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Toward a Risk Management Defense Strategy

Authored by Mr. Nathan P. Freier. | August 2009

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Current fiscal and operational realities no doubt constrain the defense decision space. It is realistic to view the coming era as one of general defense and national security evolution, complemented by some targeted revolution within the Department of Defense (DoD). Toward that end, the current Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR 10) must rationalize competing visions about the certainty of future unconventional threats and lingering uncertainty about evolving traditional challenges. Doing so requires adoption of a new risk management defense strategy.

Both the President and the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) recognize the need for a risk management approach in future DoD strategy, planning, and capabilities development. The President, the new national security team, and the SecDef also recognize that the likeliest and most dangerous future security challenges will be unconventional. A contemporary risk management defense strategy should adhere to and be judged against eight principles. These help inject realism, rigor, and strategic precision into future DoD plans and programs. The eight principles are:

  • Integration of DoD into a whole-of government approach for avoiding or preventing the most dangerous future preventing the most dangerous conflicts in the first place. A more deliberate and synchronized whole-of-government approach to traditional war prevention, for example, will relieve some of the pressure on DoD to maintain an excessive traditional hedge. As for dangerous unconventional challenges or conflicts, it is incumbent on the U.S. Government (USG) to use "smart power" around the world now to prevent nonmilitary, but still war-like, competition, as well as violent dissolution of a large and important state.
  • Optimization for persistent management of violent unconventional threats. Among the least preventable future defense-relevant challenges are failures of governance whose second- and third-order impacts threaten U.S. interests unconventionally. DoD should seize the opportunity afforded by a wider USG focus on preventing dangerous but less likely conflicts, optimizing strategy and key defense capabilities for persistent management of chronic unconventional hazards.

    This requires a new "division of labor" for much of the joint force. General purpose land forces will need to optimize for the armed stabilization of crippled states. Direct action special operating forces will need to continue honing their capabilities for deep penetration of un-, under-, or irresponsibly governed territory to kill or apprehend terrorists and criminals, disrupt effective sanctuary, secure or disable weapons of mass destruction, and support general purpose land forces prosecuting more resource-intensive stabilization and counterinsurgency. Air and naval forces will support land-centric irregular warfare missions but will likely lean toward optimizing for more conventional warfighting missions. In doing so, they cannot err on the side of "excessive conventional overmatch," and they must continue to demonstrate broad utility for both conventional and unconventional conflict environments.
  • Acknowledgement of a defense-relevant, unconventional world beyond the War on Terror (WoT). Current trends threaten over-optimization of defense strategy and capabilities for operations in the Middle East from a regional perspective, and counterterrorism and classical counterinsurgency from a functional one. Both of these are important but also insufficient by themselves for DoD's adjustment to a new more unconventional operating environment. To use a contemporary financial analogy, the United States and its interests are threatened unconventionally worldwide by a range of "systemic risks." These can manifest by hostile design or in the absence of design. Any, under the right circumstances, threaten to fatally undermine the security of important interests in ways that would require substantial U.S. military involvement. Points of unconventional, defense-relevant systemic risk include a competitors recourse to "war without warfighting," political extremism, toxic anti-American populism, nuclear proliferation, and expanding political and economic vulnerability.

