The U.S. Military’s Force-Management Tug-of-War

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Between Russian aggression in Europe, an increasingly assertive and powerful China, and myriad security challenges elsewhere, the U.S. military has its hands full. Rather than confronting this strategy-resource mismatch head-on, however, the Pentagon’s strategic guidance has placed expansive and numerous strategic demands on U.S. forces and failed to clearly link those demands to plausible operational concepts. As a result, defense leaders face a constant dilemma: Absent a major boost in the defense budget, they can’t provide forces for everything, and they also lack the strategic and operational direction they need to consistently prioritize. So, they resort to hedging their bets in various ways. One of the most insidious is to adopt a strategy of “peanut-butter spreading” U.S. forces across the globe.

A key to understanding how this happens is the Pentagon’s arcane Global Force Management System, a classified set of processes first introduced around 2005. The purpose of this system is to dynamically optimize the day-to-day presence of forces around the globe to meet current and future strategic and operational demands at acceptable levels of risk. Within the system, the force-allocation process is designed to allow the secretary of defense to order responsive force movements. Yet these force-allocation decisions are also a main driver of the whiplash effect we see in Defense Department decisions about overseas presence. Planned deployments to establish U.S. presence, or train with partners, for example, can be cut short or cancelled to deal with immediate crises, such as rising tensions in the Middle East. Unplanned deployments can also sap operations and maintenance accounts at the expense of long-term force structure and modernization priorities needed for high-end deterrence against China and Russia.



This is not just a problem for technocrats. In the Pentagon — where processes can drive policy just as often as the reverse — force allocation is a powerful policy lever that should not be overlooked as a target for reform. America’s overseas military presence is a highly visible manifestation of strategic priorities. So, when allocation decisions, in aggregate, fail to support a coherent strategic logic, something ought to change. Reforms should focus on bringing more analytical rigor to the allocation process, passing pending bipartisan legislation to require congressional oversight of force allocation, and reintroducing global force management processes into professional military education.

Global Force Management Allocation Reform: Balancing Agility and Discipline

Force allocation it is inherently dynamic. Every time forces cross combatant command boundaries, the secretary of defense signs orders to execute those force movements. These can be big or small, and can happen many times in a single day. Various stakeholders weigh in on the secretary’s decisions: combatant commanders, the services, and the Joint Staff.

Some critics say the force-allocation process is too agile. Over the course of a year, the rapid-fire movement of forces becomes a strong signal of U.S. strategic priorities, which may align with the Defense Department’s documented strategic priorities, however vaguely they were stated. Some blame the combatant commanders’ voluminous requests for forces for creating a say-do gap between U.S. strategic priorities and the military’s global footprint as reflected in allocation decisions. But the fact is that, within the allocation process, there is a natural, appropriate, and built-in tension between the combatant commanders and the military services, who each prioritize based on their organizational interests. The combatant commanders, on one hand, advocate for the “fight tonight.” They prioritize and advocate for requirements to deter, and if necessary, defeat an adversary in their own area of responsibility. In contrast, the services, which are responsible for organizing, training, and equipping forces, are incentivized to prioritize longer-term strategic readiness and modernization to meet the most pressing threats as outlined in strategic guidance.

Some degree of tension is healthy, but too much can lead to a set of allocation decisions that, in aggregate, lack internal consistency and an overriding strategic logic. Therefore, allocation reforms are needed to mitigate (but not eliminate) this friction, thereby bringing coherence to allocation decision-making. One way to do this is to leverage the disciplining framework mentioned in the Global Posture Review. But a framework that puts restrictions on the secretary or the combatant commanders is not the right approach. At best, it risks being ignored, and, at worst, it might tie the hands of the secretary or put constraints on the combatant commanders’ requests. In other words, too little “discipline” will have no effect, and too much could stifle the tension in the allocation process, which in turn provides the very agility that makes the allocation process such a powerful tool for decision-making.

Instead, the Defense Department should ideally revisit both strategic guidance and the allocation process, which are mutually reinforcing. Defense leaders need to produce a new national defense strategy that provides clear and specific strategic priorities, and they also should do the analytical legwork to figure out how best to achieve those priorities, as recommended by the National Defense Strategy Commission. These changes would have a variety of positive effects on the allocation process, including bringing more coherence and consistency to decisions about force movements. By the same token, allocation-process reforms — made independently and regardless of what the next national defense strategy says — could turn the force-allocation process into a rich resource of data and analysis in support of efforts to add clarity and specificity to strategic goals. In this way, allocation-process reform, in and of itself, can, to some extent, substitute for shortcomings in current national strategic guidance and inform future guidance development.

Show Me the Data

Rather than restricting force-allocation stakeholders, allocation-process reforms should emphasize an analytical approach and increased transparency. The allocation process can become ground zero for building something akin to the “holistic, rigorous, and analytical framework” that Gen. Charles Q. Brown, the U.S. Air Force chief of staff, and Gen. David H. Berger, the U.S. Marine Corps commandant, argue is required to arbitrate between the competing strategic demands. Imposed on force-allocation decision-making, this data-driven approach could sharpen, systematize, and automate some of the information that allocation stakeholders already use to assess force availability, the effects of force movements across combatant commands, and how force movements might affect future force availability as well as readiness and modernization efforts. The goal would be to give force-allocation stakeholders a more comprehensive view of the short- and long-term risks, as well as the benefits and trade-offs associated with various force movements. This would allow them to surface and question their implicit assumptions about their own strategic priorities and how they impact the priorities of others.

