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Military Supremacy and How We Keep It

Friday, October 1, 1999

IN FEBRUARY 1776, only months before the American Declaration of Independence, British historian Edward Gibbon published the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was almost immediately recognized as an important achievement. Gibbon, like no one before, discerned the sources of Rome’s early success and later failures over the course of a history spanning a full millennium. The sixth and final volume appeared in 1788, the year before the U.S. Constitution. Not surprisingly, several of the framers of the Constitution thought they saw lessons in Gibbon’s work for the new republic. George Washington was particularly impressed with an insight about Roman military power that Gibbon offered in the first chapter of the first volume:

The terror of the Roman arms added weight and dignity to the moderation of the emperors. They preserved peace by a constant preparation for war; and while justice regulated their conduct, they announced to the nations on their confines that they were as little disposed to endure as to offer injury.

When he became president, Washington paraphrased Gibbon’s lesson in his first annual message to Congress, observing that "to be prepared for war, is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."

It was not a lesson that his fellow countrymen or their descendants would learn easily. Over the following two centuries, the nation’s vital interests would be endangered repeatedly by lack of military preparedness. But in the second half of the twentieth century — the "American Century," as Henry Luce called it in 1941 — the United States emerged as a global military power without peer. As that century ends, America commands more power and influence than perhaps any nation since the halcyon days of Gibbon’s Rome.

The sources of American success are not primarily military in nature. But after a century in which democracy was endangered first by imperialism, then by fascism, and finally by communism — a century in which over a hundred million lives were lost to war and civil strife — most Americans can readily grasp the value of possessing global military supremacy. The United States certainly has that today. Its defense budget is bigger than the combined total for the six next-biggest military powers (most of whom are U.S. allies). It is the only nation that can project military power rapidly and decisively anywhere on earth; the only nation with a major military presence in both hemispheres; the only nation exploiting the full military potential of the information revolution; and the only nation that anyone seriously expects to deserve the title "superpower" in the early decades of the next century.

If the United States can sustain the economic and cultural sources of its success, America has the potential to preserve its global influence for a long time to come — perhaps for as long as Rome did. But that also depends upon sustaining its current military supremacy. History is strewn with the remains of great civilizations that lost the capacity to protect themselves from external challenges. The hard part for America, as for Rome, seems to be maintaining a sense of purpose when threats recede. Given enough time, Americans are masters of military mobilization and execution. Where they have proved wanting is in preserving their might during periods of peace.

Despite an imposing defense budget, there are signs that the U.S. military posture is losing the coherence of its Cold War years. In an international environment posing few direct threats, it is quite possible to imagine a gradual deterioration, born of inattention, continuing past the point at which real damage to the U.S. global position occurs. Now, in short, is the time to think about where and why erosion is occurring and what investments the United States must make in order to preserve global military supremacy during the first half of the next century.

Current national strategy

BEHIND U.S. MILITARY FORCES in the field is a complex analytical process. Planners specify vital national interests and the threats to them; they formulate a strategy for coping with those threats; they identify the military requirements of implementing the strategy and translate the result into a range of programs to provide necessary personnel, equipment, and support services. In order to understand the investment programs — the equipment and technology expenditures — that must be made over the next generation, one must first spend a little time on the earlier stages of the process.

The Clinton administration has seen fit to rethink each step in the national security planning process, arguing that the demise of the Soviet Union required reflection on how future security needs might differ from those of the Cold War. The administration called its new approach a "strategy of engagement." Proponents characterized it as a middle ground between the extremes of isolationism and assuming the role of global policeman. The military component of this strategy was explained in the report of the Quadrennial Defense Review, a comprehensive assessment of U.S. military needs completed in 1997. The review specified five "vital national interests" that are the starting point in defining national military requirements:

  • Protecting the American homeland, especially against attacks employing nuclear, chemical, or biological "weapons of mass destruction."

  • Preventing the reemergence overseas of hostile regional powers or coalitions.

  • Guarding the security of global lines of communication at sea, in the air, and in space.

  • Ensuring unfettered access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources.

  • Deterring and/or defeating aggression against allies and friends.

The defense secretary’s 1999 Annual Report identified major near-term "security challenges" (i.e., threats) to U.S. interests:

  • "Large-scale, cross-border aggression" by hostile regional powers such as Iraq and North Korea.

  • "Flow of potentially dangerous technologies" to overseas adversaries, particularly technologies relevant to weapons of mass destruction, information warfare, or space access.

  • "Transnational dangers" such as terrorists and drug cartels that operate with little regard for national borders.

  • "Threats to the U.S. homeland," including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, information warfare, infrastructure attacks, organized crime, and uncontrolled immigration flows.

