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Alternative National Military Strategies for the United States

Authored by Dr. Conrad C. Crane. | December 2000

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The U.S. Army War College and the Georgetown University Center for Peace and Security Studies, along with its National Security Studies Program, cosponsored a conference in Washington, DC on September 21, 2000, to examine the issues that will shape future American defense policy. Discussion panels were structured to identify the questions, issues, and schisms likely to shape the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review. Among the 160 attendees registered for the conference were representatives from the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) offices for all the Services and the Joint Staff, as well as defense experts from other government agencies, private industry, and academia.

The conference was divided into four panels. The first session discussed what the focus should be for U.S. defense planners for the next 10 to 20 years. The second looked at the issues involved in transforming the military and Department of Defense (DoD) for that future. The third panel debated how the near-term U.S. defense budget span>should be allocated for force structure, manpower, and modernization. The last analyzed what the next National Military Strategy should be. This report summarizes the presentations of the main speakers and highlights the myriad issues they illuminated about formulating a future American national security strategy.


Concerning the focus of future planning, there appeared to be general agreement at the conference that the possibility of two MTWs has decreased, that there will be more small scale contingencies in the future, and that the United States will retain its advantage in technology and emphasis on minimal casualties for quite a while. There was much less consensus on the next step. Some supported retaining the ability to fight two MTWs despite their reduced probability of occurrence, simply because that represents the most dangerous threat or would cause the worst consequences. Others argued for a restructuring to meet more likely missions, or advocated reducing forces because there is no viable threat to U.S. interests.

Similarly, almost all attendees concurred that there is a need for the American military to change and adapt, and many supported a broad transformation. There was also agreement that even with modest budget increases, continuing fiscal constraints will demand hard choices to establish priorities for defense spending. The closeness of the recent election and precarious balance in Congress portend that there will be no major increases in defense spending during the next administration. Attendees also generally believed the future military strategy will probably remain some form of the current “shape, respond, prepare” construct. But opinions varied widely as to the direction and pace transformation should take, exactly how the defense budget should be spent, and what the proper emphasis for each of the three elements of the new security strategy should be.

While the conference did not achieve anything near consensus on the future course of American military strategy, it did effectively highlight key issues that must be resolved to keep it on the right path. General Zinni’s two questions frame important elements of the debate, looking at threats and military capabilities in a very uncertain future. Concerning “Ready for what?” the process of balancing ends, ways, and means in the next decade will be complex and confrontational, involving sincere proponents of a wide range of views. Once decisionmakers have determined the goals they want military forces to accomplish, they must be willing to commit the resources to fund the required capabilities and structure, or else to set global priorities that will prevent overcommitment. Economizing alone will not be enough. Hard choices may have to be made between a focus on shaping or responding, between major wars or peacekeeping, and between a commitment to new technology or maintaining current equipment. As for “What needs to change?” the services face the challenge of achieving meaningful transformation that truly increases capabilities for future missions without raising risk, is within resource constraints, and invests in those technologies that offer the most potential for revolutionary change. In this quest for a new strategy, the costs of failure in either the political or military arena could be catastrophic, resulting in unacceptable risk to the nation and its interests, and the loss of an opportunity to create a “New World Order” reflecting liberal-democratic ideals.