Shawn Brimley is Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) where he oversees the center’s research and serves on the executive leadership team. He served in the Obama Administration from February 2009 to October 2012 most recently as Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council staff at the White House. He also served as Special Advisor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy at the Pentagon from 2009 to 2011, where he focused on the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, overseas basing and posture, and long-range strategy development.
SWJ: We met for the first time in 2009 during debates related to the development of the 2010 QDR. As a core emphasis, you highlighted the need for “articulating a grand strategy of sustainment focused on protecting the architecture of a modern international system that rests on a foundation of free and fair access to a vibrant global economy that requires stability in the global commons. (…) ensuring relative stability throughout the global commons remains central to the maintenance of U.S. power and influence in the 21st century”. Where are we today?
Shawn Brimley: In 2009, we were just starting the surge in Afghanistan. Now we are in a very different spot. Those wars are ending. The budget environment is much tighter now than it was then. The appetite in the U.S. for an interventionist foreign policy is much lower. The Republican Party consensus on foreign policy has totally broken down. Now you have fiscal hawks in the dominant position and defense hawks in a much weaker position. If you combine all these ingredients you get things like sequestration. The environment has totally shifted, but the argument I was making at the time is more valid today, because now we need to pay attention to what it is truly important to us. Things like global commons, Internet freedom and governance, maritime security in the South China Sea are in the ascendancy now as issues in a way that I don’t think they were in 2009. We are focusing now, I would hope, on the key issues. The rise of new powers and the accelerating diffusion of advanced technology throughout the international system will pose significant challenges to U.S. technological dominance in military affairs. People are now grappling with our key interests: from what we are going to do in Asia and perhaps not do in the Middle East to how the energy revolution in North America impacts our foreign policy. It is debate that is going to generate disruptive arguments. Yes, the Saudis are mad at us. Why? Because we are not bombing Iran and we didn’t intervene in Syria. But in the end strategy is about choices. What is more important: great power stability in Asia Pacific, forging closer relationships with India or getting enmeshed in another civil war in the Middle East? This is not in our interest. When we decide not to do something will there be ramifications? Probably. Is it conceivable that it could cause a threat? Sure, absolutely. That is the chess game we are and will be playing. In the end, statecraft is all about calculated risk. But because the consensus on foreign policy and national security is totally broken down, the risk is that hard decisions don’t get made and we start kicking the can down the road for another couple of years.
SWJ: I believe the post-9/11 interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan played an important role in providing a decisive formative experience for your generation of policy-makers compared with the one of the 1990s. What were the lessons learned over the past decade by your generation of policy makers?
Shawn Brimley: It is a generational divide in some sense. I remember being at the White House debating with Derek Chollet the efficacy of using force in Libya and I was very conservative, very reluctant because my experience has been framed by 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan. So, when I think about the use of force I tend to think about good intentions gone wrong, good intentions leading to prolonged, protracted campaigns with uncertain outcomes. But for someone who cut their teeth in the 1990s they were very familiar with employing limited force, their formative experiences framed by operations like Bosnia and Kosovo. I don’t know who is right and who is wrong, but my generation is much more circumspect regarding America’s power to influence not only how wars begin, but more importantly how they end. Once you start something it is very tough to finish it in a way that comports with your preference. As we move forward I think we will see a more conservative view on both sides, Democratic and Republican. This is not a bad place to be. I’d rather have our national security culture broadly framed as being “small c” conservative on this question rather than on the interventionist side, especially in the current fiscal climate.
SWJ: What is the importance of technology for the American way of war?
