Four Myths That Drive (and Endanger) U.S. Defense Policy | Council on Foreign Relations

Janine Davidson

U.S. defense planning has evolved since the mid 1970s, with the end of the Vietnam War and the founding of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF). Since then, at least four troubling myths have become baked into doctrine, strategy, and force planning processes. These beliefs focus on our strengths, but have in some ways blinded us to the enduring nature of conflict. They have hindered our ability to institutionalize lessons from our most frustrating operational experiences in favor of constructs like the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), “rapid, decisive, operations” and (most recently) AirSea Battle. As the Pentagon grapples with diminishing resources and an accelerating technology curve, it is worth reflecting on these myths and how we can overcome them.

1. The “Maserati” Myth. Imagine a gorgeous, gleaming Maserati, the sort of car that belongs on a showroom floor. The car is elegant, but it’s also extraordinarily capable—the Maserati GranTurismo goes 0 to 60 in 4.7 seconds and tops out at 186 miles per hour. What do you do with a machine like this? You certainly don’t use it for your commute on the pot-holed roads or your grocery runs or all the other mundanities of daily life. Instead, the Maserati is to be reserved for only the most special occasions. Otherwise, you keep it in an air conditioned garage, to be admired from a polite distance.

Too often, planners and policymakers apply this same sort of thinking to the U.S. military. They think that the primary—indeed, the only—mission of the United States’ armed forces is to “fight and win the nation’s wars.” These wars, so often assumed to be quick, high-tech and decisive conflicts waged against a peer competitor, demand the most expensive force possible, armed with the most “exquisite” platforms that the nation can produce. When not called on to fight these decisive conflicts, the military, like the Maserati, should be preserved and protected in its enclosed garage.

There are two problems here. The first is that the vast majority of contingencies the U.S. military is called on to perform are not quick, decisive, one-versus-one “football games” where one side wins, the other loses, and they both pack up and go home. Instead, the United States most typically deploys its forces for peacekeeping, stability operations, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, mass atrocity prevention, drug interdiction, and more. U.S. foreign policy demands a wide range of options and mission sets; it’s the military that makes these happen.

The second problem is that these expensive, “exquisite,” platforms are not the best-suited for what we do most. Even if an F-35 can outfly and outshoot everything in the sky, or a Zumwalt-class destroyer can dominate a huge ocean stretch, we will never be able to build very many of them. Trading this much capacity for capability may not make sense when, for most missions, a lot of the older stuff works pretty darn well. The American military need not be a shiny Maserati. Most of the time it can be a Ford F-150: worn, reliable, and more than able to get the job done.

2. The “Shock and Awe” Myth. Underpinning the “Maserati” myth is a persistent belief in “Shock and Awe,” the theory that an adversary can be rendered militarily impotent through a mix of “knowledge, rapidity, brilliance, and control.” This is the theory that guided the conduct of the Persian Gulf War, and, more infamously, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Although the million-strong Iraqi army had been decisively beaten after just twenty-one days of major combat operations, there was little planning for what might come next. U.S. forces slowly discovered the difference between winning a battle and winning a war.

Even today, there remains a tendency in military planning to draw a line between quick, decisive battlefield victory and all the “messy” political stuff that goes along with it. Belief in this myth helps fuel our comparative over-investment in top-threshold weapons systems and may also increase the risk of operational failure. If the U.S. military pours its focus and dollars into preparing for that quick, decisive blow—what Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster calls the “pipe dream of easy war“—it logically has fewer resources to enforce political settlement or “consolidate gains” once the shooting stops.

3. The “Interagency” Myth. Of course, if you subscribe to the beliefs of some planners, “enforcing political settlement” isn’t something the U.S. military should have to do anyway. Instead, that task falls to “The Interagency”—a vast, well resourced organization of civilian agencies whose job it is to “win the peace” the same way the military wins the war. This is the group organized, trained, and equipped for cultural competency; for historical knowledge of the region; for smart investment and disbursement of aid; for the creation of smart, lasting political institutions.

The problem is that “The Interagency,” as taught to so many military officers and written into the military’s doctrine, doesn’t exist (it’s not even a noun). In fiscal year 2015, total operations for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) were funded to the tune of $49.26 billion dollars—roughly 9 percent of the Pentagon’s budget. These two agencies employ about 15,000 foreign service officers and specialists—about 1 percent the size of America’s active duty military—none of whom is trained to kick start a war-torn country, either. With this disparity in resources, it is beyond aspirational for the military to adopt a “hands off” attitude toward the political elements of war, assuming that civilians can adequately fill the gap. They can’t.

4. The “Superhero” Myth. Another tempting way to try to save money and promote world peace is to turn the messier problems over to Special Operations Forces. These highly trained warriors have proven remarkably effective in combating networks of insurgents and terrorists. Relying on these superheroes to operate under the radar and out of mind is especially attractive for civilian policy makers and a war-weary public. But while conducting targeted strikes in coordination with CIA teams and drones may take out a lot of bad guys at low cost and less risk; ultimately these tactics on their own cannot achieve strategic effects or otherwise win wars.

Preparing for twenty-first century defense challenges requires that we acknowledge the complex, political character of war as it is—not as we wish it to be. These four interconnected myths exert a powerful, pernicious influence on U.S. defense planning. They need to be examined and debated as we make hard choices on downsizing, recapitalizing, and modernizing our military.

Defense in Depth » Four Myths That Drive (and Endanger) U.S. Defense Policy.