October 19, 2020

Reshaping the U.S. Military with a New Force Planning Construct

The Bottom Line

  • A new administration will need a new force planning construct to provide an explicit demand function for sizing and shaping U.S. military forces, to better address emerging challenges, and to prioritize the allocation of defense spending.
  • A force planning construct’s first priority must be homeland defense and support for homeland security, especially biodefense/pandemic response and cybersecurity. The nation is falling short, and the Department of Defense (DoD) can and must do more to help close the gap.
  • The top priority for expeditionary operations must be rapidly deploying the capabilities needed to prevent China or Russia from executing a short-warning invasion (e.g., of Taiwan or the Baltic States) that could create a fait accompli and put the burden of escalation on the United States and its allies.
  • In order to create headroom for needed investments in homeland security and bolstering the ability to deny short-warning attacks by China and Russia, the DoD will need to reduce legacy force structure and prioritize a smaller and more capable joint force. Getting this done will require that the department speak with one voice and win the support of Congress.
  • It is past time to shift from agency-specific plans and budgets to national security planning and budgeting. The force planning construct provided in this essay offers a starting point.


How much should the United States spend on defense? The answer to this question is that it depends: How big a force does the United States need, and with what mix of capabilities? The answer to this second question is also, of course, that it depends: What do you want U.S. forces to be able to do? The purpose of a force planning construct is to answer that third and fundamental question in order to provide a clear demand signal for sizing and shaping U.S. military forces.

This essay offers a force planning construct for the U.S. armed forces. It first addresses the top priority objective of preventing and (if necessary) mitigating catastrophic attacks on the United States, a goal that involves seven key missions. The second priority, deterring and (if necessary) defeating armed aggression against allies and partners, requires investment in new capabilities to address threats posed by other great powers (China and Russia), some tailored capabilities for regional powers (e.g., North Korea and Iran), and steady state activities including forward presence that are critical to an effective deterrence posture. Next, this essay considers simultaneity—what combinations of scenarios must be addressed in the same or overlapping timeframes—and the requirement for hedging against surprise. The concluding section considers implications of this force planning construct for force structure, investment, and defense budgets.

Preventing and Mitigating a Catastrophic Attack on the United States

Since shortly after the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks on the United States, the DoD has consistently listed homeland defense and supporting homeland security as its first priority. Threats are real and growing. In addition to meeting the inherent obligation of the armed forces to defend U.S. citizens, the ability to defend the homeland backstops the credibility of the U.S. commitment to intervene overseas to help others. Seven key homeland defense/security missions deserve priority attention.

1. Deploy and operate survivable nuclear forces and command and control capable of imposing devastating and unacceptable costs on Russia and China (and, as lesser-included cases, North Korea and Iran) in a second strike.

Since the Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear test in August 1949, the highest priority of the U.S. armed forces has been to deter nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies. Because of the scale and sophistication of Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals, the United States has no prospect to defend comprehensively against a nuclear attack and must rely on deterrence to ensure a survivable nuclear second-strike capability, sufficient to impose overwhelming damage to assets that the adversary holds dear.

Since the early 1960s, the United States has relied on a triad of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and dual-capable heavy bombers. All three legs of the triad are now undergoing needed, albeit expensive, recapitalization, along with major investments to modernize nuclear command and control. How large a nuclear force is needed for deterrence can (and should) be debated, along with whether the United States must maintain rough parity with Russia, whether the diversity of a triad remains critical to strategic stability, and what architecture and investments are needed for nuclear command and control. There can be no debate, however, that deterring nuclear attack must receive the highest priority.

Deterring nuclear attack must receive the highest priority.

The force planning goal should be to ensure an enduring, secure U.S. second-strike capability to inflict unacceptable damage even in the event of significant advances in Russian and Chinese offensive capabilities (including nuclear, conventional, cyber, and space) and defensive capabilities (including air defense, missile defense, and antisubmarine warfare). Further, the goal should be to accomplish all this at the lowest reasonable cost and force levels. The United States should maintain nuclear forces sufficient to deter both Russia and China, and should deterrence fail, to conduct devastating strikes against the aggressor, with sufficient survivable forces to deter the other major nuclear power. Deterrence of North Korea and Iran can be considered lesser-included cases from a force planning perspective.

