Endless Military Superiority

Endless Military Superiority

The new defense doctrine calls for meeting any threat, anywhere, at any time.


If, as expected, Congress approves the Administration’s proposed military budget for 2003, US military spending will grow by $45 billion in the next fiscal year–a 13 percent increase over this year’s allocation and the largest increase since the early Reagan era. Some of the additional money will be used to pay for the war in Afghanistan and to underwrite a hefty increase in military pay, but much of it will be devoted to the “transformation” of the military establishment. Even larger amounts will be devoted to transformation in the coming years, as the Defense Department begins to replace existing, cold war-era weapons with new, super-sophisticated systems. The initiation of this effort has produced great joy in the arms industry and sparked a wide-ranging debate over the relative merits of various technologies and weapons systems. But while much has been said about the technical and financial aspects of transformation, very little attention has been paid to its political and strategic dimensions–the aspects that will have the greatest impact on US and international security in the years ahead.

When pressed on the meaning of “transformation,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his associates speak of the need to abandon longstanding strategic assumptions and to organize US forces for combat against unfamiliar enemies in unexpected circumstances. Much emphasis is also placed on the development of advanced technologies to increase US prowess on future battlefields. But a close examination of Pentagon statements indicates that a lot more is going on than a mere desire to utilize new technologies or to prepare for the unknown. It is possible to detect a fundamental shift in strategic thinking–a shift with far-reaching implications for the United States and the world.

When alluding to this shift, Pentagon officials speak of replacing the “threat-based strategy” that long governed US military planning with what they describe as a “capabilities-based approach.” This means that the Defense Department will no longer organize its forces to counter specific military threats posed by clearly identifiable enemies, but instead will acquire a capacity to defeat any conceivable type of attack mounted by any imaginable adversary at any point in time–from now to the far-distant future. Put differently, this is a mandate for the pursuit of permanent military supremacy.

The pursuit of permanent supremacy is not a new endeavor. Ever since the end of the cold war, policy-makers have sought to convert America’s sole- superpower status into an immutable fact of life. In the most explicit expression of this outlook, the Pentagon’s draft “Defense Planning Guidance” for fiscal years 1994-99, drawn up in February 1992, called for a concerted US effort to preserve its sole-superpower status into the foreseeable future. “Our first objective,” the highly classified document stated, “is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union.”

This statement, attributed in part to Paul Wolfowitz (then the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and now the Deputy Secretary of Defense), provoked a worldwide outcry when excerpts were published in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Critics, especially in Europe, charged that it assumed a “world policeman” role for the United States and the subordination of America’s allies to second-class status in a US-dominated world order. Faced with this criticism, the Defense Department adopted a revised guidance document that called for greater collaboration between the United States and its allies.

Although the idea of US military supremacy was too touchy to discuss publicly during the 1990s, the concept never fully disappeared. A number of prominent pundits and strategists continued to circulate the ideas contained in the original draft of the 1992 guidance document. Then, during the 2000 presidential campaign, proponents of this approach were given a new chance to advance their views by George W. Bush. In his most important speech on military policy, given at the Citadel in September 1999, Bush reiterated many of the concepts first articulated in the 1992 document. Most significant, he embraced the concept of permanent military superiority. Pointing to America’s huge advantage in military technology, he promised “to take advantage of a tremendous opportunity–given to few nations in history–to extend the current peace into the far realm of the future. A chance to project America’s peaceful influence, not just across the world, but across the years.”

In this speech–reportedly prepared with the assistance of Wolfowitz–Bush said the United States needed sufficient airlift and sealift to move troops to any point in the world quickly, along with sophisticated surveillance devices to locate enemy forces at any time of day or night, and advanced munitions to destroy them with minimum risk to American fighters. “Our forces in the next century must be agile, lethal, readily deployable and require a minimum of logistical support,” Bush declared. “We must be able to project our power over long distances, in days or weeks rather than months. Our military must be able to identify targets by a variety of means” and “be able to destroy those targets almost instantly, with an array of weapons.”

These core ideas–the projection of US power forward in time and horizontally across the earth’s surface, and the use of advanced surveillance and munitions to overpower less capable adversaries–form the guiding principles of the Administration’s military buildup. They have governed every aspect of Pentagon planning since the Bush team occupied the White House. And they have been subsumed into the Administration’s definition of “transformation.”

While enjoying strong support from the White House, Secretary Rumsfeld encountered considerable resistance from entrenched bureaucracies in the Defense Department when he first sought to apply these principles. The military services were quite prepared to accept the billions of dollars promised by the White House for the procurement of new weapons, but they preferred to spend all of this money on conventional big-ticket items like tanks, heavy artillery, jet fighters, aircraft carriers and submarines. Throughout the spring and summer of 2001, Rumsfeld was rebuffed time and again when he sought to persuade senior officers to abandon their attachment to conventional weapons and embrace the new technologies favored by proponents of transformation.

