Small Wars Journal

Strategic Depth & America’s Security Future

Sun, 04/10/2016 - 10:49am

Strategic Depth & America’s Security Future

Robert Murphy

America can afford to reduce its global military presence. In Europe and in Asia, America must take better advantage of its security structure and change the status quo of being the world’s first line of defense. Alliance commitments in spending and manning must reflect relative regional threats. It clearly in America’s interest to evolve from the world’s first line of defense into the decisive force for regional victories.

Whereas the threats to American interests posed by China and Russia are incremental and currently manageable, they both represent the gradual whittling away of American influence. As Mitchell and Grygiel effectively argue[i], beating the US on the margins of its interests and reach gradually diminishes the trust our allies have in American led security systems. To balance our commitments with the erosion of American public will and increasing fiscal constraints posed by America’s deficit comes the necessity for our allies to evolve from being prodigious benefactors of American security into true partners in our mutual security interests.

For decades American money and troops have secured the territorial integrity of European and Asian allies. What began as a cold war necessity evolved into a turn of the century dependency. Nations like Germany and Japan, with some of the most powerful economies in the world, were content with sustaining a security status quo that allowed them to direct their GDP towards other interests. With a supportive budget and populace, America proceeded with this arrangement as it permitted strategic access and diplomatic support to our operations against adversaries in Russia, China and the Middle East. The world has evolved, and so too must America’s thinking on how to achieve its security interests.

In Europe, an exaggerated Russian threat, combined with the withdrawal of American forces, has inspired several NATO partners to inch a little closer to the 2% of GDP spending on defense that the NATO charter calls for. In Asia, Japan has eliminated several of its constitutional impediments to the expansion and use of its self-defense forces, and South Korea and Australia possess robust enough economies to expand their forces to meet regional threats. Most significantly, India remains an untapped, highly capable partner in any plan to check Chinese challenges.

Despite the positive potential our Allies present, conventional American security thinking defaults to the forward positioning of US forces and commitment of US funds. A recent RAND war game in the Baltics clearly depicted that NATO’s combined forces in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania would be no match against a concerted Russian invasion. The likelihood of such an assault notwithstanding, RAND recommended that no less than seven NATO armored brigades would need to be stationed in the Baltics to deter and defeat such an eventuality. Simultaneously, the Army’s blue ribbon commission on the future of the Army recommended the forward stationing of an American Armored brigade in Europe to meet the perceived Russian threat. Think tanks across America, less CATO, advocate for more troops overseas to meet any challenge that presents itself.

What contemporary American security analysts seem to be missing is the opportunity to leverage our global Allies and revolutionize American security policy. We must shift from an alliance of security liabilities to a system of strategic enablers. Rather than be the first line of defense against Russian aggression in the Baltics, we must create the strategic depth from which a strategic, decisive blow arrives. We must encourage our allies to bear their fair share of the burdens of an alliance, recognizing that the Soviet Union has been replaced by a less ideologically driven, pragmatic Russian federation riddled with vulnerabilities, and that China can be balanced in its ambitions by current and new Pacific partners. Such a shift in thinking has several foundational preconditions.

The first requirement is that we demand that our allies be as concerned with their territorial integrity as America is. The framework to demonstrate that commitment already exists in Europe through the NATO charter. America should not even consider actively partnering, much less stationing troops with any NATO member that isn’t, or doesn’t plan on meeting the 2% of GDP bar set by the charter for defense spending. If it is determined that permanent, forward American basing is the most appropriate security solution, the American commitment in troops should not exceed the number of troops on active duty from the host nation dedicated to its own territorial defense.

European security analysts seem to forget that NATO is composed of 28 partners, few of whom neither meet their charter commitments nor their potential. Whereas European Armies are the smallest in the world relative to their populations, their defense industries’ exports are among the highest in the world. They clearly have the capacity to grow should they be committed enough to man the equipment.

Given Europe’s economic strength and population, we should no longer constrain our thinking to the dated concept of NATO’s general defense plan, where American men and women constitute the most substantial force scampering into position to defend European borders from Eurasian attack.

In the improbable circumstance Russia sees fit to swarm across the Baltics, it should be made to slog its way through thousands of Estonian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Dutch, British and German men, women, tanks and airplanes before it ever has a chance to kill an American. This is particularly true when viewed in light of the paltry sums those nations spend to defend themselves and the insignificant ratio of their national populations committed to their own defense.