Shawn Brimley: When we entered WWII it was less about technology and more about mass. We energized our entire economy to produce platforms and munitions on a massive scale. What was interesting about the early Cold War period was that the Soviet Union’s obvious advantage in mass (partly because of geography) forced us to leverage another advantage we had - our ability to innovate. For most of the Cold War the way we thought about national security and defense had a lot to do with maintaining a qualitative military edge as a means to balance against the Soviet Union’s quantitative military edge. But this was constantly a strategic choice the policy makers made. They were well aware of the things they needed to do in order to invest in those ideas: decades and decades of investments of research and development in space and in the defense industrial base preparing the ground ultimately for game-changing investments in stealth, GPS, precision guided munitions, and in what became AirLand Battle. It was a true revolution in military affairs because we now had guided munitions - where accuracy became independent of range. This is in part the reason why we won the Cold War - as we got into a position where the Soviet leadership concluded that they did not have the capability to make massive investments in science and technology and ultimately imperiling their geopolitical position helping to fracture and undermine the foundation of their empire. After the Cold War we arguably started coasting on that success. It might have been a perfectly rationale choice. There was no near-peer competitor on the horizon. But I do think we are now entering a period when it is much easier for high-end technology to flow rapidly into the international system - small actors can become more powerful and the growth curve and innovation of rising powers is going faster and faster. In 10 years time, China will have the ability to contest the U.S. in certain areas, probably close to their littoral. It is going to cause a lot of friction, a lot of angst from our allies and partners in Asia, and it will substantially affect the geopolitics of the region. This tells me that we need to focus on maintaining a consistent level of funding for research and development, science and technology to make sure that we maintain our edge or even grow our edge over time. Unlike the Cold War, when a lot of innovation was driven by the military industrial complex, today’s environment is much more like the early 20th century - the railroad, telegraph, radio and rifle - when the commercial world is driving innovation in a way the industrial military complex is not. None of us has been in an environment where the Google’s of the world, or the “do it yourself drone movement”, drives much of this innovation. Technology will always remain a dominant feature of the American way of war and we do ourselves a disservice if we forget that our military power is fundamentally connected to our ability to innovate, it is all about staying in the loop and adapting more rapidly than our adversaries. This isn’t a “technology solves everything” argument, only that part of our comparative advantage is linking the best people with the best systems to retain qualitative superiority when we need it.
SWJ: Describe the next wave of game-changing technologies and how they would they would affect warfare and the nature of deterrence.
Shawn Brimley: That’s a question that would take volumes to answer. But quite simply I think we are approaching an inflection point where unmanned and autonomous systems are going to become ubiquitous across all operating domains and actors. It will change everything. Unmanned systems, their associated operational concepts, and the strategic policy framework that governs their use are all in their infancy. Anyone who tells you that they fully understand how unmanned and autonomous systems will change the game are uninformed, arrogant, or both. This is a long-term shift. Other technological trends like directed energy, energy storage advancements, and protected communications will be very important as well.
SWJ: Several weeks ago General Raymond Odierno stated that “there are many people who believe that through technology advancement we can solve all issues of warfare. I absolutely reject that concept. War is about human interaction. It is people who make decisions and you must be able to compel people”. Moreover, in a recent article Conrad Crane warned about the “inflated expectations from technology leading to strategic overreach and unexpected ground commitments” like Iraq and Afghanistan. Are we in danger of forgetting the human domain of warfare? Can we balance the lessons of 1980s (a time of massive military technological innovation) with the lessons of the past COIN/Stability Operations decade?
Shawn Brimley: I don’t know of anyone arguing that technology lifts the fog of war or creates the opportunity for a frictionless conflict or that technology will enable the U.S. to never put people in harm’s way. Anyone who does argue that clearly hasn’t been paying attention over the last 20 years. The truth is somewhere in between. On one hand we simply must not do a “control-alt-delete” on the last decade-plus of war. We must learn the hard fought lessons from these wars, ensure ground units train and optimize for these missions, and prepare for full-spectrum operations. On the other hand, I go back to what former Secretary Robert Gates said: that any future Secretary of Defense that would recommend sending hundreds of thousands for a ground war in Asia should have his head examined. I think that is true. The challenge is how to maintain military forces to ensure they have the best people and the best technology, how to maintain that force in a way that can deter our adversaries, and if we have to intervene allows us to intervene in a way that comports with our interests. Like ground forces since the beginning of war, it depends deeply on the people and, if you go back to the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, it also depends on reversibility. We need to design in the ability to grow, adapt, and sustain. A lot of these questions go back to the risk you are willing to take with the active force you have if you must intervene in a ground war - and is it sized the right way so you can intervene successfully. But the other question that people don’t talk about is how to ensure you can generate: building ground forces quickly enough to complement the force you send in. It is not only a question of whether we need a robust army - of course we do - but what size, capability, doctrine, and core competencies do we require to prosecute the engagements we think a ground force may have to deter or defeat. I think of the ‘40s and ‘50s when we did a significant demobilization, when there were a series of smart choices made to maintain higher than needed levels of NCOs and field grade officers, so if you have to grow quickly you have the leadership cadre to build on. In a world of constrained resources this question is ultimately about the level of risk we are willing to take in order to enable us to have the size of the force that we need and one that has the equipment, the technology, the platforms they need to succeed because ultimately there is where our advantage is. This is not arithmetic but calculus.