2. Maintain reliable and capable 24-7 national missile defense capabilities to defend the homeland from nuclear-tipped missile attacks from North Korea or Iran.

To meet Russian and Chinese nuclear threats, the United States relies on deterrence by the threat of devastating second strikes not because it is desirable, but because it is necessary given the scale and sophistication of both countries’ nuclear arsenals. The same is not true for North Korea or Iran, which have a fraction of the resources available to Russia and China; against these lesser powers, missile defense of the U.S. homeland is possible. And because even a few nuclear weapons could kill millions of Americans, defending the nation against rogue missile attacks must also be a top priority. The force planning goal should be to confidently defeat even all-out missile attacks from North Korea and Iran against the U.S. homeland, while avoiding deployments of a scale or type (e.g., space-based interceptors) that threaten to upset strategic stability vis-à-vis China and Russia.

3. Protect DoD personnel and fully support rapid and fully integrated national responses to a bio-attack or pandemic.

After nuclear threats, two related challenges stand out for the scale of catastrophe they could produce: A biological weapons attack could kill millions of Americans, and, as the botched U.S. response to the novel coronavirus has shown, a naturally occurring pandemic can kill hundreds of thousands and impose trillions of dollars of economic costs. In the event of a pandemic, bio-attack, or attack using other weapons of mass destruction, the DoD’s first requirement is to protect military personnel and ensure their ability to sustain operations, including support to domestic authorities.

The Defense Department brings a wide range of assets to the nation’s bio-attack and pandemic response capabilities. These assets include advanced research and development on vaccines and treatments, extensive facilities, more than 130,000 medical personnel, stockpiles of medical and protective equipment, unique capabilities for logistics and mobility, and access to a defense industrial base through the Defense Production Act. If used appropriately, this industrial base can vastly accelerate the development, production, and distribution of personal protective equipment, vaccines, and treatments. The DoD’s requirements for this supporting mission should be driven by national-level planning based on integrated interagency concepts of operations for pandemic responses and bio-attacks.

4. Prevent terrorist attacks on the United States through indirect means such as building partner capacity, and through direct action that includes interdiction overseas when possible, and in U.S. airspace if needed.

In response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the DoD established a limited air defense of the homeland and undertook a global campaign to build partner capacity where possible and eliminate terrorist safe havens where necessary. Although the United States made significant errors in the Global War on Terror, particularly in invading Iraq, overall its counterterrorism campaign has made America safer, and the DoD’s contributions remain critical to protecting American lives and U.S. interests.

Some may question listing the prevention of terrorist attacks on the United States as the fourth priority, but clear-eyed national security analysts need to do the math. The 9/11 al Qaeda attacks killed nearly 3,000 people, a devastating loss of life. But as of writing this, the failed U.S. response to the novel coronavirus has resulted in more than 60 times as many deaths. A large-scale nuclear attack could kill perhaps 10,000 times more Americans than did 9/11. A terrorist attack could approach such scale only by using weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The DoD, working in support of the FBI and other domestic agencies, needs to ensure sufficient capabilities and forces to defeat or mitigate multiple, simultaneous, and geographically separated WMD attacks.

5. Prevent or mitigate large-scale cyberattacks on U.S. critical infrastructure, including its space constellation, and support a comprehensive national cyber incident response effort.

U.S. critical infrastructure is vulnerable to disruption and relatively small-scale destruction by well-resourced terrorist groups and by regional adversaries such as North Korea and Iran. It is unacceptable to allow these actors the ability to impose catastrophic damage on the United States through cyber (or any other) attacks. To counter the rapidly growing offensive cyber capabilities of U.S. adversaries, the United States needs an aggressive national effort, including major DoD research and development, to bolster the cyber resilience of the most essential critical infrastructure.

