Thinking About Defense in the Biden Administration

Every New Administration Relooks the Defense Posture. This is Not Easy


What a New Administration Needs to Do, Up Front

Any new administration, but especially this one, post Trump, need to relook everything. It is all important and it is all seems time sensitive. But arguably, none is more complex, expensive, or high risk than the defense posture.

A long history and recent events both reinforce that dilemma. Much of what any administration has to work with is legacy, with long lead times and extensive logistics tails. New threats are constantly arising, as are potential new solutions. Assessing the intelligence, balancing risks and costs, trying to measure timelines, allies, and so much more makes this a tough nut to crack in the best of circumstances. And today is not a best circumstances profile.

Guess wrong and defeat in battle awaits you, and/or incredible amounts of resources are wasted. Guess right and security provides room for so much else to do well. What could possibly go wrong?

Which War?

Much of the US military exists to fight conventional wars. There is a chorus, as there often is at times like this, calling out for a whole new approach to meet the new threats. They are right – and they are wrong.

It is true that a whole host of new threats is at our door. Cyber security – more precisely, its absence –  keeps me awake at night. The list of our vulnerabilities in this area is staggeringly long. Our ability to defend and retaliate is not where it should be. Environmental trouble, future viruses (natural and manmade), terrorism in all its variants, all are evolving risks. We could work this list all day.

But guess what? The “old” threats have not gone away. Think Russia would never again attack to toward the West? I don’t share that confidence. If, in the wake of its crackdown on Hong Kong, China decided to attack Taiwan, we are talking missiles, aircraft, naval forces – not just cyber-warfare. There are hundreds of scenarios in which we come to blows somewhere in the world.

When that happens, history comes to life again. Soldiers will occupy ground and defeat an enemy to settle the matter. A country unable to mount the necessary physical forces will lose. It’s not complicated. Real armed forces are a continuing necessity Come up short here and loose big. There is nothing like a few hundred tanks coming your way to focus the mind on battlefield capabilities.

Are We Stuck with No Third Way?

Fortunately, no. First, new strategic thinking and new technologies are coming online seemingly everywhere to shape new defensive and offensive capabilities. This is especially in the cyber domain, artificial intelligence, energy/transport and medical capabilities. We shall see if the Biden team is clever enough to leverage and support these paths. I think the odds are not bad.

The real challenge is in blending the old with the new. We need long range fire power, military aircraft, and the ability to apply force in a physical place with speed and precision. But current systems take over a decade to develop and produce. The end result can be outdated the day it arrives. It can be too expensive and unreliable in its complexity. The F-35 is the poster child of such outcomes.

Moving Forward

So, by all means, develop new solutions for new threats. But also apply new options to other threats that still exist. Adapt, don’t neglect. A case in point: I flew attack helicopters. Loved the mission. Would have done it for free if they had asked.

But at this point in history, for example, I am asking why we are spending anymore for manned military aircraft. Drones and AI are about ready to assume the mission fully, with human oversight at selected inputs. Eliminate the pilot, and the aircraft parameters are completely different in so many positive ways.

Similarly, an aircraft carrier task force is one of the most powerful forces on earth. It is also stunningly expensive and increasingly vulnerable as one really big target. We need the ability to project power. Is the current model the best we can do? I think not.

And So It Goes

We need to be able to do more  than one thing at a time on a strategic scale. Develop new solutions for new threats, before they put us any more at risk. Develop capabilities that would cause any enemy, traditional or new domain to pause before taking us on. Find new solutions to deliver more traditional capabilities. Do it faster, better, cheaper.

We need to do it all, not either/or. We always preach against the risk of preparing “to fight the last war,” as well we should. But we also need to realize that just because you have not seen a major land or sea war in your time as an adult does not mean they are gone forever. Somewhere between massive waste and setting up for defeat is the path we need to choose. Bet wrong and we bet the farm. High stakes, this defense business.

It’s a never-ending struggle for security, flexibility, and cost control. If we don’t have security and international power, everything else is at risk. But every dollar that goes into this is a dollar that does not go into other critical needs. Anyone who tells you this is simple, and we just need to make some choices is insulting your intelligence. Insist on better.

     Bill Clontz

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