Not-quite-accurate common assumption about military’s main purpose

Lots of people, even those who should know better, often misconstrue the fundamental purpose of the U.S. military.

Lots of people, even those who should know better, often misconstrue the fundamental purpose of the U.S. military. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin‘s guest has written a provocative essay on the subject of deterrence, at a time when not much in the world seems deterred. Melanie W. Sisson is a fellow in the Foreign Policy program’s Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin  Lots of people, even those who should know better, often misconstrue the fundamental purpose of the U.S. military. Our next guest has written a provocative essay on the subject of deterrence, at a time when not much in the world seems deterred. Melanie Sisson is a fellow in the Brookings Foreign Policy Program, and she joins me now in studio. Ms. Sisson, good to have you with us.

Melanie Sisson  Thanks very much. Great to be here.

Tom Temin  And you have written, the very first paragraph of your essay is probably a surprise to many, as you say, the mission of the United States Department of Defense is not to fight and win the nation’s wars. And I can’t tell you how many star officers I’ve heard say that it is instead, quote, to provide the military forces needed to deter war and ensure our nation’s security. Why is that important nowadays, if everyone already knew that or should have?

Melanie Sisson  Well, I think first I’m not sure everybody does know that. And it requires a shift in thinking in terms of what we rely on the military for and why. The United States has had this enormous military advantage now, for decades, the best fighting force in the entire world, no question about that. But of course, we don’t want to have to use it that way and we certainly don’t want to have to use it to the extent that we did in earlier generations. D-Day, for example, that reminds us how terrible these large, in sort of defense circles would call these high end wars, can be. And so the Department of Defense very rightly, has fashioned its primary objective as pursuing, promoting, defending U.S. national security interests without having to fight that kind of battle again.

Tom Temin  Sure. And we had the great Reagan buildup, just to use a piece of shorthand that people use, and lots of technologies to give a technical advantage were developed at those times, and we’re still living off that. I guess, before we get into what deterrence is going to look like in the future, let’s presume that some of the facts going on now. The shipbuilding has slowed so that the replacement rate is not there, and so many ships are in dry dock at a given point. The Air Force says it wants to retire 1,000 planes in the next few years, but it’s not going to buy 1,000 more, and so on and so on. And the Army can’t fill its ranks, even as they are at 475,000 active duty with recruitment. Are we a deterrent at this point? Yeah, there’s autonomy. There is all this robotic, masked clouds of drones and so forth, and the military knows about it, and AI, and they’re trying to pursue it. By the way, we’re speaking with Melanie Sisson. She’s a fellow in the Brookings Foreign Policy Program and has written an illuminating article about the idea of deterrence. And let’s take an example. We would like to deter China from taking over Taiwan. And that gets into all kinds of foreign policy nuance because we acknowledge it’s, you know, and so and so and nobody liked Chiang Kai Shek, and etc. This goes back a long time, however strict logically, we’re dead without Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation. I mean, so much of the economy in the military relies on that, more the economy. How do you deter, when that would mean making China say we don’t dare touch Taiwan, because they’ll squash us in five minutes? That would be deterrence. But that’s not the case.

Melanie Sisson  So, you did two really excellent things here. The first is you reminded me I didn’t entirely answer your first question. And then second is to highlight some of these really other important dynamics in the current environment. So you had previously asked about, you know, why ought we be thinking about how the Department of Defense deters today? And the short answer is because the environment we’re now living in requires us to acknowledge that there are other larger states than there have been for the last 30 years whose interests diverge with ours, and that they are becoming more assertive, and in Russia’s case, certainly aggressive in pursuing those interests, even and especially where they conflict with the interests of the United States. And so we don’t have a choice but to start thinking about the role of the U.S. military, in deterring those actors from degrading, eroding or countering our pursuit of our own goals. So that’s one element. The second is then you introduced, what it takes to deter. When you ask about the composition of our forces, the number of service members that we have available, those who might be interested in being available in the future. All of these are very important factors when we think about what kind of pressure or perception we can convey on to or to those sorts of adversaries. So my belief when I look at the U.S. military is that we remain militarily enormously strong, enormously capable, and largely equipped to deter in the ways that we need. That said, there is no question that to protect our interests into the future, and even to a certain extent increasingly in the current moment, we’re going to have to reassess and reevaluate the material and equipment and the people that we have available to do that. There are new and emerging technologies that are very important. And we need to think carefully about how to integrate them into what we have today to well position us into the future.  So first, let’s do exactly as you started and acknowledge just how much nuance there is when it comes to the Taiwan question and just how long that nuance has been a factor in U.S. foreign policy. So not to discount that at all. The second part I would highlight here is that you’re right, the way you described it as being able to squash China, if they were to try, is certainly one convincing form of deterrence. Unfortunately, I don’t think that form is available to us anymore. And I don’t think it will be in the future, either. And so that demands that we think about deterrence in a different way. Now, I tend to look at the dynamics over the Taiwan Strait, and not be as worried as some in the community are about the state of deterrence. I think, in part for the reason you described about Taiwan’s role in the semiconductor industry, the economic implications of the sheer volume of goods that transit through and around the Taiwan Strait, the economic disincentive for violence in that area is already quite high. So it is not the case that we only need to rely on military deterrence in order to dissuade any actor from behaving in a particular way. And in this case, to dissuade Beijing from moving with force against Taiwan, we can use all these other tools of national influence, and some of them that are created by the conditions, right? So the globalized economy and the role of Taiwan in that economy is one such condition.

