Time for a New Approach to Defense Strategy
It turns out that January 1991 may have been the most problematic moment for U.S. defense strategy since World War II. It certainly didn’t seem like that at the time, of course: U.S. forces had won a crushing victory against Iraq, and the brave and brilliant troops returned to waving flags and celebratory parades. But this success locked into place a brash vision for U.S. defense strategy: projecting technological dominance to the far corners of the earth to win, decisively and at relatively little cost, discrete and limited wars on the very doorstep of the adversary. The United States would henceforth assess the adequacy of its defense program based in large part on the demands of such contingencies and build many of its forces to suit their requirements.
It is easy to forget the radical ambition of this approach, reflecting as it did the defense strategy component of a claim to global primacy. It was taxing enough when dealing with second-tier militaries. Applied to world-class powers like Russia and China, it is a recipe for persistent means-ends imbalances, skewed defense programs, and misplaced emphasis in American grand strategy. Yet, it has become the firmly entrenched guiding paradigm of defense planning — one that, in its path-dependent hold on American thinking, obstructs a critical, and long overdue, conversation about the essential purposes of the U.S. national security enterprise.
That more fundamental debate should consider a radical proposition: that the United States should free itself from the tyranny of discrete localized contingencies as the cornerstone of national security planning and prioritize threats to the well-being of Americans while also preserving ample military capability to prevent broad regional hegemony by any hostile power. This is not a plea to withdraw from the world: The United States plays important deterrent and balancing roles in key regions, and it should sustain its pledges to help defend allies. China poses a rising threat to security in the Indo-Pacific, and the United States should lead efforts to respond. But the time has come to reassess the balance of the most demanding missions implied by those commitments with issues that more directly menace Americans — a change that would demand a new approach to defense planning.
Growing Risks to the Homeland
U.S. national security thinking, planning, and investment today is focused on the ability to flow war-winning levels of military power to distant corners of the globe to contend with potential aggression in highly demanding, localized contingencies directly adjacent to potential adversaries. While other roles and missions create important demands, the shape of the U.S. defense program is primarily inferred from the requirements generated by these potential conflicts and the war plans they generate. This is a function, in part, of the current scenario-based approach to defense planning, in which specific contingencies serve as the taproot of defense needs. Public debates over the adequacy of the U.S. defense program largely revolve around the demands of such contingencies, such as Taiwan and the Baltics.
The case for a reorientation away from this focus begins with a simple insight: The leading perils to Americans now come from sources other than foreign armies or major wars.
The United States faces no threat of direct conventional aggression. Americans are, on the other hand, menaced by accelerating climate change, which promises to trigger massive economic costs, chaos in weather patterns, displacement of Americans from the coasts, and deaths from hot weather. Americans remain at risk from pandemic disease, with a senior Center for Disease Control official recently admitting that the United States is “not where we need to be” for new outbreaks beyond COVID-19. Domestic and foreign terrorism is a continuing hazard, and Americans are threatened by low probability but extremely high impact risks like solar flares and asteroids.
Even in terms of the actions of hostile powers, the most common and urgent dangers come not from invasion or the outcome of distant wars, but from the manipulation of the U.S. information environment or asymmetric methods of attack. This includes the potential for large-scale cyber attacks and ongoing disinformation campaigns and ransomware events — which the U.S. government has now labeled as a hazard equivalent to that of terrorism. The United States is not prepared for this new world of information-related threats: Its “virtual territorial integrity” is at risk of being permanently compromised. The homeland faces potential hostile threats apart from information: The threat of biological catastrophes, for example, is only growing with the potential for engineered biological weapons.
Beyond their effect on Americans, these threats can nullify the very thing defense planners are busily trying to sustain — the U.S. ability to project power. Vulnerabilities to cyber attack and political manipulation could cripple U.S. force flow in crisis or war. More broadly, in any future conflict, adversaries may try to generate chaos in the American homeland to shock the United States into immobility. Exquisite power projection forces will do the United States little good if their use is stalled by anarchy at home.
The Avenues to Success in International Rivalry
Given the trends in emerging threats to the American people, a homeland-first strategy therefore seems imperative. But, even on the global stage, in the competitions with Russia and China that are unavoidably upon us in some form, winning today’s roster of distant wars is not the key to strategic success.
