A New US Defense Strategy for a New Era: Military Superiority, Agility, and Efficiency | Books & Reports | The Stimson Center | Pragmatic Steps for Global Security

A New US Defense Strategy For A New Era: Military Superiority, Agility, And Efficiency

The changing global security landscape and worsening fiscal outlook demand significant adjustments to national security strategy and budgeting, according to an extensive, year-long study released today by Stimson: A New US Defense Strategy for a New Era.

The report is the work of an independent task force of experts – the “Defense Advisory Committee” – convened by Stimson to explore the question of US defense planning and spending in light of looming defense cuts that are part of the Fiscal Cliff.

The diverse committee, which draws on the expertise of 15 former military officers, defense strategists, and international affairs experts, including General James Cartwright, Leslie Gelb, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, came to a consensus on how best to approach today’s military threats and priorities. In addition to setting out ten key operating principles that emphasize greater efficiency and effectiveness throughout the Defense Department, the report concludes that a successful defense strategy could be achieved at budget levels significantly lower than present.

Dr. Barry Blechman, Chairman of the Committee and Co-Founder of Stimson, explains “The vast experience and perspectives this committee brought to the table helped shape a promising new defense strategy, which we call ‘Strategic Agility.’ It does not dictate a particular force structure but demonstrates how the US can achieve a better defense strategy to meet our security needs, while acknowledging the fiscal crisis facing the country.”

The study was funded by a grant from the non-partisan Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which supports work aimed at addressing the nation’s most pressing long-term budget challenges.

“I am extremely impressed with the level of consensus reached by this highly experienced and diverse group,” said Pete Peterson, Chairman of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. “America faces great fiscal challenges, and everything – even defense – must be on the table as we consider how to get the nation on a fiscally sustainable path. I’m hopeful that the Defense Advisory Committee’s report can be useful to the President and Congress as they make critical decisions about defense strategy and spending.”

The Landscape

Before developing its recommendations, the Advisory Committee examined the current international and domestic environments as they pertain to defense planning.


Threats to US interests are changing rapidly. Russia does not pose, and is unlikely to pose, the threat it once did. China, though growing in economic and military might, has a complex relationship with the United States, which offers as much reason for hope as fear. The US is also ending a decade of involvement in the Middle East and South Asia, wars that cost trillions of dollars and more than 7,000 American lives. At the same time, civil wars and unstable political situations remain in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. Terrorist attacks also continue to unsettle these regions. Still, these threats of instability are ones to be managed rather than solved through prolonged military engagement.


US military involvement since the end of the Cold War has highlighted the nation’s comparative military strengths and weaknesses. The US is unrivaled in its global flexibility and reach. Its intelligence and reconnaissance assets as well as air, naval, and ground forces can reach anywhere in the world with unparalleled speed and power. At the same time, US capabilities to fight unconventional wars on the ground, to defeat insurgencies, to stabilize governance, and to ensure security for societies in distant regions are limited, at best. This is not because of any deficiencies in, nor malpractices by, the US armed forces. The task of imposing order, providing good governance, and inculcating democratic values in foreign, undeveloped societies riven by internal conflicts is simply too hard a task, and not one for which military forces are particularly well-suited.


The US currently faces an unprecedented fiscal crisis driving reductions in government spending, including defense spending. These pressures are most clearly visible in the sequester provision of the Budget Control Act which, if implemented at the start of 2013, would cut the defense budget by ten percent overnight. This cut would constitute one of the most dramatic defense budget reductions in history.

Advisory Committee Recommendation: Shift to ‘Strategic Agility’

In light of a rapidly changing global security environment and rising concern about long-term US debt and deficits, the Defense Advisory Committee met over the course of a year to examine and discuss US defense strategy. The result is a new national security strategy that it calls “Strategic Agility” – designed to strengthen US military superiority while meeting realistic budgetary expectations.

The report highlights ten operating principles that emphasize relying on smaller military units that can be based in the United States and rotated quickly to more austere bases around the world; rebalancing US forces to focus on Asia rather than Europe; and strengthening technological and scientific assets to ensure that the United States maintains its technological edge against all other nations. Key recommendations in the report include:

The US should maintain space, air, and naval forces superior to those of any potential adversary.
The US should maintain robust and technologically advanced special operations forces to counter terrorists and criminal enterprises, protect US citizens overseas, and for other contingencies.
The US should strongly resist being drawn into protracted land wars. The United States must maintain competent ground forces as a deterrent, and ground force deployments may be necessary to fulfill commitments to allies, but such deployments should be conducted only as part of joint operations to achieve the rapid defeat of the enemy’s forces and the equally rapid withdrawal of US forces, as was done in the first Gulf War.
The United States must prioritize funding in research and development budgets, especially basic research in science and technology in pursuit of advanced military capabilities.
The US should revise the Cold War nuclear planning assumptions it still uses, which would allow reductions in the size of nuclear forces, preferably through a new treaty with Russia. Such cuts would free resources for the conventional forces actually used to defend American security.
The US should implement long-standing proposals to utilize manpower more efficiently, to reform personnel compensation systems, and to streamline the system used to acquire equipment, goods and services.
By taking these steps-obvious steps to most-the United States can free up resources to devote to defense capabilities that better contribute to US national security. The US owes a huge debt to all those who have served in the nation’s wars, and particularly to the men and women who have served repeatedly in Iraq and Afghanistan. This sacred debt can be honored by implementing more effective policies that better care for our service members, even while freeing needed resources.

Members of the Defense Advisory Committee:

Dr. Barry M. Blechman, Chair. Co-Founder and Distinguished Fellow, Stimson
Gordon Adams, Professor of International Relations, School of International Service, American University
Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School and Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Michael J. Bayer, President and CEO, Dumbarton Strategies
General B.B. Bell, USA (Ret.), Former Commander UNC / CFC / USFK, Republic of Korea
Richard K. Betts, Director, Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University
Ambassador Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr., Chairman, Stimson
Ambassador Richard Burt, Managing Director, McLarty Associates, Co-Chairman, Global Zero
General James Cartwright, USMC (Ret.), Harold Brown Chair in Defense Policy Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Lieutenant General Daniel W. Christman, USA (Ret.), Senior Counselor, US Chamber of Commerce
Lieutenant General David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret.), Senior Military Scholar, Center for Character & Leadership Development, United States Air Force Academy
Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Jessica T. Mathews, President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Admiral Bill Owens, USN (Ret.), Prometheus Partners
Anne-Marie Slaughter, Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University

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