Center for American Progress

Restoring American Military Power: Toward a New Progressive Defense Strategy for America

Restoring American Military Power: Toward a New Progressive Defense Strategy for America

Lawrence Korb and Max Bergmann outline a new strategic direction to prepare the U.S. military to face 21st century challenges.

Read the full report  (pdf)

After more than four years of war in Iraq and seven in Afghanistan, the U.S. military is facing a crisis not seen since the end of the Vietnam War. Equipment shortages, manpower shortfalls, recruiting and retention problems, and misplaced budget priorities have resulted in a military barely able to meet the challenges America faces today and dangerously ill-prepared to handle the challenges of the future.

As operations in Iraq eventually draw to a close, we must plot a new strategic direction for our nation’s military. Major General Robert Scales, former head of the Army War College, has noted that the current crisis in Iraq presents the “opportunity to transform ourselves as we rebuild.”

Militaries are notoriously resistant to change and therefore difficult to reform, but this current crisis presents the United States with the real opportunity to move the military in a new and better direction. The military faced a similar crisis in the wake of Vietnam and as a result was able to dramatically restructure itself. The military abandoned the draft and created the professional all-volunteer military; it invested in the training and development of its personnel through initiatives like the Navy’s Top Gun program that enabled the United States to have a smaller more effective fighting force; and it adjusted its force posture. How we rebuild our military after Iraq will likely shape its future for the next generation.

Yet despite the corrosive impact of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and President Bush’s military policies, America remains a power without peer, as it has since the end of the Cold War. We are still the dominant global military force, unrivaled in conventional warfare; our position as the guarantor of global security has been weakened, but is unchanged. The U.S. Navy patrols the high seas unchallenged, and U.S. air power protects allies and deters states from acting aggressively. Our economy remains at the center of the global economy, and our cultural and political influence is unsurpassed. While there are alarmist projections concerning the emergence of a rival peer competitor that would seek to confront the United States, there are just as many reasons to believe that states projected as strategic adversaries could become strategic partners. No state today can match the United States in terms of firepower and global reach.

Yet our our military is lopsided. Our forces are being ground down by low-tech insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan and the most immediate threat confronting the United States is a terrorist network that possesses no tanks or aircraft, while the Pentagon—the world’s largest bureaucracy—remains largely fixated on addressing the problems and challenges of a bygone era. This focus has left our military unmatched on the conventional battlefield, but it has also left the U.S. military less prepared to deal with the emerging irregular or non-traditional challenges that we as a country are most likely to confront.

The attacks of September 11 demonstrated that the greatest and most immediate threat to the United States is not from a conventional nation-state adversary, but from an enemy that operates without regard for national borders and aims to surprise us with deadly attacks on our homeland and our interests around the globe. These attacks, and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, have also demonstrated that a weakly governed state or region half a world away could pose a direct threat to U.S. security. Additionally, extreme regimes on the periphery of the international community that seek nuclear weapons and threaten their neighbors pose a distinct, new challenge.

While the purpose of American military power must be first and foremost to ensure the safety and security of the American people, in a global age, and as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the security of the American public will be intimately tied to seemingly distant events abroad. The United States will therefore continue to find itself in situations where it is compelled to take military action.

While we must always take the highest degree of caution when deploying our troops abroad, we must not become a global superpower in denial. The U.S. military has done immense good throughout the world, being the principal force ensuring stability and protecting the freedom and integrity of countries and peoples around the world. We must therefore recognize that our military will continue to be a force in high demand.

The U.S. military must be prepared to deal with a wide array of irregular or non-traditional missions: counter-terrorism operations that seek to deny terrorist networks havens to operate, stability and reconstruction missions that seek to rebuild nations and restore order to regions where chaos reigns, counter-insurgency operations that seek to eliminate a hostile insurgent force by winning the support of the public, and humanitarian missions that seek to alleviate the suffering caused by natural or manmade disasters.

The U. S. military must restructure, reform, and invest in new priorities in order to regain strategic balance and become more adept at these missions. We must implement a more integrated approach both across government agencies and with our allies and partners. And most importantly, we must make people, not hardware, our top priority.

While our military must be prepared to deal with these missions, new American leadership must also be wise about the use of U.S. forces. Our leaders must understand the awesome power of military force, but they also must clearly understand its limitations. There are some problems that military force simply cannot solve. The U.S. government should never make military force its first or preferred option. It should be used only as a last resort, and for missions with clear goals and objectives.

The strategy that follows highlights the new challenges and threats that face America and what we must do to confront them effectively. It is by no means comprehensive. Some issues or concepts are dealt with briefly or not mentioned. It does not try to rewrite or replicate strategic military documents. But instead this report seeks to lay out a progressive blueprint for action and reform.

The first section of the report provides the current context facing our military and puts forth the principles by which we must adhere to in rebuilding and transforming our forces. The second section assesses the threats and challenges confronting the United States and lays out the role of the military in addressing them. The third section puts forth recommendations for establishing a 21st century force.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow

Max Bergmann

Former Senior Fellow