The Military of the Future
Time to Restructure U.S. Defense Forces
Shifting resources to invest in new technologies is vital for creating the lean, mean fighting force needed to counter emerging threats.
With the election behind us, the Pentagon is gearing up to conduct a congressionally required top-to-bottom review of its six-year, $1.5-trillion program. In doing so, it will confront a number of difficult decisions about the size and structure of the armed forces. The United States must continue to field large, diverse forces to carry out today’s missions. Yet at the same time, we need to spend a substantially greater amount than we do today on new systems, both to meet the emerging challenges posed by potential adversaries and to renew the military’s existing capital stock. In an era of tight resources and competing priorities, it is unlikely that future budgets will be sufficient to support the force structure we field today.
The structure of today’s forces leaves little margin for error: “less of the same”–a smaller version of today’s force–will not be enough to support the ambitious national security strategy that this nation must pursue if the world is to evolve in ways favorable to our interests. Investments in new technology and operational concepts can, however, pave the way for a smaller, yet more effective fighting force. If defense planners are willing to restructure the armed forces–rather than simply cutting them across the board–they can free up resources that are badly needed to modernize the U.S. military and equip it to meet the most serious challenges it is likely to face in the future. To do so, however, will require foresight, leadership, and a willingness to challenge powerful bureaucratic and political interests.
Maintaining a “win-win” strategy
One can argue that the United States’ most important export is not aerospace products, computers, or agricultural commodities but security. Following World War II, this country emerged as the sole power that could extend credible security guarantees to other nations threatened by large-scale aggression. And in the post-Cold War world, the importance of American alliances has not diminished. For better or worse, only the United States today has the capacity to organize effective responses to regional threats such as those posed by Iraq, Iran, North Korea, China, and the nations of the former Yugoslavia.
To maintain our role as a credible security partner, U.S. forces must be capable of conducting a wide range of operations, from deterring or defeating overt aggression to intervening in local disputes and fighting international terrorism. As a nation with important interests at stake in multiple regions, the United States needs the capacity to handle more than one conflict at once. As a result, U.S. strategy in the post-Cold War era has called for maintaining a force capable of fighting and winning two major regional conflicts nearly simultaneously.
Among defense professionals, the conventional wisdom holds that today’s forces are already very close to the margin in terms of this capability, and some conservative critics have questioned whether they are actually adequate to the task. If this is correct, then any cuts in U.S. forces would mean abandoning the “two-MRC” posture. Alternative goals might be maintaining the capability to fight “one and a half wars” (a major war and a small-scale conflict) or pursuing a “win-hold-win” strategy (maintaining the capability to fight a war in one region while holding off aggression in another until the first operation is complete).
Adopting a more modest approach to U.S. force structure, however, could inflict serious damage to the United States’ standing internationally. None of our allies would want to depend on an alliance with a country that, once engaged in a conflict elsewhere, could no longer defend their interests. This perceived weakness would risk inviting aggression and undermine the credibility of U.S. security assurances, which in turn could prompt friendly regimes to adopt a more independent posture, thus weakening the network of alliances needed to support U.S. interests and operations abroad.
The principal dilemma facing the next secretary of defense, then, is how to maintain a two-war capability in the face of declining or, at best, static budgets. The problem is made worse by the fact that each of the armed services is faced with the need to renew its capital stock. Most of the United States’ current fleet of fighter aircraft became operational in the 1970s and were built in the 1970s and 1980s. The same is true for the Navy’s ships and the Army’s tanks and armored fighting vehicles. By 2015, the bulk of these services’ major weapons platforms will be 30 years old or more. A growing share of the DOD budget, then, will need to be devoted to capital investment, leaving even less to sustain the force structure now in place.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it is possible for DOD to reconcile the need to reduce some forces with the objective of maintaining the capability to fight two major, nearly simultaneous, wars. Even if today’s forces are only marginally capable of undertaking this mission, there are strong reasons to believe that a smaller force–if it is the right one–can accomplish the same goals. Its success, however, will depend on how well it is positioned operationally and technologically to meet the emerging challenges posed by potential adversaries around the world.
Constraints and challenges
The capabilities and structure of U.S. forces must reflect the unusual constraints imposed by our role as an exporter of international security. To begin with, U.S. forces must be prepared to deploy and fight far from home. Many of our most important interests–and most of the powers that threaten them–lie in Eurasia. The United States must therefore maintain an expensive supply infrastructure that permits a rapid expeditionary operation.
