Falling Budgets, Emerging Threats: A U.S. Defense Plan for the 21st Century

F/A-18s launch from the USS John C. Stennis (DoD Photo).

Great power war, though its possibility is frequently discounted, remains the main threat for which the military should prepare. It presents the most dangers to American interests and requires the most preparation. The need to deal with a rival great power—Russia and especially China—will thus be the focus of future R&D and force structuring. However, the modern world has seen other types of confrontation come to the fore. Insurgencies, terror movements, and lesser powers have been quite willing to confront the major states, and major states have been willing to use these forces to confront one another by proxy.

Major power-lesser power confrontations, like the 1991 and 2003 American wars against Iraq or the 2008 Russian war against Georgia, remain a concern. Iran and North Korea, though quiet at present, could easily boil over into open conflict; in the longer term, the Subcontinent or one of the Mediterranean powers could also present situations in which American policymakers will want to have the option of forceful intervention. However, forces designed for major power confrontation have proven largely effective against medium powers—the use of the Cold War-structured U.S. military against Iraq in 1991 is an excellent example of their relative effectiveness.

Asymmetric forces like insurgencies and terror movements are in fact the threat that the U.S. will be most regularly confronting in the mid-21st century. Globalization has made national governments weaker and less legitimate and made forces of instability, like organized criminal groups, more powerful. Local troubles can produce global challenges—for instance, weapons from Gaddafi’s stocks have begun to show up in Gaza, have likely spread to many other places, and could remain on the market for a generation. However, globalization is not the biggest security challenge of the mid-21st century—the rapidly growing planet is. Populations are expanding most rapidly in the countries least prepared to cope with so many extra citizens. Resources like water and oil will be in much greater demand, even though in many areas we are pushing the boundaries of extraction. Meanwhile, climate change is expanding deserts, altering growing seasons, pushing back coastlines, and creating extreme weather.

The net effect of all this? A world population that is more vulnerable, more migratory, and more armed. A typical American administration in this century’s fourth or fifth decade may find itself faced with repeated crises affecting key allies, crises so deeply rooted that America will not be able to completely solve them and so complex that risks of entanglement and “mission creep” are high. Many struggles will hug the boundaries between warfare and mere unrest, forcing policymakers to adopt a carefully measured approach.

These new global challenges will be paralleled by domestic difficulties. America’s population is graying. Programs like Social Security and Medicare are set to take up a growing portion of the budget, while rising deficits will force the government to pay more to service its debts. Cuts to the defense budget are inevitable. America’s military will be asked to do more with less. To make matters worse, the structural problems facing America are even deeper in America’s European allies. Many of these states are already struggling to maintain reasonable defense budgets; as their populations age, expenditures on social programs will approach 50% of GDP, leaving little room for funding even basic government operations. The coming decades will see a continued European retreat from the world stage.

New alliances will be formed with emerging regional powers, countries like India, Vietnam, and Ethiopia. Sharing security burdens with them will be important. However, these allies tend to have poorly developed militaries. They will thus require assistance in order to become effective defenders of our common interests.

How can the services prepare for this new era? One key principle that can be applied to all services is backfilling. The military must obviously maintain advanced capabilities like low-RCS aircraft and theater missile defense to deal with great powers. However, in other confrontations they are only needed in the first days of a conflict. After this initial phase, they become a major liability due to large logistical tails and high operating costs. For example, during the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, analysts suggested that the people of Libya should be glad that the United States had not used its cutting-edge F-22 in their cause, as it would soak up maintenance hours and supply chain volume to the detriment of more appropriate platforms. We must remember that expensive, high-tech tools are not America’s only military advantage. For all its faults, the American military remains one of the best-trained and most professional forces in the world. An exceptionally well-organized force with less advanced equipment can perform the same missions at a lower cost while providing volume behind high-tech “tip of the spear” forces.


A Super Tucano light attack aircraft of the Dominican Air Force. (Image via Defense Industry Daily)

The F-22 and F-35 may well be the only aircraft that are survivable in a modern contested aerial battlefield. Modern SAM systems like the Russian S-300 family have never seen combat, but they appear to be light-years ahead of their predecessors; coupled with modern fighter aircraft like the Flanker series, major power enemies will be able to prevent American aerial dominance in the early stages of a conflict. However, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have both seen a prominent role for air power in airspace that is essentially uncontested. In this environment, fast-moving, fuel-guzzling aircraft are inefficient, as they carry light payloads, have limited utility for observation, and cannot remain on station for long. Aircraft like the A-10 and helicopters like the AH-64 have played the most important roles, but even these are a stopgap solution. The U.S. Air Force in fact lacks a true counterinsurgency aircraft, a gap not found in even the most basic Third World air forces. This is easy and cheap to remedy—there are many viable designs already in active use, and they could certainly be modified to accommodate more advanced weapons like the Small Diameter Bomb and, even more appropriate for the light attack role, the APKWS rocket.

The Air Force may already have found its light attack aircraft. Drones like the MQ-9 Reaper offer light, precision munitions coupled with endurance and observation capabilities unmatchable by human aircrews. They are also extraordinarily cheap and do not place human aircrews in harm’s way. This has made them ideally suited to the small wars and half-wars that the U.S. confronts—hence, for instance, their role in Pakistan and Yemen. Drones and light attack aircraft can fill in behind more advanced systems, boosting sortie rates while cutting costs.