  • "Failed states" such as Somalia and Zaire, where the collapse of effective government has allowed the spread of lawlessness and disorder.

  • "Adversary use of asymmetric means," in other words, enemies’ exploitation of novel tools and tactics to circumvent superior U.S. conventional forces.

The administration does not anticipate the emergence of a "global peer competitor" comparable to the old Soviet Union prior to 2015. Its strategy of countering the emergence of regional aggressors is clearly designed to discourage such a development. However, Defense Secretary William Cohen acknowledged in his 1999 Annual Report that China could one day become a superpower rival of America, and also noted the possibility of "wild card scenarios," meaning completely unexpected threats for which the U.S. is poorly prepared.

The defense strategy formulated to deal with these interests and threats has three basic goals. The first is to shape the global environment by promoting regional stability, mitigating tensions, and deterring aggression, so as to diminish the frequency with which U.S. military forces must be employed. Efforts to reduce the Russian nuclear arsenal, halt the spread of ballistic-missile technology, and deprive international terrorists of safe havens are key features.

The second is to be prepared to respond militarily to a full range of possible crises. U.S. military forces must be able to deter aggression or coercion; engage in a variety of smaller-scale, possibly protracted contingencies in widely scattered locations; and successfully prosecute two "nearly simultaneous major theater wars," such as Operation Desert Storm. The latter requirement is the main driver of current force structure. Smaller-scale contingencies require less capability, and the standard for determining whether forces can effectively deter is inherently subjective. Virtually all of the key features of current U.S. conventional forces — number of armored divisions, number of long-range bombers, number of naval surface combatants — are in some way linked to the two-wars metric. The administration envisions that most major theater wars will be conducted in concert with allies, but acknowledges that the U.S. must be prepared to act alone.

The third basic strategic goal requires the military to think beyond 2015 — the planning horizon for the force posture proposed in the Quadrennial Defense Review — in an exercise called "preparing now for an uncertain future." Neither the administration nor the military claims to know what the global security environment will look like after 2015. The services describe the forces they will need then as "capabilities-based" rather than threat-based, acknowledging that they can only guess at who the enemy might be. The focused modernization effort called for in this part of the defense strategy is driven by the so-called "Revolution in Military Affairs," the anticipated transformation in military capabilities made possible by new information technologies. It is also in this futuristic context that the Quadrennial Defense Review discusses national missile defense, describing it as an "insurance policy" against unanticipated threats. 

Three fundamental flaws

THE CLINTON ADMINISTRATION'S defense strategy is more coherent than many critics acknowledge. It identifies the full range of plausible future threats to national security and has shown a capacity to evolve over time in response to changing circumstances. Nonetheless, the strategy has three fundamental flaws that make it an incomplete basis for any road map of future defense investments. First of all, it provides no real solution to the most serious and persistent security threat the nation faces, the danger of nuclear attack against the American homeland. Second, it makes assumptions about the circumstances under which future conflicts might arise that are too optimistic to assure military supremacy over the long run. And third, even within the context of neglected threats and convenient assumptions, the strategy does not yield a force structure or capabilities adequate to satisfy its own requirements.

The first flaw is clearly the most important, reflecting the peculiar blindness of Democratic administrations throughout the Cold War to the likely impermanence of nuclear deterrence. U.S. nuclear strategy today, as in the past, depends upon the presumed validity of an unprovable theory of human behavior. The strategy assumes, inter alia, that nuclear adversaries will be rational; that they will not be accident-prone; that they will prevent rogue elements from seizing control of strategic forces; that they will perceive U.S. actions as intended; and that they will respond to U.S. actions in the manner American policy makers consider appropriate. There was little historical basis for such heroic assumptions during the Cold War, and there is even less in its aftermath, especially given the volatile character of Russian domestic politics and the emergence of new nuclear players.

The only valid excuse for allowing national survival to rest on such a fragile base is the absence of alternatives. That was the main argument of those opposing national missile defense during the Cold War — that protection against nuclear attack was not practicable, and that efforts to provide it would make attacks more likely by "destabilizing" the superpower security relationship. In the years after the end of the Cold War, defense became both more feasible and more necessary. The number of strategic warheads in the Russian nuclear arsenal declined by a third during the 1990s, to around 7,000; some U.S. intelligence analysts believe that the arsenal will deteriorate to less than 1,000 usable warheads by 2010 (far below levels permitted under pending arms control agreements). Defense may accordingly be easier, especially if attack comes in the form of a limited — accidental or unauthorized — nuclear launch. But the same internal decay driving down warhead numbers also makes nuclear accidents, security breakdowns, and proliferation more likely. With the assumed stability of the Cold War era gone, active defense becomes more necessary.