Conflicts involving less-than-vital U.S. interests pose a particular challenge. Americans have had the luxury of rarely having to fight for truly vital interests–that is, those in which the future shape or governance of the nation is at stake. By contrast, our adversaries frequently fight for such high stakes. This asymmetry means that we will very often find that our adversaries are prepared to withstand a great deal of punishment in wartime–a fact that will test our resolve and staying power.
Together, these conditions–expeditionary operations and asymmetric stakes–call for military capabilities that are clearly superior to those of any other nation. It is as if our team always has to play “away” games and is expected to win consistently by lopsided margins. Such capabilities do not come cheaply. Retaining them in the future will be costly as potential adversaries improve their military capabilities.
Not surprisingly, the most serious future challenges are those that exploit U.S. sensitivities to casualties and the need to deploy troops and supplies rapidly across great distances. One key challenge is posed by weapons of mass destruction. Any determined, mid-sized state has the wherewithal to create nuclear warheads, lethal chemical agents, or biological weapons. They will also find it increasingly easy to purchase or develop ballistic and cruise missiles to deliver these weapons. In the hands of an adversary, these weapons have the potential to call into question the viability of U.S. military strategy and operations.
Replay the Gulf War imagining that Saddam Hussein had access to such weapons. Would the Saudi royal family have permitted U.S. forces to operate from their territory, knowing that Iraq could retaliate by killing tens of thousands of civilians in Dhahran or Riyadh? Would the United States even have been willing to put its own forces at risk? It is not hard to imagine that the international response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait might have gone another way.
Of course, the United States and its allies can (and should) threaten to retaliate massively against those who use weapons of mass destruction. But that may be little comfort to those threatened most directly by such weapons and, given the asymmetries in stakes mentioned above, may not be sufficient to deter their use. We must therefore develop far better capabilities to defend against these weapons and to detect and destroy them before they can be used.
Potential adversaries are also acquiring new conventional weapons, some of which have the potential to create serious problems for U.S. and allied forces. For example, antiship cruise missiles launched in large numbers from aircraft or mobile launchers on the ground could pose a serious threat to shipping and naval forces in critical areas such as the Persian Gulf and the Taiwan Straits. Modern antiship mines and submarines also represent a growing challenge. If U.S. and allied forces are not able to neutralize such threats promptly in a future crisis or conflict, they could, at a minimum, impede the flow of forces and supplies to a threatened region for critical days or weeks, opening a window of opportunity for aggression. Similarly, increasingly capable surface-to-air missiles, such as the Russian-made SA-10, can threaten U.S. and allied air operations, such as transporting troops or supplies, conducting reconnaissance, patrolling the skies, or delivering firepower.
With access to these advanced weapons, our enemies can threaten modern combat ships or aircraft without having to replicate the enormous U.S. investment in these platforms–investments that are clearly beyond the reach of most. Nor do they have to defeat U.S. forces decisively in order to achieve important objectives: It may be sufficient to threaten heavy casualties on U.S. forces or to delay their arrival while the attacking forces move to seize key objectives, confronting us with a fait accompli.
The emerging operational challenges posed by weapons of mass destruction and advanced conventional weapons cannot be met by deploying more soldiers or buying more of the current generation of tanks, planes, or ships. Indeed, populating the battlefield with more Americans is, in many circumstances, exactly the opposite of what is called for. Instead, the answer lies in developing new technological capabilities and the operational concepts for employing them. Exploiting the full potential of these advances will have a profound effect on how we structure forces and conduct military operations.
Concepts and capabilities
Following is a list of the most important new capabilities for a restructured military. Together, they offer the potential to counter effectively the most serious challenges that potential adversaries might pose to U.S. and allied forces in a future conflict.
Layered defenses against intermediate-range (“theater”) missiles. Preventing the effective use of theater ballistic missiles will require a multidimensional approach. First, we will want to develop and deploy more effective missile defenses. The bulk of our investment in this area is in systems such as Patriot, Theater High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD), and Aegis Upper Tier that intercept missiles in the terminal and mid-course phases of flight. These defenses can be overwhelmed by equipping each offensive missile with a number of canisters containing chemical or biological weapons payloads. When released from the missile in mid-course, these cannisters create multiple targets, each of which must be intercepted separately.
To overcome this problem, we need systems that can intercept ballistic missiles earlier, during the boost phase. Two approaches appear feasible: an airborne laser, now being developed by the Air Force, and high-speed missiles, also launched from an airborne platform. One or both of these approaches should be funded as a high priority.
