The Biden administration’s forthcoming National Defense Strategy will likely call for “prioritizing”—i.e., reducing—day-to-day global deployments to focus on China. This is fine if the strategy faces the tough choices about reduced global engagement that such a policy entails. However, if the administration cannot bring itself to specify the policy trade-offs and instead proposes some vague future process, then it should acknowledge that the United States will maintain a high level of global engagement and build its force structure accordingly. To do otherwise sets up a strategy that will fail and hurt military personnel in the process.
The desirability of retrenchment. The Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, will focus its national security efforts on competing with China. The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance makes this point explicitly—”This agenda will strengthen our enduring advantages, and allow us to prevail in strategic competition with China or any other nation.”—as do many statements by senior administration officials.
The challenge from China is indeed formidable as DoD’s recent report on the Chinese military points out: “With a force that totals approximately two million personnel in the regular forces, the [People’s Liberation Army] has sought to modernize its capabilities and improve its proficiencies across all warfare domains so that as a joint force it can conduct the range of land, air, and maritime operations as well as space, counter-space, electronic warfare (EW), and cyber operations.” The United States has not faced such a challenge since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The magnitude of the challenge has induced many strategists to argue for cutting forces to make investments in advanced and expensive new technologies like long-range munitions, stealthy aircraft, and drones. DoD talks extensively about eliminating legacy systems, and the Air Force and Marine Corps have proposed such reductions in their FY 2022 budgets.
The Trump administration’s failed attempt. The Trump administration faced the same challenge and proposed a process called Dynamic Force Employment. The administration planned to use the new process to reduce deployments (among other actions). Lowering the military’s operational tempo would free forces to train for great power conflicts and experiment with new equipment and concepts. If necessary, DoD could cut forces and move funds elsewhere. However, the world refused to cooperate. US forces continued to deploy to the Pacific to confront China, to Eastern Europe to confront Russia, and to the Middle East to confront the Taliban, Iran, and ISIS. Natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires popped up as well as the need to support civilian authorities to handle the coronavirus pandemic and domestic disturbances. As a result, the level of deployments at the end of the Trump administration was about the same as at the beginning. For example, the Navy had an average of 100 ships deployed in 2016 and 110 in 2021.
The strategic trade-offs. To govern is to choose. Here the choices involve which deployments and engagements to continue and which to cut. Many viable options are available. The United States could ask its wealthy NATO and European allies to do more in Eastern Europe as it pulls forces back to a reinforcing role. The United States could reduce its already small deployments to South America and Africa on the theory that these are not contested theaters and that the United States has only modest national security interests there. The United States could further reduce its forces in the Middle East, helping its allies cope with threats from ISIS and Iran through arms sales and security assistance but not with force deployments. All these trade-offs are defensible.
However, the Biden administration and DoD would face vigorous pushback from allies, partners, and the foreign policy community, just as the Trump administration did when it made similar proposals. Accusations of a U.S. return to isolationism would fly. Such changes would require extensive diplomatic efforts and expend considerable political capital.
Biden makes the task more difficult. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Democrats wanted to distinguish their foreign policy from Trump’s, so the party platform emphasized the connection with allies and partners: “Democrats believe America’s alliances are an irreplaceable cornerstone of our national security that should be cultivated, not cast away.” Articles by then-presidential candidate Biden and campaign surrogates (and now senior administration officials) argued that the United States needed to reestablish its global leadership. The Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance made both points: “America is back…We will reinvigorate and modernize our alliances and partnerships around the world…We will also double down on building partnerships throughout the world.” President Biden reinforced these policies in person when visiting NATO in June.
There are solid reasons for rebuilding relationships with allies and partners after these relationships frayed during the Trump administration. However, a policy of rebuilding relationships makes reducing global deployments and exercises more difficult. The United States’ allies and partners are realists. To them, reduced deployments signify reduced commitments, no matter how many verbal expressions of support the United States issues.
Taking the easy way out. Faced with these uncomfortable trade-offs, the Biden administration may take the easy route of assuming that such cuts “will be determined later” in order to make its strategic focus on China work. They may establish a process of “consultation” with allies and partners and set up an interagency review team to “develop options.” Yet, if a yearlong strategy development effort cannot identify acceptable trade-offs, then the trade-offs are not there. To assume that some follow-on process will find hitherto hidden options is not just a comfortable fiction; it would set DoD up for failure.
The recently released summary of the Global Posture Review seems to take this approach. On the one hand it identifies China as “the pacing threat” and endorses previous moves to strength forces in the Indo-Pacific. On the other hand, it also calls for reinforcing Europe, sustaining counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East, and continued engagement in Central and South America and Africa. It references further analysis in several areas. Whether the final strategic documents show the same inability to make choices will be seen when those documents are released in a few months.
The adverse effects on personnel and equipment. Periodically, the United States gets itself into this bind as it tries to do the same or more with less. Cutting forces while keeping commitments at the same level requires the remaining forces to operate more intensely. Troops spend less time at home with families, causing recruiting and retention problems. The high level of operational tempo wears out equipment and reduces readiness. The result is often criticized as a “hollow force.”
This happened in the late 1970s and caused a major national security problem for then-President Carter. It happened again in the late 1990s when deployments for the Balkans and the Middle East surged even as forces declined from their Cold War levels. Finally, it happened in the early 2000s during the Middle East wars. The Navy is still struggling with ship maintenance backlogs caused by the extended deployments to support those conflicts. Eventually, the stress on the force becomes a political problem for the president. That drives action—more money, more forces, or fewer deployments—that the strategic review should have identified in the first place.
An intellectually honest strategic review. The answer is obvious: make the hard decisions in the strategic review. This review is not an opportunity for the administration to lay out all the desirable things that it wants to do. The review’s purpose is to define strategy—the alignment of ends, ways, and means. Avoiding the near-term pain of difficult trade-offs creates a long-term problem for the president and the nation. Therefore, if DoD’s ongoing strategic review wants to reduce deployments to focus attention and resources on China, it should specify which commitments it will cut. If it can’t do this, then it should take the intellectually honest step of maintaining a larger force and request the larger budget that goes with that.
(Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kaila Peters)