Stakeholders in the allocation process have powerful incentives to make certain recommendations to the secretary of defense based on their respective organizational goals and beliefs about the kinds of forces they need to meet strategic objectives. Imposing “strategic discipline” by forcing them to operate within certain rules or a particular framework is, of course, not a panacea — because the incentive to curb their appetite for forces just isn’t there. In the allocation process, the incentives are the opposite. Rather than trying to reverse the tide of these incentives, the Pentagon would be wise to find a way to more constructively empower and resource these stakeholders — the combatant commands, services, and Joint Staff — to build up their analytical capability so that they can actually make a case for forces grounded in more effective and meaningful analysis, and so that others can call them out when the case is clearly not there. The idea is to bring forces into better alignment by giving the allocation stakeholders and the secretary transparent, systematized, empirical evidence to inform these debates about force allocation.

Such an approach could begin with two steps. First, the Defense Department could resource and support combatant commands in efforts to provide more analytically driven requests for forces. To be sure, it is inherently difficult to explain how a particular force movement might contribute to core missions like deterring adversaries and reassuring allies, since the concept depends so heavily on perception, which is vulnerable to spin, among other things. But combatant commands could enlist defense and intelligence agencies, which are already developing methods to identify and analyze data on adversary and ally and partner activities and correlate it with U.S. military activity.

More specifically, collection might involve the use of persistent surveillance technologies, scanning open-source media reporting, and/or compiling post-mission situation reports. As the data set becomes larger and more representative, combatant commands also need to develop new tools to analyze it. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is already experimenting with machine-learning technology to do just that, seeking to correlate adversary and ally activity with U.S. force movements and make sense of that behavior as part of broader trends in the environment. Building this kind of intelligence baseline will require time and resources, and the pattern analysis will have to be done by humans, at least initially. But if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown us anything, it is the importance of developing strategies based on a deep understanding of adversary intent in relation to U.S. and ally military activities — however difficult that may be. Submitting better requests for forces, which more clearly articulate “why we think this will influence other actors, based on past patterns of behavior” is a good start.

The second step would be to give force-allocation stakeholders more information about how various requests for forces, however well-justified, may impact the rest of the global force pool, both in the near term and long term. This effort should build on the Global Force Management Data Initiative. The initiative seeks to aggregate and standardize a plethora of disjointed force-structure authorization systems to provide real-time visibility on the location, readiness, and availability of forces around the world. More than 15 years after its inception, however, it remains a work in progress, in part because it is incredibly difficult to standardize force availability and readiness data across the services. But if the services, the Congress, the secretary of defense, and the Joint Staff made the initiative a priority investment for time and resources, it could become the backbone of Brown and Berger’s call for an analytical framework.

Bolster Transparency, Oversight, and Education

Finally, efforts to improve the rigor behind force-allocation decisions should be accompanied by reforms that aim for greater transparency and oversight. Compared to other top-down processes, such as program management and acquisition systems, the Global Force Management System as a whole may be the “least documented, least governed, least integrated, and have the least oversight.” Congressional oversight of force allocation, in the form of an annual report to Congress and a briefing to lawmakers by the secretary of defense, could help to rectify this. Lawmakers should pass the legislation introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2021 so they can ensure that military force movements, in aggregate, reflect a broader political consensus about how taxpayer dollars should be spent to send powerful signals about U.S. strategic priorities and security commitments.

The Defense Department also should do more to educate military members and civilians about global force management processes. In many cases, a Defense Department employee’s first exposure to these processes is on the job. The chairman’s 2015 instruction on professional military education required officers to learn about global force management, but the revised 2020 instruction removed that language. It would make sense to re-insert that language so that officers and civilians are at least familiar with the system, and its implications, before they are plunged into the process of submitting requests for forces on behalf of their unit.

Carpe Processus

The Defense Department needs to strike a balance between deliberate and agile planning within the Global Force Management System’s force-allocation process. As Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine reminded us, defense policymakers must remain humble about setting strategic objectives in a dangerous and changing world. The force-allocation process accounts for that uncertainty and danger with a flexible, adaptive approach. Yet it also lacks strategic discipline, which is a problem particularly because force allocations are such a highly visible manifestation of U.S. strategic priorities. The Defense Department should therefore seek data-driven reforms to force allocation that preserve its agility while also bolstering analytical rigor. Doing so will not magically align global posture with stated strategic objectives — top-down leadership and concise strategic goals are also needed. But it can ensure that allocation decisions are data driven, documented, and accessible to U.S. lawmakers, the administration, and all defense stakeholders, allowing for a clear-eyed view of costs, benefits, and trade-offs associated with current and future force-resourcing decisions.



Caitlin Lee is the senior fellow for Airpower and Autonomy Studies at the Air Force Association Mitchell Institute. She teaches the Art and Science of Force Planning at Georgetown University, and previously was a political scientist and Associate Director for Acquisition and Technology Policy at RAND Corporation.   

Image: U.S. Army National Guard (Photo by Sgt. Seth LaCount)