Second, we must improve our abilities to locate and destroy enemy weapons before they are launched. This involves enhancing reconnaissance capabilities for finding mobile missile launchers (“Scud hunting”) as well as stocks of nuclear, chemical, and biological warheads. We also need to develop better warheads for penetrating earth and concrete, in order to destroy the underground shelters in which weapons are often stored to evade airborne detection and attack.
Finally, to counter the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, U.S. forces must be able to deliver effective firepower from bases or platforms that are located far beyond enemy territory or are immune from enemy attack. Examples of the former are long-range attack aircraft, often supported by aerial refueling aircraft; examples of the latter are stealthy aircraft and submarines equipped with cruise missiles.
Advanced reconnaissance platforms and sensors. Timely, high-quality information on the enemy’s capabilities, intentions, position, and movements provides tremendous leverage to a military force: Commanders with “information dominance” can concentrate their forces where they are most needed, confident that they will not be surprised by enemy maneuvers. A new generation of reconnaissance platforms and sensors will greatly enhance the quality of information available to U.S. commanders. Smaller and more affordable synthetic aperture radars will allow us to observe phenomena on the ground during day or night and under all weather conditions. Satellite and airborne data links will allow the data acquired by these and other sensors to be passed at once to assessment centers anywhere in the world. And unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) equipped with sensors that “stare” at the battlefield for extended periods of time (as opposed to sweeping by once or twice a day on satellites), can help ensure that even small changes in the disposition of enemy forces are detected.
“Smart” weapons. Advanced reconnaissance capabilities also allow us to capture the synergy between information and munitions. Accurate information about targets allows a force to make the best possible use of precision (“smart”) weapons. Together these capabilities allow us to achieve most important military objectives without inflicting unwanted damage on civilians. In addition, air-delivered firepower and long-range artillery can destroy enemy maneuver forces before they get within striking range of our forces. Recent and incipient advances in precision guidance, sensing, and decisionmaking algorithms have multiplied the effectiveness of our munitions by an order of magnitude or more.
Suppressing enemy air defenses. Essential to all of these advances is the freedom to operate in the air. Aircraft and spacecraft allow sensors to look deep into enemy territory; afford opportunities to quickly deliver firepower against fleeting targets; and make it possible to operate throughout the area under enemy control without first having to defeat opposing ground forces. Accordingly, gaining and maintaining freedom of action in the air and space–and denying it to the enemy–will constitute one of a commander’s highest priorities.
The chief threat to U.S. air superiority in most future conflicts is posed by surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). It is essential, therefore, that U.S. forces have the capability to suppress and destroy these quickly. For decades to come, the bulk of our military aircraft will not possess the radar-evading qualities of the F-117 or B-2 “stealth” bombers. So defeating enemy surface-to-air threats will involve a combination of some stealth; standoff attack weapons that can be launched from beyond the range of surface-to-air missiles; and weapons that are optimized to suppress and destroy those missiles, their tracking and guidance radars, and the facilities devoted to controlling their operations.
One promising concept now emerging for this latter function is a high-powered microwave weapon. Using nonnuclear means, such weapons may be capable of generating sufficient flux to disable permanently the circuitry of nearby SAM tracking and guidance gear, as well as computers and communications equipment.
This emphasis on surface-to-air threats is not intended to minimize the problems posed by enemy air-to-air fighters and missiles. These are considerable and growing, but current U.S. modernization plans–notably the development of the Air Force’s F-22 fighter aircraft– seem sufficient for dealing with such threats.
Firepower and maneuver
These new capabilities and operational concepts should beget commensurate changes in our notion of what constitutes a balanced force structure. In particular, we need to rethink the relationship between firepower and maneuver. In traditional concepts of land warfare, it is said that “firepower enables maneuver.” Long-range firepower is employed to suppress the activities of the enemy force while maneuvering one’s forces into position to destroy the enemy at close range. The “indirect” fire provided by long-range artillery and aircraft was regarded as useful chiefly to prevent enemy forces from maneuvering, complicate their resupply efforts, or induce shock that might temporarily reduce their effectiveness. But only close, “direct” fires–such as those from rifles, tanks, or, more recently, guided antitank missiles–possessed the accuracy and lethality needed to defeat the enemy decisively. The ability to maneuver these forces into position was the essential precondition for victory. Maneuver forces have also been useful as a source of information about the enemy. By standing on a piece of ground, one could be fairly sure that it was not occupied by the enemy. From any greater distance, one could be fooled.