September 11 and the subsequent mobilization of American power for the war in Afghanistan changed this picture in a number of significant ways. First of all, it gave the advocates of radical transformation a free hand to put their ideas into practice sooner and on a much bigger scale than they had ever envisioned. The apparent success of their efforts–in particular, the use of highly mobile, lightly armed Special Forces units to coordinate airstrikes by bombers equipped with laser-guided munitions–earned them enormous prestige in Washington.

Second, the outpouring of public support for the war against terrorism allowed Bush to secure from Congress sufficient funds to procure virtually all of the big-ticket items sought by the armed forces and to finance the more visionary systems favored by the transformers as well. The $45 billion added to the 2003 military budget is a testament to these extraordinary circumstances.

Finally, September 11 produced a significant alteration in the military posture favored by the President and his closest advisers. When first outlining this posture, in his 1999 Citadel address, Bush eagerly endorsed the extension of US power in time and space; at the same time, however, he explicitly rejected a prominent US role in peacekeeping and other “low intensity” operations. “We will not be permanent peacekeepers,” he said at the time. “This is not our strength or our calling.” But in the wake of 9/11, he has added low-intensity combat to the roster of military operations in which US forces will be expected to attain superiority.

The proposed Defense Department budget for fiscal year 2003, which begins on October 1, 2002, reflects all these developments. Most significant, it includes substantial funds both for “legacy” systems–tanks and planes developed during the cold war and favored by the military services–and for “transformative” systems preferred by the people around Bush and Rumsfeld. It also calls for the expansion of US “power projection” capabilities, so as to allow the rapid deployment of forces to distant battlefields. And it entails an acceleration of scientific and technical efforts aimed at the development of new types of weaponry for the wars of the distant future.

Most of the public commentary on the 2003 military budget has focused on the provision of vast sums for the procurement of “legacy” systems like the F-22 Raptor air-superiority fighter and the Joint Strike Fighter. Even with Rumsfeld’s cancellation of the multibillion-dollar Crusader artillery system, the budget is crammed with big-ticket items. For this reason, the budget has come under attack from some military analysts who favor a big increase in Pentagon spending but who fault Rumsfeld for allocating too much money to legacy systems and not enough to innovative, high-tech weapons. “There are bits and pieces of transformation in the budget,” says Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, but not enough to make a fundamental difference. “I worry we are locking ourselves in by committing now to buying some of these weapons systems like fighter jets in such large numbers over the next two decades,” he told the Wall Street Journal on March 28.

Krepinevich’s comments have been echoed by some on the left who view the 2003 budget increase as a giant payoff to the nation’s military companies–many of which contributed substantial funds to Bush’s presidential campaign. But while it is certainly true that the new budget is extraordinarily generous to the builders of conventional military equipment, like the F-22, it would be a mistake to focus solely on that phenomenon and ignore the radical transformation of the US military establishment envisioned by the new budget.

To fully appreciate the long-term significance of the Rumsfeld program, it is useful to separate the budget plan into the three axes or dimensions of military planning: vertical, horizontal and temporal. The vertical dimension refers to the relative intensity or destructiveness of combat–the “ladder of escalation,” from low-intensity conflict up through major regional wars to global conventional war and on to nuclear war. The horizontal dimension refers to geographical reach–the military’s capacity to “project power” to distant locations. Finally, the temporal dimension refers to the military’s capacity to anticipate and prepare for combat with enemies in the distant future.

In the past, US strategy has placed explicit or implicit limits on the movement of American forces along these three axes. With respect to the vertical dimension, Pentagon doctrine has always stressed US superiority at the upper end of the axis but essentially disdained preparation for limited war–the assumption being that any military establishment capable of overpowering a major adversary would have no difficulty in defeating a host of minor enemies. As for the horizontal axis, US strategy has always placed a premium on Europe, East Asia and the Middle East, the three areas deemed to be of greatest strategic importance to the United States. Finally, strategy has generally stressed preparation for likely encounters in the near to mid-term, focusing on a clash with the Soviet Union or, more recently, with familiar adversaries like Iraq and North Korea.

But the new Pentagon strategy takes an entirely different stance. Instead of setting limits, it seeks to insure US dominance at every conceivable point on all three axes. On the vertical axis, the new strategy calls for a US capacity to prevail in any type of warfare, from terrorism and insurgency on up to all-out nuclear war. Although the greatest emphasis will be placed on beefing up US capabilities in mid-range conflicts, considerable funding will also be devoted to low-level warfare–counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and “police” operations.