U.S. Army fuel trucks practice convoy operations in Virginia. (DoD photo)

The Army will not be ideally suited to confronting the many challenges of the mid-21st century. So many locales will invite intervention that the force could quickly be stretched thin and be unable to deter threats against more immediate national interests. Even with its leadership trained in counterinsurgency, the Army is a blunt, heavy instrument that will yield more cost increases than returns in most operations. Many of the land force tasks will be best performed by special forces.

However, the regular Army can make one improvement that will increase its effectiveness in both conventional and asymmetric wars. The logistical demands of American land forces are incredible and significantly surpass those of past militaries in past wars. The vulnerability of the supply chains in Iraq and Afghanistan should be ample lesson to those who question the military consequences of supply chain inflation. Much attention has been given to obvious excesses, like fast food restaurants in war zone mess halls. However, this is only a fraction of the problem. Military fuel consumption is massive. Long convoys of fuel trucks daily wend their way through rural Pakistan to American bases in Afghanistan, creating a target for not only Taliban allies but for ambitious warlords and common bandits. The Army must find all possible ways to lighten its footprint; reducing fuel consumption is the most obvious but perhaps not the easiest.

Marines take cover under fire in Afghanistan. (DoD photo)

The necessity of the Marine Corps has at times been questioned. Amphibious assaults have played a minor role in recent wars, and a fourth branch is one more mouth to feed at procurement time. However, the history and fighting spirit of the Marines are assets whose value cannot be readily quantified for a budget table, and eliminating an entire branch of the military, however pragmatic it may seem, is simply not politically realistic. The Corps is here to stay.

At the same time, the military as a whole has seen a proliferation of special operations units. Some have explicitly tactical purposes, but others are intended to blend seamlessly into foreign environments while preparing local forces to fight. This latter mission will become more and more critical as budget cuts reduce the U.S. profile overseas, and as the forces discussed at the beginning of this paper create new non-state insecurities. Special forces will play a vital role in ensuring that the 21st century’s many foreign insecurities are dealt with primarily by foreign troops. However, special forces units are frequently drawn away from their liaison mission to conduct raids for regular units, and they are further hampered by a lack of unity of command that must be overcome by each new USSOCOM head.

Perhaps it is time for a merger between the Marines and SOCOM. The Corps would shrink; Marine Aviation would be transformed as special aviation units move in and ground attack units are absorbed into the Navy and Army. Regular units would serve as a primary recruiting base for the special units. (If we wish to truly think outside the box, the direct civilian-to-Marine recruitment process could be ended, and the Marines could recruit volunteers from other services much as special forces units recruit now.) Special units would be merged by function. This merger would give the Marine Corps a new raison d’être in line with its elite tradition and the special units an opportunity to work and train together—as they already do—without the complexities of joint operation.


An AV-8B Harrier II aboard the USS Kearsarge during Operation Odyssey Dawn. (USAFRICOM image)

The Navy will likely change the least to adapt to the new era. America’s isolated location and global economy mean that a strong Navy is its most fundamental security asset. Carrier groups will be the backbone of rapid responses to sudden global crises and of long-term management for ongoing challenges. These thus qualify as the “tip of the spear” forces needed to deal with great powers as much as with other threats, and should not be subjected to deep cuts. Lighter ships like the Wasp class could plausibly provide some “backfill.” The USS Kearsarge and its compliment of AV-8Bs was the only American “carrier” used in the 2011 Libya intervention, a role it was able to take thanks to support from aircraft based in nearby friendly states. If these lighter carriers can become specialists in deploying helicopters, drones, and light attack aircraft, they may find themselves in very high demand, perhaps even reducing the need for intrusive and expensive bases.

It can be reasonably argued that the backfill approach is a “hollowing-out” of American military might. Some frontline units will no longer enjoy extreme technological superiority over all possible challengers. However, this is not a perfectly apt counter. There are many cases in which this superiority is a liability—the F-35, for instance, would almost certainly be poorly suited to the style of ground attack in vogue in Afghanistan, and its low radar cross section would be irrelevant. For the cost of one F-35, the Air Force could purchase eight A-10s or a dozen Super Tucanos; just one of either aircraft would be at least as effective as the F-35 and have lower operating costs.

In fact, the current paradigm all but guarantees a true “hollowing-out.” With shrinking budgets and rising prices, the military will experience a rapid decline in strength. Without some backfill units operating at lower costs with cheaper technologies, the military will be forced to further reduce its size or to undersupply its units. This military will remain ill suited to confronting 21st century threats, meaning interventions abroad will be carried out at high cost and low effect; this will further dilute American strength. With backfill, the military will improve its abilities against 21st century threats while more or less maintaining its strength relative to rival great powers; the strengthened USSOCOM and light attack aircraft could even facilitate creating entangling proxy conflicts for those rivals. The spearpoint-and-backfill approach thus does not hollow out the military—it shrinks it around a more solid core.


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Filed under Terrorism, The West

One response to “Falling Budgets, Emerging Threats: A U.S. Defense Plan for the 21st Century

  1. Pingback: The World Is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century |

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