March 28, 2001

March 28, 2001 | Executive Summary on National Security and Defense

BG1422es: Guidelines for Modernizing America's Armed Forces

President George W. Bush correctly points out that years of neglect and overuse have put tremendous strain on America's military equipment. Since the last comprehensive modernization of the forces nearly 20 years ago, a host of new threats to U.S. security has emerged. Additionally, the U.S. armed forces--cut by around one-third over the past decade--have been deployed more frequently than they were during the Cold War. Because of these pressures, the U.S. military must now deal with increasingly aging and obsolete equipment. The Bush Administration faces difficult choices in establishing its budget priorities for modernizing the armed forces to meet both near-term and future threats.

The debate over the modernization of the military forces is often framed around three approaches: modernizing the current generation of weapons; investing in next-generation technologies; or developing totally new and revolutionary technologies--the so-called generation-after-next weapons. However, framing the issue as one of needing to choose from among three distinct options oversimplifies a complex problem and misleads the public. Modernization will require program decisions from each of these options, based on their advantages and disadvantages.

To modernize the armed forces, the Bush Administration must first decide what it wants the U.S. armed forces to do and then build a force capable of carrying out that mission. The lack of such a cohesive defense strategy since the end of the Cold War is a key reason the forces are in decline today. Given the scarcity of resources with which to undertake urgent modernization, the Administration should clearly define its objectives for modernization. These strategic objectives should be to defend the American homeland from emerging threats, deter near-term aggression in regions of vital national interest, and maintain long-term conventional military supremacy.

Given these objectives and the limited resources with which to achieve them, the White House and top officials at the U.S. Department of Defense must apply principled guidelines to create a 21st century military force that can protect America's future interests with minimal risk to today's national security.

Guideline #1: Long-term investments must not be made at the expense of near-term requirements. A prudent modernization strategy requires a deft understanding of current and future threats to U.S. interests and America's current ability to counter them. Identifying future threats is important, but ignoring today's threats can prove deadly. Thus, priorities for modernizing the forces must be balanced. Making long-term investments should not be given a higher priority than addressing near-term requirements.

Guideline #2: Modernization efforts must focus on warfighting. Every Defense program should enhance the ability of the U.S. military to fight and win wars. Yet over the past decade, the men and women in uniform have been sent increasingly on so-called operations other than war. This use of combat soldiers in non-combat missions creates an incentive to modernize the military with weapons and capabilities that facilitate peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention rather than combat effectiveness. Making the U.S. military forces better suited for humanitarian intervention at the expense of warfighting, however, could invite aggression. Given the current fiscal constraints on the Department of Defense, the focus of modernization must be warfighting--the raison d'ĂȘtre of the U.S. armed forces.

Guideline #3: Modernization must secure a competitive advantage for the United States over its potential adversaries. Modernization must address the military's unmet needs and unmet threats and assure America's competitive advantage over potential adversaries. The failure to modernize to meet these goals over the past decade, combined with the rapid proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons technology even to Third World states, has narrowed the technological gap between the United States and the rest of the world.

Guideline #4: Modernization must balance capabilities with efficiency. Efforts to modernize the U.S. military must also achieve efficiency and cost-effectiveness. New technologies should produce a more efficient and lethal platform than current capabilities, but trading efficiency for capability would be a mistake.

Guideline #5: Modernization must respond to a technologically and strategically changing security environment. A new strategic environment is emerging as nations continue to develop more advanced systems and tactics that could target U.S. weaknesses, including access to space, vulnerability to ballistic and cruise missiles, reliance on information networks, and power projection force requirements. China, for example, has purchased Russian cruise missiles that are designed specifically to destroy U.S. ships deployed for power projection. Beijing also is pressing forward in developing space-based assets, cyber-warfare techniques, and long-range survivable nuclear missiles.

Conclusion
The U.S. armed forces must take full advantage of the emerging revolution in military affairs that is yielding advanced weaponry based on stealth, robotics, speed, precision, and information-sharing technology. But weapons incorporating these capabilities are not yet ready for deployment. In fact, many are still simply designs on paper. Regrettably, the existing force is neither prepared to defend U.S. territory nor to protect U.S. interests abroad from such emerging threats as missile attack. Furthermore, operations other than war continue to place strain on today's overly burdened and smaller forces.

A successful modernization strategy must adhere to the core missions of the U.S. military to protect and defend Americans at home and abroad and deter aggression. Following these principled guidelines will help the Administration determine a military modernization strategy that will prepare the United States for an uncertain future while helping to keep America and its interests secure today.

Jack Spencer is Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Jack Spencer Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity