What the Pentagon’s New Military Strategy Should Look Like

President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey are scheduled to brief the media tomorrow morning on the recently completed strategic review that will inform the Pentagon’s budget priorities for the coming five to ten years. Early indications suggest that the status quo will hold. And that is bad news for U.S. troops, and U.S. taxpayers.

Obama, Panetta, and Dempsey should clearly spell out:

  1. The types of missions that the U.S. military will be expected to perform on a regular basis
  2. Those operations that the military will occasionally conduct on short notice, and for short periods of time
  3. How defense capacity can be augmented in those very rare cases calling for significant mobilization of additional resources.

Some suggest that the strategy document will abandon the requirement that the Pentagon must be prepared to fight two sustained ground wars at the same time, something that the country hasn’t done since well before Barack Obama was born. Such a change, if true, should be welcomed.

It is significant the president is attending, and the most important questions should be reserved for him. It is particularly incumbent upon the civilian leadership within the Obama administration, beginning with the president himself, to spell out their intentions regarding the use of force, and of the role of the U.S. military more broadly. These should go beyond vague signals; our military leaders shouldn’t be forced to guess what missions that they will be asked to perform. The president must tell them.

For example, does he intend to deploy U.S. troops to more weak and failing states, missions that require a very sizable ground presence for an indefinite period of time? Or have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan taught the president and his advisers that such missions are costly and counterproductive (and politically unpopular at home)? If the latter, the Pentagon should be planning for significant reductions in the Army and Marine Corps.

Does President Obama plan to conduct more Libya-style missions, operations conducted from the air, with some involvement by other militaries? Or is the recent deployment to Uganda emblematic of future missions, with a small-scale U.S. military presence on the ground in support of indigenous forces? Either way, the Air Force and the Navy are likely to be involved, though perhaps not as active as in the past decade.

More broadly, will the White House and the State Department continue to task the U.S. military with the defense of the global commons, providing security for all countries, and expecting nothing in return? Or will the twin constraints of fiscal insolvency and dwindling public support here at home lead to a less grandiose foreign policy, one that will call on the U.S. military to defend the United States and secure vital U.S. interests, while encouraging other countries to take responsibility for their own defense? The former requires a military even larger than the one that we have today, one that costs more than all other militaries in the world, combined, and that expects and demands much of our men and women in uniform. The latter mission, by contrast, could be easily handled with a smaller, more elite force, based largely here in the United States.

The answers to these key questions are what should guide the Pentagon’s force planning for the coming decade. The president, Secretary Panetta, Secretary of State Clinton, and other senior officials have stated that the United States must continue to be the world’s policeman, effectively discouraging other countries from doing more. The end result is likely to be a smaller U.S. military, tasked with a longer to-do list. That isn’t fair to the troops, or to the U.S. taxpayers who will foot the bill.