U.S. critical infrastructure is vulnerable to disruption and relatively small-scale destruction by well-resourced terrorist groups and by regional adversaries such as North Korea and Iran.

Improved U.S. cyber defensive measures will increase the degree of difficulty for the two top-tier cyber adversaries, China and Russia, but because of the skill and scale of their offensive cyber programs, they will continue to hold U.S. critical infrastructure at risk of catastrophic attack for the foreseeable future. A sustained cyber campaign by one of these great powers against U.S. critical infrastructure could have devastating and long-term impacts on the U.S. economy, kill thousands of Americans (e.g., through cutting off power supplies to the Northeast in winter), and cripple the ability of U.S. forces to deploy overseas. Both U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency play vital roles in the cyber defense of the nation, including in supporting civilian agencies that help owners of critical infrastructure to mitigate cyberattacks. Even as an improved national approach to cyber defense is developed (starting with the reinstatement of a senior National Security Council official, a new national strategy, and better integration at the operational level through a standing interagency task force for cyber), the DoD must focus attention and resources to help dramatically raise the U.S. game on cybersecurity.

The DoD should also play an important supporting role in a coordinated effort to improve resiliency and defenses of other national critical infrastructure, including underseas cables, which are vital to global communications, including the internet. Defense Department contributions should include supporting vulnerability and risk assessments, as well as developing new technologies and innovative approaches for emergency power generation and storage, water and waste management, communications, and bulk transportation.

6. Support national efforts to counter foreign malign influence.

External actors, including Russia and China, are pursuing influence operations intended to exacerbate divisions in U.S. society, undermine confidence in elections and more broadly in the democratic system, and create fissures with key allies and partners. These operations represent attacks on U.S. democracy, and the nation must provide a whole-of-government defense and response.

In support of the broader national effort, the Defense Department must take action to prevent and mitigate influence operations aimed at DoD personnel and the defense industrial base. In addition, the DoD has a role, when directed by the president, in supporting civilian-led efforts to prevent and respond to influence operations aimed at the American people, e.g., by shutting down online foreign propaganda factories. Because of its expertise and scale in cyber and information operations, the DoD can play a key (albeit clearly circumscribed) role in supporting the broader civilian-led effort to prevent and counter such attacks, bolster U.S. resilience, and respond when necessary.

7. Manage domestic consequences and respond to disasters.

The Defense Department, particularly the National Guard, plays a critical role in supporting the civilian-led response to any attacks on the United States by terrorists or state actors, including those using weapons of mass destruction. If anything, such capabilities are of even greater importance in an era of great-power competition. If U.S. adversaries believed that the president had to choose between protecting Americans and projecting military force overseas to defeat aggression, they would have greater incentives to attack the United States in order to refocus attention (and U.S. military forces) internally.

Due to the accelerating impacts on the United States from climate change, the DoD must also be prepared for a sustained and substantial role in supporting responses to hurricanes and other natural disasters. More than 60,000 military personnel (active duty, National Guard, and reserve) were mobilized in response to Superstorm Sandy in 2012, with a similar number mobilized in the 2017 response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Deterring or Defeating Armed Aggression

Most of the DoD’s force structure, investment, and training efforts are aimed at boosting the armed forces’ ability to conduct high-intensity operations overseas. (This will remain true even if efforts relating to homeland defense and security are boosted significantly.) Yet, today and even more in the coming years as potential adversaries increase their anti-access/area-denial capabilities, U.S. forces intended for overseas operations are too vulnerable and too slow to deploy.

1. Deter and, if necessary, prevent China or Russia from achieving aims of armed aggression.

Any U.S. force planning construct for an era of great-power competition must give a high priority to deterring war between the United States and China or Russia. U.S. defense planners must maintain a laser focus on a scenario for which U.S. forces are ill-prepared today, in which China or Russia see the opportunity for a quick invasion of a U.S. partner or ally and attempt to impose a fait accompli that would be costly and risky to reverse. This would put the burden of escalation on the United States. Numerous wargames involving this scenario in recent years show the United States, in RAND analyst David Ochmanek’s technical jargon, “having its ass handed to it.” Ochmanek has helpfully suggested concrete metrics that the next administration should adopt: the ability to destroy on the order of 350 ships and 2,500 tanks/armored vehicles in the first 72 hours of conflict with (respectively) China and Russia.

