Restructuring the Military

U.S. armed forces are unmatched on the conventional battlefield but far less prepared to deal with the emerging irregular or nontraditional challenges they are most likely to confront in the years ahead.

After more than five years of war in Iraq and almost seven in Afghanistan, the U.S. military is facing a crisis not seen since the end of the Vietnam War. Equipment shortages, manpower shortfalls, recruiting and retention problems, and misplaced budget priorities have resulted in a military barely able to meet the challenges the United States faces today and dangerously ill-prepared to handle future challenges.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks demonstrated that the most immediate threat to the United States is not from a conventional nation-state adversary but from an enemy that operates without regard for national borders and aims to surprise it with deadly attacks on its homeland and its interests around the globe. These attacks, and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, have also demonstrated that a weakly governed state or region half a world away could pose a direct threat to U.S security.

The purpose of U.S. military power must be first and foremost to ensure the safety and security of the American people. In an era of globalization, however, homeland security will sometimes be adversely affected by events far from home. The United States will therefore continue to find itself in situations in which it is compelled to use its military power. Although caution must always be exercised when deploying troops abroad, the United States must recognize that its military will continue to be a force in high demand.

Yet today the military is lopsided. Its forces are being ground down by low-tech insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the most immediate threat confronting the United States is a terrorist network that possesses no tanks or aircraft. Meanwhile, the Pentagon—the world’s largest bureaucracy—remains fixated largely on addressing the problems and challenges of a bygone era. This focus has left the military unmatched on the conventional battlefield but less prepared to deal with the emerging irregular or nontraditional challenges that the United States is most likely to confront.

As operations in Iraq eventually draw to a close, the United States must plot a new strategic direction for its military. Three areas are critical. First, the military must restructure, reform, and invest in new priorities in order to regain strategic balance and become more adept at four kinds of irregular or nontraditional missions: counterterrorism operations that seek to deny terrorist networks havens from which to operate; stability and reconstruction missions that seek to rebuild nations and restore order to regions where chaos reigns; counterinsurgency operations that seek to eliminate a hostile force by winning the support of the public; and humanitarian missions that seek to alleviate the suffering caused by natural or human-made disasters. Second, the military must develop a more integrated approach across all government agencies and with its allies and partners. Third, it must make investing in people, not hardware, its highest defense priority.

Militaries are notoriously resistant to change and therefore difficult to reform, but the current crisis presents the United States with the real opportunity to move the military in a new and better direction. The military faced a similar crisis in the wake of Vietnam, and as a result was able to dramatically restructure itself. It abandoned the draft and created the professional all-volunteer military; it invested in the training and development of its personnel through initiatives such as the Navy’s Top Gun program that enabled the United States to have a smaller, more effective fighting force; and it adjusted its force posture. How the United States rebuilds its military after Iraq is likely to shape its future and the security of the nation for a generation.

Fighting the last war

Although the Bush administration has repeatedly claimed that 9/11 changed everything, almost nothing has changed in terms of military strategy, force structure, and spending priorities. Since 9/11, the Pentagon’s civilian leadership has canceled only two major weapons programs, both for the Army. Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to invest billions of dollars in developing the latest high-tech weaponry, which has little relevance to the fight against the terrorist networks and the irregular forms of warfare now confronting the United States.

The failure to shift budget priorities after 9/11 was not merely a case of inept management but was more a byproduct of the administration’s ideological and strategic vision of military transformation. Despite the fact that the United States repeatedly engaged in stability and peacekeeping operations during the 1990s in places such as Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the Pentagon and the Bush administration viewed operations in weak and failing states as a distraction from planning for “real” conventional operations.

The administration pointed to a vision of the military drawn from the rapid victory in the first Persian Gulf War, in which U.S. firepower, mixed with new high-tech precision-guided weaponry, quickly and decisively destroyed the Iraqi army. After the war, some military planners contended that advances in information technology and precision munitions would transform warfare. Through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, satellite technology, and other advances that would connect the troops on the battlefield to each other as well as to commanders back at the base, U.S. forces would operate with perfect vision of the battlefield, allowing U.S. forces to see the enemy before the enemy could see them. This effort would virtually eliminate the “fog of war” and allow the United States to achieve “information dominance,” resulting in near-perfect decisionmaking, thus allowing U.S. forces to rapidly and decisively destroy enemy targets with precision-guided munitions.

In this vision, future warfare would be determined largely by the speed at which one could destroy enemy forces through high-tech weaponry. Technological firepower would serve to reduce the number of troops needed on the battlefield. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld embraced this view and was determined to create a smaller, more agile, and more lethal force.

Although the investment in advanced technology and networked forces has made the U.S. military an even more formidable conventional fighting force, the administration’s vision of warfare played only selectively to the military’s strengths. Because the administration believed that the principal challenges would come in the form of traditional conventional threats emanating from nation states, its efforts to transform the military were not tethered to any particular threat but instead directed at developing capabilities in the abstract.

This vision of warfare was similar to those of the past, in which the United States would be pitted against a peer competitor resembling the Soviet Union or would confront other highly developed nation states, against which its technological advances would be decisive. As Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, an active duty officer who served in Iraq and has been highly critical of the current military leadership, noted in a May 2007 article in Armed Forces Journal, “the military learned the wrong lessons from Operation Desert Storm. It continued to prepare for the last war, while its future enemies prepared for a new kind of war.”

Retired Marine Corps Col. T. X. Hammes, an expert on irregular warfare, wrote in a 2004 book that the administration’s vision of transformation placed too much faith in technology and “simply disregard[ed] any action taken by an intelligent, creative opponent to negate our technology. In fact, they seem to reduce the enemy to a series of inanimate targets to be serviced.” This target-centric approach focused on winning battles, not wars. Conservative military historian Fredrick Kagan pointed out in a 2006 book that “The history of U.S. military transformation efforts since the end of the Cold War has been the story of a continuous movement away from the political objective of war toward a focus on killing and destroying things.” This has left the military ill-prepared to deal with delicate stability operations, which rarely depend on the destructive power of force.

The misguided assumptions behind the administration’s military transformation were exposed by its utter failure to understand the magnitude of the task involved in invading Iraq. The lack of planning for stability and reconstruction operations after the initial invasion; the marginalizing of other government agencies involved in the operation, such as the State Department; the decisions to disband many of Iraq’s institutions, such as the army; and the failure to recognize that a U.S.-led occupation would instigate a backlash all reflected an ideologically naïve approach.

A new strategic context

In previous eras, wars between states were the most common sources of conflict and instability, as countries sought to expand their territories, gain access to resources, or increase their international prestige. Wars were therefore likely to be struggles of mass and will between self-interested nation states. As a result, a state’s military was organized and structured to defeat the military of another state.

For more than 40 years, the Pentagon devoted itself to confronting the Soviet threat. U.S. military doctrine, force structure, and weaponry were developed and shaped to address this challenge. When the Cold War ended, the military lost its primary organizing principle and faced an uncertain strategic environment. As democratic movements spread across the globe and new technologies enabled greater worldwide interconnection, modern states increasingly had little incentive to engage in interstate wars. An international consensus shunning interstate conflicts emerged, helped significantly by the creation of the United Nations but also by the fact that international prominence is now determined much more by a country’s economic, political, and cultural strengths than by its military might. This has led to a precipitous decline in the number of interstate conflicts.

Although the traditional context for military force has been changing, new constraints affecting the execution of military force have also emerged. The spread of democracy, strongly promoted by the United States, has also served as a great constraint on U.S. military power. The awakening of national and ethnic identities in response to decolonization and the spread of democracy has greatly limited the tolerance of peoples and nations to being ruled by outsiders. The rise of instantaneous global communications, which can project images from the battlefield around the globe, has made global opinion a potent mobilizing force. These trends constrain U.S. power just as space and distance limited previous great powers. The legitimacy of an action is now as important as the military capabilities used to conduct combat operations.