Fortunately, significant technological progress has been made in developing systems that can counter nuclear missile attacks, particularly the smaller-scale attacks that might be mounted by emerging nuclear powers or rogue commanders in Russia. After cutting back on national missile defense research during its first term in office, the Clinton administration began to warm to the idea of relaxing the severe constraints on missile defenses imposed by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But its defense strategy reflected little sense of urgency about developing defenses, and the administration’s public pronouncements were often fraught with misplaced emphasis, leaving the impression, for example, that the primitive ballistic missile threat posed by North Korea was more ominous than Russia’s 7,000 intercontinental warheads. An adequate strategy for defending the nation must begin by addressing this challenge more seriously.

The second fundamental flaw in current strategy is the tendency to make convenient assumptions about how future warfighting contingencies might arise. Current strategy assumes that two major conflicts will not occur at exactly the same time; that well-armed allies will probably participate in major theater wars; that extensive infrastructure will be available in or near conflict areas to support U.S. forces; that early suppression of enemy air defenses will be feasible; and that adequate supplies of precision munitions ("smart bombs") will be available to quickly disable critical enemy assets.

For all the military success of the Western alliance’s air offensive over former Yugoslavia, several of these assumptions proved wrong. The Air Force began running out of key munitions only a week after the air war began. Uncertainty about whether enemy air defenses had been disabled hobbled the use of U.S. aircraft. And European allies proved ill-equipped to participate effectively with U.S. forces in a precision air campaign. (One senior U.S. military officer was quoted in the press commenting acidly, "We slipped some training wheels on the Europeans and put them in the middle of the freeway; after a few days, we said, ‘we better get these kids out of the road.’")

Even the assumptions that proved valid in Kosovo raised troubling questions about how U.S. forces would fare in future conflicts. For example, the absence of major conflicts in Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf region enabled the Pentagon to remove the only U.S. aircraft carrier in the Northern Pacific as well as electronic-warfare aircraft enforcing the Iraqi no-fly zones to support the Kosovo operation. But since the current U.S. force posture was constructed around scenarios envisioning "nearly simultaneous" conflicts in both Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf, how likely is it that U.S. strategy will be adequate to deal with contingencies in other areas such as the Balkans in the future? What would have happened if U.S. forces were under pressure in both Iraq and Korea — a real possibility — when the Kosovo operation began? And while U.S. forces operating over the former Yugoslavia did indeed have access to nearby infrastructure in allied countries (they used two dozen bases), Europe is the only major theater of military operations where base access is not declining over time. In the Persian Gulf region, even key allies such as the Saudis have expressed ambivalence about U.S. use of bases there. Obviously, a defense strategy grounded in excessively optimistic assumptions has the potential to go seriously awry in the years ahead.

This leads to a third fundamental flaw. Even within the context of neglected threats and optimistic assumptions, the Clinton administration’s strategy never properly translated into support for the programs necessary to implement it. Indeed, the administration made a number of foolish program choices. For example:

  • The Clinton administration limited production of the stealthy, next-generation B-2 bomber to 21 aircraft, a fraction of the originally-planned 132 planes. The Air Force does not plan to produce another new bomber until 2037, leaving it with a force of barely 200 intercontinental bombers for the next 40 years — 90 percent of which are not stealthy, and over a third of which (the B-52s) are already nearly 40 years old.
  • Although the U.S. Army today leads the world in heavy-armor technology for the first time in history, it plans to cease upgrades to its M-1A2 Abrams tank early in the next decade and forgo any further tank production for a generation. The service has no firm plans as to when it will resume production of heavy-armor vehicles, and no funding allocated to provide the majority of existing tanks with the latest digital upgrades.
  • Despite the growing versatility of submarines as stealthy platforms for sea control, land attack with cruise missiles, intelligence gathering, and other missions, the Navy’s sub inventory was set to decline from 100 in 1990 to half that number. Internal Navy studies indicate that 70 attack subs are needed to meet current commitments, but with many older subs approaching retirement, it is not clear the service can afford to keep even 50 operational.

There’s no way of knowing precisely where such program trends will leave the U.S. military in, say, 20 years. But "global military supremacy" certainly isn’t the first phrase that comes to mind. It’s not clear the existing force posture can meet even the near-term demands of national strategy. Shortly after the end of the Kosovo campaign, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Ryan told an audience that, faced with two simultaneous major-theater conflicts, his service would experience shortfalls in intelligence collection, surveillance, defense suppression, airlift, fighters, and bombers. Ryan said the service could cope with the two "nearly simultaneous" conflicts envisioned in current strategy — as long as an accommodating adversary allowed him to begin shifting assets to the second conflict 90 days after the first one began.

