In the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, released days before the September 11 attacks, the Department of Defense announced a shift in approach—one that had been trickling through DOD since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Billed as “a new defense strategy and an associated risk management framework,” the emerging addition to the defense planning lexicon was a “capabilities-based approach.”
Because of an “uncertain” global environment in which the Soviets no longer acted as a global counterweight, no more would DOD plan to fight an actual enemy. Instead, it would plan to deal with a collection of enemy capabilities. As a defense procurement strategy, it was intellectually lazy and simple to execute—instead of studying an adversary and dealing with the unique challenges inherent in fighting a specific enemy, it would instead ignore the necessity of accounting for cultural, geographic and strategy aspects of any given opponent and concentrate on technology instead. Capabilities-based planning (CBP) was in. A strategy oriented on a potential enemy was out.
This was in striking contrast to the approach taken 20 years earlier. In 1981, The U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) unveiled a radical revamping of Army doctrine, by then in development for four years. Titled AirLand Battle, the concept was developed to deal with the preeminent military challenge of the time: how to fight the Red Army and the Warsaw Pact in Central Europe, where NATO faced a combined arms challenge backed with large numbers. This strategy was successfully sold to the Army, the DOD, Congress and the American public and became the concept that drove acquisition, training and force posture and led directly to the combined arms force that fought in Desert Storm.
AirLand Battle was not designed in a vacuum or against a generic adversary, and while it relied heavily on technology, the concept never lost sight of the context. Any direct conflict with the Soviets would have Europe as the central battlefield, if for no other reason than Europe was the only place with opposing NATO and Warsaw Pact forces in proximity. The terrain, the approaches, and the doctrine, equipment, logistical tail and support structure of the Soviet war machine was well characterized, exhaustively researched, and continually updated. The Army knew who it was going to fight and where, and set about answering how the joint force was going to accomplish that task.
That focus is lacking today. In embracing CBP, we have become focused on a fog bank—the nameless, faceless adversary who may be technologically advanced and may even be a “near peer” in a similarly undefined way. But that adversary has no connections to any geography, culture, alliance structure or fighting methodology. That adversary has no objectives, no systemic vulnerabilities, and no preferred way of fighting. Instead, the enemy is a collection of weapons systems that we will fight with a (presumably) more advanced set of similar systems, in a symmetrical widget-on-widget battlefield on a flat, featureless Earth.
Let me decode the term, or at least what it means to me: “We didn’t know who the enemy was anymore but wanted really big weapons programs, anyway.”
— Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Sharon Burke
The CBP strategy is a method for procuring systems that is totally disconnected from the realities of actually fighting an enemy as opposed to fighting a war. To dig ourselves out of an ever-deepening conceptual hole, the DOD is actively engaged in a never-ending search for the elusive and mythical “technological game changer,” sacrificing readiness, forward posture, and representative training along the way. We are witnessing the death of military strategy development in the United States, ignoring the reality that the People’s Republic of China has spent a quarter of a century developing a specific whole-of-government strategy to support a fight against the United States in Asia, and win. We should return to the methods that have proved effective in the past by identifying potential adversaries, characterizing them as unique entities, and planning to counter them using strategies tailored to their national political, economic and defense characteristics—and not just to their weapon systems.
A Disconnected Philosophy
The 2001 QDR was the culmination of a decade of discussion and testimony that had already seen CBP gain acceptance inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. The QDR laid out the new philosophy succinctly:
The new defense strategy is built around the concept of shifting to a “capabilities-based” approach to defense. That concept reflects the fact that the United States cannot know with confidence what nation, combination of nations, or non-state actor will pose threats to vital U.S. interests or those of U.S. allies and friends decades from now.
It is possible, however, to anticipate the capabilities that an adversary might employ to coerce its neighbors, deter the United States from acting in defense of its allies and friends, or directly attack the United States or its deployed forces. A capabilities-based model—one that focuses more on how an adversary might fight than who the adversary might be and where a war might occur—broadens the strategic perspective. It requires identifying capabilities that U.S. military forces will need to deter and defeat adversaries who will rely on surprise, deception, and asymmetric warfare to achieve their objectives.
