The Center for Strategic and International Studies recently held an event on the 2017 defense budget and its relationship with the U.S. strategic outlook. Much of the conversation focused on the growing risks of near-peer competitors and how best to deter conflict around the world. During 2017’s Senate Armed Services Committee subcommittee hearing on current readiness, Senator Ayotte argued that defense spending should provide capabilities that, “make costly conflicts less likely.” Warfighting capability itself is important if conflict breaks, but the United States can’t fight everywhere simultaneously. Deterrence is important, and should be an integral part of Pentagon planning and budgeting.
Deterrence is in no way an easy task. Even with the major actors identified—Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran—determining how to get the best bang for buck is an even harder task. The Department of Defense does not have to look far to see how it should (or rather, shouldn’t) approach budgeting for deterrence.
As Jerry Hendrix of the Center for a New American Security has argued, “presence” is an important part of a deterrence posture. Having forces in a region allows the United States to show its national interests, to interact more frequently with other countries, and to better define its global goals. Presence also provides a tripwire by placing American assets in potential theaters of war. That presence signals rival actors that belligerence in that theater, because of the risk it may pose to American military assets, will lead to deeper conflict. Presence-focused assets are not necessarily supposed to fight off enemies by themselves, but to deter aggression by providing reasons for American involvement.
The problem is that the Pentagon struggles to reconcile the need to have these presence-focused assets with its own risk-averse nature. The Littoral Combat Ship was supposed to be one such presence-increasing platform, but its costs increased when it was shifted towards a war-fighting platform. The increased cost of the platform reduces its viability for presence-focused deterrence.
In a contested environment, a peer rival might conclude that the United States would not be willing to risk expensive ships for less than an existential threat—and so remain undeterred. Ironically, this has caused the Navy to spend even more money to upgun the ship, in order to justify its existence while being ordered to cut production. The focus on warfighting capability for the LCS has therefore reduced its usefulness for American deterrence.
Being able to fight in the event that conflict does occur is also important. If deterrence presence is low-end, then warfighting capability rests on high-end platforms that respond to threats. Presence without the ability to respond is no deterrent, after all. The F-35, however, has demonstrated the need for reform in the Pentagon’s thinking about these platforms too. Decades-long development cycles and high costs prevent the military from quickly responding to new threats, both because platforms can become obsolete before they are finished and because high costs eat into the ability to pivot to developing threats. The military needs a new approach to fiscal risk. A broader range of smaller investments, with the expectation that some will fail, would allow quick divestment of programs that are not working. One way to accomplish this goal is through creative prototyping that allows for quicker assessment of the viability of a technology.
Budgeting for deterrence also requires new operational thinking. Michael McCord, the Pentagon comptroller, rightly argued that using new tools with old mindsets was useless. This is not only true of future systems, but can be applied today. In the electromagnetic spectrum, for example, some of the DOD’s decreased advantage is due to its lack of new operational approaches and not a lack of novel technology. As mentioned, the Pentagon could apply new thinking to defense acquisition as well, using prototyping to test technology and diversified investments that can be ramped up as needed.
The ability to respond effectively to an attack is part of deterrence, but it is not the only tool that the United States needs. The military should develop systems that allow it to fight, but should not ignore that deterrence requires not having to risk highly expensive and exquisite systems. Without low-end capabilities, the United States might get pulled into conflicts that it could not deter because rivals determined that they had the advantage in cost and willpower. To prevent this, the military needs to retool how it manages acquisitions, addressing the incentives that favor exquisite capabilities over low-end capacity. Otherwise, the Pentagon may wind up with a small, expensive, and inflexible fighting force and a weakened deterrence posture.