Yet although the strategic environment has become more complex, there is increasing awareness that situations within sovereign states may require collective or unitary action. A rising concern to the United States and the international community has been an increasing number of conflicts within states, the prevalence of ungoverned and unaccountable regions or territories within weak or failing states, and the emergence of powerful nonstate actors that operate in the shadows of sovereign states or find havens in weak and failing ones.

Because the United States has global responsibilities, it will at times be called on to respond to global crises, whether resulting from the emergence of terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Somalia; the collapse or overthrow of regimes such as North Korea; genocide in Darfur; natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia or the 2008 cyclone in Burma; or continued instability in weak and failing states such as Haiti and Sudan. These nontraditional missions could entail stability operations ranging from limited peacekeeping operations to more extensive nation-building missions, as well as rapid responses to places struck by natural disasters or suffering from severe humanitarian crises.

What should now be clear is that the strength of U.S. firepower means that few enemies will ever confront the United States on a conventional battlefield; they will instead seek to confront it in ways that neutralize its advantage. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate what the United States can expect to confront in the future: an enemy that blends in with the population and uses available technology to create crude but deadly low-tech weapons such as improvised explosive devices. During the past five years, insurgents have honed and developed their techniques and have killed and wounded thousands of U.S. military personnel. Although the United States must continue to be prepared for the full spectrum of conventional threats, the challenge after Iraq will be rebalancing the military so that it can effectively engage these asymmetric threats.

To that end, the United States should adopt a national security strategy that seeks to integrate all elements of U.S. power. This applies not only to what the United States does abroad but also to how it makes national security policy at home. Such a strategy entails matching resources to priorities; ending the artificial divisions that exist between agencies involved in defense, homeland security, diplomacy, energy, and development assistance; and leading and using global and regional alliances to increase U.S. power, rather than taking a unilateral approach.

An effective new defense strategy must address the following five issues: the deteriorating state of the ground forces, the emergence of important new missions for the military, the crisis in the defense budget, the disjointed nature of the national security bureaucracy, and the need to improve the way the United States operates in the world.

Renewed focus on ground forces

The United States must rebuild, expand, and transform its ground forces to focus more on stability and peacekeeping operations. The ground forces have borne the brunt of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army is on the verge of breaking, and both the Army and the Marine Corps are experiencing severe equipment shortages.

After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration had a tremendous opportunity to increase the size of the ground forces. Unfortunately, the president and Secretary Rumsfeld pursued a policy that actually sought to cut ground forces. Now, more than six years after 9/11, the Pentagon has finally called for a permanent increase of 92,000 soldiers and Marines, which during the next five years would increase the size of the active Army to 547,400 personnel and the Marine Corps to 202,000. Although this is too late to help in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is an important step in preparing for the future.

Opponents of expanding the force argue that the main lesson of Iraq is that the United States should not engage in these sorts of operations in the future, and therefore the military does not need larger ground forces. Although the United States may become more reluctant to deploy its ground forces in the near future, this does not obviate the fact that if ground forces are deployed, the most likely missions will be stability and reconstruction operations. It is an illusion to believe that ground forces after Iraq will once again just need to focus on traditional conventional warfare.

Expanding the ground forces over the long term will allow the military to conduct humanpower-intensive missions more effectively. In Iraq, the pace of deployments has greatly strained ground forces, yet future stability and reconstruction operations might require an even larger troop presence than we ever had in Iraq. This means that U.S. ground forces must seek to become more adept at these types of operations and that ground forces must be sized appropriately to conduct such missions.

An expanded ground force would enable the active Army to become less dependent on the Army National Guard, which would allow the Guard to more effectively fulfill its homeland defense tasks. It would decrease the country’s excessive reliance on private contractors to perform military functions and ensure that the soldiers receive adequate time at home between deployments.

However, because of the recruitment and retention difficulties the Army is experiencing as a result of the Iraq war, any sizeable expansion of the ground forces in the short term will be difficult. Still, the military must ensure that an expansion is not achieved by lowering standards. Although dropping the ban on gays in the military and ending the restrictions on women in combat would help, it will take some time to expand the force, and any expansion should not be rushed.