International rivalries are rarely determined by individual battles or even wars, especially ones that take place thousands of miles from a nation’s shores. Far more often, the larger rivalries and struggles for competitive positioning endure beyond specific clashes. The British Empire received a stinging defeat in the American Revolution but, 120 years later, arguably reached its zenith. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union intervened in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan without a U.S. or NATO military response, but still failed in its larger strategic competition. Meantime, the United States only fought Korea to an unsatisfying tie and suffered an outright loss in Vietnam — but, just 15 years later, celebrated its victory in the Cold War.
U.S. rivalries with Russia and China will be most decisively shaped by the ability of each of the competitors to generate social, economic, and technological dynamism; preserve strong and sustainable finances; and gather a predominant group of friends and allies. They will not be determined by the outcome of the regional contingencies over which U.S. defense plans now obsess.
The situation would be different if these scenarios represented the first step of a prospective militarized expansion on the part of Russia or China. But nobody thinks Russia hopes to roll tanks to Berlin or Paris, or that the Chinese Communist Party is anxious to invade Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, or even Vietnam. In fact, the real situation is closer to the opposite: U.S. rivals today are preparing for war but hope to avoid it and have developed dozens of tools to advance their interests short of war, in part because they recognize the immense risks and costs that major conflict poses in the nuclear age.
U.S. grand strategy has long sought to keep any major region from being dominated by a hostile power. This remains a critical goal, but the regional wars that loom large in U.S. defense thinking are not the things that will decide such hegemony. In the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan or a Russian incursion into the Baltics, nearby states would surely be sparked into military balancing and defense buildups. The United States could partner with them to ensure that these attacks destroyed, rather than turbocharged, the aggressor’s dreams of regional domination.
Indeed, one effect of the current focus on contingencies is to smother creative ideas about how to gain systemic advantages in these rivalries. The United States is operating on the path-dependent belief that winning a small, but hugely demanding, set of possible wars is the center of gravity of its global security posture. It is not asking bigger questions about its vital interests, its most critical strategic roles, or the opportunity to use bold geopolitical gambits to shift balances of power. Put simply: In much of the dialogue on U.S. national security strategy, operational military concerns tied to regional contingencies have displaced wider strategic thinking.
The Problems with a Focus on Distant Wars
The focus on distant, localized contingencies as the lodestar of U.S. national security policy is therefore unwise. It is also unsustainable, for at least three reasons.
First, the endless requirements that pour from these scenarios generate an immense gap between means and ends in U.S. strategy. The refrain has been constant for two decades: The requirements of “the strategy” demand more capabilities than the U.S. military possesses. This argument was made about the 2018 National Defense Strategy, and it is being made about the new Biden administration budget. It is made about individual services: Witness the tough reception of the new Navy strategy and shipbuilding plan, which critics say will not deliver a fleet remotely big enough to meet U.S. requirements. The flywheel of scenario-based demands is placing the United States on a perpetually unfavorable cost imposition curve and institutionalizing a means-ends gap that can never be closed. Americans will spend trillions of dollars on defense — and, in a decade, will still be hearing about the U.S. inability to prevail, the continuing loss of “overmatch,” and the need to spend yet more.
Second, a national security strategy aimed at distant power projection to deal with exceptionally demanding localized conflicts places the United States on the wrong side of a fight with physics. As I have argued here before, threats to traditional means of projecting military power are greater today than in earlier periods of great-power rivalry. Combined with the unavoidable equations of distance and time, this means that the United States will not be able to get enough decisive power to the combat area in question quickly enough. This reality is hardly new: As James Lacey’s magnificent edited volume on great-power politics makes clear, the burden of “project[ing] force over great distances” has historically been a huge handicap for such powers. “In the future,” he concludes, “even if the United States remains vastly superior to any other state in total military power, it may find it progressively more difficult to win in the immediate vicinity of a near-peer competitor.”
Third, U.S. sustainment and defense industrial base capabilities are not capable of supporting a prolonged major contingency and have no prospect of doing so. Just seven shipyards build all U.S. Navy ships, leaving modest potential for surge production in the event of war. A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies study suggested that, across all services’ major weapons systems, it would take five years or more (sometimes vastly more) to replace the current inventory if large losses were suffered in a war. My RAND colleagues Bruce Held and Brad Martin recently argued here that U.S. strategic inter- and intra-theater lift and sustainment capabilities are inadequate. U.S. strategic mobilization capabilities have atrophied. These gaps would be eye-wateringly expensive to close.
