Center for Strategic Decision Research


U.S. Defense Strategy: From Threat-Based to Capabilities-Based Planning

The Honorable William Schneider
Chairman of the Defense Science Board,
Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense

The timing and focus of this Workshop is perfect, since President Bush is about to make a statement concerning the evolution of U.S. strategy. The process the President has initiated is intended to better couple strategy and purpose to acquisition and R&D, so that our defense policy is enduring and predictable and can help us determine how we allocate resources for national defense well into the future. As I think about this topic, I am reminded of a dialogue between the British composer Sir Thomas Beecham, a famous conductor of the classical repertoire, and an equally famous critic of contemporary music about 40 years ago. The critic asked Beecham if he had ever performed, and Beecham responded, "No, but I've stepped in some." I think we have to make some very sharp distinctions about the paths we take and the strategy we develop so that we have a clear idea of why our military forces are serving and how they will be trained, organized, and equipped.


The strategic review President Bush has undertaken has certain structural parallels to an exercise that was undertaken almost 50 years ago by President Eisenhower in 1953. Eisenhower had inherited a legacy force from World War II that was largely mechanized infantry. He faced a completely different strategic environment from the wartime period in which the Soviet Union was our ally-it had become a mortal enemy. The underlying technologies that were available for military applications, such as ballistic missiles, thermonuclear weapons, nuclear propulsion for submarines and surface ships, and communications satellites and reconnaissance satellites, were at hand, but there was no real path for applying those technologies to the defense program. So the President undertook a top-down review over a five-month period in early 1953. That review subsequently produced a change in defense strategy that largely animated the U.S. post-World War II defense strategy for dealing with the Soviet bloc. The parallels between that time and today, at least structurally, bear noting, even though the circumstances are much different. The threat environment in both periods changed fundamentally.


Today we are no longer faced with one specific adversary. Indeed, it is no longer practical, as General Smith noted, to optimize our military forces against a specific threat. Our forces now need to be designed in such a way that they are much more flexible and adaptable to threats as they emerge. This means we must have not merely good but excellent intelligence about our adversaries' intentions, because we have to be able to anticipate changes sufficiently far in advance to adapt our forces to the threats as they emerge.

Therefore, the U.S. must shift substantially from threat-based planning for its forces, in which it seeks to optimize those forces against a specific threat, to capabilities-based planning, in which we try to develop capabilities that will deal with the threats that pose the greatest danger to our interests-threats of the use of weapons of mass destruction and long-range delivery, and threats of the use of high-tech, general-purpose forces that would pose a threat to our general-purpose forces. We are already concerned about the terrorist threat, and indeed we are spending three times as much on counter-terrorism as we are spending on missile defense. So having forces that are able to respond to a range of contingencies, even when we cannot predict those contingencies, is a part of the planning process that will lead, I think, to a greater rationalization of the coupling of strategic planning to the procurement and R&D process.

The concept of capabilities planning focuses on the need to have certain types of generic capabilities that contribute to the flexibility and adaptability of the forces. These forces need to be grounded in the sophisticated use of information, intensive applications, and effective C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) so that the political leadership, the military leadership, Allied governments, and defense establishments are all aware of each situation throughout the depth of the theater. Further, these forces need to be coupled to a scheme of precision strikes so that the targets that are identified can be held at risk effectively across the Alliance. That is by no means an easy task, but the way the technology is evolving provides some hope that the task will be somewhat easier to accomplish in the future.


As Al Volkman has suggested, the need to restructure the industrial environment to accommodate 21st-century realities is an important dimension of our task. In the Cold War period, certainly the sources of military capabilities arose from technologies developed in the defense sector. These sources were typically developed in secret and remained the property of the defense establishment, and over time trickled down into civil applications. In the 21st century, the situation is likely to be much different. Adversaries and friends alike will all have access to the same technology base. Defense applications will be largely derived from universally available technology in the civil sector. What is unique about the defense industry now is not that it will develop these technologies, such as telecommunications products, materials, computation, signal processing, and so forth, but that it will invent ingenious ways of integrating these universally available technologies into sophisticated military capabilities. It is this process of integration and systems engineering that is likely to be the industrial base's unique contribution within the Alliance.

There are also hopeful signs, I think, of the industry's ability to contribute to the management of the industrial-base tensions that have existed within the Alliance and that continue to be a problem. Because we are all working from the same technology base, the technology is global, and access to it is nearly universal. The ability of Alliance industry to contribute, then, is more dependent on its capacity, systems engineering, and integration skills-software, if you would like-than on its vast installed base of industrial-scale manufacturing capabilities. Indeed, those capabilities are largely being rendered obsolete by the way in which technology is changing the need for defense products. Yet the installed base of defense equipment and facilities in the U.S. would take over $3 trillion to replace. And to modernize that base, based on a 25-year life span, it would take a defense investment of $250 to $300 billion a year, not a practical investment. A similar process would be required within the Alliance.

In order to make a difference with this advanced technology, a relatively small fraction of our forces needs to be modernized, as several previous experiences show. Prior to World War II, the U.S. had only 8 aircraft carriers out of the nearly 600 ships that were in the U.S. Navy, but those 8 aircraft carriers proved to be the decisive instruments of U.S. military power in World War II. Similarly, only about 10 percent of Wehrmacht forces were mechanized infantry; the rest were largely foot infantry and horse-drawn equipment. But it was that 10 percent that was decisive, that made the difference. The technology behind information-intensive applications is now providing us with the opportunity to modernize the Alliance's military capabilities cost-effectively so they can interoperate at the cutting edge of the spear. That fact, I believe, provides a source of optimism that modernization can be very effective, especially if it is coupled with a shared view of strategic purposes and to defense forces committed to those purposes.


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