Arguments over defense-spending requirements are ultimately disputes over the political conditions that will obtain in future military conflicts. Secretary Gates’s new proposal to cut the defense budget is a fresh example of this axiom. The concept is easy to illustrate: if, for example, you don’t think we need more F-22 Raptors, your assumption is almost certainly that we will not, in the foreseeable future, have to fight a war in which there is a serious threat to our fighter-bombers. The F-22’s principal advantage over the F-35 is its better performance against modern anti-air missile systems like the ones being deployed by Russia and China. The anti-air missile threat has for some time eclipsed aerial combat as the main survival concern of modern air forces. In a conflict involving such missile systems, F-22s are likely to survive and complete their missions at a higher rate than F-35s.
Your assumption might be, alternatively, that if we are faced with this kind of conflict, the American public will accept higher combat losses and greater difficulty in waging military campaigns. That too is an assumption about political conditions – but I think relatively few analysts are really considering the issue in those terms. Most of them simply perceive little likelihood that America will have to fight a war against an enemy who makes us wish we had more F-22s.
A key question, then, is how accurate our competing prognostications are. We have lost a sense of that question’s importance, however. During the Cold War, when our political assumptions varied little over time, we became cavalier about the historical reality that nations have frequently been wrong in their predictions of what the conditions would be in the next war. In that regard, the Marine Corps’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), for all the cringe-worthy aspects of its procurement process, makes an interesting prism through which to consider the issue.
Few weapon systems have been as regularly disregarded between the major modern wars as amphibious landing vehicles. Indeed, their periods of ascendancy have more often than not been the result of determined promotion by lone politicians. Some national leaders, like James K. Polk during the Mexican-American War and Winston Churchill in the two world wars, have had the “landing-craft bug” in their brains. Political opponents and defense pundits, lacking that “bug,” have advanced persuasive reasons why forcible amphibious landings are a bad idea to begin with, and represent a combat capability for which no one else foresees the same need in future wars.
But political conditions change. Allied war planners in the 1930s did not prioritize preparing for forcible landings in North Africa, Italy, and France. Indeed, in the military literature of the time, it was even speculated that technology had made the forcible landing obsolete. But by 1942 the necessity of such operations was obvious – and one of Churchill’s most enduring laments throughout the war centered on the Allies’ chronic shortage of landing craft.
It is legitimate to ask how much overlap there needs to be in Army and Marine Corps capabilities for forcible landing. Meanwhile, the politically static assumptions on which Gates has based his defense-cut plan, including the plan to axe the EFV, may not be wrong. But my point is that they are unexamined. The conditions of the “Pax Americana” are already fading; America is preparing for the loss of base access in the Far East and facing the rumblings of a similar challenge in the Middle East, while China, Russia, and half a dozen nations in our own hemisphere are buying new military capabilities as fast as they can. Geopolitical circumstances are changing irrevocably, right this minute, yet there is no hint in Gates’s proposal that this is recognized as a factor affecting our future military needs.
In the 20 years since 1991, U.S. planners have used the vehicle of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), instituted by George H.W. Bush, to systematically lay out the political assumptions underlying our projected defense requirements. For much of this period, the basic strategic concept entailed being able to effectively fight two regional wars near-simultaneously. The concept was easy to ridicule – I did so myself as a staff officer working on QDR input. But it provided a structured framework; it prompted most of the right policy questions; and it reflected America’s basic geopolitical posture: that of being prepared to intervene, and on a particular set of terms.
Obama’s national-security team planned in 2009 to dump the two-wars framework, however. Gates eventually kept it, in modified form, as an organizing tool for the 2010 QDR; but he and other national-security officials made it clear that they considered it confining as a blueprint for how the U.S. would react to crises. They disliked its implication that there are set definitions of military success, that there are triggers for particular kinds of military response, and that whichever such responses have the largest footprints should drive force planning.
What they disliked, in short, was America’s longstanding geopolitical posture. Our manifest readiness to defend certain interests in certain ways is a fundamental feature of international stability. If it is no longer to be one, all other global conditions will change. The most important security question for America is not whether our post-1945 posture is confining to us as a defense-planning and budgetary factor, but whether it is in our national interest.
The core assumptions about our political and military postures on national interests, alliances, and interventions abroad are approaching a state of untended ambiguity and barely-useful definition – and as they do, we are failing to ask this most necessary of political questions. The longer we fail to ask it, the more certain it is that our unexamined assumptions – about whom we may have to fight, and when, and how – will be in error. Before we make even one more cut to a defense program, we need to air these very basic issues and get them sorted out.