What will it be for DoD: Force structure or soft power?

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The Biden administration’s military strategy appears to support a reduction in forces while relying more on soft-power tools. That is the gist of the most recent and detailed analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. For highlights about what upcoming budget battles are all about, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with CSIS senior adviser Mark Cancian.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mark, good to have you back.

Mark Cancian: Thanks for having me on the show.

Tom Temin: And you preface this report with a phrase, staring into the abyss. That does not sound like a good prospect for the military.

Mark Cancian: I say that force reduction is staring into the abyss because many strategists would cut forces in order to save money that could be invested in new and expensive capabilities to counter China. They’ve termed this strategy divest to invest, and it appears in a small way in the FY 2022 budget The Navy’s retiring about 10 ships early, the Air Force wants to retire 201 aircraft. There’s also some thought that the administration may move money into areas that are in a broader definition of national security, like global health or climate change.

Tom Temin: Well, of course, yes, there are probably some old platforms that are expensive to maintain, and they’d become uneconomic at some point. But if we retire 200 planes and retire all these ships, China is building planes and building ships by great numbers. They’re also building nuclear warheads, according to analysis that have been widely published. So how does that counter China if all we’re doing is retiring, what would the United States best invest in? And is that addressed in the budget?

Mark Cancian: Well, there’s no question that China is the pacing threat facing the United States, it’s built a very large and sophisticated military, as you point out. The risk and making the forces smaller, particularly to save money, to invest in advanced capabilities is the rest of the world. If you build a force that’s focused on the western Pacific and China, but treat those forces, you can have a hard time dealing with the Russians in Europe, the North Koreans, the Iranians in the Middle East. So it builds in a lot of risk. There’s also the day to day deployments that the United States as a global superpower has been doing for 70 years, pulling back on those would be difficult, our allies have come to depend on them. If the United States, isn’t there, no number of statements about our engagement will overlook the fact that the forces have been pulled back. Plus the Biden administration has made the argument that it wants to engage with allies and partners, wants to rebuild those relationships that were frayed under the Trump administration. And the United States is going to reassert global leadership, it’s hard to do that if you’re pulling your forces back from the United States or cutting them out of the structure, because you want to focus on China.

Tom Temin: Because in the Trump administration, the allies were encouraged to increase their own defense budgets, their own wartime budgets, which they did. And so does that threaten to come unbalanced if we are cutting back, Germany, France, those nations could say, well, why should we keep investing if the United States is now retreating?

Mark Cancian: And that’s the issue with US pulling back. Our European allies, for example, are very wealthy, they could build forces on their own to face a Russia. The question is, one, whether they would do it, they have increased their spending recently, but their forces are still relatively weak. The Germans, for example, still only spend about 1.4% of their GDP on defense. Their forces are so unready people have called their military mobilization military. If the ISIS pulls back, will the Europeans just make some accommodation with the Russians and let the Eastern Europeans fend for themselves? Will they be able to exert the kind of collective defense that they’ve done in the past under US leadership?

Tom Temin: And you’ve looked at the early statements of doctrine from the administration, I guess the Biden administration hasn’t fully built out its defense strategy, but it seems to indicate that, as you point out, China is the driving force here. But what would that really look like? Because it’s unlikely that we’re going to go to war directly with China, it might be more of a proxy situation, say if they invade Taiwan, out and out, well, what would we do? We’d be fighting with them over Taiwan, that’s not quite exactly attacking the Chinese mainland, for example, to make an absurd example. Same thing with Russia. It could be over the Ukraine, which they seem to be massing next to. So what can you discern from these early policy statements and from the budget that our response might actually be to that? Because we haven’t heard much from the administration itself, except, yeah, we would find that unacceptable.

Mark Cancian: Yep. People are trying to read the tea leaves here and the Biden administration will publish its strategic documents, probably in January and February, there’ll be a national security strategy followed by a national defense strategy, which we’ll look at the Department of Defense more specifically, in the two examples you give, there’s already been a lot of speculation, a lot of discussion. Yes, it’s made a pretty clear commitment to Taiwan, some people want to make it even clearer. Right now there’s some what they call strategic ambiguity. But I think there’s no question United States has committed itself to maintaining the independence of Taiwan. Ukraine is a little different because it’s not a member of NATO. We have supported Ukraine with weapons and training, we’ve provided even offensive weapons. But if the Russians were to invade Ukraine, it’s not at all clear the United States and NATO would respond directly with military force it certainly respond diplomatically, and with security assistance, like weapons.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Mark Cancian, a senior advisor to the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And with respect to the investment side of the disinvestment elsewhere, what are we seeing actually happening here? The rail gun project was cancelled last year by the Navy, and yet all these hypersonics and different types of technologies that are being displayed by China and Russia, a new fighter Russia has that it says will counter the F-35, both militarily and in terms of international sales, which matters also. So what do you expect the investments to be in for that technological offset that’s been discussed for so many years now?

