Since the United States cannot, Washington has to make choices and deal with what the defense policy expert Kathleen Hicks, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called “the Iron Triangle of Painful Tradeoffs.” Pentagon wonks traditionally think in terms of three interactive budget areas: readiness, capability, and capacity. Readiness includes manning levels, training, spare parts, and maintenance for equipment. Capability is represented in the research, development, and modernization accounts. Capacity is reflected in the size of the force and the number of brigades, ships, and flying squadrons in the force. Defense force planners and the service chiefs have to make a tradeoff between these categories when formulating their budgets. The triangle is a reality and reflects the key tradeoffs of risk and resources across time. As Hicks puts it, defense strategists face a prisoner’s dilemma and “one can nuance the edges of this dilemma …[but] for the most part, the [triangle] forecloses radical changes in defense strategy.”

Hicks is surely right about radical changes, including a large force buildup. But the United States needs to face up to its biggest competitive challenge –– the restoration of deterrence, both strategic and conventional. The United States has a substantial bill for sustaining its nuclear triad, and payment on that debt is long overdue. The recently issued Nuclear Posture Review lays out the need to ensure that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is both reliable and flexible. Restoring that aspect of defense strategy is not going to be easy, quick, or cheap. The estimated tab for just the strategic deterrence investments is significant, approaching $400 billion over the next decade.

The Case for Capability

Compounding the problem, America’s backlog of conventional force modernization and deferred procurement has grown substantially over the last decade and a half and can no longer be ignored. Readers should examine the modernization recommendations of RAND’s veteran policy advisor David Ochmanek. His testimony underscores some areas where U.S. forces are out-ranged and out-gunned by competitor weapons and  the implications thereof. RAND’s “scorecardof Chinese vs. U.S. capabilities does the same. The Heritage Foundation  also conducted a  detailed assessment in its 2018 Military Strength Index. But the costs to restore U.S. conventional capacity and capabilities across the board would cost an additional $400 billion over the next five years, well above the Budget Control Act caps.

According to former defense policy official Jim Thomas, China and Russia challenge the U.S. military with advanced conventional capabilities, including sophisticated sensor networks, arsenals of precision-guided munitions, cyber and electronic warfare systems, world-class air defenses, fifth generation fighters, quiet submarines, large numbers of sea-mines, and sizable arsenals of ground-based rocket artillery and coastal defense missiles.

The U.S. military might hold an aggregate combination of combat-seasoned leadership, capability, and capacity today, but tomorrow is fast approaching.

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work stressed the urgency of reestablishing conventional deterrence, an objective that will not occur overnight. Fifteen years of wear and tear on U.S. fighters, armored vehicles, infantry weapons, and equipment has worsened the health and readiness of the military. The United States has soldiers and marines operating in an exceedingly lethal battlespace with tanks and weapons designed 40 years ago. There has been some progress, thanks to Congress in the last defense bill, but  the Pentagon still underinvests in the capabilities America’s small ground combat units need to survive and prevail in close-quarter battle. It would be highly imprudent, if not immoral, to let this happen again.

This assessment of the problem gets even worse the more intelligence reports one reads about progress made by America’s rivals. Looking forward, the United States now faces credible competitors in air and space, on and under the sea, in contested urban areas, and in cyberspace. The breadth of this competition has diminished the comparative advantages that U.S. military commanders enjoyed over the last two generations, to the point that it is simply not prudent to continue the Pentagon’s current slow pace of modernization.

Thus, while increased defense spending is needed, it should not be invested in capacity (larger numbers of divisions or brigades and increasing end-strength) at the expense of improvements in capabilities. As Thomas recently testified to Congress:

The erosion of the U.S. military’s positions in Europe and the Far East [is] less a consequence of being out-manned than of being increasingly out-gunned, out-sticked, and out-postured in tough away games. A strategy that that prioritizes great power competitions should ensure that the reshaping the U.S. military in terms of its capability mix takes precedence of re-sizing.

History is replete with surprise founded upon complacency in peacetime. There are numerous reasons the United States needs to be wary about technological surprise. Future conflicts will present surprises as emerging technologies are brought to bear. Hyper-velocity missiles, directed energy systems, artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons, and unmanned undersea vehicles are but a few of the capabilities the United States must invest in now if it hopes to reestablish the capability advantages it has enjoyed in critical warfighting domains in the past. These capability advantages are critical for operational concepts that tackle the challenges posed by America’s rivals.