A further revolution in European Security thinking must involve an end to unproductive NATO expansion. Nations such as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia create unnecessary tensions with longstanding member Greece and promise little to no increase in Alliance capacity at the cost of significant diplomatic damage. Whereas Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania’s contributions to U.S./NATO operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is to be saluted, it was not at a level commensurate to the security challenges they would pose should Russia cause any of them to invoke article V.

As China expands its military and absorbs foreign territory, our Asian partners must be leveraged to help meet the threat. Japan must be encouraged to diversify its influence beyond its economic and diplomatic resources and develop its maritime and aerospace capacity. This includes its multilateral engagement and cooperation with the nations with islands under dispute with China. Although South Korean defense spending is understandably prioritized to meet its existential northern adversary, it can diversify the utility of its force in a manner that can be applied to other adversaries as well.

Australia’s Defense forces (ADF) are highly capable but small. America is doing well to encourage the Australian army’s current evolution from a light infantry dominated Army into a hardened, networked force. It must resist the temptation to influence Australia’s military acquistion process as it already has with Australia’s pursuit of more submarines. America’s ultimate goal with regard to the ADF should be to boost its current total of 57,000 active duty service members to a level that better reflects the reality of the Pacific’s security challenges. A more robust ADF could be America’s primary pacific partner and host of large scale joint and combined pacific exercises.  

India is only second to China in the size of its population and growth rate of its economy, and possesses a technologically advanced, nuclear capable, professional military. It represents Asia’s most significant strategic counterpart to China. Fortunately for the United States, it also has a number of easily exploited seams in its unsteady relationship with China. India and China have ongoing disputes both on their land border and in the South China Sea. Pew research polls indicate a majority in both countries views the other unfavorably, and despite the scale of their bilateral trade, India suffers a massive imbalance and has been the victim of China’s aggressive cyber espionage and theft programs. Perhaps the greatest challenge to our engagement with India lies in our partnership with Pakistan, an ally whose relative worth has not been justified by its loyalty to American pursuits.

The combined navies and air forces of the Asian world, with an Indian land force on its border, backed up by America’s Pacific fleet and air forces would undoubtedly deter China’s ongoing extraterritorial ambitions. It certainly present multiple dilemmas for China’s war planners. Should deterrence fail, and China evolve into a less rational nation, such an international, regional force, supported by America, could also undoubtedly handle any Chinese aggression.

The contemporary American-led global security architecture is too costly, in terms of both blood and treasure and in the validity of the Alliances that underpin it. American forces ought to reinforce our allies and evolve away from the unenviable status quo of being a trip wire, or worse yet, a speed bump in the effort to secure another nation’s integrity. Nothing less than a revolution in our approach is needed to meet the incremental challenge of our global adversaries. We cannot go it alone, nor should we bear the full brunt of global security any longer.

End Note



About the Author(s)

Robert Murphy graduated from The Citadel with degrees in History and French. He graduated from the US Army’s Advanced Military Studies program, commanded an infantry company in combat, and served as the special assistant to the Commanding General, US Army Europe. He is a professional strategist.


Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 04/13/2016 - 8:55am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Even if they did up their spending and buy American weapons or support the American think tank complex that is worried about its budgets and relevance, it would still not be in anyone's best interest. We'd end up recreating the line of control like that between Indian and Pakistan because of the nuclear weapons and border issues.

We are slowly moving in that direction and it's completely insane. But the American people don't really pay attention and careerists have such control over Washington discourse.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 04/13/2016 - 8:52am

The Washington Consensus like Russia as an enemy best because it suits its careerist and money making ambitions. I feel bad for the people of Eastern Europe because their understandable desire to be protected is manipulated for selfish motives.

On the other hand, the budgets of many of our Eastern European partners don't seem to underscore any worry. It's not just about the 2 percent spending, their entire web of business relationships would undercut any support we might give, yet, they can do nothing else given their situation. None of it makes sense in any real sense, but, again, I think most of this is about making money or careers.

