Small Wars

This Week at War: The General’s Dystopia

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff paints a grim picture of the future of military power. Will the Pentagon be ready for it?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On April 12, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed what he called the "security paradox" at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The good news in the world today, according to Dempsey, is that interstate conflict is currently minimal, human violence is at an all-time low, and the United States faces "no obvious existential threat." Yet Dempsey insisted that "I’m chairman at a time that seems less dangerous but it’s actually more dangerous." Why?

Although geopolitical trends are ushering in greater levels of peace and stability worldwide, destructive technologies are available to a wider and more disparate pool of adversaries…. What truly concerns me as chairman is that these lethal and destructive technologies are proliferating in two directions. They’re proliferating horizontally across advanced militaries in the world, and they’re proliferating vertically, down to non-state actors, especially insurgents, terrorist groups and even transnational organized crime. As a result, more people have the ability to harm us or deny us the ability to act than at any point in my life. And that’s the security paradox.

As examples, Dempsey noted that dozens of "middleweight militaries" now possess the kind of precision-guided missiles and bombs that were the monopoly of the United States and a few of its allies a decade or so ago. Adversaries now have easy access to the components needed to assemble electronic warfare systems that can confuse U.S. sensors and weapons. Cyberattacks, mounted by both states and lone actors, routinely penetrate supposedly secure networks and could potentially cripple government and private sector command and control systems. "As a result," Dempsey concluded, "anyone with the motivation and the money can design, assemble and field highly advanced, sophisticated weapon systems."

With this ominous report, Dempsey defended the Obama administration’s new defense strategy, which, he explained, will create a military force "that can deter and defeat threats at every point along the spectrum of conflict, from lone individuals or terrorist groups to middleweight militaries packing a new punch, and all the way up to near-peer competitors." While Dempsey’s diagnosis of the current threat environment feels both accurate and insightful, the strategy he’s touting seems deficient in both vision and scale in the face of the threats he described.

Dempsey is certainly correct when he implies that military power has never been more disconnected from population size or available manpower. In the industrial and pre-industrial eras, military power was highly correlated with the ability to mobilize large armies and the resources necessary to sustain them. Nation-states — the larger, the better — had a monopoly on this capability.

In a post-industrial era, the correlation between population and military power is sharply reduced. Examples of this transformation abound. Very small countries like Israel and Singapore field military forces far more powerful than their populations would suggest and provide security for themselves in regions with far larger neighbors. Last summer, Special Forces soldiers from the tiny nation of Qatar led the boots-on-the-ground unconventional warfare campaign inside comparatively massive Libya that brought down Muammar al-Qaddafi. Among non-state actors, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon has the military organization and enough sophisticated weapons to rival many states in the region. Mexico’s Sinaloa and Los Zetas drug cartels have the resources and structure to merit consideration as small but troublesome quasi-military organizations.

The falling costs and increased dispersion of militarily useful technology has lowered the barriers for organizations, be they nation-states or non-state actors, to become dangerous military threats. For such potential military powers, acquiring warehouses of small arms, munitions, and equipment is merely an afterthought. Anti-aircraft and anti-ship guided missiles, once only for major military powers, are now available for sale or fabrication from commercial components. The dispersion and cheap access to technology applies not only to munitions but also to supporting components such as optics, night vision sensors, communications and navigation devices, and electronic warfare equipment — areas where the Pentagon has invested enormous sums over past decades. The advantages U.S. forces formerly gained from those investments are now fleeting, a consequence of the falling costs and increased dispersion of such technology.

But it is hard to square Dempsey’s description of a world with sharply lower barriers to military power with his defense of the administration’s strategic guidance and budget. Even as he describes a world that he believes is "more dangerous" and one where "more people have the ability to harm us or deny us the ability to act than at any point in my life," he also defends a defense budget that cuts the budget by at least $487 billion over the next ten years and cuts not just ground troops but also schedules an early retirement for a long list of Navy ships and Air Force squadrons.

Dempsey and other military leaders will note that U.S. forces have benefited greatly from the Pentagon’s investment in research that has allowed U.S. forces to substitute technology for manpower. For example, a few U.S. Army artillery cannons, firing a small number of precise satellite-guided shells, can produce battlefield effects formerly requiring an entire artillery battalion. A single jet fighter with laser-guided bombs now does what a squadron was assigned to do 25 years ago. And the Undersecretary of the Navy, Robert Work, has asserted that the 300-ship Navy he plans for later this decade will be more powerful and as present in as many places as the 600-ship navy of the 1980s. This is the administration’s reasoning for why it can shrink the military while still fulfilling all of the required missions.

However, policymakers have also committed the U.S. military to obligations spanning the globe. The United States has taken on responsibility for patrolling the "global commons," such as international waterways and airspace vital to global commerce. These duties require the Pentagon to invest in expensive expeditionary capabilities, and in sufficient quantities to maintain a meaningful presence at important places in the global commons such as the South China Sea. The dispersion of military technology that Dempsey described will allow a greater number of potential adversaries adjacent to the global commons (most of whom will not have to spend money on globe-spanning expeditionary capabilities) to narrow the technological gap versus the U.S. forces, negating what Pentagon planners assumed was an enduring U.S. advantage. American quality might no longer be an efficient substitute for quantity.

More worrisome is the disparity between the rapidly evolving nature of the security environment described by Dempsey and the plodding, status quo nature of the Pentagon’s Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP). The imminent end of the war in Afghanistan has provided the Defense Department with the opportunity to make a bolder adjustment for the future world Dempsey described. The FYDP, by contrast, continues long-established weapons programs (albeit at reduced funding), makes few notable changes to the structure or organization of U.S. forces, and largely ignores the question of whether the legacy organization and procurement priorities it maintains are well-suited to the distributed military threats that Dempsey described.

The inevitable result will be U.S. military forces tasked to do much more with less. Dempsey boasted of a force capable of defeating "threats at every point along the spectrum of conflict." But under his assumptions, there will very likely be many more of these threats at several points along the spectrum as the cost of acquiring entry and mid-level military power continues to decline.

There is a gap between the world Dempsey has described and the forces and doctrines that will be available to future U.S. military commanders. His remarks envisage an expanding set of threats. Many of these will not end up being serious enough to merit attention from the Pentagon. Policymakers should define which security problems merit the Pentagon’s notice and those that allies and other agencies should monitor. Such clear guidance will help the Pentagon focus on the threats that can alter the global strategic balance as opposed to those that are non-strategic nuisances.

For those that remain on the Pentagon’s plate, planners should ponder whether the FYDP’s forces, organizations, and weapons are really a good match for the world Dempsey has described. Aside from spending cuts, the administration’s new plans are not that new. The next team to arrive at the building will have some leftover work to catch up on.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.