Crafting Strategy in an Age of Transition

By Brimley, Shawn | Parameters, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Crafting Strategy in an Age of Transition


Brimley, Shawn, Parameters


The United States is at a transition point nearly unparalleled in its history. Years of war abroad have severely strained America's military, and the ongoing economic crisis will force ever-greater constraints on all forms of discretionary spending. Rising regional powers, energy scarcity, climate change, and failing states are some of the myriad variables that will combine to form a daunting set of strategic challenges for the Obama Administration. Not since the late 1940s has America's defense community faced challenges of such size and scope. Unlike the immediate aftermath of the strategic shocks of Pearl Harbor and 9/11--when the imperatives of war demanded a focus on near-term requirements--the years following such fundamental disruptions to America's strategic context offer valuable opportunities and time to reflect on what has changed, reset defense priorities, and renew US strategy for the long term. Then as now, as the fog of uncertainty associated with the emergence of a new geostrategic era begins to dissipate, the contours of the strategic environment can be more clearly perceived.

As the fog lifts it becomes apparent that despite valiant efforts and good intentions, America suffers from strategic distraction, dislocation, and near-exhaustion. The United States is, as Army Chief of Staff General George Casey and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen often observe, "out of balance." America's defense posture today assumes far more strategic risk than is prudent and rests on a shifting global foundation certain to exacerbate the constraints and risks to US power and prestige. The defense community is not as prepared as it should be for the challenges of today and tomorrow--it can, and must, do better.

Strategy is the art of connecting aspirations with prudent plans and finite resources. This article will attempt to diagnose a troubling strategic inheritance, describe a changing geopolitical context, and advocate a defense strategy that can best protect core American interests in an age of transition.

A Troubled Inheritance

By almost any measure, President Barack Obama faces a daunting national security inheritance. Even before the onset of the current economic crisis, a series of imposing challenges--from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to an exploding national debt at home--promised to force the new administration to make hard choices among competing priorities. In the context of the most dramatic economic storm since the Great Depression, such choices and tradeoffs are now not only necessary but imperative. The Obama Administration is accepting a troubled inheritance on three dimensions of American power: military, diplomatic, and economic.

The most pressing challenge for the new Pentagon team will be countering dramatic constraints on America's freedom of action around the globe. With the preponderance of US ground forces either en route to, deployed in, or returning from commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ability to react to any consequential strategic surprise is seriously curtailed. Admiral Mullen's guidance for 2008-2009 paints an ominous picture: "The pace of ongoing operations has prevented our forces from training for the full-spectrum of operations and impacts our ability to be ready to counter future threats. This lack of balance is unsustainable in the long term." (1) The challenge for Pentagon leaders will be to find ways to generate options for a new President within an operational environment that fundamentally limits what American forces can do and how they might react to unexpected contingencies. Moreover, almost every outside study examining the Pentagon's procurement and acquisition programs has concluded that the system is broken. "It may be hard for most people to believe that our defense establishment is in a serious decline," argued former procurement official John Christie in a recent issue of Proceedings, but he was correct to conclude that unless major changes are made soon, "US defense forces will continue to shrink and age, and we rapidly will cease being a dominant military force in the world. …

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