Portfolio Priorities                                                                                                                     

Of course, U.S. security interests require both an adequately sized force and modern capabilities. Consider the alternative strategy defined by Mackenzie Eaglen, of the American Enterprise Institute, in Repair and Rebuild. She recommends that Congress “focus on a diverse portfolio.” Her proposal would prioritize near-term readiness restoration and tailored force structure expansion, along with new forward basing, as major investments. She also adds rapid and expansive incremental upgrades, increased production for existing weapons, and targeted acceleration of “offset” technologies.

I highly commend the study and its portfolio approach, but defense planners and U.S. taxpayers should appreciate the painful choices that Hicks noted. The budget resources would require immense political will and deeper deficits to support execution. Repair and Rebuild calls for defense spending almost $700 billion over what the law currently allows. Many in Congress support the restoration of the armed forces, but given the divisions on Capitol Hill, Congress is unlikely to give the military this level of increased funding and sustain it. Ultimately, this approach would enlarge today’s force but leave it unready to fight, and seriously undercut research and development funding for tomorrow’s necessary capabilities.

A bigger or purely conventional Iron Triangle is not the answer for tomorrow’s challenges.

Instead of bigger, the United States needs a better military that is retooled for the future. An alternative portfolio would prepare for both the near and long term with these priorities:

  1. Longer term readiness restoration (spares, munitions, education),
  2. Nuclear modernization,
  3. Increased production for existing weapons relevant to 21st century threats,
  4. Targeted acceleration of competitive weapons and technologies,
  5. Tailored force structure expansion.

This prioritization would lower the priority on force capacity growth and avoid expensive incremental upgrades, unless they are needed to thwart major peer competitors in the most critical regions. Both Eaglen and I support the requirement for tailored force structure expansion rather than dramatic increases across the force. The Pentagon would not simply restore old capacity or capabilities, but would rather lean into the 21st century in a disciplined way that embraces innovation and creative operational concepts.

This reflects the approach taken in the National Defense Strategy. This is not an extremely aggressive strategy, but it does address extremely challenging trends in U.S. conventional force posture. A decade’s worth of constrained resources, high operational tempo, and declining capability development have combined to corrode the iron of America’s military might. Rather than wait for an extreme crisis, it is far more prudent to begin retooling today’s force for the 21st century, which requires an understanding of emerging capabilities and a new strategic lens for priorities. There are still painful tradeoffs to be made, with or without higher defense spending.

The investments the United States must begin making now should seek to generate a more lethal and agile conventional force to ensure future success. Accelerating U.S. military modernization programs and devoting additional resources in a sustained effort to re-establish a competitive advantage is now a matter of national urgency. The president recognized this in his strategy and, reportedly, in his call for increased defense spending in his pending budget request for FY19. But it will take more than one year to refashion the industrial base and enhance modernization in key competitive warfighting domains.

Given the projected strategic environment, well-framed by the White House as an era of great power competition, the United States must face up to the need to compete in multiple dimensions of strategy. Such a strategy does not presume great power war, and the United States need not be timid about direct competition in any dimension of strategy. But a truly competitive strategy means the Pentagon must unshackle both the budget and its thinking. The challenges the United States faces cannot be resolved with the handcuffs of the Budget Control Act or short-term fixes. Its readiness and modernization gaps cannot be resolved quickly but must be addressed in a multi-year campaign of disciplined modernization and recapitalization.

The Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy has responded to McCain’s insistence on greater clarity in threats and missions. This probably accounts for his positive assessment of the strategy. The prioritized capability investments in that strategy define what the Pentagon needs to acquire if it is to compete in the 21st century. Even with more funding, it will not be enough to avoid painful tradeoffs. Thus, before the United States starts building a much bigger Iron Triangle, it should take the rust off the current one, with modernization as the highest priority.


Dr. F. G. Hoffman holds an appointment at the National Defense University as a Distinguished Research Fellow where he focuses on defense and military strategy, future conflict, military innovation, and defense economics. He earned his Ph.D. from the War Studies Department at King’s College London. These comments are his own and do not reflect the policy or position of the Department of Defense.

Image: Air Force/Rey Ramon

CCBot/2.0 (