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Defense Strategy for the Post-Saddam Era

Defense Strategy for the Post-Saddam Era

by Michael E. O'Hanlon

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The Brookings Institution has long produced an analysis of America's defense budgets and policies. The war on terror and the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced upon this country soaring defense budgets and unprecedented challenges in policymaking. In the newest installment in this tradition, leading foreign policy expert Michael O'Hanlon offers


The Brookings Institution has long produced an analysis of America's defense budgets and policies. The war on terror and the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced upon this country soaring defense budgets and unprecedented challenges in policymaking. In the newest installment in this tradition, leading foreign policy expert Michael O'Hanlon offers policy recommendations for strengthening the ability of America's military to respond to international crises in a tumultuous world. The United States can, for the foreseeable future, be confident that its armed forces will remain engaged in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan and other theaters in the war on terror. It will also need to remain involved in deterrence missions in the western Pacific, most notably in Korea and the Taiwan Strait. It will wish to remain engaged in European security, since the capabilities and cohesion of the NATO alliance have important implications for the United States globally. O'Hanlon reviews these priorities, asking tough questions and developing frameworks for answering them: • What military will the United States need in the future? • How much will it cost? • How can the U.S. increase the size of its ground forces without increasing the size of the defense budget? • In an era of apocalyptic terror threats, and at a time of $400 billion defense budgets and $400 billion federal budget deficits, how can this country protect its citizens while maintaining fiscal responsibility?

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"In Defense Strategy for the Post-Saddam Era, Michael O'Hanlon, a veteran defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, offers a comprehensive set of recommendations for avoiding disaster. O'Hanlon's judgements are sober, measured and relatively modest....A reader would be hard-pressed to find a more crisp, concise and well-crafter introduction to these complex issues." —James Jay Carafano, The Heritage Foundation, Army

"O'Hanlon has added an invaluable resource to the current and future debate over force planning, military strategy, and defense spending in an era of deficits." —W. W. Newmann, Virginia Commonwealth University, Choice

"Thoroughly researched and presented in a convincingly clean style" —Pavel Baev, Journal of Peace Research

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Defense Strategy for the Post-Saddam Era

By Michael E. O'Hanlon

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2005 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8157-6467-7

Chapter One


What kind of military will the United States need in the future, and how much will it cost? In an era of apocalyptic terrorist threats and other dangers there is little doubt that the country must do what it takes to protect itself. That said, at a time of $400 billion federal budget deficits, the country must also spend wisely.

This book argues that the Bush administration's planned defense budget increase of some $20 billion a year into the foreseeable future is indeed necessary. Half of that increase accounts for inflation, roughly speaking, and the rest represents real growth in the defense budget. But in contrast to current plans, a central argument of this book is that the administration should temporarily increase the size of the country's ground forces by at least 40,000 active duty troops. This is necessary in order to treat soldiers and Marines more fairly by reducing at least modestly the frequency and length of deployments and to ensure that the extraordinarily high pace of overseas operations does not drive people out of the military, thereby putting the health of the all-volunteer armed forces at risk.

Given the fiscal pressures, at the same time that it carries out this temporary increase in personnel the U.S. military must look harder than ever for ways to economize and improve efficiency in other areas of defense. The need is most notable in its weapons modernization programs. Fortunately, the promise of high technology, especially with regard to electronics and computers, allows the United States to continue to innovate and improve its armed forces somewhat more economically than in the past. Once the current mission in Iraq ends or declines significantly in scope, U.S. ground forces can be scaled back to their present size or perhaps even a slightly smaller number, and it may become possible to hold real defense spending steady for a number of years. But not yet. And while a drastic reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq is possible starting in 2006 or 2007, planners cannot presume that it will occur. Indeed, in January 2005, a senior Army planner publicly acknowledged that the military is making plans to sustain troop strength in Iraq at current levels through 2006.

The Strategic Backdrop

U.S. armed forces will likely remain engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. They will also need to remain involved in deterrence missions in the Western Pacific, most notably in regard to the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait. The United States will wish to remain strongly engaged in European security as well, less because of threats to the region than because most of America's main security partners are located there. The strength, capabilities, and cohesion of the members of the NATO alliance therefore have important global implications for the United States.

