Restructuring the Military: U.S. Armed Forces Are Unmatched on the Conventional Battlefield but Far Less Prepared to Deal with the Emerging Irregular or Nontraditional Challenges They Are Most Likely to Confront in the Years Ahead

By Korb, Lawrence J.; Bergmann, Max A. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Restructuring the Military: U.S. Armed Forces Are Unmatched on the Conventional Battlefield but Far Less Prepared to Deal with the Emerging Irregular or Nontraditional Challenges They Are Most Likely to Confront in the Years Ahead


Korb, Lawrence J., Bergmann, Max A., Issues in Science and Technology


After more than five years of war in Iraq and almost seven in Afghanistan, the U.S. military is facing a crisis not seen since the end of the Vietnam War. Equipment shortages, manpower shortfalls, recruiting and retention problems, and misplaced budget priorities have resulted in a military barely able to meet the challenges the United States faces today and dangerously ill-prepared to handle future challenges.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks demonstrated that the most immediate threat to the United States is not from a conventional nation-state adversary but from an enemy that operates without regard for national borders and aims to surprise it with deadly attacks on its homeland and its interests around the globe. These attacks, and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, have also demonstrated that a weakly governed state or region half a world away could pose a direct threat to U.S security.

The purpose of U.S. military power must be first and foremost to ensure the safety and security of the American people. In an era of globalization, however, homeland security will sometimes be adversely affected by events far from home. The United States will therefore continue to find itself in situations in which it is compelled to use its military power. Although caution must always be exercised when deploying troops abroad, the United States must recognize that its military will continue to be a force in high demand.

Yet today the military is lopsided. Its forces are being ground down by low-tech insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the most immediate threat confronting the United States is a terrorist network that possesses no tanks or aircraft. Meanwhile, the Pentagon--the worlds largest bureaucracy--remains fixated largely on addressing the problems and challenges of a bygone era. This focus has left the military unmatched on the conventional battlefield but less prepared to deal with the emerging irregular or nontraditional challenges that the United States is most likely to confront.

As operations in Iraq eventually draw to a close, the United States must plot a new strategic direction for its military. Three areas are critical. First, the military must restructure, reform, and invest in new priorities in order to regain strategic balance and become more adept at four kinds of irregular or nontraditional missions: counterterrorism operations that seek to deny terrorist networks havens from which to operate; stability and reconstruction missions that seek to rebuild nations and restore order to regions where chaos reigns; counterinsurgency operations that seek to eliminate a hostile force by winning the support of the public; and humanitarian missions that seek to alleviate the suffering caused by natural or human-made disasters. Second, the military must develop a more integrated approach across all government agencies and with its allies and partners. Third, it must make investing in people, not hardware, its highest defense priority.

Militaries are notoriously resistant to change and therefore difficult to reform, but the current crisis presents the United States with the real opportunity to move the military in a new and better direction. The military faced a similar crisis in the wake of Vietnam, and as a result was able to dramatically restructure itself. It abandoned the draft and created the professional all-volunteer military; it invested in the training and development of its personnel through initiatives such as the Navy's Top Gun program that enabled the United States to have a smaller, more effective fighting force; and it adjusted its force posture. How the United States rebuilds its military after Iraq is likely to shape its future and the security of the nation for a generation.

Fighting the last war

Although the Bush administration has repeatedly claimed that 9/11 changed everything, almost nothing has changed in terms of military strategy, force structure, and spending priorities. …

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