If that is the state of U.S. military preparedness today, imagine where the U.S. will stand after the full effects of no bomber production, no tank production, and minimal submarine production have asserted themselves for a generation — not to mention dozens of other key military investments delayed, deferred, or diminished by recent administrations. Barring some miraculous change in human nature, it is clear that a much more ambitious investment program will be needed to assure U.S. military supremacy in the early decades of the next century.

Critical investments ahead

AREALISTIC INVESTMENT STRATEGY for future military supremacy must begin by recognizing some basic realities: America’s geographical remoteness from likely theaters of military involvement; the undependability of key allies, who may lack the resources or resolve to participate in coalition warfare; the ongoing proliferation of advanced military technologies, including those related to weapons of mass destruction; the uncertainty of future access to overseas bases; and the traditional reluctance of Americans to sacrifice their fellow citizens’ lives in wars with limited or unclear objectives. Current U.S. defense strategy acknowledges many of these constraints but does not respond adequately to them.

An effective military investment plan must leverage the nation’s extraordinary economic and technological power to compensate for other strategic disadvantages the United States faces. The Clinton strategy is correct in asserting that well-trained, well-led personnel are the U.S. military’s most important asset, but other nations also have competent warriors. Where they cannot match America is in the scale and sophistication of military technology. The U.S. thus requires a technology-intensive defense strategy to assure future military supremacy, one which is more heavily weighted toward investment than driven by readiness, as during the Clinton years. Almost all of the critical investments can be organized to support five overarching goals:

  • Developing homeland defenses against nuclear attack.
  • Preserving global air superiority.
  • Asserting unrivaled dominance in space.
  • Securing and leveraging the benefits of global maritime supremacy.
  • Exploiting the full military potential of the information revolution.

Homeland defense

THE CLINTON ADMINISTRATION BEGAN began stressing the importance of preparing the nation for future attacks involving chemical or biological weapons. Planning for the protection of critical infrastructure against information warfare has begun. The administration has even acknowledged that the emergence of nuclear-capable rogue states such as North Korea may soon require deployment of national missile defenses.

These efforts are all worthwhile, and probably should be accelerated. However, the administration’s approach to defense against nuclear attack, while an improvement over its earlier positions, cannot begin to cope with the full range of nuclear threats to the American homeland. The current concept is to construct a very limited system of sensors and interceptors that at least initially would be compatible with the 1972 ABM Treaty and its 1974 protocol. This would limit the system to 100 interceptors at a single, fixed domestic site, which the administration believes could be adequate to counter the small, relatively simple attacks mounted by a North Korea. The system architecture is being designed so it can evolve into a more capable defensive network able to cope with somewhat larger or more capable threats, such as those that might be posed by an accidental or unauthorized launch of Russian missiles.

But the envisioned system will not be able to deal with a large-scale nuclear attack such as Russia could launch today, or China perhaps 10 years in the future. In fact, because four interceptors would be needed to provide 95 percent probability of destroying one incoming warhead, a fully treaty-compliant version of the system could be overwhelmed by only half a dozen multiple-warhead missiles. If the U.S. homeland is truly to be defended, a completely different approach is needed, one involving some form of boost-phase interception — in other words, destruction of missiles early in their launch sequence, before multiple warheads and penetration aids have been released. The only real candidate at present to accomplish this task is the Air Force’s Space-Based Laser program.

Unfortunately, the Clinton administration allowed the laser program to languish. Plans for a space-based test of key technologies were delayed from 2005 to 2008, then to 2010, and now to 2012. Nuclear deterrence may fail long before the leisurely pace of the program produces anything useful. To make matters worse, congressional proponents of space-based lasers have contrived a series of excuses for delaying the Air Force’s Airborne Laser program, a theater-missile defense system that will facilitate early demonstration of key enabling technologies. In short, the boost-phase interception component of the national missile defense program is in a state of disarray. The Ballistic Missile Defense Organization’s entire budget for directed-energy technologies in the fiscal 2000-2005 defense spending plan is a mere $450 million.

The United States cannot reasonably claim global military supremacy so long as it is at the mercy of any nation with more than a handful of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Its present defenselessness is an incentive to adversaries to acquire nuclear weapons as a relatively inexpensive way of matching U.S. military power. The administration’s plans for a treaty-compliant system are a good first step and a potentially valuable backup. But real security depends on infusing the Space-Based Laser program with a much greater sense of urgency, a conclusion congressional authorizing committees underscored in their conference report on the fiscal 2000 defense budget.

Air superiority

NO AMERICAN SOLDIER HAS BEEN KILLED by enemy aircraft since the Korean War. No American military plane has been shot down by enemy aircraft since the Vietnam War. And throughout the American Century — a period of history essentially coterminous with the age of air power — the American homeland has never been subject to a bombing campaign by foreign adversaries. These achievements have been made possible in large measure by what air power theorist Guilio Douhet at the beginning of the century called "command of the air."