But the United States does not know what if any major new wars it may have to wage in the coming years. It does not know whether its relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC) will continue to improve or again worsen, raising even the possibility of war over Taiwan. It does not know whether the current nuclear crisis with North Korea will be resolved peacefully. It cannot predict whether any other countries will allow their territories to be used by terrorist organizations bent on attacking the United States. It must contend with the remarkable degree of animosity toward the United States among most Muslim countries, particularly in the Arab world-which, though it predated President George W. Bush's administration, has worsened considerably in recent years. Additional military scenarios could be of immense importance as well. Nuclear-armed Pakistan could wind up in either civil conflict or war against nuclear-armed India. Iran could threaten Persian Gulf shipping or threaten Israel with the nuclear arsenal it seems bent on acquiring. Saudi Arabia's stability could be called into question.

Given such uncertainty, defense planning must be based on assumptions. The important thing is to postulate circumstances that are realistic, not implausibly pessimistic or imprudently optimistic. With this approach, even though the world and the future remain uncertain, the range of plausible national security challenges and military responses can be delimited somewhat.

It is easy for defense planners to dwell on problems-that's part of their job. But there also is a great deal that is good in today's global security environment. The United States heads a remarkable and historic system of alliances. Never before has a great power elicited such support from the world's other powers and provoked so little direct opposition. After the Bush administration's internationally unpopular decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, that conclusion may be in some jeopardy, but on balance it remains correct.

Even powers outside the Western alliance system-Russia, China, India, Indonesia-generally choose to cooperate with the United States and its allies on many security issues. They are likely to continue to do so, provided that American military power remains credible and the U.S.-led alliance system continues to uphold (however imperfectly) common values on which most countries agree. This conclusion can be jeopardized-by a United States that seems too unilateralist and too inclined to use force on multiple occasions, or by allies that seem to prefer hitching a free ride to doing their fair share to ensure international security. But what is most impressive about the Western alliance system is how strong and durable it has become. And what is most reassuring about the challenge faced by American defense planners is how little they need to worry about possible wars against any other major powers, with the significant exception of conflict with China in the Taiwan Strait. Some countries fear American military strength, and even many Americans think that U.S. military spending is excessive. But as Barry Posen convincingly argues, the United States is far from omnipotent. Past historical eras, such as those in which the European colonial powers could easily conquer distant lands, are gone forever. In today's world, the United States can be understood, in Posen's phrase, to possess impressive command of the commons-air, oceans, and space-but it has a great deal of trouble contending with many conflicts on land, particularly against irregular resistance fighters. The Iraq experience has reinforced this reality for those who perhaps had begun to think of the Vietnam (and Lebanon and Somalia) experiences as aberrations or as ancient history. Moreover, America's high sensitivity to casualties limits its inclination to use military force, and its highly open and democratic political system suggests that it need not be feared to the extent that many apparently do. Even with Iraq, while the legality of the invasion was admittedly shaky, the Bush administration acted only when it could point to Iraq's violation of more than a dozen U.N. Security Council resolutions. So U.S. power is, even in these politically contentious times, generally a force for good in the world.

The United States benefits greatly from its global military capabilities, its alliance network, and stability in the world, but maintaining such advantages costs money. The United States presently accounts for almost half of all global military spending-to be specific, 41 percent in 2003, by the estimates of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. (No specific estimate, however, can be precise given uncertainty over true military spending by China and several other countries.) But arguments for or against the current level of American military spending cannot be based on such a figure; they must consider the specific missions asked of the American armed forces.

U.S. Military Basics

U.S. troops and most elements of the military force structure-the number of divisions, brigades, and so forth-have declined about one-third since the later cold war years. Active duty personnel now number 1.4 million, plus about 1 million reservists, of whom about 150,000 to 200,000 have been activated at any given time in recent years (see tables 1-1 and 1-2). That active duty force is not particularly large-just over half the size of China's military and not much bigger than the armed forces of India, Russia, or North Korea. But the United States has a larger military presence outside its borders than does any other country-some 400,000 troops. It is also far more capable of projecting additional force beyond its own territory than any other country. And the quality of its armed forces is rivaled by few and equaled by none.

Republicans and Democrats generally agree about the broad contours of American military planning and sizing. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review reaffirmed the active duty troop level of about 1.4 million maintained during the Clinton administration and also retained most of the Clinton agenda for weapons modernization while adding new initiatives in areas such as missile defense, advanced satellites, and unmanned vehicles. After September 11, 2001, the Bush administration sought and received a great deal more budget authority than President Clinton's defense plan called for. But a Democratic president almost certainly would also have boosted defense spending after the tragic attacks, since the existing Pentagon defense plan was underfunded. Moreover, no major Democratic candidate for president in 2004 made a campaign issue out of the enormous size of the U.S. defense budget.