I'm glad for reticence of the Indians and their wariness. That wariness may protect the American system from making errors that will rebound in possibly negative ways:

<blockquote>He also includes another, nearly forgotten episode of US espionage during the war between India and China: covert US support of Tibetan opposition to Chinese occupation of Tibet. He details how the United States, beginning in 1957, trained and parachuted Tibetan guerrillas into Tibet to fight Chinese military forces. The covert operation to help precipitate the conflict but the United States did not end its support of it until relations between the United States and China were normalized in the 1970s.</blockquote>

I don't want our natural tendency to meddle to backfire on us the way that episode did and helped precipitate the 1962 war. This is what worries me about the rote way in which we Americans are thinking about security in Asia. We'd be better off not pushing ourselves so heavily into local disputes and, instead, think about what our most important goals should be in the region and how we can reach them.

I don't know. It's cliche but the Washington Consensus seems out of control and so many players within are funded by foreign money. It's hard to trust any think tank.

Anyway, it's refreshing to read papers like this.


Tue, 04/12/2016 - 5:37pm

thank you for the feedback. I feel that you may be content with the status quo, or a return to what existed after the Soviet Union collapsed. All security strategy is based on what we think other countries will do, and perhaps our strategy ought to include what we intend to influence other countries, namely our allies, to do. I think it would be foolish to continue to place our confidence in NATO. Do you seriously think that our forward deployed troops can expect NATO to raise an army overnight to help our men and women defend their sovereignty?
Furthermore, correlating the departure of our forces from Europe with the decline in security (I assume you mean in the Ukraine)is spurious. At least as valid is the correlation between the absence of any meaningful European military force and the decline in security. I'd argue that a weak Europe also expands the kinds of security challenges they encounter and limits what are their sovereign options to deal with them (refugee management and border control to name two areas where American troops would be unable to assist).
Where does the subsidy for European security end? Are we following an Iraqi/Afghani model, where we can pretend to disengage once they've demonstrated the capacity to defend themselves? Our current course is one of another half century of American blood and treasure marking time on European soil.
I also think that if Russia were the threat we're all making it out to be, then Latvia and Lithuania must either be asleep or suicidal, given their investment in defense (about 1.2% of GDP). Certainly not commensurate with an existential threat to their territorial integrity. Or maybe they're hoping we'll park a brigade over there.
Lastly, Japan's navy is formidable, but also not commensurate to the threat, nor integrated into theater-wide defense planning. What I am suggesting in each theater is that America be the force that arrives to deal the decisive blow, like Bulow at Waterloo, rather than be a bump in the road as the North Koreans surrounded Pusan.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 04/14/2016 - 10:00am

In reply to by davidbfpo

Really? But I'm so horrible. Remember how starry-eyed and polite I used to be around here?


The levels of corruption and self-serving behavior are staggering within the Washington Consensus. It doesn't surprise me that your country is having a conversation about Brexit. In a way, your close alliance with us post World War II put off questions about how your country should relate to the rest of the world, and what optimal strategy and policy should be.

Okay, I'm stealing that from a series of Gresham College lectures. My favorites are about the elections in the 50s and 60s. This had to come to a head some day, that's what I think is happening.


Wed, 04/13/2016 - 5:45pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)


The UK has made a clear commitment to a limited return to "East of Suez" in its public statements on strategy and in some military preparations. Most of the effort is currently focused on the Middle East. You can argue that the UK in fact never left the Gulf region, retaining a small naval presence @ Bahrain and a joint service presence in Oman.

Parallel to this is the continuing declaration and preparation to pursue an interventionist approach - even after the debacles of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Notably in the building of two aircraft carriers, even if the Royal Navy loses capability in other areas or simpler fewer warships.

Incidentally please stay aboard, I enjoy reading your comments.

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 04/12/2016 - 7:58am

I posted this in another thread with a link (the 'Macho Man' article; it makes me laugh to call it that, it's sort of all absurd, isn't it?):

<strong>Iran Wants Payment in Euro for Oil Sales, Old Dues From India: Report</strong>

There are a lot of articles along this line.

How is this sustainable, quadrupling American funding for NATO while the EU expands as a trading bloc under American/NATO cover?

It's not Russian propaganda to point out that this is not economically sustainable and will lead to even worse friction than we are seeing today with the EU and "Brexit" talk, etc.

I really should find somewhere else to hand out, maybe an American British Studies site because all of my favorite topics around here somehow converge with the conversations around this topic.

I think Dr. Patrick Porter had a link on his Twitter feed to an article about arguments within the British system as to whether they should reverse "East of Suez".

