On Jan. 5, the Obama administration released its Defense Strategic Guidance document. It provides the administration’s view of the current security environment, the priorities for future US military missions, and guiding principles for organizing the US armed forces. (Note: It does not contain specific recommendations for the US military organization. Those will be released in early February.)
The security environment
Al Qaeda is much less of a threat
In the administration’s view, the death of Osama bin Laden and many other senior leaders means that al Qaeda has been severely degraded. Terrorism by al Qaeda and other associated groups now constitutes a much-reduced threat. What continues to exist has diffused away from the Pakistan-Afghanistan region to other areas around the globe, including Somalia, Yemen, and the Maghreb. Consequently, Afghanistan as a major theater of operations is no longer a high priority, and other areas are of greater concern. As a result, US resources will be drawn down from Afghanistan and redistributed to meet the new threats.
Asia-Pacific will become more important
The Asia region, the arc through East, Southeast, and South Asia, will become much more important both strategically and economically. The central concern is China, which is expected to emerge as a regional power with the potential to affect the economy and security of the US. Europe will become less of a security concern. Cooperation with European countries will continue, but US military priority there will be lowered. The focus for the US conventional military will shift from Europe to Asia.
Although the US military will need capabilities for many different missions, the priority will be placed on organizing the military for the following subset:
- Counterterrorism and irregular warfare
- Deterring and defeating aggression by conventional military forces
- Maintaining a nuclear deterrent
- Defending the homeland
Counterterrorism and irregular warfare
While the battle against terrorism is still important, it will not be fought as a major war with the US in the leading role. It will be prosecuted with more limited means, such as Special Operations Forces actions, drone strikes, and law enforcement activities. For counterinsurgency operations, the US military will no longer be organized to lead large-scale, long-term operations like those in Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead, the military will be sized and organized for smaller-scale missions. In the ideal scenario, the US would be in a supporting role, assisting local forces. This would be done in conjunction with allies who would provide additional support to the local forces.
As previously announced, the US will to continue to draw down operations in Afghanistan. The US troop level will be reduced from today’s 90,000 troops to 67,000 by September 2012, and the level will likely continue to decline to perhaps 15,000 trainers and advisors by the end 2014. At the same time, counterterrorism operations may be initiated in the other areas. As described above, they will be more limited in scope, involve more non-military means, and be conducted in cooperation with allies and partners.
Aggression by conventional military forces
US conventional military forces will be sized to be able to simultaneously fight one major war while fighting a smaller-scale, short-term, or diversionary war somewhere else. The strategic goal is to have the capacity to deter “opportunistic attack.” In other words, if the US becomes engaged in a major military operation, the US will also deter opponents in another region from exploiting the opportunity, by having sufficient forces to deny the objective or impose unacceptable costs. If the US were fighting a major conventional land war in Korea, for example, the US would still have sufficient forces available to repel an attacker’s attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz.
Given the emphasis on Asia Pacific generally and China specifically, it is likely the US will move the bulk of its conventional military forces to the Asia Pacific region, with smaller contingents elsewhere.
Note that this strategic defense guidance is particularly vague. One can imagine a large number of permutations of possible conflicts that each require a different military size and organization.
According to the document, “it is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force.” The administration’s policy will likely be to continue to reduce the US nuclear stockpile, in line with the “New START” Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty negotiated and ratified with Russia, with negotiations for further reductions possible.
Military structure: guiding principles
Cost-effectiveness will become a central issue in planning US forces and operations. The US will use “innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities.”
Reversibility and regenerative ability
The administration concedes that the future is highly uncertain. The US cannot definitively say any capability will not be needed. However, the US also cannot afford to maintain robust capabilities in all areas. Therefore, US forces will retain capabilities in a broad range of areas, but some capabilities will be reduced to a reserve force level and structure with the assumption that they can be rebuilt if needed in the future. (The specific capabilities affected have not yet been identified.)
This strategy is essentially a tradeoff between cost versus deployment readiness. Generally, it is cheaper to maintain a reserve force than a ready one. But a reserve force cannot be immediately deployed; time and additional resources are needed to rebuild a reserve into a deployable capability.
Partners and allies
Missions in the future will attempt to include partners and/or allies in some way. “Building partnership capacity will be important for sharing the costs and responsibilities of global leadership.” The document cites India as one such example: “The United States is also investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.”
The tradeoff here is between cost and flexibility. While this “burden sharing” cuts the cost, it also constrains US operations to areas where we have a readily available partner. This partnership scenario cannot always be assumed to exist, however, which means the tradeoff creates significant burdens and risks for US strategic options.
Commentary: forward to the past
In many ways, this strategic defense guidance document charts a return to the US defense strategy of the 1990s, the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 era. At that time, the size and budget for the US military were reduced. The military was being reorganized for smaller-scale operations, with larger operations dependent on the mobilization of reserve forces. A nuclear arms reduction treaty was being negotiated with Russia. China was the up and coming threat. And fighting terrorism was a law enforcement issue, not a war.