SWJ: To me the driving influence of your September CNAS report (Game Changers: Disruptive Technology and U.S. Defense Strategy) is Andrew Marshall. To what extent is his framework of competitive strategy with the Soviet Union, that set the ground for the Air Land battle concept and the Revolution in Military Affairs, something that should also shape, in terms of lessons learned and insight, the current and future interaction with the China, including the development of the Air-Sea battle concept?
Shawn Brimley: A lot of the choices that were made in the 1970s and 1980s in terms of technology enabled us to accentuate our qualitative advantage in ways that put the entire Soviet Union concept of operations fundamentally at risk. The choice to prioritize investments in fewer, better platforms eventually generated game-changing capabilities that contributed to U.S. technological dominance and helped to accelerate the Soviet Union’s decline. Related to Air-Sea Battle, there are those who look at Asia and see war with China as the contingency to prepare for, and that is a very rational view. The problem is, however, if you are going to do that - if a high-end kinetic operation in Asia is your driving framework - it will essentially push U.S. military forces to operate at a greater range. China is essentially trying to push out its defensive perimeter. In prosecuting a sustained kinetic operation in Asia, U.S. planners will not want to risk high-value assets - aircraft carriers for example - so they will try to operate outside the range of the most threatening platforms. The challenge is that we’ve got allies and partners like Japan and Vietnam well inside that range. There is therefore a tradeoff between power projection and forward presence. One of the things that I am watching is the balance between ensuring we possess the right capabilities for power projection and capabilities that complement robust presence with our allies and partners in the Pacific. This is for me the big defense strategic question in Asia, how do you balance power projection with forward presence and reassurance? The services (Air Force and Navy in particular) tend to focus on things like technology; so the constituencies within the services that require capabilities optimized for forward presence and building partner capacity (patrol craft, short range maritime surveillance, the littoral combat ship) tend to be disadvantaged compared to parts of the services that deal with high-end power projection. As a Defense civilian, part of my role is to make sure I am paying attention to all the different “tribes” in the services and make sure that we stimulate an inter-service debate. I like to see different parts of the Air Force, or different constituencies in the Navy, having vocal debates and good arguments with one another about their roles and missions. I think we should stimulate and encourage that debate - particularly during the next several years when really critical decisions will be made. The service I am most worried about is the Army because I don’t see a very robust debate inside that service about its future.
SWJ: Robert Gates warned “a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go to fewer places and able to do fewer things.” Do you see a globally networked smaller overall force as still being able to provide a credible forward presence that can at the same time deter adversaries and strategically reassure allies about U.S. commitment to their security?
Shawn Brimley: Yes I do. I think in the Persian Gulf and Asia-Pacific - key areas of concern as identified by the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and reaffirmed by the 2013 Strategic Choices and Management Review - the United States will absolutely maintain sufficient military capability and capacity to reassure our friends and ensure that our potential adversaries know we would prevail in any plausible contingency. I think in other regions of the world the thrust of our strategy will be to complement the capabilities of others. In Europe it might be a bias toward missile defense, command and control architectures, and air-to-air refueling. In Africa it might be special operations and capacity building. In South America it might be maritime domain awareness and counter-narcotics. Secretary Gates was right – but in a way he was articulating a basic tenet of strategy. Strategy is about making the best use of finite resources. There’s no such thing as unconstrained strategy. We can’t be everywhere and do everything - and that has never been the case in our history. The essence of strategy and statecraft is to prioritize ruthlessly, link your strategy to available resources, and thinking creatively about how to mitigate risk when and where you must accept it.
