Power, Prospects, and Priorities: Choices for Strategic Change

By Betts, Richard K. | Naval War College Review, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Power, Prospects, and Priorities: Choices for Strategic Change


Betts, Richard K., Naval War College Review


WHAT WILL U.S. ARMED FORCES BE CALLED ON to do early in the twenty-first century? Some educated guesses are necessary to guide defense planning. Without them, procurement, doctrine, and military organization become arbitrary, the result of inertia rather than strategy. This article offers a few arguments to challenge inertia:

The benign security environment of the 1990s abets domestic political confusion about which potential types of conflict should govern military planning.

Since the end of the Cold War, official planning has remained too preoccupied with maintaining current capability and has not been attentive enough to finding inventive ways to cover longer-term dangers. The main such danger would be having to remobilize quickly to Cold War levels of preparedness to confront a great power (or "peer competitor," in the current bureaucratic term of art). This danger will be magnified if two such powers ally in opposition to U.S. policy

In crises involving a hostile great power in the future, the dangers of miscalculation and escalation may well be greater than they were in the latter part of the Cold War, because of the more delicate and controversial nature of territorial disputes and flashpoints (most notably, Taiwan, Ukraine, or the Baltic states). This mandates more consideration of the proper bounds of policy objectives that determine the demands placed on the military for deterrence or defense.

Three general levels of the use of force have been at issue in recent planning: first, small-scale "peace operations" to police negotiated settlements or stabilize civil conflicts in small countries; second, "major regional conflicts" (MRCs, to use the bureaucratese) against medium powers like Iraq, Iran, or North Korea; and third, war against, or deterrence of, a great power. Of these, only the latter presents a convincing rationale for an equal strategic combat role for the Navy as compared to land-based air and ground forces, or as distinct from the Navy's role in supporting the operations of the other services.

If a "revolution in military affairs" pans out, it will offer a net advantage to the United States, but it could also have a "second edge" that creates problems for stability in deterrence relationships with weaker great powers.

No forecast should be considered anything more than heuristic. Any sensible reader should beware of articles (like this one) that pretend to say anything about the future, since by definition they cannot really know what they are talking about. When they set out to estimate future developments, most forecasts extrapolate from current trends, guessing the future from the trajectory on which events seem to be traveling. But a world in transition seldom works just one way for long.

Charles Burton Marshall once wondered what someone in 1961 who was asked to forecast security developments would have said. He concluded that such a forecast would probably have missed most of the crucial events: "the Cuban missile crisis, the ensuing Soviet military build-up, the war in Vietnam and its outcome, the rise of terrorism, the Middle East wars of 1967 and 1973, the petroleum embargo, pervasive inflation, the strategic arms negotiations, the Greek-Turkish quarrel over Cyprus, . . . numerous discontinuities in political leadership and especially the American presidency, and the weakening of executive authority in the United States."1 And of course, who would have predicted the end of the Cold War-or at least who would have done so without the risk of being committed to a mental hospital?

Nevertheless, we have to try. Strategy has to peer ahead somehow, or else give up hope of shaping events. While it is foolish to predict specific developments, it is more reasonable to estimate the general types of problems that may arise and to identify tradeoffs in which hedging against one type compromises the ability to deal with another.

It was easier to do this for most of the second half of the twentieth century than it is now, because two things made the period from 1940 to 1990 different from the situation today. …

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