Buying Flexibility -- The Pentagon and Risks

The rhetoric surrounding the 'new' military concept of gray zones has led to a new era of American military self-doubt. Articles abound about how the U.S. is unprepared to fight the 'new war' fight, with references to how America is being outmaneuvered by ISIS, Russia, China, Iran, even allies, in numerous conflicts and regions around the world. In response, numerous analysts have floated ideas on how the U.S. could adapt to properly fight these 'gray wars' and meta-analyses of the concept itself. Pervading the discussion is the ever-present debate over America's defense budget, and its relationship with the U.S. ability to maintain its global position. Often, the call for flexibility in the military is followed by a call for a higher defense budget.

It is certainly true that the massed war concepts of the World Wars and Cold War do not readily apply to the wars being fought in 2015. The combination of economic, social, legal, moral, religious, and military pressures by Russia in Ukraine and ISIS in Syria and Iraq certainly look like a new form of warfare when compared to the 20th century, though the concepts have always been a part of warfare. It is easy to understand why the U.S. is uneasy about its own capability to react to such warfare. Some of this is explained by how the U.S. perceives its own power, it remains true that America's military will have to change how it deals with the threats of the 21st century.

However, it does not then become evident that the best way to do this is to increase the military budget. The U.S. spends more than the next nine countries combined - and seven of those countries are either friendly or American allies. As defense analyst Matthew Fay points out, if the Department of Defense (DoD) cannot achieve military superiority with a budget that dwarfs that of its peer rivals, the whole department may as well be started over from scratch. Perhaps it is not more money that is needed, but better operational and strategic approaches.

Simply increasing the defense budget approaches the problem like a competitive body-builder, but any physical trainer can tell you that packing on muscle does not in itself help with flexibility. Without proper foresight, it often prevents flexibility. A more important focus is to build long-term endurance mixed with appropriate strength and flexibility.

In this way, the DoD has been skipping leg day and yoga. Incredibly powerful in some regards, the military lacks operational and strategic capabilities in more nuanced scenarios. Examples of this include buying the F-35 jet but not having pilots properly trained to fly missions in competitive environments, running out of bombs for the anti-ISIS campaign, or revelations that the military could be using electromagnetic spectrum systems much more effectively.

Instead of throwing more money at the problem, the DoD should allow its component parts to compete with each other to provide solutions for today's military problems - allow the muscles to stretch, as it were. Good solutions can then be followed up with proper investment where appropriate, building up the needed strength.

This approach is needed because it is not yet clear which risk to the United States will develop into the next major threat. At a time when some expected a return to great state power balancing, the U.S. is still heavily involved in a counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency operation in the Middle East. Will the U.S. have to deal with Russian aggression in Europe, Chinese aggression in Asia, cyber-aggression on its internal networks, increasing terrorism, economic disruption, or all of the above?

The problem with the range of threats the DoD must counter - and it is a wide range - is that it would be budgetarily impossible to build up complete and perfect capabilities to address each at the same time. Efforts to do so are exhausting the Pentagon's already large budget. That budget, by the way, benefits from being able to put unfunded, but wanted, programs into a separate non-capped contingency fund. As Mr. Fay has pointed out, the DoD's strained budgets come at a time when Congress has given it this budgetary loophole. Instead of even more money, flexibility will be needed to switch quickly between the different risks and ramp up capability as required.

That Russia and ISIS are able to confound U.S. capabilities with significantly smaller budgets reveals how flexibility and innovation can be decoupled from budgets. While the U.S. could flood the Pentagon with enough cash to fund everything (ignoring the larger budgetary and debt concerns), that approach is likely to reinforce rigidity of thinking in the current strategic approach. It will not in itself solve the problems of hybrid wars in Europe, anti-access zones in Asia, and insurgencies in the Middle East and Africa. Those problems all exist because international actors have found ways of pursuing their goals without inexhaustible funds. If we are to counter all of the risks we face, we must learn to do the same.