Americans have enjoyed air superiority for so long that they have come to take it for granted. Few citizens fully grasp what an accomplishment it was to pound Serbia into submission without losing a single allied pilot or having to commit ground forces. But precisely because U.S. air superiority has come to seem so inevitable, there is a real danger that it could be lost sometime early in the next century. The Air Force’s plans for a stealthy heavy bomber not dependent on forward bases were scaled back to a mere 21 planes, the only survivable long-range strike aircraft it now plans to operate for decades to come. The Clinton administration reduced scheduled production of the only new air-superiority fighter the Air Force has developed in the last quarter century, the stealthy F-22, from 750 planes to 648, then to 438, then to 339 — and finally, congressional appropriators in fiscal 2000 budget deliberations threatened the plane with extinction altogether. And because it had expected to have large numbers of stealthy next-generation bombers and fighters, the service abandoned its fleet of electronic-warfare aircraft, leaving the joint tactical jamming mission to the Navy.

Planners also cut the production goal for the service’s next-generation strategic airlifter, the versatile C-17, by 40 percent and threatened the program with termination in the early 1990s. That program eventually got back on track, and the Air Force will probably buy close to the 210 planes originally planned. But in virtually every other category of aircraft — fighters, bombers, tankers, surveillance planes, tactical airlifters — the service operates an increasingly aged and decrepit fleet. High rates of utilization and low rates of production during the Clinton years accelerated the decay. If U.S. air superiority is to be assured during the early decades of the next century, three efforts in particular must receive increased funding:

  • Plans to upgrade the Air Force’s 21 B-2 bombers should be organized to facilitate further production of long-range strike aircraft in the near future. Careful sequencing and management of programmed improvements would allow the service to develop a "virtual prototype" of a cheaper, more capable B-2 variant that could be produced in the next decade.
  • Production of the F-22 must be kept on schedule to avoid huge costs and delays in fielding a next-generation air-superiority fighter. The F-15 fighter that the F-22 will replace is a Vietnam-era airframe that cannot assure air superiority against more modern foreign fighters, and the other tactical aircraft the U.S. is developing are not suitable for the air superiority role.
  • The Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), a radar plane that does for ground surveillance what the awacs does for air surveillance, must be upgraded and procured in sufficient numbers. The Clinton administration wrongly assumed allies would buy six for coalition operations, but since they haven’t, the U.S. production goal should be restored to at least the original 19 aircraft (some senior Air Force officers think twice that number would be optimal).

The Air Force also needs to revitalize its electronic-warfare community and determine how it will replace hundreds of aging KC-135 tankers and C-130 tactical transports. These missions are not as well understood in Congress as the more visible combat missions, but they are critical to the Air Force’s success in future conflicts. With access to foreign bases increasingly doubtful, the importance of range-extending aerial refueling tankers and rugged intratheater airlifters that can land almost anywhere will become increasingly apparent in the years ahead. But the average KC-135 tanker is 38 years old, and many C-130s are operating well beyond their intended design lives. They need to be replaced soon.

Space superiority

IN THE 40 YEARS SINCE the United States launched its first photographic reconnaissance spy satellite (the KH-2 in 1959), the U.S. military has become increasingly dependent on and proficient in the use of orbital space platforms. The most important military satellites are five constellations of early-warning, communications, navigation, and meteorological spacecraft operated by the U.S. Space Command; and a series of highly classified intelligence satellites such as the Orion electronic-eavesdropping system operated by the National Reconnaissance Office. The Air Force has traditionally been the lead military service for acquiring and operating space systems, often acting in concert with the intelligence community. However, all of the military services have become heavy users of these systems, even though the Air Force bears most of the budgetary burden.

The Soviet Union tried hard throughout the Cold War to keep up with America in the military utilization of space, but after losing an early lead during the Kennedy administration, it never again came close to matching the sophistication of U.S. orbital assets. The Russian military space program today is a pale shadow of its Soviet-era scale, unable even to provide national leaders with continuous early warning against nuclear attack. A handful of other countries such as France and Israel have established niche competencies in particular satellite types, but the U.S. remains by far the dominant producer and user of military spacecraft. This not only provides a critical advantage in global defense operations, but also is a key reason America leads the world in commercial satellite sales and technology. The U.S. will continue to dominate satellite innovation for the foreseeable future, unless overly restrictive export controls hobble the competitiveness of an increasingly commercial business.

