Possible Implications of Hagel’s Strategic Choices and Management Review for US Global Posture
“If you take another $500 billion out of this defense budget, the strategy I just presented to you, I’d have to throw it out the window”.
-- Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, HASC Testimony, February 2012
On July 31st, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel highlighted the results of Pentagon’s Strategic Choices and Management Review. The main purpose of the Review, launched 4 months ago, was intended to develop an internal comprehensive across-all-military branches diagnose to quantify the impact the budget sequestration (cutting 500 billions dollars over the next decade) had on the core Pentagon defense priorities codified in January 2012, in the so-called Defense Strategic Guidance.
In that guidance the Obama Administration announced its core signature projects with major implications for the global US security architecture and regional priorities:
- A new geopolitical environment that suggests a necessary rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region as an overarching priority;
- The end of post 9/11 wars provides an opportunity to adjust and “rebalance the US military investment in Europe.” The major implication was the reduction of the US military footprint by 2 BCTs (out of 4). The reasoning was that US regional posture in Europe is shifting away from a Fulda Gap mindset. As one of the top Pentagon policymakers (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans) involved in developing and drafting the DSG told me in an interview: ”the overall idea is that we are not focused any more on the Soviet Union coming crossing the Fulda Gap and the massive amounts of troops that you would need for that.(…)It is very much a rebalance to a posture that is much more adequate for meeting what we see as being the 21st century threats.(…)Gone are the days when massive numbers of ground forces on point for a fight in the Fulda Gap meant security. (…) to sum it up, the old heavy units will go away and the remaining ones will be larger and optimized for modern war.” But in order to manage the effects of the footprint restructuring, DOD announced that a US-based heavy brigade would be made available on a rotational basis to the NATO Response Force (NRF).
- As an overall principle, the US military will no longer “be sized for large scale, prolonged stability operations” it will search for “innovative, low-cost and small footprint approaches” and prioritize “exercise, rotational presence and advisory capabilities.”
So what kind of changes should be introduced in the overall force structure and what tradeoffs should be accepted in order to try to preserve the major tenets codified in the January 2012 DSG - “strategic deterrence, homeland defense and a rebalance to the Asia Pacific” as Secretary Hagel summed up last week?
In the first scenario, the emphasis will be on preserving investments in capabilities designed to counterbalance an area denial (AD)/anti-access (A2) strategy: long range strike family of systems, submarine cruise missile, upgrades in the Joint Strike Fighter, as well as cyber capabilities and special operations. The price of building the US global posture around top notch capabilities will entail major cuts in Army personnel numbers (from 490,000 today to 450,000 or even more to 380,000), a restructuring of 2 or even 3 of the US Navy carrier strike groups and a shrinking of the Marine Corps - anywhere from 7,000 to 32,000 Marines. Overall, this choice would produce a force “that would be technologically dominant, but would be much smaller and able to go to fewer places and do fewer things, especially if crises occurred at the same time in different regions of the world” as Secretary Hagel put it.
The second scenario will favor size over new capabilities. So the focus would be on preserving as much as possible the power projection means and the current numbers, but the investments in modern technology will be radically cut. This option might trigger a decade long modernization freeze, “a modernization holiday” and at the same time might provide adversaries with decisive comparative high-tech advantages.
More bad news for Europe: At a time when emerging geopolitical giants are investing in high-tech weaponry, it is very probable the Obama Administration will opt for something very close to the first scenario highlighted by Secretary Hagel last week, one that emphasizes the Air Sea Battle framework and the investments in capabilities designed specifically to preserve access in key regions. At the end of the day, this is an Administration that tends to favor low-cost, small footprint, high-tech solutions to security problems and wants to preserve the rebalance toward Asia-Pacific as its main signature defense initiative. The price of such a strategic choice is that the size of the Army and of the Marine Corps will shrink more than currently planned. This is potentially very bad news for the US posture in Europe. When you need to cut/deactivate between 40 to 110 thousand people from the Army and around 7 to 32 thousand from the Marine Corps, it is less likely that these cuts will be absorbed by the US defense architecture in the Middle East or the Asia-Pacific. In this context, the geographic epicenter of the cuts might become Europe and that will change beyond recognition the US posture in Europe.
The incentives for US regional allies to build their own area-denial/anti-access bubbles will increase: It is not inconceivable to see A2/AD arms races on the horizon, especially in the regional security ecosystems that will be structurally affected by the adjustments in US strategic choices. The behavior highlighted lately by Poland (investing in its own area-denial bubble) might signal a new normal for US global allies placed in geopolitically seismic regions. Specifically, the well established tendency of investing in anti-access capabilities designed “to buy time by increasing costs to the assaulting army and by denying it the benefit of a quick fait accompli” can accelerate as a consequence of the potential US strategic choices discussed.
A global enabler of allied A2/AD rimland “porcupines”/a reinforcing of last resort as the new US logic: In a November 2011 interview, Jim Thomas, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments emphasized that we should think of the US global role as being similar to that of insurance giant Lloyds of London: “we are the reinsurer for security not just in Europe and Asia but on a global basis. What we want to do is to encourage primary insurance providers in all of these areas, whether European states or Asian allies such as Japan and Australia, to play greater roles in their regions with the US able to swing its forces on global basis to reinforce its allies.” A Lloyds of London kind of role might be a natural fit for the traditional US profile of a seapower. More over, the Lloyds of London framework seems to better suit Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey’s vision for the US Joint Force 2020 – a force able to “assemble quickly and apply decisive force anywhere in the world with a wide array of partners” and able to “operate as a decentralized network that can aggregate on demand and dial capabilities up or down” on a case by case basis.
Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st century defense, Department of Defense, January 2012, http://www.defense.gov/news/Defense_Strategic_Guidance.pdf
 Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st century defense, p. 3
 Interview with Janine Davidson by Octavian Manea, “Rebalancing the US military for 21st century threats”, in Small Wars Journal, October 2012, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/rebalancing-the-us-military-for-21st-century-threats
 Andrew Feickert, “Army drawdown and restructuring: background and issues for Congress”, Congressional Research Service, January 3rd, 2013, p. 3
 Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st century defense, p.6
 Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st century defense, p.3
 Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Hagel and Adm. Winnefeld from the Pentagon, July 31st, 2013, http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=5280
 A. Wess Mitchell and Jakub J. Grygiel, “America needs its frontline allies now more than ever”, Wall Street Journal, July 5th, 2013
 Jakub J. Grygiel, “Europe: Strategic drifter”, The National Interest, June 25th, 2013
 Interview with Jim Thomas by Octavian Manea, Collective Defense in the age of anti-access bubbles, Small Wars Journal, November 2011, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/interview-with-jim-thomas-collective-defence-in-the-age-of-anti-access-bubbles
 Martin E. Dempsey, “The future of Joint Operations”, Foreign Affairs, June 20th, 2013, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139524/martin-e-dempsey/the-future-of-joint-operations?cid=rss-u_s_policy-the_future_of_joint_operations-000000&utm_source=feedly