Thursday, April 07, 2022

When (Bad) Strategy Drives Resources

Still wondering exactly what "Integrated Deterrence" means? Do you feel comfortable understanding the different deterrence schools of punishment vs. denial? 

If strategy and resources are aligned, does that necessarily make the results themselves "good?"

You're going to know all the above better than most of the people you'll see trying to discuss them after reading today's guest post by our friend Bryan McGrath, returning here to ring the school bell.

Simply superb and worth reading twice.

Bryan, over to you.

There are few more pitiful creatures than seapower/maritime strategists (I will use these phrases interchangeably, pedants be damned), a group of thinkers and advocates who are quite sure that the nation under-resources the most essential element of its national power. They toil in their think-tanks, their man caves (or the ungendered equivalent), and their university eyries, utterly convinced that evil green-eye-shaded functionaries in the Pentagon are deaf to the righteous tenets they espouse, spending the nation’s treasure unwisely and failing to allocate resources from coherent strategy. The proof, they aver, is in how resources are presently allocated, with all manner of wasteful spending on things like land armies, while the essential tools of seapower go wanting. Get more than two maritime strategists together in a room, and one of them will utter wistfully, “if only resources followed strategy.” All others will cluck in approval.

Well, my friends in the maritime strategy world, guess what? Our prayers and lamentations are answered. As I continue to digest the fallout from the FY23 Defense Budget (especially the shipbuilding goals and ship decommissioning plan) , the publicly released statements on the classified National Defense Strategy, and the broad outlines of the Biden Administration’s grand strategy/National Security Strategy, it becomes clear that to an extent rarely seen, the Biden team has created a tight and coherent coupling of strategy to resources.

The problem is that the strategy is bad.

What is The Strategy?

This essay is not a dissertation on the making of strategy or a detailed analysis of the Biden grand strategy of renewal (my term). To the extent that strategy is treated, it is in those areas of uniqueness or change from previous approaches and those aspects that directly impact the way seapower is resourced. 

The primacy of the domestic agenda. Foreign and defense policy was unimportant in the 2020 election. Some of that was the nature of the contest, some of it was the focus on COVID, and some of it was part of a grand strategic approach. Namely, that there were basic needs and services that the administration believed were not sufficiently resourced, that there were infrastructure requirements that needed addressing, and that there were important long-term changes in energy production and consumption to be made to address climate change. These “investments” were considered essential to shoring up America’s ability to compete with a rising China, who was recognized to be a security threat in myriad ways, but none so important as economic. These investments would be funded out of discretionary funding, the largest single claimant upon which is the defense budget. Given the difficulty in raising revenue (taxes) to address these priorities, minimizing real growth in the defense budget would provide a generous portion of the money needed to fund the domestic agenda. Clearly, over $700B annually in defense spending should be sufficient, so DoD will simply have to make do. To balance any risk (real or perceived), we will:

Re-invigorate Alliances. The Biden Team believes that its predecessors did reputational damage to the United States among key allies, and to manage security risk that could accrue from flat defense spending, it must rely more heavily on friends and allies. This approach would not spring from the well of “pay their fair share” or criticizing free riders, but from friendly exhortation, sophisticated diplomacy, and a re-commitment to multilateralism. 

So, let us recap. Domestic rehabilitation and renewal is necessary to compete against 21st century threats and would be funded by flat defense spending (and a growing economy), the risk of which would be diminished by recommitting to internationalism and multilateralism. The final piece of the puzzle would be to further reduce the security risk of flat defense spending by providing that defense more efficiently. Hence, 

Integrated Deterrence. The Biden grand strategy of domestic renewal is heavily dependent on controlling the growth of defense spending, which even without inflation had grown in the previous administration. This growth was fueled by a major and often overlooked intellectual shift made by the Trump Administration in its National Security Strategy, when it committed the United States to a policy of conventional deterrence by denial, rather than by punishment. 

Let us start with conventional deterrence by punishment, as it is a straightforward concept. If a power seeks to deter another’s aggression, and it possesses both the will and the capability to do so, it can choose to address the potential aggressor’s decision cycle by inserting the notion that if aggression is chosen, serious and costly consequences will follow. The Trump Administration saw this approach as problematic in the emerging security environment, given that both China and Russia had in their geographic near abroad(s), limited military objectives that could be attained quickly. Once attained, the likelihood that punishing military force would be applied to reverse the facts on the ground did not strike Trump planners as high. Thus, “fait accompli” aggression was seen as growing in likelihood, as there was doubt that there would be the political will available to address it ex post facto. 