That the Bush administration retained most Clinton era ideas and programs is relatively unsurprising. Although whether to buy specific weapons can be debated, the military needs many new or refurbished planes, ships, and ground vehicles because much of the existing weaponry, bought largely during the Reagan administration's military buildup, is wearing out. Maintaining America's technological edge in combat may not require every weapon now in development or production, but the advantages to maintaining a resounding superiority in weaponry are evident in the rapid victories and relatively low casualties suffered by the United States in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and the Iraq invasion. The talk of cutting back on ground forces that was heard during Rumsfeld's early tenure has since stopped-at least for the foreseeable future-given the challenges posed by the Iraq stabilization mission.

The nation's classified intelligence budget is included within the Pentagon budget. Its reported level of about $40 billion makes it about 10 percent of the Department of Defense (DoD) total, and that fact helps explain why many Pentagon officials recently resisted calls for a strong national intelligence director, outside of DoD, with powerful budget authority over the military's many intelligence agencies and programs. But the debate over restructuring the intelligence community is moving so fast that the issue is best left for treatment elsewhere.

The Two-War Framework

Since the cold war ended, U.S. armed forces have been designed to be able to fight and win two full-scale regional wars at once. The Bush administration modified the requirement in 2001 so that only one of the victories needed to be immediate and overwhelming. The new force planning framework was dubbed "1-4-2-1," meaning that the American military would be designed to defend the homeland, maintain a presence and deterrent capability in four theaters, fight up to two wars at a time, and be capable of winning one of them overwhelmingly, by overthrowing the enemy government and occupying its territory.

Even as specifics are debated and modified, the United States has maintained a two-war capability of some sort for good reason. It permits the country to fight one war without letting down its guard everywhere else and thereby undercutting its deterrent capability and perhaps increasing the likelihood of a second conflict. Given the strains on the U.S. military in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan, this purported two-war capability is somewhat shaky today. The United States would have a hard time conducting another major operation abroad now and for the foreseeable future. But in extreme circumstances, it would still have options. Most Air Force and Navy assets are available to respond to possible crises, and in a true emergency, the Army and Marines would have several active duty divisions in the United States available for deployment, while the Army National Guard could supply several more. These units would not be rested, a considerable amount of their equipment would be inoperable and in the maintenance depot, and some of their ammunition stocks could be low. But they could still probably operate at anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of full effectiveness, constituting a substantial combat capability.

If any such second major war occurred, there would be little additional pool of units-that is, a rotation base-from which to sustain forces and ultimately to substitute forces for those sent to fight it. Any large war that required such a deployment while the Iraq operation remained substantial in scale would probably therefore immediately require full activation of the National Guard-and perhaps even consideration of extreme steps, such as a limited military draft. But at present, that option need not be considered and the quality of America's overall deterrent capability need not be seriously doubted.

So the two-war logic is still sound, and U.S. forces are still capable of backing it up. Nonetheless, with the Iraq invasion now over, 1-4-2-1 no longer seems quite the right framework for American force planning. In one sense, of course, it is still applicable, in that the last "1" is precisely the kind of operation that continues in Iraq today. But there is a need for greater flexibility in thinking about what the "2" might entail in the future. A major conflict with China over Taiwan, emphasizing naval and air assets, would be much different from a war on the Korean Peninsula; a conflict with Iran that focused on the Persian Gulf's waterways would be radically different from another land war against a country like Iraq. There is a temptation, therefore, to advocate a slogan such as 1-4-1-1-1, with the latter three "1s" describing a major naval-air confrontation, another large land war, and a large stabilization mission like that now under way in Iraq. The last chapter of this book explores some of the other scenarios that could fall within these categories.

Preemption Doctrine

To what extent might the Bush administration's preemption doctrine affect the two-war logic? That doctrine, enshrined in the fall 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States, is more accurately described as a policy of preventive war than of emergency preemption.


Excerpted from Defense Strategy for the Post-Saddam Era by Michael E. O'Hanlon Copyright © 2005 by Brookings Institution Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael E. O'Hanlon is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, where he holds the Sydney Stein Jr. Chair. His recent books include The Future of Arms Control (Brookings, 2005; with Michael A. Levi), Neither Star Wars nor Sanctuary (Brookings, 2004), and Crisis on the Korean Peninsula (McGraw Hill, 2003; with Mike Mochizuki).

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