Certain structural features in the international system are moving the US away from Europe (or making it only one center of interest among many in a multipolar fashion) and I don't think these things can be wished away.

Sorry, I always have to "talk" things out this way to learn. It's a bit obnoxious, I know.


Tue, 04/12/2016 - 5:11pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Thank you for your very kind words sir, I appreciate the breadth of your comments and links to related content.

Madhu (not verified)

Mon, 04/11/2016 - 9:36am

A thoughtful and creative think piece. I have enjoyed all of this writer's pieces here at SWJ.

I largely agree with the comments on Europe (no surprise) but I have some quibbles on the Asia pivot and wedging ourselves into faultlines, especially between India and China. I don't think this is wise.

Our own history in the region shows that when push comes to shove, if someone wants our help, they will ask. Bruce Reidel's book and his looking into American archives attempts to show this, I think (<em>JFK's Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and Sino-Indian War</em>).

Change is hard for many in the military and national security state, isn't it?

<blockquote><strong>The second point was the tendency of the Army mind to follow past experience-they were still outmaneuvering his last walk-out. </strong>Reports of what J v. Felden was likely to do were sent out to police captains. Instructions were to look for an impudent and forward boy who would throw his weight about at hotels, ask for what he wanted, and speak in a thick Baden border accent mixed with French. All the same, this was not a wholly convincing character to the policing yokelry, and many a zealous <em>Wachtmeister</em> went about the countryside and with his own ideas, asking farm-wives to keep an eye open for anything suspicious; and so indeed if Johannes had tried to help himself from somewhere to a saugael all might have been up with him.
The tramp was never found; or did talk.</blockquote>

Sybille Bedford, <em>The Legacy</em> (1956)

We don't live in an aligned and non-aligned world anymore. It's not an East West World or a North South World but a world with different "centers", all trying to understand how to relate.

Developing a security strategy based on what we think other countries should do, and hope that they do is more than a little risky in my view.

The author argues that we can afford to reduce our military presence in Asia and Europe, yet logically enough when we reduced our force presence in those locations and the Middle East the security situation rapidly deteriorated. No one can claim with certainty the two are related, but there is certainly a correlation that should not be casually discarded.

I don't know if Russia's threat is over exaggerated or not, the author didn't make a case. I doubt that the Baltics think Russia is a casual threat, and they are NATO allies, so some explanation is needed here. Especially when the author tends to argue against his own logic about the inability of the Baltics to defend themselves.

Japan is either the 2d or 3d largest economy in the world, but future projections for its economy and it demographics are not positive. Furthermore, many nations would be uncomfortable with Japan's military becoming overly strong and assertive in the region. History still matters in most parts of the world. I don't know about Germany, but suspect they could spend more on defense if they had the political will. If they don't, then do we simply assume risk in Europe? I agree that is a possibility, but not one to be decided lightly.

America's security thinking does not simply default to forward posture, but seeks the appropriate balance between forward posture and the ability to project force from CONUS. Posture forward is as much a message to both our allies and adversaries on our intent and will as it is a capability. Take away that message, then I'm willing to bet someone else will send another message we won't like.

The following statement from the article is uninformed. "What contemporary American security analysts seem to be missing is the opportunity to leverage our global Allies and revolutionize American security policy. We must shift from an alliance of security liabilities to a system of strategic enablers." You can't read any national strategy documents that don't emphasize the importance of leveraging our allies and partners. That is hardly revolutionary, nor is it even evolutionary. More to the point, there is a gap between our desire for allies and partners to do more than their capability and political will allow. If this becomes the foundation of our strategy, then I have high confidence it will fail.

Japan must be willing to develop its maritime capability? Tell me what nation in East Asia has a more powerful and competent navy (minus the U.S.)?

What other adversaries does South Korea think it has? Its number one trading partner is China. Do they see Russia or Iran as a threat? ISIL? Are they going to spend money on what we see as threats even if they don't? Highly unlikely.

I think the author should use caution when he uses terms like, "would undoubtedly deter China's ongoing extraterritorial ambitions." How strong are those interests? How much risk are they willing to take. Deterrence is never assured.

As for India being a partner, it will only be a partner if India views it as in its interests to do so, and then only to pursue that common interest. India has a long and proud history of being non-aligned, a policy that is unlikely to change simply because we want a new and revolutionary security strategy that other countries pay for.