Our 2013 forecast series continues with a call for new strategic thinking from the first man to serve as Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, Lt. Gen. (ret.) David Deptula.
Whatever happens with sequestration, Pentagon planners are now struggling to fit the services’ myriad programs under a reduced budget topline. Advocates point to their particular project or personnel as vital to US warfighting capacity. Technologists point to new capabilities that will allow us to do more with equal or even fewer resources. Traditionalists encourage maintaining or even increasing manpower to achieve security objectives the old fashioned way, boots on the ground, airmen in the air, sailors at sea.
How can we resolve these competing paradigms of defense investment in an era of constrained resources? The answer lies in addressing three separate, but fundamentally related issues: 1) prioritization of our nation’s security objectives; 2) how we organize to achieve those security objectives; and 3) optimizing the potential of what we already posses by exploiting our capabilities through new concepts of operation (CONOPS).
First, how should we balance our resources to achieve our nation’s security objectives? Before we engage in additional cuts to national security spending, it may be wise to figure out our national priorities. Perhaps a starting point can be found in the preamble of our Constitution, which specifies it was established to “provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
Providing for the common defense is the US government’s job one. Observing the debates over taxes, spending, and the deficit provides ample evidence that too many people in national leadership positions who should understand this, in fact, do not. Regardless, the issue of how much to spend on national security is directly related to what the American people want our Nation to accomplish in that respect. Do the American people want the United States to maintain its position as the world’s sole superpower or not? Is having the capacity to prevail in a single regional conflict sufficient for America’s security in the future? Or will that level of military capacity actually encourage adventurism from those with the capability to do so?
Absent an informed discussion on this topic, we are destined to have an ends/ways/means mismatch with respect to the number one mission for our government. One way to elevate this discussion to get some attention from the Nation’s leadership would be to replace the upcoming Quadrennial Defense (Programming) Review with what was actually recommended by the 1994/1995 Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces: a Quadrennial Strategy Review. Given the record of governmental reform, don’t hold your breadth, so let’s assume that the upcoming national security cuts will be arbitrary and absent little, if any, strategic context.
Given this state of affairs, what can be done to compensate for an absence of genuine strategic national security guidance? Paraphrasing the dictum attributed variously to Winston Churchill or physicist Ernest Rutherford, “we have run out of money, so now we have to think.” Without any increase in the nation’s budget, we can still move toward a fiscally responsible solution by re-thinking how to optimize what we already have in terms of national security organization, capability, and concepts. There is not any single solution, but here are a couple of starting points that deserve serious consideration.
Organizationally, in 1986 Congress passed landmark legislation regarding how the Department of Defense organizes to achieve our Nation’s military objectives, the Goldwater-Nichols Act. The Act brought sweeping changes to the way U.S. military forces are organized. Since 1986, there has been tremendous progress toward rectifying inter-service disharmony and excessive redundancy. However, today there is a danger of a reversion to old-fashioned service parochialism and the abandonment of hard-won joint principles, as reduced resources induce competition for budget share to “justify” services’ “relevance.”
There are some who don’t understand that to have jointness, the separateness of our services is a requirement. It takes 25 years to hone the expertise to be a competent division commander on the ground, a battle group commander at sea, or a theater air component commander. Our construct of joint operations-in the context of a strategic objective of retaining our position as the world’s sole superpower-requires that we have the strongest Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force in the world. However, to optimally integrate service component capabilities under a joint force commander-in the most cost-effective way possible-means that the services must evolve with the notion of interdependency rather than self-sufficiency as a guiding principle in building their service program and personnel plans. If there is any single “benefit” that may result from reduced resources for the Department of Defense (DoD), it is that it may stimulate this kind of evolution within the services.
Elevating national security strategy to a point where it actually drives national security resourcing, and moving to the next level of jointness as a way to meet DoD resource constraints, are two institutional level challenges that may take more time than available to meet the declining slope of security spending ahead. A third way to reconcile our security priorities to our fiscal challenges may be more readily achievable, because we already have all the pieces; all that has to be accomplished is to assemble them in a way that exploits their potential.
To attain superior U.S. warfighting capabilities at less cost in the future will require more than new technology, adjusting manpower, or altering the number or type of widgets we operate. It will require applying concepts of operation enabled by information age capabilities in new ways. Information-centric, interdependent, and functionally integrated operations are the keys to future military success. This will require an agile operational framework for the integrated employment of U.S. and allied military power. This will entail a shifting away from the conduct of warfare segregated by the separate domains of land, air, sea, space and cyberspace-while still retaining those competencies-to truly integrated operations based on the functions of global situational awareness, strike, maneuver, and sustainment.
Linking operations across all domains with accurate information can be the basis for an omnipresent security complex that is self-forming, and if attacked, self-healing. This kind of complex could deter war where possible and win it where conflict is inevitable. The central idea is cross-domain synergy, the complementary rather than merely additive employment of capabilities in different domains such that each enhances the effectiveness, and compensates for the vulnerabilities, of the others. An example would be F-35 Joint Strike Fighters used to cue Aegis missile defenses to engage adversary anti-ship ballistic missiles launched against US aircraft carriers.
For some, the image of network-centric warfare suggests an overreliance on digital systems and centralized switching and focus. The reality is the opposite. It is about enabling disaggregated, distributed operations over a fluid operational area. It is about combining digital tools with effective distributed decision-making. It is more akin to a honeycomb than a network.
This kind of “complex” is not just about “things.” It is about integrating existing and future capabilities within an agile operational information framework guided by human understanding. It’s an intellectual construct enabled by technological infrastructure-and it’s eminently affordable. It simply requires application of what has historically been the linchpin of American military success: military leadership that encourages innovation, prudent risk-taking, and foresight.
David Deptula, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a retired 3-star general who has served on two congressional commissions charged with outlining America’s future defense posture and participated in multiple QDRs. He now heads his own consulting firm.