The same cannot be said of the launcher segment of the space business, where the U.S. faltered badly after the Challenger disaster in 1986. Because the Space Shuttle was expected to replace traditional launchers in many roles, the U.S. spent relatively little on upgrading its expendable launchers once the shuttle program began. But the shuttle never lived up to the expectation that it would greatly reduce the cost of orbiting satellites, and after the Challenger exploded, most military payloads were returned to expendable launchers. A series of false starts on new launchers such as the "Advanced Launch System" and "National Launch System" then ensued, as the U.S. tried to improve a fleet that consisted of little more than modified variants of Eisenhower-era ballistic missiles.

This effort led eventually to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program in the Clinton administration, a family of launchers that may finally solve the near-term need for cheaper, more reliable access to space. The EELV program is essential to effective U.S. space operations in the early decades of the next century. But by the time that program began to bear fruit, much of the domestic demand for commercial space launches had already moved offshore to France, Russia, and China. This process was accelerated by neglect in modernizing and expanding the U.S. launch infrastructure. If the United States is to maintain its present dominance in military, civil, and commercial space operations over the long run, it will need something more revolutionary than an evolved expendable launcher.

The leading candidate to serve as this "leap-ahead" space transportation system is VentureStar, a "single-stage-to-orbit" launch vehicle being developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and several of the nation’s largest aerospace companies. In conceptual terms, VentureStar will be a cross between the Space Shuttle and an aircraft, with reusable systems, aerodynamic landings, and quick turnaround on the ground. It will have a payload comparable to the shuttle, but much lower costs and higher reliability. The first commercial operations are forecast for 2005. Before two full-scale vehicles can be built, though, NASA needs to demonstrate key technologies on a smaller test vehicle designated the X-33 — probably beginning next year. Because reliable access to space at reasonable cost is the greatest single weakness in the current U.S. military space program, the X-33/VentureStar effort should arguably be the highest funding priority in any campaign aimed at bolstering space capabilities for the future.

Maritime supremacy

DIPLOMATIC HISTORIAN JOHN SPANIER once explained America’s purported insularity from world affairs by observing that it was "a nation with nonthreatening neighbors to the north and south, and fish to the east and west." He might more accurately have said, "and the U.S. Navy to the east and west." During the nineteenth century, the Navy was the main bulwark against European intervention in the Western Hemisphere; in the twentieth century, it became the most frequently used instrument of American influence in the Eastern Hemisphere. The American Century, which began so portentously in 1907 when President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched the Great White Fleet on a cruise around the world, ended with the 97,000-ton, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier named for Roosevelt sitting in the Adriatic Sea, launching dozens of precision air strikes daily against the warmaking capacity of Serbia.

By the time the latter development unfolded in spring 1999, the U.S. Navy no longer had a real rival for global maritime supremacy. One by one, all of the other great naval powers of the twentieth century — Britain, Japan, Russia — had receded to the status of regional players. But the U.S. Navy no longer thinks solely in terms of such traditional missions as sea control. Since the end of the Cold War, the Navy and its sister service, the Marine Corps, have set forth an increasingly bold vision for using naval strike forces to intervene ashore. The new doctrine, first explored in a 1993 conceptual document called "ÖFrom the Sea," seeks to exploit the fact that most of the world’s population and commerce are found within a few hundred miles of the sea — well within the range of sea-based aircraft and missiles. It fashions a post-Cold War role for the sea services that leverages their mobility, versatility, and independence to make them potent military forces far from the sea.

This is a potentially revolutionary development, one that may have great military significance in the next century if the U.S. continues to withdraw from land bases in the Eurasian littoral. With diminished access to foreign bases and a dwindling number of long-range strike aircraft in the U.S. inventory, there undoubtedly will be many overseas contingencies in the years ahead in which only the Navy and Marine Corps can respond with the requisite combination of speed and sustained firepower. But as the number of warships in the fleet shrinks to barely half its Reagan-era peak, the Navy has to make hard choices about what mix of vessels is best suited to implement its new doctrine of littoral warfare.

Aside from Marine Corps amphibious assets, the service seems to be evolving toward a mix of three next-generation warships: advanced large-deck aircraft carriers, multimission surface combatants, and versatile attack subs. In each case, the next-generation vessel will be expected to accomplish a broader spectrum of missions than the ship classes it replaces, while being much less manpower- and maintenance-intensive. New technologies such as electric drive and digital networks will enhance the efficiency of each vessel and will link ships, aircraft, and space assets together in an integrated warfighting system greater than the sum of its parts. Navy insiders call this a transition from "platform-centric" to "network-centric" warfare.

In doctrinal terms the revolution is already well advanced. The Navy knows what capabilities it is seeking in next-generation warships, and has begun development of all three classes. But there are challenges with each class caused by inadequate funding:

Development of the New Attack Submarine ("NSSN" in naval nomenclature) has progressed to a point where initial production can begin. However, even though the versatile sub will be the only undersea warship produced for the foreseeable future — and may even be modified to serve as a successor to Trident strategic-missile subs — there is uncertainty as to whether the Navy can afford the annual build rate of two to three boats necessary to sustain an adequate fleet.

