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The Future Roles of U.S. Military Power and Their Implications

Authored by Dr. William T. Johnsen. | April 1997

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The massive geo-political shifts of the last decade have generated considerable discussion over future U.S. national defense policy and strategy. But this debate has not yielded consensus on key issues, such as the degree of U.S. involvement in global affairs or the policies and strategy that will guide U.S. efforts. This vacuum has complicated decisions concerning the role of the U.S. military as an instrument of national power.

Difficulties in outlining the future roles of U.S. military power have been exacerbated because much of the recent dialogue over U.S. defense policy has focused on how large an armed force the United States can afford given anticipated budget constraints.1 Increasingly, these debates center on whether the United States can continue to finance the military capabilities necessary to fight and win in two nearly simultaneous Major Theaters of War (MTWs) or whether it should adopt a less demanding criterion that conforms to anticipated funding levels.2

While such debates may be helpful in sizing and shaping forces from a "warfighting" perspective, they beg the larger strategic question: what does the country want its military to do? Specifically, what are to be the future roles of military power in support of U.S. national security policy? Only after this question has been answered can planners logically derive the missions and tasks that the U.S. Armed Forces may be called upon to perform.

Examining the larger issue of the future roles of U.S. military power first requires establishing the appropriate context. To this end, this monograph first briefly examines the probable U.S. role in the emerging international security environment. With that context established, the report addresses the future roles of U.S. military power and explores the potential implications at the national strategy and national military strategy level, and for the Army. The study closes with conclusions.


The reality is that the U.S. cannot walk away or abdicate [from international issues]: its choices matter too much. The U.S. needs to learn to think-- without high-minded illusions, more clearly and further ahead in the game about how to use its power to advance its interests and values in a realistic way.127

The key question for the future, as it has always been in the past, revolves around how the United States effectively can wield that clout. Despite the dramatic changes in the international security environment, military power will continue to play a central role. But the United States can apply military power in new and different ways to shape the international security environment using methods that not only protect, but importantly, promote U.S. national interests. Greater reliance on the strategic concept of preventive defense is a profitable avenue to pursue.

A number of issues will have to be addressed to effect this expanded concept. First, consensus must be generated. Congress and the American public must be willing to underwrite the new military role in future policy. This requires a national debate on what the appropriate role of military power in U.S. security policy should be to forge a national consensus on the issue. Such a debate will require greater clarity of strategic thought, and improved cooperation among the President, Congress, the military, and the remaining elements of the Executive Branch. This may be especially true concerning operations at the lower end of the conflict spectrum, where the interplay of political-military activities falls more heavily on the political side.

Increased reliance on preventive defense also will necessitate increased and more adept coordination within the Executive Branch--particularly in the interagency process, and improved collaboration with international organizations, and closer involvement with NGOs and PVOs. This may also require greater cooperative efforts between civil and military leaders within the DoD across the full range of national planning and execution: development of strategic ends, to contingency planning, to operational campaign planning.

The extent of cooperation may approach a degree rarely seen outside war time. As a result, military leaders and civil counterparts--in and out of government--must begin shaping cooperative relationships now so that they will be prepared to cooperate in the future. This means we must immediately stop thinking in a compartmentalized fashion, and begin forging the intellectual foundations that will contribute to future effectiveness.

Perhaps the most significant change that will occur in defining the future role of U.S. military power will be the realization that the function of the U.S. Armed Forces is not solely to "fight and win America's wars." This construct is too narrow for the expected conditions of the 21st century, and will unnecessarily constrain U.S. policymakers. Instead, the role of military power must shift to the more general concept of promoting and protecting U.S. national interests.128 Granted, fighting and winning the nation's wars will remain the paramount responsibility of the U.S. Armed Forces, but the United States can ill afford to sit back and "wait for the big one" while it dies a bureaucratic death by a thousand budget cuts. Thus, preventive defense must be added to and carefully balanced among the existing roles of deterrence, compellence, reassurance, and support to the nation.

This new, or perhaps less familiar role, will place greater demands on the military. Not the least of these requirements will be increased numbers of commitments that will occur more routinely, often on little or no notice, and that frequently will be of extended duration. While the short-term pain for the military--especially the Army--could be sharp, the long-term gain for the nation could be significant.


1.Largely dictated by rising demands of domestic entitlement programs and a drive for a balanced budget. Paul Wolfowitz notes this point in his remarks to the CSBA Conference on "Defense Innovation: Meeting the Challenges of the Next Century," April 24, 1996, pp. 1ff.

2.For samples of the various positions, see Jeff Erlich and Philip Finnegan, "Senators Envision Renewed Military Strategy," Defense News, June 24-30, 1996, p. 1; Sheila Foote, "Top Administration Official Says Two-War Strategy Should Stay," Defense Daily, October 18, 1996, pp. 101-102; Senator John McCain, "Ready Tomorrow: Defending American Interests in the 21st Century," March 1996; Senator Charles S. Robb, "Be Ready for Two Desert Storms," The Washington Post, January 15, 1997, p. 19; Lawrence J. Korb, "More Than Ready for Two Desert Storms," The Washington Post, January 29, 1997, p. 21; Bill Gertz, "General Predicts High Priority for U.S. Peacekeeping," The Washington Times, January 8, 1997, p. 4; and Sean D. Naylor, "Two Wars, Two Opinions," Army Times, January 20, 1997, p. 3. For a defense of the Two MRC force sizing criteria, see Colonel M. Thomas Davis, "2 MRC or Not 2 MRC," Armed Forces Journal International, January 1997, pp. 46-47.

127"Bad Choices for Bosnia," The Wall Street Journal, December 12, 1995, p. 20.

128. Remarkably, this approach conforms to the tasks laid out in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States to "provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare. . . ." Emphasis added.