Any U.S. force planning construct for an era of great-power competition must give a high priority to deterring war between the United States and China or Russia.

Meeting these Ochmanek metrics will require that U.S. forces determine target sets for each country that, in the event of conflict, would best hinder the opponent’s ability to project forces locally, thereby compelling a cessation of operations and achieving favorable war termination conditions for the United States and its allies. For the United States to determine these target sets, substantial investments must be made in new capabilities and concepts for penetrating intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and targeting, as well as in a new mix of long-range strike capabilities. This mix should include standoff bombers that can launch long-range stealthy cruise and hypersonic missiles, penetrating bombers that release weapons at closer-in points, ground and naval subsurface systems for launching a mix of ballistic missiles, stealthy cruise missiles, and hypersonic boost-glide weapons. Submarines will be critically important—manned today; in the future also unmanned—for conducting unwarned conventional strikes with hypersonic weapons against the most valuable targets that no other strike systems can hit. For force planning purposes, joint long-range strike forces should be prioritized, along with much deeper magazines of missiles and hypersonic weapons.

Traditionally, planning constructs focus on conventional force structure implications (e.g., how many wings, brigades, carrier strike groups are needed) and give little thought to munitions, which DoD has chronically underfunded for many decades. In the past, it would have been possible to ramp up munitions production in wartime via supplemental budgets. However, in a conflict against China or Russia today, there simply would not be time to do so. DoD must plan to maintain a deep reserve of munitions and keep multiple production lines warm and securely defended.

In addition, U.S. forces conducting or supporting long-range-strike missions must be able to execute their missions in the face of concerted cyberattacks against the military and supporting civilian critical infrastructure, as well as attacks against critical U.S. assets in space. The DoD must make substantial headway in bolstering cyber and space resilience for that select and essential portion of the force that could conduct strikes and create other effects (such as cyber, electronic warfare) in the opening hours and days of a great-power conflict. The DoD has much work to do to boost the resilience of civilian critical infrastructure that directly supports the generation of combat forces, including key elements of the industrial base, critical lines of communication, and power/water/cooling at its facilities. The requirement is not to protect all U.S. armed forces or all supporting infrastructure equally (which is neither feasible nor affordable), but to protect and/or provide backup capabilities for assets and functions that are essential to deterring and defeating armed aggression by other great powers.

2. Deter and, if necessary, defeat armed aggression by North Korea or Iran.

U.S armed forces that are sized and shaped for great power conflict with China or Russia will have most of the capabilities needed to deal with North Korea or Iran. Yet there are important additional requirements.

Even with a new focus on great-power competition, the United States must work with allies and partners to sustain strong deterrence vis-à-vis North Korea and Iran. Scenarios involving conflict with either of these adversaries require significant strike capabilities, including some niche areas such as tailored counter-nuclear munitions. But U.S. strike systems will not all need to be as exquisite as for the first 72 hours of a war with China or Russia, given North Korea’s and Iran’s less stringent air and missile defense capabilities. A North Korea scenario also requires significant numbers of U.S. ground forces to supplement South Korea’s extremely capable army, though fewer than envisioned in the past.

3. Conduct essential steady state activities.

U.S. military activity can be usefully divided into two buckets: day-to-day steady state activities, and surge operations. This distinction is relevant for both homeland defense and global operations but is essential to call out for overseas operations because of the importance of forward presence, combined training with allies and partners, and sustained advisory assistance missions aimed at building partner capacity.