In retrospect, by abandoning the analytical rigor required to identify adversaries and countermeasures in advance, the 2001 QDR offered a false clarity. In no way did CBP broaden the strategic perspective. Rather it narrowed it significantly, because while CBP was not in and of itself a military strategy, it left no room for one by denying that there was a need.
Overwhelming technological superiority was the answer, because it was overwhelming. Not only did we give up an understanding of potential adversaries, but we effectively reduced a perceived need to understand our allies and partners as well. The QDR declared that CBP could “anticipate the capabilities that an adversary might employ to coerce its neighbors,” without recognizing that coercive power was far more than a collection of capabilities but was the sum of a great deal of other factors, from geography to the relative balance between countries.
A capability-based strategy [is] one that focuses less on who might threaten us or where we might be threatened, and more on how we might be threatened and what we need to do to deter and defend against such threats.
— Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
Furthermore, there was no way to actually analyze what a country might do to coerce its neighbors, because there was no adversary country and no neighbors. The DOD was encouraged to go on adding to its card deck of weapon systems, in the expectation that the deck would produce a military capability that was useful in a given context, which could be whipped out at need. In many respects, this was a return to the “systems analysis” approach popularized by former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, only without the actual systems analysis.
Under the QDR guidance, we no longer had to worry about who the adversary might be and where a war might occur. Only the most tenuous link to operations was required. If a widget could potentially be used under a theoretical set of conditions, then it was a good widget, particularly if it was technologically advanced. Basing, deployment, mobility, tactics, counters and the influence of the environment and terrain were irrelevant, and the obvious connections between assurance, deterrence and wartime operations were lost.
Examples are easy to find, although only one is really necessary. In a generic context, a short-range stealthy fighter might seem like a good idea. In fact, if you consider a NATO battlefield in 1990, it could be a very good idea indeed. There are plenty of airfields, a large number of capable air forces, and the airfields are typically hardened against the threat posed by the Red Army (or even a resurgent one today).
Should an imaginary adversary pose a notional A2/AD environment in Europe, then a stealthy fighter might be a very potent piece of hardware. (It was, and it was called the F-117A.) Today in the Pacific, however, the potency drops away. In the Pacific theater, the distances are so great and the islands so scattered that on the list of desirable aircraft features, stealth takes a very distant third place to range and payload. Against the PRC, only Okinawa is a viable base from which to fly short-range fighters, and it is at risk of obliteration by the massive missile forces arrayed against it. In the Pacific, the bomber appears to be a much more useful platform. Without assessing an actual adversary, it is impossible to assess the utility of major weapons systems or develop a strategy to deal effectively with that enemy.
CBP effectively preempted strategy development, which has implications for deterrence and campaign planning. The 2001 QDR turned deterrence strategy around. Under CBP, mere technological prowess contributed to deterrence. No longer would we need to actually understand an adversary policy, process and objectives to deter somebody—we only needed to parade a modern weapon systems across the world stage and let nature take its course. The QDR noted that an enemy would likely use surprise and asymmetric warfare and that CBP would be used to offset that—without acknowledging that surprise became more likely because we were not postured to thinking about who might actually be an adversary, and that we could not reasonably counter asymmetric warfare because we would no longer analyze those asymmetries that a specific adversary was likely to attempt to offset. Becoming more vulnerable to surprise and asymmetric approaches did nothing to enhance our deterrent posture.
While it is impossible to determine who might have been deterred by the presumably awesome potential of CBP over the past 15 years, we can certainly determine who was not. Al Qaeda and its affiliates were not deterred. The Taliban and their associates were not deterred. Broadly, Islamist groups were not deterred in sub-Saharan Africa, Libya, the Levant, Yemen, Syria or Iraq. Iran may very well have been encouraged to step up both missile and nuclear weapons programs. Syria was not deterred from taking actions against its own population up to and including the use of weapons of mass destruction. The Russians were so undeterred that they executed their first post-Cold War land grab unapologetically, and then followed up with active efforts to further disassemble the borders of Ukraine, in direct violation of the Budapest Memorandum. China’s reef-by-reef expansion in the South China Sea continues unabated. If North Korea was deterred from any provocative action, it cannot be ascertained from its behavior, which is so laden with provocations that it is hard to see where one ends and the next begins. If the emergence of CBP has led to any deterrence at all, it is hard to imagine where and when it might have occurred.
