Friday, September 30, 2016

Threats vs Capabilities Based Defense Planning

                The foremost struggle of grand strategy is the balancing act between focus and flexibility. A doctrine without consistency is useless, as it has no prescriptive value. (The president would not be amused if his national security advisors told him to just wing it and hope for the best!) However, an overly narrow-minded approach to national security may lead to a warped view of events as policy makers attempt to force every given situation into the same overly narrow framework. Ultimately, grand strategy at its best is a set of guidelines which give policymakers a consistent set of metrics and goals while leaving some room for tactical flexibility. In terms of defense policy, this leads to the question of whether a capabilities or threats based approach to military preparedness is preferable.  

US Soldiers in Vietnam 
                A threats based approach, as recommended in NSC-68, offers military planners means to adapt a more coherent approach to hardware acquisition and doctrine. As a result, more specialized individuals and weapons systems may be used to achieve a high degree of excellence in a given field. However, this specialization can lead to increased difficulties when the military is forced to operate outside its comfort zone. For example, the American and Soviet militaries were by far the most powerful and sophisticated militaries on the planet during the Cold War. However, because equipment and doctrine were primarily based around a high-intensity conventional war in Central Europe with the opposing superpower, they were ill-prepared for the radically different types of conflict awaiting them in Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively. A capabilities based approach, as recommended by the Defense Guidance 1992 briefing draft, offers more flexibility but at greater cost. Furthermore, by increasing the perceived feasibility of force, it makes the use of force more likely. It is much easier to blunder into an unnecessary war when tax increases and a commitment to a massive long-term military buildup are not needed. This is arguably why the US government has been able to keep the nation in a more or less constant state of war after the fall of the Soviet Union without large scale public unrest.

                Although any US defense policy will take elements from both approaches, overall a threats-based approach is preferable. The United States is blessed with weak neighbors and a strong economy, and therefore will have time to respond to any developing threats. While a surprise attack is possible, the likelihood of an invasion of the US mainland is virtually nil, allowing the United States time to prepare a devastating counterstrike. This is not to say that the United States should not retain its rapid response and global strike capabilities, as the ability to tip the scales on a regional conflict is necessary for the United States to play its traditional role as an off-shore balancer. However, an eternal massive commitment to police the entire world is unsustainable and ultimately  counterproductive to the defense of key US interests. 

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