Development of a new destroyer, designated DD-21, is still in its infancy, but the vessel’s diverse mission requirements — ranging from land attack to theater missile defense to antisubmarine warfare — are raising doubts about whether it can operate as planned with a much reduced crew of perhaps 100 sailors. This program may need increased funding to assure that all required capabilities are suitably integrated in time to commence production in the next decade.

Development of an advanced replacement for large-deck Nimitz-class aircraft carriers has been slowed by budgetary constraints, forcing the Navy to gradually introduce new design innovations over a period of many years. The consequences of this delay will be compounded by the Clinton administration’s unwillingness to fund the necessary force structure of 15 carriers, which would require production of one new carrier every four years rather than five.

In addition to these long-term challenges, there are two more pressing issues that the Navy must address soon. First, the aging EA-6B Prowler carrier-based electronic warfare aircraft, which provides tactical jamming for all U.S. military aircraft, must be replaced in the near future. With only a hundred such aircraft available worldwide on any given day and their average age approaching 18 years (production ceased 10 years ago), it is just a matter of time before lack of coverage leads to combat losses. Providing adequate coverage of U.S. strike aircraft during the Kosovo operation required shifting a third of available assets to the Balkan theater, leaving other regions thinly protected. Since it is too late to begin the lengthy development of a "clean-sheet" replacement aircraft, the only practical solution is to take advanced jamming equipment already in development for the Prowler and integrate it into a variant of the Navy’s new strike aircraft, the F/A-18 Super Hornet. The Super Hornet will be the dominant fighter-bomber in the Navy inventory for the foreseeable future, so making it the host for electronic-warfare missions will minimize logistics costs and maximize air-wing flexibility.

The other pressing near-term issue is disposition of four Trident ballistic-missile submarines due to depart strategic service early in the next decade. These boats are in need of nuclear refueling and probably are no longer required for the deterrence mission. But their large size makes them well-suited for use as stealthy land-attack warships carrying cruise missiles. Modifying the subs for that mission would be an innovative and low-cost approach to bolstering the firepower for littoral warfare, but because it cuts across traditional mission lines, the service has not fully embraced the concept. Conversion needs to be funded while the option still exists.

The Marine Corps has made huge progress in recent years modernizing its aging collection of amphibious combat vessels. A class of eight very capable LHD amphibious assault vessels — they look like small aircraft carriers and cost over $1 billion each — will be complemented by a dozen new San Antonio-class vessels incorporating advanced design concepts and technology, leaving the service well positioned in terms of combat vessels for the next century. However, the corps faces major problems with an obsolescent aircraft fleet that have been exacerbated by Clinton Administration cutbacks in the planned production run and rate of the V-22 tiltrotor aircraft. The V-22 features the range and speed of a fixed-wing aircraft, combined with the vertical ascent/descent of a helicopter. It is the most important new aircraft the corps has purchased in two generations. The program needs to be restored to higher production goals at accelerated rates, before more Marines fall victim to their aging aircraft. The corps also needs to ensure that its next-generation Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle is adequately funded, because existing vehicles for transiting from ship to shore lack the range, speed, flexibility, and protection for littoral warfare in the next century.

Information revolution

THE FINAL OVERARCHING GOAL of an investment strategy for future military supremacy can be covered quickly, because it is not so much a mission area as a mindset. Virtually all of the advanced military systems and capabilities discussed above draw on new information technologies. From the pinpoint accuracy of smart bombs to the battle management of missile defenses to the superior connectivity of network-centric warfare, it is apparent that every facet of America’s military posture is now permeated with digital processors and software. This is arguably the greatest military achievement of the Clinton years, a broadly based breakthrough in capabilities grounded in awareness that Cold War systems can be made much more effective through the insertion of new technology.

Over the next several decades, the armed forces must make a costly transition from the insertion of digital components to exploiting the full potential of the information revolution. But it is important to recognize that most of the major weapon systems that will be found in the force posture of 2020 have already been built today. The nation cannot afford to simply walk away from this vast investment in military hardware, and it doesn’t need to. Innovative upgrades of older systems can keep many of them relevant to combat even as the full potential of the information revolution is being realized in a new generation of weapons.

Rather than permitting sharp discontinuities in capability as the result of a fitful transition to something fundamentally new, it is more prudent and affordable to gradually introduce next-generation weapons into a force structure where proven systems still have a place. That means systematically applying digital technologies across the force structure — and to its underlying logistics base — rather than reserving them for the "gee-whiz" weapons of tomorrow. The Clinton administration made a good start on this process, one on which future administrations should try to build.