Put Regional Wars in Their Proper Place
Despite these profound challenges, my argument is not that the United States should abandon its current alliances or its commitment to regional power balancing. U.S. defense planners should remain prepared to aid treaty allies threatened with attack or large-scale coercion. I am arguing for two things: a national security strategy that places the homeland first, and a capabilities-based defense strategy focused on building the best possible force within the resulting budget constraints to serve the more limited military goal of forestalling hostile regional hegemony, a force that would still be available to help allies defeat aggression. The resulting approach will not solve the challenges of distant power projection. No feasible strategy will do that. But it can help achieve two critical goals: fashioning a more sensible balance between homeland security and distant wars and, hopefully, forcing the Defense Department to finally get serious about transformative thinking.
The lead component of this approach would be domestic resilience against systemic risks, things such as climate change, disease, and severe weather. Investments could range from large-scale deployment of decarbonization technologies, to mitigating the now partly inevitable effects of global warming, to disease preparedness, to significant bolstering of infrastructure and the resiliency of often fragile power grids. Another part of the domestic protection focus would enhance resilience against hostile actions directed at the homeland. In this basket would be redoubled investments in cyber defense, expanded capabilities to deal with chemical and biological attacks on the United States, and investments in the informational and knowledge-based resilience of the population. It could also include tools to deal with long-range unmanned systems and other potential kinetic threats to American soil.
This approach would have an iron rule: Only when the demands of domestic resilience have been satisfied would the planning process turn to the requirements of foreign contingencies. Defining the thresholds for that sufficiency in these domestic missions will be challenging, but useful criteria are available. And, in many cases, from climate to information security to preparations for pandemics and biological attack, long lists of investments and policies await attention, things which could make a profound difference in U.S. preparedness.
Second, internationally, an alternative approach would place renewed emphasis on geostrategic gambits designed to shift the balance of power in the United States’ favor, and to make potential contingencies both less likely and less taxing. Examples could include peace treaties or arms control agreements to reduce the potential for major war (such as in Korea or Europe), diplomacy toward competitors with reassurances that reduce their perceived need to strike out, campaigns to preserve the favorable alignment of linchpin nations, and continued efforts to promote stronger defense and security programs from partners and allies. Given the natural hostility to Russia and China on the part of many countries, this is an area where the United States is playing to its geopolitical strengths rather than its power-projection weaknesses.
Third and finally, the upshot for defense strategy would be a resource-informed, capability-based (rather than scenario requirements-driven) strategy. The Defense Department’s task would be to take a still world-leading budget of perhaps $550–600 billion — trimmed to allow the new investments in domestic resilience and protection — and build the most effective, information-resilient, technologically advanced military possible, one designed in part to rapidly assist beleaguered allies in new ways. Several basic principles would guide such a defense strategy.
At its core would be a revised military objective: to prevent, along with friends and allies, any hostile power from achieving regional hegemony through conquest. U.S. defense strategy would seek to develop the core capabilities essential to defeat broad-based land or maritime aggression on a theater scale. The resulting force could still play a critical role in more demanding localized contingencies, but neither its composition, nor its investment strategies, nor its level of sufficiency would be held hostage to them.
This scaled-back core goal — preventing regional conquest, as opposed to ensuring victory in every limited contingency — is not as radical a shift as it may seem. Even the infamous 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, that table-pounding call for primacy, defined the essential U.S. military objective as seeking “to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.” Nor is the revised spending level out of line with pre-2001 practice: At the height of the Cold War in 1985, the U.S. defense budget, in 2021 dollars, was about $600 billion.
To achieve that goal, the new paradigm would be heavily oriented to supporting the self-defense efforts of allies rather than to empower the United States to take over the fight itself, offering a decisive added contribution to tilt the balance of a war. As a result, improving allied and partner capabilities would become a leading priority of U.S. defense strategy. (Such an approach can be more efficient: Given limits on U.S. power projection capacity, helping a partner buy 500 anti-ship missiles or unmanned aerial vehicles can be more operationally meaningful than if the U.S. military were to buy two or three times as many.) This would demand that U.S. forces get serious about interoperability, willingness to buy and co-produce systems that allies can use, and expanded peacetime engagements to build the basis for crisis and wartime collaboration.