That is not surprising. Deterrence is a product of a perception by another party that there is no real gain in a possible course of action. Absent a country that has overwhelming superiority both on and off the battlefield, the deterrent effect of mere technological superiority is virtually nonexistent, because there is no direct threat associated with technology alone. If an enemy does not believe that the United States has the interest, method or the will to oppose them, then there is no deterrence. We effectively deterred the Soviets from invading Europe because of two key factors: we planned a vigorous defense across the length and breadth of Europe; and we were prepared to go nuclear if we started losing. Since the Red Army’s primary method of winning battles had always been mass, NATO’s technical superiority was not a sufficient deterrent but the ability to obliterate massed forces was. Apocryphally or not, Lenin himself is widely credited with the observation that “quantity has a quality all its own.”
In more modern times, both nation-states and insurgents have actively courted battle with the Americans, even fully acknowledging their own technological inferiority, because they did not believe that technology would prove decisive. Time and time again, these enemies challenged the tech-focused Americans—and in Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria they have been proved correct. Arguably, the Chinese proved the same in Korea, where the better-supplied, better-equipped and better-trained Americans were fought to a standstill by an enemy who believed in mass.
Identifying an Enemy is Passé
Today, the art of military strategy in the United States has devolved to the point where it is currently passé to describe fighting China or Russia in public. Instead, we discuss a generic anti-access area denial environment that is characterized by long-range weapons and aircraft. This means that, strategy-wise, we are forced into the military equivalent of fantasy football, where our team will presumably do better than the other team on a notional statistical battlefield that bears absolutely no resemblance to the real world. If we are to be prepared to fight an enemy we must be prepared to fight a specific enemy lest we be caught with our eye off the ball when the fastball comes smoking across the plate. And it will come. World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War and Afghanistan all started with the United States shaking off a surprise.
Realistically, there are only four adversary countries worth considering, mostly because they pose a credible and significant threat to the United States or to the world order upon which U.S. prosperity rests. With its international land routes severely constrained by geography, China is effectively an import-dependent island nation with the ability to deliver mass and precision on command—but only close to its own shores. Russia remains a land power with some very good scientists, but one that has neglected its regular military forces for two decades and hasn’t won a war outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union since the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. North Korea is a marginal nuclear power with an undernourished populace and persistent food shortages, unable to project power much beyond artillery range. Iran is an emerging regional power that has been heavily constrained by military sanctions to the point where its “conventional” forces rely primarily on mass and the possession of rebuilt SCUD-class terror weapons.
“No matter how enmeshed a commander becomes in the elaboration of his own thoughts, it is sometimes necessary to take the enemy into account.”
— Winston S. Churchill
Every one of those potential four adversaries is capable of putting up a fight against the United States—possibly a winning one. Conversely, each one of them has its own set of vulnerabilities, geographical constraints and cultural approaches, and each of them must be considered as individuals and not as a member of a generic category—rogue state, near-peer, etc. Those potential adversaries do not themselves capture the entire range of security challenges facing the United States, but they do encompass the most likely and most threatening state-based challenges.
The Department of Defense has invested massive resources in a flawed premise that it is long past time to abandon. There is no real excuse for accepting a premise that in a post-Soviet era, we have insufficient understanding of the security environment. As an internal corporate strategy, CBP might have some utility. As a national security strategy, it has been a costly disaster, resulting in a false sense of often-failing procurement priorities that have demonstrably failed at producing an effective, credible military tool that can be used as an instrument of national policy. Worse yet, it is a policy that could not have been better designed to ensure that we are unprepared for a real enemy. If we are to be prepared to fight another nation, we have to be prepared to fight an actual enemy, with the associated terrain, cultural attributes, military characteristics and national interests. Only by being prepared to fight a real opponent, and obviously so, can we have any hope of providing a deterrent that avoids the fight in the first place.