Emerging new missions

Because of its unparalleled logistical and force-projection capabilities, the U.S. military will increasingly be called on to respond to humanitarian crises. Indeed, at times, the United States will resemble a global first responder. Although the United States is reluctant to be the world’s ambulance as well as the world’s policeman, the fact is that in many cases this country has no real choice but to respond. Initial U.S. hesitancy to respond to the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 brought with it a global rebuke. A failure to respond to these sorts of crises could lead to massive instability and a drop in U.S. prestige in the eyes of the world.

Effective action can make a tremendous difference. After the tsunami, the United States eventually sent 15,000 troops, a carrier task force, a Marine expeditionary force, and a flotilla of ships and aircraft to respond to the disaster. Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that, “we literally built a city at sea for no other purpose than to serve the needs of other people.” The response to the tsunami disaster made a tremendous difference in alleviating the humanitarian crisis and assisting in the region’s recovery. And it also had a tremendous impact on the U.S. image.

After the disaster, 79% of Indonesians said they had a more favorable view of the United States, and the country’s overall favorability rating rose more than 20%. Such a dramatic turnaround in the largest Muslim country in the world showed, as Mullen explained, another side of “American power that wasn’t perceived as frightening, monolithic, or arrogant. We showed them American power—sea power—at its finest, and at its most noble.” Mullen described the U.S. response to the tsunami as “one of the most defining moments of this new century.”

Responding to these sorts of disasters should be a core mission of the U.S. military, especially the Navy and the Marine Corps. To be effective, the United States must invest in new types of programs and equipment. In particular, the United States must develop its “sea-basing” capability, because it is likely that it will often be involved in areas of the world with weak or failing governments and limited land-basing options. The Maritime Pre-positioning Force is a squadron of ships that the military is designing to support sea-basing operations. This would allow for the rapid transoceanic movement of expeditionary forces, as well as goods, services, and additional personnel into regions with undeveloped or destroyed infrastructure.

Sea-basing is not a new concept. After the tsunami in 2004, the Navy essentially set up bases at sea off the coast of Indonesia. It did the same off its own Gulf Coast in 2005 in response to Hurricane Katrina. Using the sea as a secure base of operations along the world’s coastlines provides unmatched mobility and power projection, allows the flexibility of having a significant base close to operations, and enables the United States to deploy power without depending on unreliable land bases.

In addition, because most of the world’s population lives within 200 miles of the sea, a key priority for the future Navy will be the capability to operate effectively along the world’s coastlines. The Littoral Combat Ship, which is being developed to operate along the world’s coastlines, is vital to this mission. It is also necessary to better police the world’s oceans in order to more effectively counter piracy and illegal trafficking.

Matching resources to priorities

The United States now spends more on defense then the rest of the world combined. But its military remains heavily focused on engaging in wars that require intensive use of military capital rather than relying heavily on labor. It devotes too many resources to purchasing weapons that are more relevant to dealing with threats from a bygone era than the threats the U.S. confronts today, and it makes insufficient investments in basic research to ensure that the military maintains its technological edge. The nation must adopt a more balanced approach to meet current and future challenges.

After 9/11, there was a dramatic increase in defense spending. The Pentagon’s current procurement plans incorrectly assume that the regular defense budget will continue to grow just as it has for the past six years. Current Department of Defense (DOD) plans call for increasing spending on weapons systems by 6.5% annually during the next five to seven years.

The current approach of many conservatives is simply to throw more money at the growing problems afflicting each military service. Some have even suggested giving the Pentagon a fixed share of the gross domestic product. This approach is unsustainable. It is not in the U.S. interest to waste precious resources on unnecessary and outdated weapons programs that do little to enhance security. The country must start making the difficult choices that have been deferred by the current administration.

Paying for rebuilding and expanding the ground forces as well as boosting the quality of life for military personnel will require the ground forces to receive a larger share of the defense budget. Cuts will have to be made in some programs in each service to offset these costs. Weapons systems that were developed to address outdated threats and challenges should be cut or significantly scaled back. For example, the Navy’s DDG-1000 Destroyer, a new class of surface combatant, is extremely expensive, at nearly $5 billion per ship, and merely adds to capabilities in which the Navy already enjoys overwhelming superiority. The F/A-22 is an impressive fifth-generation stealth fighter, but it is also very expensive and was designed to achieve air superiority over Soviet fighter jets that were never built. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which will be used by the Air Force, Navy, and Marines, as well as by our allies, would be a better investment.