Steady state activities are a key driver of force structure for special operations forces, which must be sufficiently capable and diverse to conduct persistent counterterrorism missions, WMD-related special missions, and advisory assistance to a large number of nations. In an era of great power gray zone activities such as Russia’s information operations and use of “little green men” (wearing green uniforms and of unconfirmed origin) against nations on its periphery, U.S. special forces will need to focus heavily on unconventional warfare. Frontline allied and partner militaries must be trained in guerilla-like tactics but bolstered by modern defensive systems such as guided mortars, tank-killing munitions, and short-range air defense systems.

Of critical importance, steady state activities of the U.S. armed forces span not only the land, air, sea, and undersea domains, but also extend into cyberspace and outer space, with a vast intelligence, surveillance, and early warning network; a global communications system with elements in all domains; and other essential capabilities such as the Global Positioning System’s satellite constellation. In addition to promoting and protecting U.S. interests directly, many steady state activities also provide the foundation on which surge operations depend: forward basing, logistical support, mobility, intelligence, communications, and partner relationships. Some, but not all of these capabilities need to be resilient enough to survive concerted attacks from highly capable adversaries in all domains including cyberspace and outer space.

Steady state military activities have the potential to consume a massive share of DoD spending; the challenge lies in determining on one hand what is truly essential, and on the other where the United States can prudently take risk. One good yardstick is to ask which steady state activities are essential to supporting the homeland defense/security and surge missions previously outlined.

Simultaneity and Surprise

Science fiction notwithstanding, military forces cannot be in two places at once, or beam instantaneously from one location to another. Thus, two central questions for force planning are:

  • What operations might need to be conducted simultaneously?
  • How do military forces mitigate the risk of surprise?

Five principles should be followed:

First, the most consequential homeland defense and homeland security missions must be fully supported, even in the context of an ongoing armed conflict with China or Russia (or others). U.S. adversaries have the ability to strike the homeland, and a president must not be faced with the choice between defending at home and prevailing overseas.

Second, in order to deter opportunistic aggression, the United States must maintain a strong deterrence posture vis-à-vis China in the event of a conflict with Russia, and vice versa. Similarly, a strong deterrence posture must be maintained for both of these countries in the event of a conflict with North Korea or Iran. This requirement implies a significant increase in high-end U.S. non-nuclear long-range strike and ISR capabilities, which are the most globally fungible forces in the U.S. arsenal, capable of deterring adversaries in multiple theaters simultaneously. To the extent that U.S. allies and partners step up their defensive and strike postures, the U.S. requirements can be lessened.

Third, and related, because a central role of the U.S. armed forces is to deter conflict, it is desirable for the United States to have ready forces that are never employed for their primary purpose. It is a good thing, not a bad thing, that the United States never used its forces as designed in the Cold War, to fight the Soviet Union. Similarly, it is good, not bad, that the United States has never used its nuclear arsenal (or had nuclear weapons used against it) since dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

What operations might need to be conducted simultaneously? How do military forces mitigate the risk of surprise?

Fourth, U.S. force planning should assume (and U.S. senior leaders should insist upon) robust participation of U.S. allies and partners in their own defense, including in particular the contribution of capable ground forces and taking primary responsibility for their own territorial, air, and maritime defenses. American armed forces have unique long-range strike capabilities, as well as key enablers including ISR, mobility, and command, control, and communications. This does not mean that the United States should withdraw U.S. ground forces from overseas; on the contrary, one of the most important and least expensive ways to bolster deterrence of attack is to retain a significant forward basing posture. But it does imply a reshuffling of ground forces: stationing armored forces forward, closer to the most plausible points of attack where they might be needed; and shifting the balance of ground forces to emphasize high-volume fires, with the fielding and deployment of long-range precision-strike brigades. It is not plausible to sustain strong deterrence of coercion or attack on U.S. allies (and, thus, threats to American interests and security) without a forward presence that includes combined training and interoperability.