    It would be prudent for senior defense officials to recognize that waves of unrelated unconventional threats will combine with a smoldering WoT with Islamic extremists .Together these will remain persistent DoD burdens. This wider set of unconventional challenges will include well-defined threats from state and nonstate opponents free-riding on adverse contextual conditions and less containable threats from contextual conditions themselves. Combined, these will see DoD less employing its resources to underwrite a vulnerable but functioning order and more-- under the most demanding circumstances-- leading wider USG responses to the consequential absence of order all together.
  • Recalibration of contingency plans for pursuit of limited strategic and operational objectives. Adoption of a risk management defense strategy requires that future military (and whole-of-government) campaigns pursue more realistic and limited strategic and operational aims. Appetite suppression and strategic discipline should inform future DoD contingency planning. U.S. actions in traditional conflicts should trend in the direction of coercive or punitive joint campaigns focused on a circumspect set of limited outcomes. These might include satisfactory adjustment of an offending regime's bad behavior, neutralization or destruction of destabilizing military capabilities, and restoration of the status quo ante bellum. In large-scale contingencies under less conventional conditions, strategic and operational objectives should be similarly limited--often the minimum essential and manageable stabilization of an irregular conflict environment.
  • Pursuit of institutional change conforming to the "art of the possible and necessary" versus the "desirable and ideal." Today, the prioritized application of limited defense resources is more important than ever. The new administration has an expansive list of defense priorities. Under a risk management defense strategy, it might be prudent to limit, curtail, or delay some of these after a thorough review of their broad utility. The United States is increasingly threatened unconventionally. Key sources of unconventional threat include terrorism, insurgency, and civil violence; higher-tech "global guerrilla" warfare; proxy "irregular" war and sophisticated "hybrid" war; the democratization of nuclear capabilities; and niche exploitation of the global commons by competitors--particularly space and cyber-space. These areas demand continuing institutional defense revolution. Deliberate improvement in traditional warfighting capabilities is important. However, it is not nearly as important as "precision guided" institutional revolutions in irregular warfare and stabilization, nuclear nonproliferation, consequence management and civil support, space, and cyber security.
  • Recognition that prevention and response are zero sum propositions. In a policy environment marked by declining defense resources, the balance between investment in prevention and investment in effective crisis response is particularly delicate. It is likely that resources committed to building exclusive capacity for one amounts to a net loss in capabilities for the other.

    A more preventive, indirect "advisory" approach to managing future conflict is among the most cost effective ways to secure common interests with partners. However, as a tool for prudent risk management, embedding advisory capacity in existing formations might be the wiser approach. In making forthcoming strategic choices about force structure and missioning, senior defense decisionmakers will have to carefully evaluate the cost-benefit relationship between exclusively missioning military forces for conflict prevention and the impact of doing so on broad capabilities for crisis response.
  • Incorporation of unthinkable but still plausible "strategic shocks" in future defense planning. Defense senior leaders must account for the surprise onset of the most plausible and hazardous unconventional contingencies that would, without meaningful defense contributions, defy effective resolution. Some of these potential "strategic shocks" merit preliminary academic exploration. Some should be the object of prudent defense hedging, and others must increasingly become the targets of deliberate and detailed contingency planning. When combined, these efforts help underwrite the efficacy of key defense strategy and resource decisions and guarantee the relevance and resilience of DoD against the broadest range of defense-relevant challenges.

    Net and risk assessment of and speculative contingency planning for specific "strategic shocks" are low-cost down payments on prudent hedging and risk mitigation. Planning for defense-relevant shocks involves marrying plausibility and extreme hazard with defense relevance. Contingency events that are more plausible, hazardous, and irresolvable without material defense contributions merit serious consideration.
  • Integration of holistic homeland security (HLS) demands in strategy, planning, and capabilities development. One central point of failure of a risk management defense strategy would be continuing the genetic under-appreciation by DoD of its inherent responsibilities for supporting civil authorities at home under extraordinary circumstances. For DoD, support to civil authorities in the event of a crippling domestic catastrophe is perhaps its most underappreciated unconventional challenge. Regardless of the cultural predisposition within DoD to focus on exigent foreign security challenges, DoD must account for the most compelling domestic emergencies first in its future resource allocation and capabilities planning.

    To date, DoD has pared its homeland defense and HLS responsibilities in ways that undermine its ability to respond effectively to domestic emergencies. Reversing this trend requires that DoD identify and resource specialized homeland security capabilities and ensure consistent access to the minimum essential number of general purpose forces necessary to respond to the likeliest domestic emergencies. Both are critical risk management considerations for DoD.

Adhering to and judging future choices according to these eight principles will help senior defense and military leaders balance risk. They are consistent with the new administration's vision, as well as the priorities articulated by the SecDef. Adopting them will require some cultural adjustment and compromise. Employing principles like these can result in a risk management defense strategy that contributes decisively to securing core interests. They also materially reduce the likelihood of a perpetual "strategy-resource mismatch."