This led to Trump’s shift to conventional deterrence by denial (or delay, as it has evolved). Under this approach, sufficient military force would be postured to create doubt in the minds of enemy/aggressor planners that their aggression would succeed even in its limited aims. Rather than relying on the threat of future, overwhelming punishment to dislodge and reverse gains, denial seeks to confront an adversary with military dilemmas that raise the cost of the aggression even as they raise uncertainty as to its success.

In practice, conventional deterrence by denial is more expensive than conventional deterrence by punishment, at least in terms of budgeting and planning. Capable forces must be maintained forward, postured to create the dilemmas suggested above. To maintain this forward architecture from a rotational force, sufficient force structure must be maintained to account for training, maintenance, movement, and rest. Defense budget plus-ups in the Trump years were targeted at bringing about a higher level of current readiness in the force to ensure sufficient force was available for the forward based architecture. A good deal of effort was wasted in addressing one of the other means to ensure sufficient forces are available, and that is by growing them. More on this later.

Given a need to rein in defense spending, the Biden Team rejects conventional deterrence by denial. They have not publicly re-embraced conventional deterrence by punishment, choosing instead to create an original approach termed “integrated deterrence”. I leave it to attentive readers to seek out definitions of integrated deterrence but warn of the frustration that will follow. Put bluntly, the Biden Team seeks to convince observers that its deterrence posture will not consist solely of military power but will bring the full weight of the United States government to bear by integrating the activities of the State Department, Commerce, Treasury, and Defense. Putting aside for a moment the implication that such integration was not previously occurring, the elevation of “integrated” deterrence provides the rhetorical basis for walking away from conventional deterrence by denial, in that whatever risk accrues in doing so would be mitigated by this new, whole of government approach. Putting aside the question of strategic nuclear weapons and deterrence, the extent to which the Department of Defense has a role in integrated deterrence remains its approach to conventional deterrence, which shifts back to punishment from denial.

To summarize the relevant parts of the strategy that lead to the Navy’s FY 23 Budget: a grand strategy of renewal harvests resources generated by controlling defense spending to apply to domestic investment. The risks associated with flat defense spending are mitigated by re-embracing multilateralism and altering the approach to conventional deterrence and force posture. 

What is Wrong with the Strategy?

The strategy makes the United States less secure rather than more secure. By seeking to harvest money from the defense budget to pursue other domestic priorities (irrespective of their popularity), the Administration has chosen a riskier (and less credible) approach to conventional deterrence at a moment when great power dynamics are at their most unstable in decades. 

Implications of the Biden Strategy

There are important implications for seapower that flow directly from choices made in the Biden strategy of renewal. Those implications then further decompose into budget priorities (or lack thereof). 

Integrated Deterrence Devalues Forward Presence

If one wishes to conventionally deter by denial, sufficient and capable force must be maintained forward in strategically relevant locations 24/7/365. This is a function of the requirement to create dilemmas for the aggressor that inject doubt as to the success of his planned aggression. All things being equal, moving from denial to integrated deterrence and conventional deterrence by punishment reduces the value of forward deployed naval forces and increases the value of surge forces that are of higher value after the shooting starts (to punish the aggression). 

We saw our first inkling of this shift in thinking from former Deputy Secretary of Defense (and Under Secretary of the Navy) Robert O. Work in his essay late last year “A Slavish Devotion to Forward Presence Has Nearly Broken the U.S. Navy” (to which I responded here.)  It is unclear how well-connected Work is with major figures in the Biden Administration, but when I read his piece, my first thought was that it was a trial balloon for the upcoming release of the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. Through a number of false choices and unsupported assertions (see my response), Work lays out the case that 1) the Navy is not big enough to be as forward deployed as it is (i.e. to support conventional deterrence by denial), and therefore 2) the Navy must shift to a model that calls for less forward presence in order to preserve warfighting readiness by husbanding surge forces (for proper warfighting and deterrence by punishment).  

One need look no further than the DoD Unclassified Fact Sheet that serves as the public face of the new National Defense Strategy to see evidence of the shift in thinking that drive Navy budgets and force structure. Under a section laying out how the “…Department will advance our goals…,” three ways are cited: integrated deterrence, campaigning, and building enduring advantages. The very nature of the term—one that conveys a sense of action or activity—appears chosen solely to undercut the concept of forward presence. 