In addition, reducing the number of strategic nuclear weapons to 1,000, as well as keeping national missile defense in a R&D mode, could save $10 billion to $15 billion per year and bolster U.S. credibility in nuclear nonproliferation. This could all be achieved at no cost to U.S. security, because these systems are designed to protect the United States from extremely improbable threats.

The United States should also seek to hedge against future conventional needs by adopting a mobilization strategy, which would entail, as laid out by Richard Betts of Columbia University, “developing plans and organizing resources now so that military capabilities can be expanded quickly later if necessary.” This would entail increasing the amount of spending on basic and applied research and ensuring that the country has the ability to ramp up production of conventional weaponry if needed.

Calling for the military to set spending priorities is not just code for cutting the budget. New systems and technology must be developed to equip the modern 21st-century force, although not every system has to move into full production.

Making future vehicles and weapons programs more fuel-efficient should be one of the most urgent technological priorities, as it would save billions of dollars, reduce the burdensome supply lines needed to keep vehicles running, and help decrease U.S. reliance on imported oil. According to Scott Buchanan of the DOD Office of Force Transformation, “The Department of Defense energy burden is so significant that it may prevent the execution of new and still evolving operational concepts, which require the rapid and constant transport of resources without regard for the energy costs.” It is not simply that fuel costs are rising; the cost to transport fuel is significantly higher than the cost of the fuel itself. New R&D investments are critically needed in this area.

The goal of the Army’s Future Combat Systems, the Army’s largest procurement program, is to create a more mobile ground force, one that could be deployed quickly and efficiently around the world. The program is seeking to modernize 15 of the Army’s more than 40 combat divisions and replace the durable 70-ton Abrams tank with a lighter 20-ton version that would be easier to deploy. A critical technological challenge is the need to develop lighter armor.

One of the main lessons of Iraq has been that although mobile ground forces made it possible to quickly topple Saddam’s regime, vehicles that lacked adequate armor protection found themselves vulnerable in the urban combat environment. Humvees, designed without armor, later had armor bolted on, reducing maneuverability, fuel efficiency, and reliability. The Army was forced to put a bulky cage of armor around its new Stryker vehicle to protect it from rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Yet even with these additions, the Army’s ground vehicles’ undersides were vulnerable to improvised explosive devices. This has led to the rollout of the new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. Although the MRAP is useful in the intense urban combat in Iraq, its huge size and intimidating presence make it difficult to maneuver and awkwardly suited for peacekeeping missions in less hostile environments. In short, one of the main discoveries of the past five years is that the ground forces need vehicles that are light and mobile, as well as equipped with effective armor protection.

In the absence of a new technological breakthrough in armor protection, the ground forces will be forced to develop an even more diverse fleet of vehicles, ranging from a new mobile Humvee suitable for low-threat environments, to heavy and bulky MRAPs appropriate for the most violent of urban environments, to traditional tanks. Carrying such a diverse fleet is not just incredibly difficult but will create tremendous deployment and logistical challenges.

To maintain global mobility, it is essential that the Air Force build the new KC-X tanker, which is vital to maintaining the global air bridge, and the C-17 Globemaster, which can transport a large amount of personnel and cargo without needing large runways. This capability is important for disaster and humanitarian relief operations.

Developing and distributing technologies that improve the situational awareness of troops on the ground and in the air should also be a major priority. For too long, communications among different services—Army tanks, Marine amphibious assault vehicles, and Air Force and Navy fighters—have been disjointed. In some cases, soldiers in an Army vehicle have been unable to communicate with Marines in a vehicle just yards away. The networking of forces would decrease the number of tragic friendly-fire incidents as well as provide more effective intelligence. Systems such as the Joint Tactical Radio System—a DOD-wide program currently in development that will create an all-service family of radios—should greatly streamline the various communications systems. The development of Blue Force Tracking systems, which identify and track the location and movements of friendly forces, represents an important effort to better connect U.S. forces. Advances in pilotless aerial vehicles are also essential to increasing situational awareness and acquiring intelligence.

