war on the rocks

How the United States Can Get More Strategic Bang for Its Force Structure Buck

February 1, 2018

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis released an unclassified summary of the new National Defense Strategy two weeks ago. The big news in the strategy is a front-and-center focus on strategic competition with China and Russia. Though this change is evolutionary, not revolutionary, it provides badly needed clarity amidst the chaos that has been a hallmark of the Trump administration to date. Particularly notable is the strategy’s unambiguous direction to “build a more lethal joint force” in part by “prioritizing preparedness for war.”

A return to strategic competition against China and Russia, who both have the technology and the resources to challenge the U.S. military’s ability to operate freely in their respective regions, requires the Pentagon to think differently about the way it uses the military — or what’s known as force employment. To compete effectively against China and Russia while maintaining commitments in the Middle East, the Defense Department will need to figure out how to maximize the strategic impact of the size and capability of the force it has now — dubbed “force structure” in Pentagonese — by developing a new force employment model. In other words, it needs to figure out how to get more strategic “bang” out of its force structure “buck.”

Civilian and military leaders have been talking about the need for a more dynamic global presence for some years now, recognizing the fact that America’s post-Cold War force employment is generally static. The military tends to repeat the same deployments and exercises in the same places in the same ways year after year, without much consideration of how these events affect high-end competitors’ decision-making. This pattern of force employment cannot continue if the military is to execute the National Defense Strategy. The primacy of competition against China and Russia in the strategy requires that the United States change its approach to force employment in at least three ways.

First, the United States should exercise and demonstrate its ability to operate in contested (vice permissive) environments. Both China and Russia are developing a suite of capabilities expressly designed to prevent U.S. forces from moving and communicating freely in their backyards. Successful competition and effective deterrence require Washington to show Beijing and Moscow that it can do exactly that.

Second, the United States should show that it can play defense, reacting quickly to aggression anywhere in the world, rather than fighting only in times and places of its choosing. Both China and Russia would have home court advantage were they to instigate a conflict with the United States. In such a scenario, they would set the terms of early engagements. To deter Chinese and Russian aggression, America must show that it can respond quickly and in mass to provocation, proving that any advantage adversaries may hope to gain by being the first mover will be short-lived.

Third, U.S. force employment plans should always preserve a part of the force that is fully trained and ready to deploy on short notice. The Pentagon cannot hope to successfully deter China and Russia if steady-state engagement, exercises, and operations consume all the force’s readiness. In addition to demonstrating the ability to respond quickly and in mass, the United States should also retain, in readiness, the forces that it would use to do so as a cocked fist.

In other words, just showing up, or engagement for the sake of engaging, is not enough anymore. U.S. forces should use every opportunity available to demonstrate that the force can respond with speed and in mass, and operate successfully against anti-access area denial capabilities once it gets there. At the same time, the military must do so in a way that better economizes readiness, ensuring that America’s steady-state engagements, exercises, and operations either build readiness or bear adequate strategic justification for consuming readiness.

Enter the National Defense Strategy

The strategy directs the Department of Defense to develop a “lethal, agile, and resilient force posture and employment” through a new “global operating model.” This new model is designed to ensure that decisions to employ the military are driven by the considerations outlined above. If implemented, the model should make sure that when the U.S. military expends readiness, it gets the highest possible strategic return on that investment.

The model organizes force employment into four conceptual “layers.” Two of these layers are primarily based in the homeland and are familiar: surge forces are the “war-winning forces” —  also charged with managing conflict escalation — and homeland forces, which defend U.S. territory. The model’s new hotness lies in the other two layers, which describe forces primarily stationed or deployed overseas: “contact” and “blunt.” Contact forces are “designed to help us compete more effectively below the level of armed conflict.” These forces do not necessarily need to be full spectrum ready, but they do need to remain focused on competition, vice assurance or engagement. Blunt forces “delay, degrade, or deny adversary aggression.” These forces must be combat credible and kept in a high state of readiness, with access to the full suite of enablers and supporting infrastructure.

Organizing employed forces into these four conceptual layers will enable the Pentagon to do several critical things. First, it will make clear which exercise and operations serve the strategy’s focus on strategic competition, as well as which activities are not the most effective ways to expend readiness. This analysis will enable leaders to make better decisions about how to use the joint force. Second, it will provide clarity about why forward forces are where they are, and prevent mission creep for those units. For example, if a unit deployed to Europe is part of the blunt layer, and thought of in that way, it is less likely to be tasked with spending all its readiness on reassurance-focused security cooperation activity. In sum, the model provides clarity of purpose, ensuring that the Department of Defense spends readiness wisely, thus maximizing the strategic impact of the force structure it has available.

Bureaucratically, it is interesting that so much detail on the force employment model made it into the National Defense Strategy, much less the unclassified summary. Force employment is usually the remit of the implementing documents that follow these grand strategic pronouncements. Its inclusion here indicates the priority Mattis places on ensuring that the Pentagon executes the strategy, rather than letting it sit on a shelf collecting dust.


Susanna V. Blume, a former Pentagon staffer, is a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security focused on Defense strategy, planning, and budget. Follow her on Twitter @SusannaVBlume.

Image: U.S. Army/John Farmer