All of that is changing. Today, advances in technology enable us to locate and identify enemy ground forces at long range and with high confidence, at least in some types of terrain. Having located enemy forces, it is also possible to attack them from long range with levels of lethality approaching or exceeding those of earlier close-fire systems.
For example, the crews of fighter-bombers in the 1970s were trained to go looking for enemy tank columns. Their primary means of surveillance was the human eye, an approach that was not generally effective at night or in conditions of poor visibility. Even during the day, it was dangerous activity: Air defense systems frequently accompanying the tank columns were fairly effective against aircraft flying higher than a few hundred feet above the ground. When crews were lucky enough to find an enemy force, they dropped bombs that were largely ineffective in destroying tanks. It might take 10 or more canisters of unguided antitank munitions–the payload of several aircraft–to have high confidence of destroying a single tank.
Today, every aspect of this mission has changed significantly, and mostly to the detriment of the tank. Systems such as the Joint STARS surveillance aircraft and UAVs with multi-spectral imaging capabilities can locate enemy vehicles 100 or more kilometers away, day or night, and under all atmospheric conditions. Increasing numbers of fighter-bombers have similarly effective target detection and engagement systems on board. And improvements in capabilities to suppress, confuse, and destroy surface-to-air defenses allow U.S. and allied aircraft to operate with greater confidence over the battlefield.
Finally, today’s air-delivered ordnance is far more effective than the bombs used 10 or 20 years ago. Self-guiding antitank weapons, for example, can achieve multiple kills per pass. It is now possible to think in terms of kills per sortie rather than sorties per kill. Soon, artillery and missiles will also be able to deliver smart submunitions with comparable effectiveness.
In light of these breakthroughs, it should not be surprising that the traditional division of labor between fire and maneuver is changing. If our forces can see, identify, attack, and destroy enemy forces at long range, the necessity to maneuver–to close and fight at short range–is greatly diminished, at least under some conditions. The advantage is that battles, campaigns, and wars may be fought more quickly and with far less risk of casualties. Lighter and more mobile U.S. forces can accomplish more than before, and fewer Americans need be exposed to the most lethal forms of enemy firepower.
The long view
In order to achieve critical advances in firepower and to field other critical capabilities, including ballistic missile defense, information dominance, and effective suppression of enemy air defenses, we must find a way to pay for them. As is so often the case, the budgetary and political obstacles to progress are more daunting than the technological and physical ones. Put simply, there is not enough money to sustain the Pentagon’s current force structure, to recapitalize all of it, and to invest in the development and procurement of the most important new hardware.
DOD leaders estimate that, in order to finance an adequate modernization, the department must increase spending on new equipment by at least 50 percent, from $40 billion per year to about $60 billion. We have gotten by over the past few years because the defense buildup of the 1980s financed extensive modernization and because the post-Cold War drawdown has allowed the services to retire their oldest pieces of equipment while retaining the newest. Obviously, this is not a process that can go on forever.
The three most obvious places within the defense budget to find money for new investments are reform in the department’s procurement practices, cuts in defense infrastructure, and the elimination of military units with marginal missions. Indeed, Secretary of Defense William Perry has claimed that the military can save enough money in these three areas to support new investment without requiring force cuts. The problem, however, is that none of these savings can be realized in the short term.
The Pentagon, working with Congress, has made a concerted effort over the past four years to reduce the complexity of its byzantine procurement regulations and the staffs needed to implement them. As more of the military’s goods and services are purchased via more efficient mechanisms, it is reasonable to expect that DoD could save $5 to $10 billion or more annually. But it will take years to achieve these efficiencies.
Similarly, cuts in defense infrastructure–military bases, depots, arsenals, medical facilities and staffs, and other support assets–have proven notoriously difficult to achieve. Such assets are politically popular, and the military services themselves sometimes have only a vague notion of the relationship between expenditures on infrastructure and the performance of their forces. Estimates of overcapacity vary depending on the criteria applied: For instance, the Air Force has far more ramp space and runways than it needs for the number of planes it flies, but its access to air space and bombing ranges is far more constrained. By any measure, however, more rounds of base closure are surely justified for all of the services.
Closing a major base can save roughly $50 million per year. But squeezing money out of infrastructure will be a long process: Often, up-front costs must be paid before savings are realized; environmental cleanup and disposal requirements and the need to relocate facilities and personnel mean that it can take two to three years or more before closing a base begins to yield net savings; and costly incentive packages may be needed to get personnel out of the workforce early.