The price of supremacy

DISCUSSIONS OF FUTURE MILITARY requirements lead inevitably to questions about affordability — particularly in periods of diminished danger, when the consequences of failing to modernize forces are less apparent. While the cost of the investment program set forth above would be considerable, some perspective on the scale and composition of current U.S. military spending is in order. Viewed in the light of post-Cold War threats, the scale of U.S. defense expenditures in the late 1990s was already quite imposing; at about one-third of the global total, it is many times the military budget of any existing adversary. But while dangers to democracy are at their lowest ebb in three generations, that situation cannot prudently be expected to last indefinitely. Moreover, much of America’s current quarter-trillion-dollar annual defense budget is spent inefficiently on redundant bases, the high overhead costs of an all-volunteer force, and support functions that should long since have been contracted to the private sector.

If the Defense Department were operated according to the management standards prevailing at the nation’s most competitive private companies, it would probably be feasible to accommodate the proposed investment agenda within planned budgets. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration’s efforts to reform Pentagon management practices were mainly rebuffed by Congress. Furthermore, it is doubtful that government could ever come close to matching the efficiency of the marketplace, and even trying to do so might undercut popular support for defense spending. In any event, fundamental reform takes time, and after the depressed investment spending of the last decade, that is one thing the armed forces do not have. A program to preserve global military supremacy needs to be funded now.

That means political leaders must abandon the belief that they can enjoy sustained military supremacy for only 3 percent of gross domestic product, the level of defense spending prevailing in 1999. Some say, reform first. But insisting on "fixing" the Pentagon before major increases in military expenditure are approved would be like refusing to increase Medicare and Medicaid expenditures until those programs are reformed: Many people may die before the system is noticeably improved.

The good news is that U.S. economic activity is so robust compared with that of current or prospective enemies that global military supremacy can be sustained for only a modest additional increment of national wealth: on the order of 0.5 percent of gdp. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in July 1999 that U.S. gross domestic product in fiscal 2002 will for the first time surpass $10 trillion. Following Clinton administration guidelines, defense spending the same year is likely to total about $300 billion, matching its current 3 percent claim on national output.

Fiscal 2002 (beginning October 1, 2001) is also the first full budget year for President Clinton’s successor. It thus will be the critical year for establishing the tenor and priorities of a new administration. A commitment to increase defense spending by an average of half a percent of gdp over the subsequent eight years would ensure that all of the investment goals for future military supremacy described above could be met (so long as the new president’s defense managers maintained a clear sense of their goals). It would enable the United States to begin rapid development of real homeland defenses, to bolster its global air and space superiority, to leverage the benefits of maritime supremacy, and to realize the full military potential of the information revolution.

Critics would undoubtedly complain that a defense budget increase ranging from $50 billion in 2002 to $70 billion in 2010 (assuming a $14 trillion gdp in the latter year) is excessive. In a limited sense, they might be right: Quickly increasing defense spending in the first year of a new administration could lead to waste. In the larger sense, however, they would be wrong. The share of national output allocated to defense would still be less than half the 7.5 percent average of the Cold War years. And because per capita gdp is so much bigger now than it was then, the sacrifice of average taxpayers would be smaller still.

It is important to keep in mind that the real (after-inflation) buying power of the U.S. defense budget has declined continuously since fiscal 1986. Increasing the defense budget by the equivalent of half a percent of gdp would barely restore its buying power to the level at which it stood at the beginning of the 1990s, long after the decline from the peak spending of the Reagan years had commenced.

But this still would be sufficient to meet the investment requirements of global military supremacy. One reason is that the Clinton administration programmed a 42 percent nominal increase in procurement spending into its fiscal 2000-2005 defense budget plan (from $53 billion to $75 billion in "then-year" dollars). Skeptics who remember the administration’s repeated deferral of promised procurement increases in the mid-1990s were right to question whether this commitment would mean anything years after Clinton left office. But the plan is there, and a new administration has the option of building on it, not only by purchasing the sinews of long-term military superiority, but also by bolstering the readiness accounts that robbed procurement spending during the Clinton years.

So global military supremacy is affordable at a level of sacrifice that many citizens might hardly notice. In a nation that now spends 6 percent to 7 percent of national wealth on various forms of gambling, it hardly seems unrealistic to expect that half that amount might be spent on defense. After all, the alternative might be to suffer military defeat at the hands of an emerging competitor sometime in the first half of the next century. That may seem improbable today, but who foresaw the full extent of the danger that would be posed by fascism or communism in the early years after the Great War? Human nature has not changed. If no other lesson can be learned from the deaths of 100 million human beings in conflicts during the American Century, there is at least the one that lingers from the experience of Rome two millennia ago as well: Over the long run it costs far more to be unprepared for war than it does to be well-armed and ready.