More Than Money, Defense Needs Compelling Narrative

By Sandra I. Erwin
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates once chided top brass for overindulging in “next-war-itis,” a term he coined to describe the generals’ obsessive preoccupation with planning for hypothetical future enemies instead of focusing on the wars at hand.

The fighting in Afghanistan is still raging, but the Pentagon already has been instructed to dust off the crystal ball.

“The time has come, is here now … to look out to what the world will need next, to the security challenges that will define our future after Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

Although the Defense Department remains hugely distracted by the current budget standoff and looming spending cuts, it needs to begin to think about how forces will be organized and equipped for the post-Afghanistan world, Carter says. “We need to make this transition no matter what the fiscal situation.”

Details on what that transition might look like will begin to trickle out next year as the Pentagon begins drafting the congressionally mandated quadrennial defense review (QDR) that must be completed by February 2014.

As the review gets under way, one of the trending topics inside the beltway intelligentsia will be whether the QDR brain trust can weave a cogent narrative for the future of the nation’s military.

Pentagon watchers already are warning that this is no time for business as usual, considering the domestic political climate and the fiscal crunch that could put defense spending in the cross hairs of a future deficit-reduction deal.

Experts contend that the Pentagon needs to do a better job articulating how military forces will be employed in the future — in war or peacetime — and why the United States should continue to invest in the large force it currently has.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, already has hinted that the military expects to be on a permanent war footing. Defense officials do not see the end of the Afghanistan war as the beginning of a peaceful era. They view the Arab Spring and Iran’s nuclear ambitions as ticking time bombs. Although the odds of a large-scale war are low, the “chance of violence for ideological and other purposes is exponentially greater,” according to Dempsey.

Staying ready for a possible crisis in the Middle East will have to be balanced against the Pentagon’s ambitions in Asia. The widely publicized plan to shift U.S. forces to the Pacific already has drawn fire for being too belligerent. The lesson for the Pentagon is that it needs a strong narrative in order to make a case to Congress and the public for why the nation needs to continue to spend more than half a trillion dollars on the military each year, even if American troops are not involved in a shooting war.

Articulating a vision will be “more critical than ever before,” says Barry Pavel, director of The Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

Previous QDRs and strategy documents are littered with catchphrases such as “forward presence,” “security cooperation” and “stability operations.” Given the political atmosphere in Washington, the Pentagon is going to have to do better at framing the debate, as Americans increasingly are sending representatives to Congress who have little experience or knowledge of military and international affairs.

Only 20 percent of the 535 members of Congress have served in the military — 25 in the Senate and 90 in the House of Representatives.

The arrival of a new Congress should motivate the Defense Department to sharpen its message, and it will behoove civilian and military leaders to make a persuasive case for the “defense capabilities we need, not just the capabilities we would like,” suggests Pavel.

In the defense industry, a messaging strategy also is in order, or Pentagon contractors could find themselves in a “post-Afghanistan phase without concrete direction,” says Zachary Miller, an analyst at the American Security Project.

Industry desperately needs a narrative for its future, Miller asserts. “This is a difficult concept considering the United States has not yet achieved a firm posture or strategy for the post-Afghanistan security environment.”

The pivot to the Pacific is hard to dispute because of the massive shift in economic power to Asia. But it is still a fuzzy concept for most people to grasp. Miller and other analysts point out that the Asia strategy cannot be centered only around the military, and should involve other foreign policy instruments, such as trade and diplomacy.

During a question-and-answer session at Kansas State University, Dempsey offered one of the canniest explanations so far on why the military believes it should turn its attention to Asia. It’s the Wayne Gretzky rule, Dempsey explains. Ice hockey legend Gretzky, when asked about his secret to winning, responded that he skates “where the puck is going to be, not to where it’s been,” Dempsey recalls. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Whether the Gretzky analogy scores bigger budgets for the Pentagon remains to be seen. But Dempsey’s comments hint at the tough public-relations challenge that the Pentagon faces.

“People have no idea what we do,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh tells Defense News, as he acknowledges that his service’s communications skills often are left wanting. “Clearly, we have to be able to tell the story in a way that’s better understood.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Policy

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