Earlier this month Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey released the nation’s new National Military Strategy. The latest strategic update is seen as something of a swan song for Dempsey, who will retire this fall. The strategy has drawn praise and criticism from defense analysts. The former has focused on its clear identification of the threats it proposes to counter, the latter on its reliance on vague generalities in discussing the capabilities to combat those threats.
The document breaks the threats down into state-based military, nonstate, and hybrid threats. The inclusion of this last category has garnered a great deal of attention. According to the document,
Such “hybrid” conflicts may consist of military forces assuming a non-state identity, as Russia did in the Crimea, or a VEO [violent extremist organization] fielding rudimentary combined arms capabilities, as ISIL has demonstrated in Iraq and Syria. Hybrid conflicts also may be comprised of state and non-state actors working together toward shared objectives, employing a wide range of weapons such as we have witnessed in eastern Ukraine.
Hybrid threats supposedly present a distinct challenge due to their ambiguity. And while acknowledging this type of threat is novel for an official document, it has been a matter of discussion among military analysts for a number of years—particularly in the wake of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006.
The question that goes largely unanswered in the strategy, though, is: what to do about this type of challenge? Moreover, assuming it is necessary for the U.S. military to confront actors ranging from terrorist organizations to major nuclear-armed military powers such as Russia and China, it does not address whether the current centralized structure of the Department of Defense is well suited to planning for multiple potential threats. This is especially true of the hybrid challenge, which analysts argue will require a level of adaptability and decentralized decision-making that the Pentagon’s current form stifles.
The lack of prescriptive analysis in the new strategy has led several analysts to argue that it is not actually a strategy at all. But that failing is endemic with regard to U.S. government strategic documents, including the Quadrennial Defense Review and the White House National Security Strategy. For one thing, a detailed plan that included capabilities and resources is not something the Pentagon would like to publicize under any circumstance. As Andy Hoehn, a senior vice president at the RAND Corporation, told Defense News following the document’s release, “A strategy in this regard ought to be telling us how we will be using resources to accomplish objectives. It never really gets to that.… [R]eal strategy, in this instance, isn’t something we’re likely to post on a website.”
Of course, resources do not go completely unmentioned, but the strategy’s discussion of them reveals a great deal about why the Pentagon can never seem to live within its budget. According to the new strategy, the military is “conducting resource-informed planning.” This declaration is similar to the Pentagon’s description of its fiscal year 2016 budget request as being “strategy-driven and resource-informed.” The problem is that strategy and resources are inseparable. Resources do not inform strategy, they are integral to it. To paraphrase Benjamin Friedman of the Cato Institute, being strategy-driven and resource-informed is akin to building an aircraft that is flight-driven and physics-informed. Because resources are limited under any budgetary condition, strategy requires prioritization. Resource levels shape those priorities. A strategy that viewed resources as an integral part of planning—rather than an outside influence that informs the process—would prioritize the various threats the document has won praise for articulating, instead of listing them with little distinction between each and the capabilities necessary to combat them. That prioritization would govern the allocation of resources. Of course, as Hoehn noted, that might not be a document the Pentagon would want posted on a website.
Moreover, planning in a resource-informed manner only encourages the military services to push for programs beyond their means in the planning process and fight harder to keep them when the time comes to prioritize. As discussed here previously, the Pentagon’s planning system runs on a multiyear cycle. The planning phase begins no sooner than two years before the actual fiscal year in question. Because resource constraints are largely illusory during this phase, the services have fewer incentives to factor affordability into their plans. In the later programming and budgeting phases, when decisions are made about which programs to fund, the incentive is for the services to preserve the plans they already made. A defense official in the 1980s put it succinctly: “I used to say, in the Summer they put it in with shovels; then during Budget we take it out with tweezers.”
Acknowledging resource constraints—which exist at any budgetary level—is a key to realistic planning. Unfortunately, the new National Military Strategy continues the Pentagon’s habit of ignoring that simple fact.