Tom Temin  Yeah, that’s a big difference nowadays versus the Cold War, because even though the Soviet Union was gigantic, and so on, and I mean, I lived through those years, but we didn’t buy much from them. We didn’t have much economic dependence on them, because everything the Soviet Union made was junk, except for the caviar, China is different. We are completely integrated with their economy. And, you know, no more iPhones and so on. Maybe that’s shifting a little bit. But that seems to be, therefore, acting to deter both China and us because of the economics as much as the military differential.

Melanie Sisson  Absolutely. Look, I think it’s really important to use history as we think about contemporary problems. But the trick is to use history appropriately, and to use it as well as we can. So we don’t want to over draw comparisons between periods. And you may have heard, I’m sure you have, the comparison of oh, you know, we’re in a new cold war with China. Right. And that resonates for us, we get that as Americans, about what a Cold War looks like, because we did it for a long time. And it ended in a way that was very positive for us, right? So I understand the desire to sort of draw that parallel, just to say that we should be cautious about it, for some of the reasons that you rightly identify, that there are some things that may be similar. They’re not the same. And there are many things that are different, and the extent of our economic integration, the extent of China’s global economic integration, those are enormous differences from prior periods. We also need to acknowledge that, you know, there are other differences in terms of China’s domestic politics are not the same as Soviet politics. Chinese leaders are not the same as Soviet leaders. And you can say, you know, similarly here in the United States, history moves on, right?

Tom Temin  Sure. And let’s take a look into the near future. One of two people that nobody wants is going to be the next president. 50% don’t want this one and they’re not happy with what they do have. And 50% don’t want that one and they’re not happy with what they’ve got. So I’ll go that far in politics, and we don’t pick sides around here. What do you anticipate will be the differences in approach, and therefore military policy, acquisition policy and budgeting policy between the Trump side and the Biden side?

Melanie Sisson  So I’ll start with the one that I think is answerable. And that is what would I expect if there is a second Biden administration. And what I would expect is pretty much what we’ve seen thus far. I think that even if I have my own sort of differences with the administration, in terms of some of the ways in which it is pursuing both its competition with China, and its relationship with Taiwan, in terms of, you know, pursuing peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, they nonetheless, I acknowledge, have been quite consistent in their approach, and I would not expect that to change. I would expect them to continue to be firm that the U.S. interest is in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Tom Temin  And they have gone along with some decent budget increases.

Melanie Sisson  That’s exactly right.

Tom Temin  Costs go up even if you don’t acquire any more weapons because of the cost of a volunteer force.

Melanie Sisson  That’s exactly right. So there’s defense budget increases. There’s increasing collaboration and communication on Taiwan about their own defense investments. There’s a lot of work, as you mentioned before, being done in the Pentagon about new and emerging technologies that are specifically applicable to the Taiwan Strait and its surrounding waters. So I would expect more of the same on that. I’m going to be very disappointing when it comes to saying anything about the possibility of a Trump administration, because I think it’s entirely unpredictable. I never make predictions about the future, like someone else that we know has always said. But in this case, I think it’s doubly dangerous to try to make predictions. Trump is mercurial. We don’t know who will be in his administration, staffing which roles. And so to me, the picture is just a big shoulder shrug and hand raise until we have more actual information.

Tom Temin  Melanie Sisson is a fellow in the Brookings Foreign Policy Program. Thanks so much for joining me.

Melanie Sisson  This has been great. Thanks so much for having me.

Tom Temin  We’ll post this interview along with a link to her article at Subscribe to the Federal Drive wherever you get your podcasts.

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