Mark Cancian: The services are looking at a variety of advanced technologies, most of them are not quite ready for procurement. They’re in the development cycle. So what you’re seeing in the near term, it’s procurement of existing systems, although the most modernized versions of those systems, long range precision strike, of course, is a major focus. There are a number of long range missile programs, for example, in the Air Force and the Army, and they’re sort of squabbling about who’s in charge of those. The Navy is building a lot of submarines, for example, because of their stealthy characteristics. You’re also seeing investments in unmanned systems, although those have been slow. The Navy has been very slow to adopt unmanned aerial vehicles, it’s put a few surface and underwater systems out there, people expect those to grow, but it’s been slow. The Air Force also has a fairly large unmanned aerial system community, but the size of that has plateaued. And in fact, in the 22 budget, the Air Force doesn’t buy any unmanned systems, so people expect those to expand, but right now, they’re sort of waiting for the next generation.

Tom Temin: And where does all of this investment in artificial intelligence actually get applied? Because you would think unmanned systems would be the natural place there.

Mark Cancian: There’s been a lot of interest in artificial intelligence and thoughts that it could have impact across the board in decision making in systems. So far, you’re seeing just maybe the leading edge of that. So it’s hard to say how it’s really going to have a long term effect with unmanned systems. Of course, you could put artificial intelligence in there so that they can operate autonomously, but a nervousness about taking humans out of the loop there. And we’re not quite there yet, both for strategic reasons, in other words, keeping a human in the loop. And for technological reasons, because they aren’t quite advanced enough.

Tom Temin: And one of the big issues for the military on the cost side is the cost of the force itself. Regardless of whether the Army grows or shrinks, or the Air Force grows or shrinks, you’ve got lots of people that have to be taken care of for life in the volunteer system. And is there anything in the upcoming budgetary documents or in this preview of the doctrine that says they have a strategy for dealing with rising health care costs, pension costs, salary costs that just show no sign of ending, as Bob Gates said, or eating up the military?

Mark Cancian: Well, let me give you sort of three answers there. The first one is that there’s no question that military personnel are very expensive. CSIS has a report that came out documenting that, for that reason, there’s a lot of sentiment to cut the size of the Army because the Army is so personnel intensive. The Army in particular is looking into the abyss and has been working energetically to make the strategic argument about why the nation needs a large Army. I expect that there’ll be some management reform package that goes with the strategy of the Trump administration had that whether this will really have much of effect, it’s hard to say. The Trump administration touted theirs, but in the end only did very modest things, in part because there’s so much pushback from the retired community and the association side, changes in personnel benefits. Big question is the Congress and what they’ll fund for defense. The Biden administration came in with a budget that was level and constant dollar terms. And that was consistent with what the Trump administration has been planning. Congress has added $24 billion, at least three of the four committees. And if that continues, that will take a lot of the edge off of these trade offs will allow DoD to maintain most of its force structure without the really deep and difficult trade offs that we’ve been discussing.

Tom Temin: And of course, if there’s a full year continuing resolution, which it looks like is going to happen, then all these questions are delayed yet another year, presuming they can get budget agreement on the Hill and with the White House next year at this time.

Mark Cancian: I’m more optimistic, there’s never been a full year continuing resolution. And I expect that they’ll come to some resolution, probably take a couple of months, there’ll be a lot of screaming and yelling. But in the end, they’ll make an agreement about the FY 2022 budget, which is the fiscal year we’ve actually started. And then the strategies will come out in January and February, and that will indicate in the major ways where the administration is going.

Tom Temin: So hold on to your seats in the meantime.

Mark Cancian: Fortunately actually, national security has been probably the least partisan issue in Congress. Congress has been able to pass for example, the Authorization Act for almost 50 years. It’s the one piece of legislation that just about everybody in Congress agrees needs to be done. So if there’s an area where Congress could come together in a bipartisan way, this is it.

Tom Temin: Mark Cancian is senior adviser to the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks so much for joining me.

Mark Cancian: Thanks for having me on the show.

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