Those who criticize naval forward presence often assert that the Navy postures forces forward for the sake of doing so. The more pernicious among them accuse the Navy of creating the concept simply to justify force structure. And since the term forward presence conveys something more static than “campaigning”, the paranoia of a maritime strategist leads to the conclusion that whatever force structure is desired forward will have to be associated with temporally defined, noun-named campaigns, as the concept of forward presence being the parent virtue of all other naval activity (including conventional deterrence) is disregarded. 

A deterrence strategy that prioritizes combat power husbanded for warfighting (especially the warfighting that punishment requires) and which de-emphasizes forward presence, levies fewer requirements for forward deployed naval power, and therefore can be accomplished with a smaller fleet. The FY23 budget delivers on this, reducing fleet size from 297 ships to 280 ships over five years through a combination of ship decommissionings and limited new construction. In other words, the shrinking fleet is connected to the grand strategy of the Biden Administration, as its choice of approach to deterrence and posture requires a smaller fleet than the previous approach, and the savings anticipated therefrom can be applied to other strategic priorities supporting renewal.

Integrated Deterrence Privileges Warfighting Over War Prevention

A related but distinct aspect of integrated deterrence, the flight from forward presence, and the return to conventional deterrence by punishment is the decline in importance of force structure that is useful in conventional deterrence (both by denial and punishment) but less useful or more vulnerable once the shooting starts. If something is useful once the shooting starts, it is useful in deterrence, especially if one’s deterrence posture is by punishment. The opposite is not true, in that there are platforms, capabilities, and programs that are especially useful in creating a denial posture that become less useful—or even liabilities—in combat. By directing the Navy to concentrate on those programs that are most aligned with high-end combat operations against the pacing threat, a considerable portion of naval force structure that is optimized for what the Navy spends most of its time doing—deterring and assuring—becomes financially expendable. 

A strategy that privileges warfighting over war prevention is a strategy that drives the early decommissioning of ships judged to be less valuable in combat with a great power (LCS). A strategy that privileges warfighting over war prevention is a strategy that drives painful decisions to retire cruisers to procure attack submarines and hypersonic missiles. A strategy that privileges warfighting over war prevention is a strategy that looks at amphibious shipping as legacy, even as their desirability to the COCOMS continues unabated. A strategy that privileges warfighting over war prevention is a strategy that fails to resource a peacetime ISRT architecture consisting of numerous, expendable sensors in favor of fewer space based and expensive stealthy platforms. 


No less an authority that the current Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro believes that the “Navy Budget Should be Driven by Strategy, Not the Reverse” , and in his remarks at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space Symposium on April 5 he said as much. As I survey the disappointing direction in which the Navy is headed, I cannot fall back on the reliable complaint that our investments do not reflect strategy. They clearly do, and that is most unfortunate. This should not be a surprise to anyone, given that the most influential person in the Department of Defense (Deputy Secretary Kath Hicks) spent a good deal of time and effort in her previous job leading a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) effort entitled “Getting to Less: The Truth About Defense Spending”.  A key paragraph from the Foreign Affairs piece states: 

“The closer one looks at the details of military spending, the clearer it becomes that although radical defense cuts would require dangerous shifts in strategy, there are savings to be had. Getting them, however, would require making politically tough choices, embracing innovative thinking, and asking the armed forces to do less than they have in the past. The end result would be a less militarized yet more globally competitive United States.”

One can see in the Navy’s budget the impact of this thinking, in that not only does it appear that the Biden Administration will ask the Navy to do less (cut back on forward presence, deter by threatening punishment from over the horizon), it will reduce the size of the Navy, if only marginally. Given the worsening security environment and the nature of the great power threats we face, the effectiveness of the Biden strategy in driving resources will not leave us “…less militarized yet more globally competitive…” Rather, it will leave us less militarily capable and less globally influential. 

It will be interesting to see how things progress in the coming year, given Congressional frustration with the Biden FY22 and FY23 budget submissions, and the fact that the Navy is conducting another force structure assessment and developing a new 30 Year Shipbuilding Plan. The CNO recently spoke publicly of a 500 ship Navy, with roughly 350 manned ships and 150 unmanned. The expense associated with planning, designing, building, fielding, manning, training, equipping, and operating a force of that size does not appear consistent with the broad strokes of the Biden grand strategy, although it is more consistent with the requirements the strategy should be responsive to. 

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of the FerryBridge Group LLC. The opinions expressed are his alone, and they do not represent the views of his clients. 

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