Fifth, policymakers and planners must take to heart the immortal words attributed variously to nuclear physicist Niels Bohr or Yankees manager Yogi Berra: Prediction is difficult, especially when it is about the future. While a force planning construct provides an essential focal point for sizing and shaping the force to better address the most likely and dangerous cases, rational planners and savvy policymakers will include additional margin and develop contingency plans to account for unexpected and unplanned-for scenarios, i.e., surprises. History suggests that surprises are likely over time, and, ironically, that they become even more likely when military forces are well designed to address the most dangerous scenarios, and therefore succeed in deterring major war.


If the force planning construct outlined here is used to guide analysis in the next defense review, significant additional investments will be directed to bolster U.S. homeland defense and security, particularly in biodefense/pandemic preparedness and cybersecurity. In these and other areas where the DoD is a supporting agency rather than the lead, improved DoD capabilities will be critical, but a new administration must first develop an overall national approach and then fit DoD contributions within a new concept of operations that involves whole-of-government and private-sector capabilities. It is essential to establish in the National Security Council (NSC) staff strong senior leaders and supporting offices for biodefense/pandemic preparedness and cybersecurity. The NSC must provide clear strategic guidance and oversight, while pushing to accelerate innovation by better leveraging new technologies such as artificial intelligence and vastly expanding incentives and opportunities for the private sector to up its (and the nation’s) game.

This force planning construct implies major new investments in long-range strike capabilities and supporting ISR systems that can defeat advanced air and missile defense systems and that are resilient to cyber and space attacks. Because of the value of forward-deployed forces in deterring aggression and bolstering allied/partner capabilities, a significant but reshaped U.S. forward presence in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East is also essential.

With no reductions elsewhere in the force, this planning construct would imply a significant increase in the DoD topline. Thankfully, such an increase is not necessary. By explicitly suggesting where capabilities must be sustained or increased, this construct implicitly suggests where reductions can be taken with acceptable risk. The reality is that the vast majority of U.S. legacy forces today do not contribute to homeland defense and security and would not be able to contribute to the first few days or weeks of an overseas fight, when they would most be needed.

To create headroom for needed investments in homeland security and bolstering the ability to deny Chinese or Russian short-warning attacks, the DoD will need to reduce legacy force structure and aim toward a smaller and more capable force. Venerable but now highly vulnerable platforms that have for decades symbolized American military might must be on the table for deep cuts. This includes aircraft carriers, other large surface combatants, traditional amphibious ships, fourth generation tactical combat aircraft, and traditional armored vehicles. These reductions will be politically difficult. Opponents’ argument—that any cuts in legacy force structure increase risk—amounts to insisting that bigger is always better.

In modern warfare, quality trumps quantity; capability trumps capacity. The alternatives to reducing legacy force structure—shortchanging investments in the future, slashing readiness, and/or failing to take care of military personnel—are unacceptable. Getting support for these difficult but necessary choices will require that the department speaks with one voice and wins the support of Congress.

In modern warfare, quality trumps quantity; capability trumps capacity.

Success in achieving homeland security depends heavily on DoD contributions. Conversely, success in achieving the national aims of military operations depends on other agencies’ contributions, including diplomacy, intelligence, financial pressures and incentives, and homeland security. It is past time to shift from agency-specific plans and budgets to national security planning and budgeting. The DoD force planning construct offered in this essay provides a starting point for such an effort.

About the Author

Dr. James N. Miller is President of Adaptive Strategies LLC, and a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. He served as Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy from 2009 to 2012, as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy from 2012 to 2014, and from 2014 to June 2020 as a member of the Defense Science Board. He is a member of the CNAS Board of Advisors.


The author would like to thank Bob Butler, David Ochmanek, Paul Stockton, Jim Thomas, Christine Wormuth, and CNAS reviewers for helpful suggestions. The views expressed here do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the U.S. government, or any other organization. Any errors of commission or omission are solely the author’s.

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  1. As of October 13, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that COVID-19 had claimed at least 201,736 American lives. See https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid19/index.htm. Estimates of the fatalities from a major nuclear war vary widely depending on assumptions about targeting, and vary from several million to tens of millions or more. For recent analysis, see https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/335-million-dead-if-america-launched-all-out-nuclear-war-57262.
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