Pentagon's Inability to Predict the Future Makes It Tough to Set Budget Priorities

By Sandra I. Erwin
Enough with this business of trying to predict the next war. The Pentagon has a perfect record of failure in this area. That is why the Defense Department should hedge its bets and develop technologies that can do it all: High-end conventional warfare, low-intensity conflict, counterinsurgency, or whatever new form of war might pop up in the coming decades.
That was the message from deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn as he laid out an intellectual framework for how the Pentagon plans to invest for the future. Force-sizing and weapon procurement choices will have to meet a litmus test of sorts: Can they adapt to any and all unpredictable threats and cagey enemies?
The traditional notions of “lethality” no longer apply, Lynn said June 8 at a conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has upset the traditional balance of power in high-tech warfare. Adversaries can cause devastating damage with low-cost weapons such as landmines, buried explosives and suicide bombers. Those low-tech systems can effectively neutralize U.S. advanced weaponry, Lynn said. Non-state groups also have greater access to emerging technologies such as drones and precision-guided weapons. “As a result, both sophisticated and unsophisticated opponents pose credible challenges to our security,” Lynn said. “Defense planning must reflect this development.”
The U.S. military, he said, “must have a portfolio of capabilities with versatility. ... We cannot prepare exclusively for high end or low end conflicts.” Forces must be sized and equipped to meet both, he said. That means they will need fifth-generation fighter jets, counter-explosive technologies, and everything in between.
Another consideration in future planning is the duration of conflicts, Lynn said. U.S. forces have traditionally trained for “intense, but short battles,” he said. Recent deployments, where the U.S. military has been engaged longer than it was involved in both World Wars combined, must serve as lessons for how to plan for the future, Lynn said. The goal will be to “manage the duration of conflict” so goals can be achieved without overstressing the force, Lynn said. “We must plan for sustained commitment and duration. ... We must maintain adequate force structure to allow dwell-time [rest] between deployments. ... We must be able to scale up for longer conflicts.”
Peer competitors also will employ “asymmetric” methods of war that exploit U.S. weaknesses and undercut its strengths, said Lynn. They will do so by acquiring long-range ballistic missiles, satellite-guided munitions and anti-ship cruise missiles that will deny U.S. forces access to many areas of the world. “Technology will be possessed by many nations,” he said. This will create “challenges to our ability to project power.”
The Pentagon will seek to invest in missile-defense systems, surveillance technologies and a new long-range bomber to counter these anticipated “anti-access” enemy weapons, Lynn said.
Cyber attacks also are regarded as one form of asymmetric warfare. “Cyber capabilities have lower barriers to entry,” said Lynn. “A small number of trained programmers with off-the-shelf tools can develop devastating capabilities.” Cyber weapons, however, are not likely to be used against the United States by nation states but by terrorist groups, which are nearly impossible to deter, said Lynn. “They will strike with little hesitation.”
In the new era of warfare, he said, the information age is shaking up many of the tenets of the industrial and nuclear revolutions.
A big unknown, however, is the budget, and whether the deteriorating U.S. fiscal picture will lead to major reductions in military spending. The trends that Lynn outlined assume the Defense Department will have ample funds to maintain a large force and the desired hardware that would be needed to engage in such a broad range of conflicts.
Lynn acknowledged that the nation’s financial problems may stand in the way of the military’s ambitious strategy. “We have to make the right judgments about the future security environment .... and invest in the systems that address these trends.” Trying to predict whether the next war will be against Iran, North Korea, Hezbollah, or Mexican druglords is a fruitless exercise, Lynn said. “We have a perfect record” of failing to predict.
Given such dismal record, a smarter investment for the United States might be to try to prevent wars to begin with. Recent national security policy documents have called for an increase in “security cooperation,” development and other “soft power” activities that, in theory, would help stabilize some volatile parts of the world and ensure that local governments are equipped to fight their own insurgencies, instead of expecting the U.S. military to intervene.
That approach is unlikely to gain much traction because there is little political support in Congress for foreign aid programs, Lynn noted. The American public typically does not see the relevance of foreign aid spending to national security. “There’s generally strong constituencies for defense spending,” said Lynn. For development spending, the “constituencies are much weaker.” Soft-power initiatives likely will suffer in a tighter fiscal environment.
Although President Obama has set a target of $400 billion in defense spending cuts over the next 12 years, Lynn does not foresee that smaller budgets necessarily will force the Pentagon to have to choose between preparing for high-end or low-end warfare. The choice will not be either-or, but “which end of the spectrum to emphasize,” he said. But he recognizes that the Pentagon’s ability to set priorities will be limited by the highly politicized budget process. Lynn cited the contentious back-and-forth over the F-35 fighter’s alternative engine as an example of what’s to come. “We’ll see more of these” battles, he said.
Asked to comment on the deputy secretary’s remarks, an industry expert noted that Lynn’s vision in many ways conflicts with recent projections made by departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates. In various speeches over the past several months, Gates suggested that future investments should stress high-end naval and air warfare, given that the Navy and Air Force have seen their modernization programs suffer while the Army’s budgets soared. Lynn is arguing that all services need additional resources for all forms of warfare, and the Army would need a large force to avoid the stress from lengthy deployments. In today’s budget environment, that worldview strikes as unrealistic, the industry official said.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, War Planning

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