Finally, a determined effort to cut the combat formations of the Army National Guard could save upwards of $2 billion annually with no loss of useful military capabilities. There are more than 40 combat brigades in the Army National Guard–10 more than the entire active-duty Army–and they comprise well over half of the Guard’s 370,000 personnel. These units have no compelling wartime mission; it would take many months for them to become proficient in combat maneuver operations. At the same time, since most of them are equipped with tanks and armored fighting vehicles, they are poorly suited to conducting potentially useful domestic operations, such as providing disaster relief or maintaining law and order in emergencies. Army National Guard leaders have recently agreed to reconfigure 12 of these brigades from combat units into much-needed support and logistics functions, but there remain far more units than are likely to be needed. At best, one could rationalize retaining a handful of combat brigades in the Guard as a hedge against the remote possibility of a future large-scale war or an occupation of long duration.
Despite these obvious inefficiencies, cutting the Army National Guard is likely to a be politically difficult and therefore protracted process. The National Guard has a strong base of support in Congress. In fact, the conventional wisdom has been that no administration can win this fight. However, at a time when serious new threats loom and pressures to cut the deficit have led Congress to take billions from such programs as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, one hopes that the conventional wisdom is wrong.
With sustained high-level attention and the expenditure of considerable political capital, it may be possible to divert tens of billions of dollars annually into R&D and modernization accounts. In many cases, DoD has begun to move in these directions. But even with accelerated progress in these areas, the bulk of the savings is years away, while the challenges facing our forces are growing. Hence, as is so often the case in times of budgetary reductions, the defense leadership needs to find “fast money.” In light of this, some cuts in military forces appear unavoidable.
The law of organizational inertia states that unless acted upon by an outside force, bureaucracies will always take the path of least resistance. With respect to managing a declining defense budget, the path of least resistance is to cut everything proportionately. This time-honored approach implicitly assumes a static conception of the conduct of military operations. Indeed, the overall balance of air, ground, naval, and amphibious forces today is much the same as it was a generation ago. The trouble is that emerging threats to U.S. forces and emerging concepts for addressing such threats affect our forces unevenly. An across-the-board cut risks reducing those forces and systems that contribute the most to defeating future challenges while retaining forces that contribute less.
A fresh appraisal of the demands of future theater warfare, emerging threats, and the opportunities presented by new technologies suggests that a U.S. military posture that exploited advances in firepower more fully could, within limits, trade off technology for some mass. In particular, it seems reasonable to expect that, under many conditions, U.S. commanders in future conflicts will be able to achieve their objectives with fewer heavily mechanized divisions. Fully six of the Army’s 10 active divisions fall into this category (the remainder are light infantry, airborne, and air mobile divisions) and they account for a disproportionate share of the service’s expenditures. This is where the brunt of the restructuring should occur.
Of course, a force posture that includes modern, highly trained, and ready maneuver forces will always be needed. Confronting an enemy with a combined force that includes tanks and other armored vehicles compels the enemy to counterattack with heavy forces. This, in turn, imposes on the enemy costs in terms of time, logistics requirements, and speed, all of which can give U.S. forces time to reinforce and prepare a stronger defense. And if an enemy leader, such as Saddam Hussein, refuses to withdraw his forces from a battlefield on which they are being pummeled, heavy maneuver forces may be needed to compel that withdrawal. One can also conceive of situations in which terrain, cover, or clever enemy tactics might blunt the effectiveness of modern surveillance and firepower systems. Nevertheless, if resource constraints necessitate some cuts in active duty forces, cutting some heavy maneuver forces and their associated overhead and support elements would seem to be one of the least risky options.
Judicious cuts in this area could yield savings of several billion dollars per year in the near term, which could be applied to high-priority modernization programs. If, over the longer term, commensurate progress is made in reforming procurement practices, streamlining infrastructure, and disbanding unneeded reserve formations, we can provide U.S. forces with the capabilities they need without cutting heavily into force structure. In this way, a force somewhat smaller than today’s could remain capable of defeating two major regional adversaries in concurrent operations, even as those adversaries field new capabilities aimed at blunting many of the advantages our forces of today enjoy. The alternatives–cutting budgets and forces across the board, settling for a scaled-back strategy, or continuing to starve modernization accounts–are surely riskier.
David Ochmanek, a defense analyst in Washington, D.C., served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy from 1993 to 1995.