Will the Rumsfeld Revolution continue? [Archives:2005/871/Opinion]

August 25 2005

By Steven Metz
America's defense policy is at a crossroads. Since 1997, the United States Congress has required the Department of Defense to undertake a major defense review every four years. The department is currently developing the third such review and will release it later this year. The review promises to be nothing short of a watershed.

The last Quadrennial Defense Review was published a few weeks after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As a result, it gave only hints of the counterterrorism strategy to come. The 2005 review, by contrast, will represent several years of thinking by the Bush administration, and thus will serve as a key indicator of the future course of American defense policy.

The grand strategy that serves as the foundation for American defense policy has not undergone major change since 2002. Focusing on terrorism, the strategy calls for strengthening the network of international partners seeking to eradicate transnational terrorism, and for direct action against terrorist organizations and their sponsors. Ultimately, it seeks to address what President Bush considers the root causes of terrorism, particularly the absence of open political systems and economic opportunity.

What is changing is the way that US military power is used to implement this grand strategy. There is little doubt that the 2005 Defense Review will formalize the change in focus underway since September 11, 2001. Before that, the American military concentrated on swift victory in a major theater war against another state's military forces. Today, however, the US military is more likely to be used to stabilize and rebuild failed states, assist partners in countering insurgency and terrorism, control nuclear weapons when regimes collapse, or directly eradicate terrorist organizations and their supporters. This requires a different type of force, and one capable of running a marathon rather than a sprint, sustaining major deployments for extended periods.

The global configuration of America's military is also changing. The goal is to keep most of the force stationed at home in the US, with a network of lightly-manned bases abroad that can serve as forward operating locations during a crisis or war. Rather than being miniature Americas, many of these bases will be operated in conjunction with or by the host nation. This will capitalize on the US military's ability to project force around the world quickly, while providing a more flexible and politically palatable way of doing so.

But, beyond the ongoing changes, major strategic questions persist. First, how much conventional war-fighting capability should the US military retain? The goal is to maintain enough to deter aggressors, but not so much that it detracts from other, more likely missions.

Second, what will America's relationship with its traditional allies be? Will formal alliances such as NATO remain the centerpiece of American strategy, or will they be superseded by mission-specific coalitions?

Third, how much should the US continue to invest in advanced, high-tech weapons more appropriate for conventional enemies than for fighting terrorists or insurgents? Systems such as the F/A-22 Raptor aircraft and the Army's Future Combat System are extraordinarily expensive. At a time when deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan are straining the defense budget and much of the military's existing equipment needs repair or replacement, questions arise as to whether such programs are a good investment.

Fourth, what is the appropriate size of the US military? Many defense intellectuals, former military leaders, and politicians believe that America's military, particularly the ground forces, are too small to implement Bush's grand strategy.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, on the other hand, believes the size of the military is adequate if it is re-organized for maximum efficiency. He is also concerned that an increase in the size of the military will diminish funds available for advanced technology and systems. Because Rumsfeld is the primary architect of the upcoming defense review, it is very unlikely to recommend an increase in the size of the force.

The changes underway in American defense policy reflect planning assumptions. The strategy that emerges will be only as strong as these assumptions are accurate.

The upcoming defense review will mandate changes based on events of the past five years, focusing especially on Iraq, Afghanistan, and other aspects of the war on terror. The question is whether future American military missions will replicate those of the past five years.

If not, the US might be preparing for the last war rather than the next one. One hopes that the 2005 Defense Review will address this issue, although it is certain to answer some strategic questions and leave others open to continued debate. In any case, the new review will serve as a roadmap for future US defense policy, thus affecting America's partners and adversaries alike.

Steven Metz is Research Professor and Chairman of the Department of Regional Strategy and Planning at the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2005.