To enhance US capacity in such operations, the Pentagon is boosting the strength of the Special Operations Forces and providing them with a wide array of new equipment. Major initiatives include acquiring four AC-130U flying gun platforms (of the type used to pound enemy positions in Afghanistan) and converting four Trident ballistic-missile submarines into “strike submarines” that will carry Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles and will be able to infiltrate small squads of Special Forces commandos into the coastal areas of hostile powers.

Additional funding will also be devoted to nuclear warfare and space-based systems. Under the Nuclear Posture Review, submitted to Congress in January, the Administration will reduce the number of nuclear warheads deployed on operational missiles and bombers but establish a large “responsive capability” made up of once-operational weapons that could be quickly restored to active status. (The new arms-reduction agreement signed by Presidents Bush and Putin in May puts no restrictions on measures of this sort.) Funds will also be committed in the Energy Department budget for a study of the possible modification of existing nuclear warheads for use in strikes on underground bunkers, and for measures aimed at reducing the time it would take to resume the testing of nuclear weapons (in case a decision to do so is made by this or a future President).

On the horizontal axis, particular emphasis will be placed on the enhancement of US capabilities to project power to distant battlefields. Such missions typically involve two types of equipment: “mobility” systems, whose function is to deliver US-based troops to far-off battle zones; and “anti-access-denial” systems, whose task is to overpower the “access denial” forces employed by an enemy to foil an invasion of its territory.

To enhance power projection, the new budget sets aside $4 billion for twelve C-17 intercontinental cargo planes. Work will also begin on an amphibious transport ship and a new class of “maritime prepositioning ships”–large vessels with helipads and built-in docks that will be used as floating supply depots in areas far removed from existing bases. And to bolster anti-access-denial capabilities, the Pentagon will begin development of a new long-range bomber and acquire additional Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, pilotless spy planes like the Predator, used in Afghanistan).

Even more significant, perhaps, is the Pentagon’s plan to enhance US capabilities along the temporal axis–developing weapons that will not be used for many years against enemies whose identity can only be guessed at today. As explained by Secretary Rumsfeld on January 31, the nation must be prepared to defend itself “against the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen, and the unexpected” and must prepare its forces “to deter and defeat adversaries that have not yet emerged to challenge us.”

One might ask why we should spend vast sums at this time of domestic austerity in order to defend against enemies that do not now and may never exist. By the same token, one might speculate that preparing now for future combat with a hypothetical adversary like China or India could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that it generates fear and hostility among foreign leaders who might otherwise choose to become friends or allies. But such arguments will meet with deaf ears at the Defense Department, where officials are determined to press ahead with a wide range of visionary and experimental systems.

Most of the programs in this category are still in the research and development stage, or are hidden in secret (“black”) accounts distributed throughout the budget. Some, however, have been the subject of public discussion. One such endeavor is the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, an armed UAV that would hover over enemy territory and strike targets of opportunity when prompted to do so by their American ground controllers, located dozens or even hundreds of miles away. Such systems, says Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers, “have the potential to change significantly the way we fight and perhaps even the nature of warfare itself.”

Another new system being funded in 2003 is the DD(X), a high-technology warship that will incorporate a wide range of innovative weapons and technologies. Although details are still sketchy, it is expected to incorporate radar-evading stealth technologies of the sort now found only on aircraft, and to carry a wide variety of antiship and land-attack missiles.

Some weapons now on the drawing board will make it to full-scale production; others won’t. The point is that these systems are being developed in the absence of any credible threat from any adversary possessing anything even remotely resembling America’s existing military capacity. No nation or combination of states in the world today can overcome America’s military establishment, and none are likely to appear on the horizon with this ability for another three or four decades, at the very least.

The question facing all Americans, therefore, is whether the expenditure of hundreds (later thousands) of billions of dollars to defend against hypothetical enemies that may not arise until thirty or forty years from now is a sensible precaution, as contended by the President and Defense Secretary, or whether it eventually will undermine US security by siphoning off funds from vital health and educational programs and by creating a global environment of fear and hostility that will produce exactly the opposite of what is intended by all these expenditures.

Another vital question is prompted by the Administration’s new emphasis on anti-access-denial systems. Stripped of jargon and obfuscation, this is a plan to enhance America’s capacity to invade and overpower hostile countries with a significant defense capability, like North Korea and China. In essence, this means shifting the primary orientation of US forces from defense against aggression (the original purpose of NATO) to offense and intervention. Surely this will not go unnoticed in other parts of the world, and will undoubtedly prompt countries that may have cause to fear US intervention to beef up their defensive (anti-access) capabilities–thus justifying further US spending on anti-access-denial systems. Here again, one has to wonder whether we are not exposing ourselves to an increased level of risk by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

These are critical questions that deserve intense debate at every level of society, yet Congress has rushed to endorse virtually every Pentagon initiative without the merest pretense of oversight. We must put pressure on our representatives in Washington to give careful thought to the long-term implications of a strategy of permanent military supremacy.

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