SWJ: What provides credibility to U.S. global security guarantees and commitments?
Shawn Brimley: I think three things matter. One thing is honesty. Sometimes we tend not to provide our allies and partners a sense about the debates inside our defense establishment. We should do a better job in sharing the issues we are wrestling with and the kinds of questions we are debating. We do a lot of bilateral meetings with our allies and partners telling them that everything is fine, everything is good. Secondly, our credibility really depends on whether we follow through on our commitments, whether we do the things that we say we are going to do. The worst thing you can do is to overpromise because if you under-deliver it undermines credibility. The third issue really revolves around forward smart presence-capabilities that we can sustain over the long-haul, capabilities that make a difference and matter. It depends where you are. Eastern Europeans are more interested in armored and ground forces as credible demonstration of U.S. commitment. But the things that might truly matter more are things like cyber, special operation forces, ballistic missile defense, and long-range unmanned capabilities.
SWJ: What does the whole issue of the red line in Syria tell us about U.S. credibility concerning following through on commitments made?
Shawn Brimley: In general, when we are articulating redlines, we should meet them. Historians will judge whether not intervening in favor of a robust diplomatic approach was the right trade-off or not. I believe that when President Obama threatened to use force he meant it, and the recognition that he was deadly serious ultimately drove the Assad regime’s decision to surrender and destroy all their chemical weapons under international supervision. The question about whether or not to intervene more actively in an active civil war in the Middle East is an entirely different question – one that policymakers on both sides of the issue are wrestling with today.
SWJ: What are the implications of Defense Secretary Hagel’s Strategic Choices and Management Review concerning U.S. global posture?
Shawn Brimley: Secretary Hagel seems to be signaling that what it is most important to us in this period is capability. Capability is the engine of innovation. If we need to accept a little bit of risk on capacity that is a risk that we should be willing to take. There are smart ways you can do that, but there are also terrible ones as well. This is the debate inside the Pentagon right now: what level of risk on capacity is sufficient for to maintain a high quality military with the right capabilities that can move quickly if needed - but will always have the capacity to execute war plans the President has directed. At the same time they are reviewing these plans regularly. The approach that might have worked on the Korean Peninsula 50 or 20 years ago may be outdated - the technology is different, our force posture is different, the concepts of operations are different, the capability and capacity of our allies is different. The global defense industry is much more competitive now than it was in the last 20-25 years. However, our ability to export high-end materials and capabilities to our allies and partners is terribly bureaucratic and puts us at a significant disadvantage. Part of the solution has to be focusing on ways our allies and partners can gain access to some of these game-changing technologies. I would much rather be selling drones to our European allies than having them purchase similar systems from Russia or China. The problem is related to our export control laws that must be revised. In some ways the most profound defense questions don’t have all that much to do with the capability versus capacity debate, war plans or force structure. To some extent the top two defense issues right now are export control and defense reform that needs to occur with respect to the huge and unsustainable Department of Defense compensation, health care, personal costs.
SWJ: In your latest CNAS report, you emphasize as an example the interwar years of the 1920s-1930s and the period of the Great Depression, when the U.S. was able to invest in the right platforms that prepared the ground for winning the next war. But that time was also a holiday from history in terms of U.S. global and international commitments. Keeping in mind the current fiscal climate, can the U.S. do both - investing in the right technological tools and providing public goods to allies (strategic reassurance) and to the international community (securing global commons)?
Shawn Brimley: Yes I think so. It is entirely possible to protect America’s technological edge while also investing in a sustainable grand strategy focused on our key national interests. What tends to undermine our position is when we get sucked into intractable conflicts that are really more about a particular nation’s civil war than they are about our own geopolitical position. Again, strategy is about figuring out how to position yourself with finite resources. There will be things we choose to do and, importantly, things we choose not to do. There is risk on both sides of that equation, and policymakers need to forthrightly discern what that risk might be and own it. Too often the idea of consciously accepting risk is something that is avoided by kicking the issue down the road for someone else to deal with. The current fiscal environment will, I hope, force real choices and hard tradeoffs. And those of us in this field are obligated, I think, to help policymakers make smart choices.