By Caitlin Talmadge, assistant professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University. She is a co-author of “U.S. Defense Politics: the Origins of Security Policy.”
JULY 14, 2014
If we started from scratch, the military would be smaller and cheaper. We would spend less on conventional ground forces and on personnel. We would buy more intelligence and special operations capabilities, and invest more in air and naval assets, especially unmanned platforms and submarines. Combatant commanders would not overshadow diplomats. And we likely would organize our forces by mission (e.g., armored combat, antisubmarine warfare, air superiority, counter-terrorism) and not service (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines).
What we have now is a bloated defense budget that hedges against many possible scenarios but is devoid of the prioritization that real strategy or intelligent organizational reform require.
Instead, our military largely retains the organization and force structure of the past. This intransigence is frustrating, but it is not a moral failing. It is what we should expect when the country does not face a set of clear and compelling external threats the way it did during the Cold War or World War II.
America today confronts a variety of dangers and nuisances. Many may engage our interests, broadly conceived, but almost none truly threaten our territorial integrity, general prosperity or fundamental safety. The result is a bloated defense budget that hedges against many possible scenarios — global jihadism, China’s rise, North Korea’s collapse, Russian resurgence — but is devoid of the prioritization that real strategy or intelligent organizational reform require. We may not like it, but this incoherence will persist unless and until the world becomes dangerous enough to produce consensus about an alternative.
The good news is that America’s defense establishment has a much better record of adapting to the conditions it eventually encounters than predicting in advance the whims of its political masters or the surprises of international affairs. Wars rarely break out where planners expect them, and combat usually requires capabilities not foreseen during peacetime. Historically the United States has excelled in facing these challenges because of the country’s wealth, human capital and technological sophistication.
Tending to these fundamentals is the real key to preserving America’s long-term national security. We can always adjust the organizational wire diagram — and always do.