September 03, 2013

Commentary: Strategic Choice or Illusion?

Source: Defense News

Journalist: Frank Hoffman

Recently I attended an event at the Brookings Institution where resident scholar Mike O’Hanlon and Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute critiqued the Pentagon’s Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR). They offered a great rundown on critical issues in the review, derived from the briefing they had received by senior Defense Department policymakers. During the question period, Eaglen dismissed one aspect of the SCMR, the capability vs. capacity component, as the “illusion of choice.”

This issue, that of preserving force structure and manpower (capacity) or investing in advanced capabilities, is an age-old debate for military force planners. The Pentagon’s shorthand for this is often depicted as consumption vs. investment. It’s a classical tradeoff that pits the readiness of today’s force (training, exercises, spare parts, personnel) against modernization investments for a better force (research and development, acquisition, etc.). Given the enormous resources it has commanded for the past decade, the Pentagon has not had to make such tradeoffs lately. That’s no illusion.

It might also be seen as a tradeoff between manpower and technology. That too has a place in strategy, although some Army and Marine officers think that using technology as a justification for force structure reductions is a false choice. I am inclined to think it’s the wrong choice, but not a false choice.

Many military challenges cannot be reduced to a simple choice between force size and its inherent technological capability. For example, clearing the Strait of Hormuz requires both some capacity and more modern mine-clearing capabilities. Major combat operations over a protracted campaign also may stretch both the size and readiness of our active-duty Army, and require modernized command-and-control or ground mobility assets. Quantity does have a quality all its own, and rogue states contemplating aggression measure our aggregate power and our will very carefully. That’s not an imaginary choice either.

Choices are the essence of real strategy and what the Pentagon must face. As strategy guru Richard Rumelt has noted in his best­seller “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy,” “most organizations will not create focused strategies. Instead, they will generate laundry lists of desirable outcomes, and ignore the need for genuine competence in coordinating and focusing their resources.”The SCMR, as far as I can tell, is a reinvigoration of our ability to think and plan strategically, to reestablish a genuine competence at making hard choices and focusing our resources. It’s certainly not an illusion that we now have fewer resources than we’d like.

Strategy is all about making the right choices — choices about what objectives to pick, what our priorities are, what risks we must contain, and those we may hedge or simply have to live with. As Adm. Mike Mullen noted before he left the Joint Chiefs chairmanship, we’ve lost the ability to make such hardheaded choices.

A related issue is the degree of risk involved today. In a benign world, one where the chances of interstate war are low, should we stand down forces since the risks we face are not existential or immediate? David Barno and Nora Bensahel at the Center for a New American Security think so. In the CNAS commentary “Decisions Deferred: Balancing Risks for Today and Tomorrow,” published Aug. 5, they explicitly pose the strategic question that Eaglen found illusory. They claim that “the principal question that the QDR [Quadrennial Defense Review] must answer: Should DoD invest in size and capacity, or in capability? Are the risks of the current era so dangerous that investment should focus primarily on maintaining the size and capacity of current military forces? Or does the United States face less risk now than it may face 20 years from now, and thus should invest more in developing future capabilities?” In essence, should the US primarily invest in today to buy down risk now, or tomorrow to offset greater risk then?

To Barno and Bensahel this likely would require major cuts to existing modernization programs and active forces, with more burdens shifted to the Guard and reserves, to focus resources for investment in leap-ahead technologies. They, along with other scholars, would be willing to trade off some conventional capacity now (Army and Marine ground forces and perhaps tactical aviation) as investment capital. With investment resources increasingly scarce, Barno and Bensahel argue that “DoD needs to double down on building the tools of the future force, those that can win wars in 2034 and beyond.” What they do not spell out is their forecast of what the wars of 2034 will look like. What kind of wars should we be prepared for — those requiring large ground forces to control and influence events on the ground, or those capable of operating in space, cyber and precision strike? What technologies are the game changers?

These are the kinds of choices the SCMR framed and the QDR must lay out and justify. There are consequences with clear choices and alternative risks. This is not about illusions; making smart choices is the essence of sound strategy. The real illusion is to think that serious strategic planning is merely spending more or hoping that we can have everything we want. To think that we can stand pat, avoid hard decisions and not shape the force of the future is the ultimate false choice.

Frank Hoffman, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington. These views are his own. 


  • Nora Bensahel

  • David W. Barno

  • USA (Ret.)