Current defense conversations feature repeated calls for more power and strength, stronger will, greater presence, and more money. Those making these arguments assert that lower ship numbers, reduced army end-strength, and reduced apparent capability contribute to a more complex, dangerous, and troubling international order.

While increased peer competition, technological developments, and increased capabilities for non-state actors have exacerbated risks in today’s international world, the clarion call for more troops, more ships, and more power flies in the face of the military’s attempts to adapt to those risks. Instead of ramping up current capabilities, certain developments within the Pentagon could portend a more dynamic approach to mitigate today’s threats.

For example, the Navy is looking for ways to turn away from its constantly on, high-powered electromagnetic systems. The growth of anti-access, area-denial tools (A2/AD) is being used against what were American strengths. In this brave new world, full-power all the time is quickly becoming a liability as rivals use U.S. radar and communications to trace and target American ships. Simply having more powerful systems means being more easily detected by enemies. Coordinating global fleets is becoming more and more about being interconnected while remaining unseen. This means shifts in strategy, incorporating more distributed fleet structures, and reforming how ships communicate with each other. In a world where fleets are easily targeted by over-the-horizon-missiles, the victors of the next war are the ones that will remain dark, deceptive, and discrete. This strategy needs to be properly fleshed out, however. Increasing ship levels alone may reduce the current urgency of reorganizing strategy to address these novel threats, without actually addressing the issues that are causing those threats. More ships that are as vulnerable as the old ones simply exacerbates the problem.  

Aviation is seeing a shift as well. There was some consternation over the U.S. Air Force’s use of the F-22 in Syria. While some of the critiques of using the F-22 in Syria focused on its pointlessness  (that is, ISIS does not have an air force or air defenses, though Assad’s regime does), perhaps the more important critique focuses on Russia’s deployment of the sophisticated SA-22 Greyhound air defense system. Since Russia’s main enemies—insurgents against Syria’s government—do not have any systems to justify deploying the SA-22, Russia is likely testing the system on tracking the F-22.

The more the Russians can fine-tune their equipment to track American stealth platforms, the less capable the United States will be in any potential engagement with Russia. If deploying a weapons system means exposing it in any following conflict, then strategy demands balancing capability with preserving future capability. In a high-end conflict, the United States will have to deploy complex arrangements of high-power active electromagnetic radars, communication relay systems, passive radar systems, decoys to distract enemy systems, and stealth. The United States has the capability to achieve this, but only if it reforms its current approaches to the electromagnetic battlefield. The dial can no longer be constantly pointed at ten. Future conflict may  mean deployments of a mix of high-tech and low-tech systems, the latter used for operations in which using more advanced capabilities means compromising them for more important missions.

The same holds true for outer space infrastructure. Capabilities that the United States once relied on with certainty are increasingly being threatened. The United States is increasingly operating in a multipolar space environment. This multipolarity inherently complicates all aspects of American defense and deterrence. Power projection is more difficult when the eyes of the Pentagon are at risk. The military must then diversify its communications, surveillance, and coordination platforms. Because of the potential for a cascading threat in space (a kinetic attack may result in debris that may damage more space assets), the Pentagon must adapt to deal with future operations absent space assets.

When it comes to current conflicts in the Middle East, the United States is upping its deployment of special forces. The budget for special forces has increased from $2.3 billion in 2001 to $10.5 billion in 2012. While much has been made of Pentagon requests for more troops in Iraq, the military has made it clear that it is not asking for force levels that would replace local policing and governing forces. It has phrased the request in terms of increasing trainer and specialization levels. Robert Newson, from the Council of Foreign Relations, has even floated arguments that the United States should shift completely to unconventional forces for the fight against terrorists in the Middle East. The military is also growing its clandestine service, as it attempts to pursue an increased operational tempo without large-scale troop deployments.

Perhaps even more importantly, the Pentagon is pushing its Strategic Capability Office to research and develop (or improve) capabilities ranging from unmanned swarms of small attack boats, arsenal planes, and 3D printing to using hypervelocity railguns as cheaper replacements for missile defense systems. These goals are aimed at offsetting Chinese and Russian capabilities while remaining within cost constraints. The Army’s endeavors to reform heavy attack reconnaissance units to combine manned and unmanned platforms may be due to budget constraints, but are also a new model that may allow smaller forces to project power across a more complex world. This would be necessary even if current budget constraints were lifted, but the pace has certainly been accelerated by financial pressures.

It is not beyond the ability of the military to adapt to the potential future operating environments. It has done it before. The United States and the West are no strangers to tactics of deception (see the ghost armies created to mislead the Germans during WWII). It may be harder to create deceptions during the era of satellites and electromagnetic warfare, but it is not impossible. To properly address today’s threats, however, the Pentagon must change. Exquisite but expensive platforms may be useful for certain missions, but cannot be the sole pillar on which America’s defense stands.

Arguments that simply increasing ship, troop, or airplane levels will alleviate the threats the United States faces run against the reality of today’s complex world. This is not to say that there are no good arguments for pursuing certain levels of ships, for example (see this argument by Dr. Hendrix at Center for a New American Security on navy presence), but that size by itself is increasingly irrelevant. Increasing platforms without the capability to deceive, evade, and adapt around growing asymmetric capabilities by rivals would simply increase the number of targets. Given that American platforms are much more expensive than the weapons used to target them, the costs of fielding them would remain prohibitive, regardless of how many are built.

Instead, the military should be incentivized to pursue new strategies that increase its agility. In part, these new strategies have been made more urgent because of budget constraints, but they are necessary shifts. Congress can craft this pressure to responsibly push the Department of Defense to continue its innovation. Necessity is the mother of invention. If the rest of the defense community and Congress merely push for defense spending based on old ideas, the military will face new enemies with old tools. Instead, the military, defense contractors, and Congress need to fully accept that it is no longer business as usual.