Defense Planning in 2012 Must Be More Strategic

With the financial crisis hanging like a dark cloud over the U.S. budget cuts debate, defense policy pundits have back and forthed this week about the relative merits of steep cuts to U.S. defense spending. While a general debate about programs that could be cut to make savings is healthy, the defense policy discussion in 2012 needs to be about more then budget cuts.

Defense policy is a strategic exercise — a balancing of what you can afford with what you want to achieve. At the moment, a proper consideration of both of these elements has been sidelined by the overwhelming need to save money. Yet, as Washington continues to detail its foreign policy “pivot to the East,” this lack of balance represents poor strategic thinking and must be rectified.

Conceptually, defense policy is inherently strategic. It involves a calculation, which balances the preparation, structure, and capabilities of your military (your “means”) with your perceived threats to security and subsequent policy objectives (your “ends”).

Within this calculation, spending is clearly a means: the enabler with which your ends are obtained. And here lies the problem in the current budgetary debate. The connections between means and ends have been lost.

Consider, for instance, the biggest defense policy announcement of last year, the so called “pivot to the East” which saw Obama declare the U.S. will be “stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific.” While it is still early for this policy idea, such a shift will require a fundamental re-structuring of U.S. defense planning — its means.

Yet thus far, beyond the acceleration of U.S. troop withdrawals from bases in Europe and a tiny deployment of Marines to Australia, the defense debate has lacked any clarity on how to adequately make the privot a strategic reality.

In fact, current proposals actively stand in opposition to the proposed objectives of the pivot. Programs apparently on the chopping block in the budget debate include the troubled F-35 fast-jet and some aircraft carrier battle groups. Yet, these are exactly the kind of maritime assets an Asia-Pacific strategy will demand.

By putting such programs under review while simultaneously proclaiming to the world your commitment to a large and increasingly complex maritime arena such as the Asia-Pacific, the U.S.is displaying a lack of strategic logic. The military means are not aligned with U.S. ends.

This needs to change. When your ends and means are not adequately aligned, the risk is that you will find your objectives more difficult, and thus more costly, to achieve. Think of U.S. mechanised formations that found themselves engaged in population-centric counter-insurgency in Iraq. These were inappropriate means, and the cost of refitting/training, let alone the human casualty cost, was enormous.

In short, bad strategic thinking now — overly focused on defense spending in terms of cuts to means, and not the demands of your desired ends — will lead to a higher cost of blood and treasure in the future. It would be wise to talk more openly about how to match the means and ends of the pivot through defense reform, rather then simply focus on how to balance the books.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Jonathan Dowdall

Brussles based writer.

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