This revised approach would also call for U.S. defense planners to identify a few select areas where the United States would seek to retain “overmatch” relative to potential adversaries, areas that provide decisive advantage in war. The most important example would surely be information architectures and resilience. Forces that build highly effective networks of sensing, shooting, and assessment that operate at machine learning speed — and keep them running through the storm of electronic warfare, cyber attacks, and disinformation that will descend in a future war — are likely to win. Other priority capabilities might include undersea warfare, sixth generation air combat systems, dedicated training and advisory units, a wide range of unmanned systems, and large magazines of precision weapons (including new, inexpensive models co-produced with allies).
Finally, this approach would free the up the Department of Defense to shift more emphasis toward emerging and transformational military concepts of operations and technologies rather than continuing to rely on well-worn ideas and legacy systems. The current paradigm and its requirement to be ready to “fight tonight” in a series of distant wars demand high levels of readiness and capacity which tend to have the effect of locking in current ways of thinking about warfare and suppressing experimentation and modernization. Despite some truly ground-breaking progress in impressive and hopeful pockets of creativity, the United States continues to treat potential conflicts as updated versions of century-old wars, while the gap between the rhetoric of U.S. defense policy (about transformation, agility, innovation, and so on) and the operational and institutional reality of inertia yawns wider all the time. One symptom of this inertia — indeed a classic warning sign of any dying paradigm — is the parade of abstract phrases, devoid of any precise meaning, which crowd U.S. strategy documents these days.
A more frugal approach would demand, and potentially energize, a new spirit of experimentation and innovation in defense. The U.S. military would have to do things differently, and both the Department of Defense and individual services could promote dialogues, contests, and planning processes to unearth all the incredibly creative ideas already rolling around their organizations, ideas that the oppressive weight of the current paradigm tends to quash. It would demand a real commitment to institutional reform, in everything from acquisition to personnel policies, and would force serious discussions about the distribution of missions across the joint force. Done right, this shift could inaugurate an era of transformational thinking at all levels of defense policy and strategy. (One example would be in the use of the reserve component, which has seen some innovative experiments but is crying out for a more comprehensive redesign.)
Critics will say that defense cuts of this magnitude would destroy the deterrent and warfighting capacity of the U.S. military and invite aggression. This is surely not true in terms of the revised strategy’s core goal—preventing comprehensive regional conquest. Even in the most demanding contingencies, existing limits on the projectability and sustainability of U.S. power mean that alternative approaches could deliver comparable amounts of firepower onto attacking forces in the first weeks of a conflict. Moreover, deterrence is a function of many factors other than the expected outcomes of a local fight. The trick is to promise enough losses to cast real doubt on the prospects for success, something that a slightly smaller U.S. force could surely do, while manipulating the larger strategic context to make aggression both unnecessary and unappealing. Finally, for distant contingencies, apart from helping to strengthen ally and partner defenses, the United States can get serious about “integrated deterrence” and assemble a wide range of threats besides deployed forces, from cyber attacks to economic warfare, to help discourage aggression.
Skeptics might also point to a seeming contradiction: These discrete and limited contingencies, I am suggesting, are not vital to the United States — yet the United States should preserve existing alliances and thus, at least in cases of formal treaty allies, remain committed to fighting them. But this paradox is inherent to the U.S. strategic situation, not any specific proposed strategy. The United States has important, but not vital, interests in contingencies that it can neither escape nor dominate. Simply walking away would be dangerous to U.S. credibility and regional stability. Buying a military capable of overpowering force projection would be financially ruinous and strategically provocative. Like it or not, the United States, like all great powers, confronts many issues that call for messy and uncomfortable balancing acts rather than crude binary choices. The truth is that the Defense Department and the services are already caught in this dilemma: Current budgets and forces do not come close to meeting the test of decisive success in these prospective wars, and have no prospect of doing so.
There are risks to a homeland-first approach and shift to a capabilities-based, resource-informed defense strategy aimed at the broader objective of preventing regional hegemony. But, today, U.S. defense planners are working heroically to prop up a zombie strategy that represents the worst of both worlds, neither safeguarding Americans from the things that most directly and urgently imperil their well-being nor assuring victory in distant wars. The United States can deliver the security Americans deserve and expect and achieve our most essential geopolitical aims while discovering new ways to deliver a decisive application of force far from home.
Michael J. Mazarr is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. The views expressed here are his own.