A more integrated approach

Becoming more adept at addressing nontraditional challenges will require rebalancing priorities within the Pentagon and throughout the entire national security apparatus. Successfully executing stability, peacekeeping, and counterinsurgency operations is as much a political and economic challenge as a military one. These operations are therefore challenges for the entire U.S. government. Facilitating a consensus-based political process, maintaining and improving the administrative capacity of the government, and promoting economic development are not military tasks but tasks for diplomatic and development professionals. The government needs a new blueprint for action to address future post-conflict stability operations.

The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 enhanced coordination among the services and empowered the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The legislation reworked the command structure of the military in an effort to correct the counterproductive effects of interservice rivalries. Unfortunately, the model of cohesion developed among the various branches of the military has not been extended to the broader bureaucracy that oversees the nation’s warfighting, diplomatic, and aid agencies.

The U.S. government desperately needs to coordinate its operations more effectively. Ambassador James Dobbins, who oversaw stability and reconstruction operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan, said in a 2005 book that “until recently, the U.S. government as a whole has treated each successive new nation-building operation as if it were the first ever encountered, sending new, inexperienced personnel to face what should have been familiar problems.”

The establishment of the Office of Stabilization and Reconstruction in the State Department was a productive step, but it has not yet been provided with sufficient funding. Another encouraging step was the creation of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and Iraq. These teams are made up of a civil affairs military component, personnel from aid agencies and the State Department, and personnel from other agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Agriculture.

Yet increased coordination goes only so far. Truly integrating operations will require the government to invest more in civilian agencies. As the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace explained in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in February 2007, “Our civilian agencies are underresourced to meet the requirements of the 21st century.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called for adding $100 billion to the State Department budget.

Establishing a unified national security budget is the first step toward creating a more balanced national security structure. Under a unified budget, the president and Congress would finally be able to make cost-effective tradeoffs across agency lines and determine whether to put a marginal dollar into deploying national missile defense interceptors or building more Coast Guard cutters. This type of tradeoff cannot be made now because missile defense is funded in the Pentagon budget and the Coast Guard is funded in the Department of Homeland Security budget.

Building a global security architecture

A latent U.S. strength is an extensive network of alliances. Building alliances and global partnerships can create a force multiplier for the military and defray the costs of maintaining order in the international system. Yet conservatives too often approach military strategic planning with the view that the United States will be alone. This approach is shortsighted and places a greater burden on the taxpayer and the troops on the ground.

The United States must support the growing number of United Nations (UN) operations, which relieve some of the burden on the U.S. military. More than 80,000 UN troops from more than 100 countries are now conducting peacekeeping operations in 18 countries, at a cost of just $5.5 billion a year. A 2005 Rand study argued that the UN is generally more effective than individual nations at conducting peacekeeping or nation-building operations, stating that “The United Nations provides the most suitable institutional framework for most nation-building missions, one with a comparatively low cost-structure, a comparatively high success rate, and the greatest degree of international legitimacy.” Yet UN operations too often lack resources and personnel. It is in the U.S. national interest to support these operations financially and logistically.

The United States must also ensure that its forces are capable of operating effectively with allies. The Navy is developing the concept of a 1,000-ship Navy, which would leverage the fleets of allied or friendly countries to create a network of navies to better police the world’s oceans. The term “1,000-ship Navy” is a metaphor for the strength that could be gained if countries joined to prevent threats on the high seas. The goal is not to purchase additional ships but to change the way navies interact and operate together.

Transforming the military to meet the above challenges will be difficult. It will require a willingness to change and will demand leadership from the military, Congress, and the next president. As the 9/11 attacks grow more distant, it is past time to begin such a transformation.

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Cite this Article

Korb, Lawrence J., and Max A. Bergmann. “Restructuring the Military.” Issues in Science and Technology 25, no. 1 (Fall 2008).

Vol. XXV, No. 1, Fall 2008