DoD Photo By Glenn Fawcett

Pentagon Leaders Working to Define Military’s Post-War Purpose

With a post-war budget and (yet another) strategy, senior defense leaders are crafting a new mission for the U.S. military. By Kevin Baron

With the president’s 2015 budget request and a fresh four-year strategy review in hand, Pentagon leaders in recent speeches, interviews and testimonies have set out to give clarity to their vision for the future, post-Afghanistan purpose of the United States military.

“With this budget, we are repositioning the military for the new strategic challenges and opportunities that will define our future,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate on Wednesday. It’s a sweeping declaration being echoed across the Joint Chiefs and top political defense leaders. But repositioning to do what?

What is shaping up is a vision of a post-war world in which persistent and spreading turmoil of all sizes and on all fronts is squarely the responsibility for the United States military, which by Hagel’s account will be prepared, willing and able to intervene at the commander-in-chief’s discretion. That mantra – to be ready for any mission – is notable. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates used to say that whatever U.S. leaders ask of the military, the military should be prepared to do 100 percent, or not at all. Now, Hagel and other leaders describe a U.S. military that will never say no to a presidential request – as long as civilian leaders understand there is greater risk in some of those potential missions.

Where the Pentagon is acutely focused on the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific pivot and al-Qaeda’s morphing into North Africa, there is still little mention or posturing geared for Latin American security or the Arctic. The National Guard faces a major retrenchment to look more like its old self, which adds risk to homeland defense, Pentagon officials argue. U.S. missile defense coming from ships is still possible, but at a lesser degree without naval cruisers, as was originally designed. Close air support for American ground combat troops remains robust with fast-flying Air Force fighter jets – just not as frequently as with the old A-10 Warhogs, if they are retired as the Pentagon wants.

It’s one thing to judge the military’s future by the weapons it keeps. It’s something else to get Pentagon leaders talking about the purpose of the military, as Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey has said he wants to do. Some clarity is starting to emerge.

“By prioritizing DOD’s strategic interests, we will rebalance our military over the next decade and put it on a sustainable path to protect and advance U.S. interests and America’s global leadership,” Hagel said, describing the Quadrennial Defense Review to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. “To fulfill this strategy DOD will continue to shift its operational focus and forces to the Asia-Pacific, sustain commitments to key allies and partners in the Middle East and Europe, maintain engagement in other regions, and continue to aggressively pursue global terrorist networks.”

Hagel gave a simpler description in his budget preview, last week. “This is a time for reality. This is a budget that recognizes the reality of the magnitude of our fiscal challenges, the dangerous world we live in, and the American military's unique and indispensable role in the security of this country and in today's volatile world.”

That role in American and global security is what’s really at the heart of the matter. The Pentagon has moved beyond whether troops should be training for counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, or a two-war front from Cold War playbooks.

“We see a much broader range of activities that the joint force needs to be capable of doing at any given time,” said Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth, on Tuesday at the Pentagon.

Once this is clear, while there is great desire to involve the U.S. military in nearly every corner of the earth, the bar for using military force remains higher as a result of the last decade.

“I always use Iraq as an example,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, at the Council on Foreign Relations last month. “When we went into Iraq in 2003, we did everything that we wanted to do. We very quickly removed the regime. We gained control of the population. We had no idea or clue of the societal devastation that had gone on inside of Iraq and what would push back on us. We didn't even think about it until we got in there. So we can't allow that to happen again.”

Far from pulling back, however, Odierno and the Army are reorganizing themselves to have more built-in knowledge of the geographic areas of the world. Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox visited 1st Infantry Division soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas, last month saying, “Your current work as a regionally aligned force, in addition to the work that you're doing on complex operations and the full spectrum of warfare, really represents the future of our army.”

Part of that spectrum of the military’s purpose, officials say, is to maintain its own advantage over every other military on earth, and prevent upcoming militaries spreading beyond their neighborhoods. In short, it’s OK for America to have bases and ships circling the globe. It’s not OK for others.

Fox, speaking in San Diego last month about China and America’s pivot to Asia, said, “Those of us entrusted with leadership positions at the Department of Defense do not wish to see the U.S. lose its decisive advantage or end up in a situation of parity against any military power.  If either of those possibilities came to pass, the United States would lose influence, regional rivalries and security dilemmas would increase, as would the possibility, however remote, of a conflict due to a miscalculation. The U.S. military may also face exported versions of these modern systems in other regions and situations where conflict is more likely.”

So besides thinking of how the military should be used in a fight, the Obama administration is laying out how the military should be used when it’s not fighting – as a diplomatic hammer that keeps America from finding itself facing another Iraq or Afghanistan. But that is perhaps the role that the American public knows least about. What, exactly, are U.S. generals and admirals doing in their daily dealings as so-called warrior-diplomats with foreign top brass in Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa?

As Congress, the Pentagon and the larger national security community begin to digest the QDR, critics say far more needs to be heard from Obama administration leaders. “There’s no picture that says this is where we really want to go and why we need to go there,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Defense One. Allies want to know far more details of the U.S plans for troops in the Middle East, Asia and more. In the past, the Pentagon gave those details far more than today, he said. “How long can you go repeating the same generalities about the future? And what is the message you communicate internationally?” Cordesman said that other than the attention to staving off budget cuts, the administration has not budged from Obama’s strategic guidance delivered at the Pentagon three years ago.

Fox, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute last month, pointed to that strategic guidance to revisit Obama’s list of priorities she said remains in place. “They included shifting operational focus and forces to the Asia Pacific, sustaining commitments to key allies in the Middle East, being prepared to defeat a major adversary in one part of the world while denying victory to an opportunistic adversary elsewhere, reducing the force planning requirement to conduct large, prolonged counterinsurgency and stability operations, aggressively pursuing terrorist networks and countering weapons proliferation that threaten the homeland, enhancing capabilities in cyberspace and missile defense, maintaining a small but -- smaller but credible nuclear deterrent and continuing a military presence and pursuing security cooperation in multiple regions -- Europe, Africa and South America -- though at reduced size and frequency.”

“That list is not a short one.”