Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Devunte Williams conducts maintenance on the Electronic Optical Sight on the forward mast of the littoral combat ship USS Sioux City while the ship is in port Kingston, Jamaica, May 7, 2021. Navy acquisition failures, including that of the Littoral Combat Ship, have put extreme pressure on the rest of the fleet.

Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Devunte Williams conducts maintenance on the Electronic Optical Sight on the forward mast of the littoral combat ship USS Sioux City while the ship is in port Kingston, Jamaica, May 7, 2021. Navy acquisition failures, including that of the Littoral Combat Ship, have put extreme pressure on the rest of the fleet. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Marianne Guemo

The 2018 Strategy Is Unworkable. We Need a Fundamental Defense Rethink

We can model our efforts to link long-term defense priorities and resourcing on a post-Cold War review.

At some point soon, probably after his team has finished putting a knife in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, pushed through major legislation regarding pressing domestic issues, and revitalized the United States’ international relationships, President Joe Biden will turn to reshaping defense. It is time. The Cold War ended last century, and 9/11 was literally a generation ago. The United States faces multiple regional challengers and the global threat of climate change. 

For experienced Pentagon watchers, the most immediate problem will be the complete mismatch between desired strategic objectives and actual means. The vaunted 2018 National Defense Strategy assumed annual defense budget increases of 3 to 5 percent, which is simply not going to happen – not because the United States cannot theoretically afford it, but rather because of growing political opposition to unrestrained defense spending.

Now is the time for a fundamental rethink about linking long-term defense priorities and resourcing rather than “pie-in-the-sky” strategy – a process that has not occurred since end of the Cold War. Despite the end of major operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, none of the services have been significantly rebalanced for decades, although Marine Commandant David Berger’s proposals appear to be a step in the right direction. 

As the nation grapples with unfamiliar international challenges and domestic pathologies that should have been resolved decades ago, we cannot look away from the steel and sinew problems afflicting the U.S. military. The F-35 may get the lion’s share of attention today, but the Air Force has been unable to certify its new refueling fleet for combat operations and has therefore for years had to compensate by devoting enormous precious maintenance funds to extending the lifecycle of the older airplanes. For the Navy, catastrophic acquisition failures such the Zumwalt class, the Littoral Combat Ship, and the new carriers have put extraordinary pressure on the rest of the fleet. Nothing better epitomizes the need for a rethink, perhaps, than the spectacle of a billion-dollar nuclear submarine (USS Boise) sitting idle at a pier for years because of inadequate shipyard capacity

Reshaping and rebalancing the Defense Department is not a casual undertaking and cannot be accomplished by determined politicians alone. In fact, similar efforts – whether specific to a service or across the military – have usually failed in the past. What should we learn from these past misfires? The example of Adm. Frank Kelso, who was the Chief of Naval Operations as the Cold War ended, suggests a model that may have applicability to the entire Department. 

History has not been kind to Kelso, whose reputation suffered from the fact that the Tailhook scandal occurred on his watch. This has had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing his remarkable accomplishments at repositioning the Navy and the Marines for the post-Cold War World. 

Having been a submariner during the Cold War, Kelso knew better than most of the true state of the Soviet Union and was not surprised by its swift collapse. He also recognized that the Navy needed to rethink its force structure for a constrained budget environment, which meant cancelling unnecessary programs, decommissioning extra vessels and aircraft, and shuttering superfluous bases. That said, Kelso did not develop some sort of master plan based on his own lifetime of military experience, nor did he gather a group of renowned outside experts to provide cover for him to make his preconceived decisions. 

Kelso was at ease with himself and understood the complexity of the organization he headed. He was therefore willing to create an inclusive process involving 35 of his subordinate flag officers (including one of the authors), men and women with a full lifetime of experience working with all the myriad facets of Navy life, and permit them to spend months working together. This early-morning group had to reach a common understanding of the changing geopolitical environment, assess the likely effects on the defense budget, and evaluate the various alternatives for repositioning the Navy and Marines for the post-Cold War world. By using this process that was open, was transparent to the Navy and Marines’ various communities, and that empowered their leaders, Kelso encouraged the leaders of both services to show unusual cooperation and develop alternatives that had sufficient institutional support to survive. As we show in a book we are writing, the Navy and Marines were successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, while the Army and the Air Force paid a heavy price for not making tough choices early.

So how do we adapt the approach of Admiral Kelso to the present day? The first step would be creating an inquiry of how the military services have reacted in the past to major disruptions in the status quo, whether the impetus be the introduction of new technologies, changes in the domestic or geopolitical environment, or an unfavorable budgetary outlook. In the book we are writing, we have examined how the U.S. Navy adapted, or did not adapt, following World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, but similar studies of the other services and major defense agencies may also be necessary. 

Our analysis of the Navy during periods of upheaval revealed various explanations of how the service reacted – both negatively and positively – as well as the relative contribution of the senior service leaders, members of Congress, private industry executives, and political appointees. Our findings suggest that there is a blueprint for accomplishing the sort of wholescale review of the Pentagon that is necessary. The defense enterprise is simply too complex and opaque for outsiders or even individual insiders to prescribe remedies. Instead, what the country requires is senior political and military leaders making a substantial investment of time, effort, and political capital. 

The ideal process would be one in which the Defense Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs establish a team that follows a (probably six- to t12-month) effort to explore:

• Expected (as opposed to desired) levels of future defense funding,

• Commercial practices relevant to defense, particularly in the areas of logistics, personnel and infrastructure.

• The utility and feasibility of every major program (including classified “black” programs) to meeting future challenges within expected resource constraints – not just financial but also human and infrastructural. 

Just as a successful national security requires continuous reassessment of the threat environment, the defense establishment must be willing to adapt to new realities to retain its qualitative advantages and build resiliency to cope with the unexpected. It will not be an easy task, but historical experience enjoins us not to lose hope. 

This article is adapted from a book the authors are currently preparing for publication. The views they have expressed are their own and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.

Rear Adm. Dave Oliver (USN, ret.) served as a political appointee as the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, as well as the COO of the American portion of European Aeronautic Defense and Space (Airbus). 

Anand Toprani is an Associate Professor of Strategy & Policy at the U.S. Naval War College and a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations.