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A Shot in the Dark: The Futility of Long-Range Modernization Planning

October 15, 2010

The U.S. Army, indeed the military in general, has a history of being unprepared for the next war. There is good reason for this—the complexity of the environment for which the Army is required to plan makes predicting the future impossible. Add to this the increasing cost of technological advances associated with weapon development and the funds required for modernization based on future, best-guess requirements become prohibitive. A better policy is to modernize incrementally, based on the operational environment and near-term future trends. In an era of persistent conflict, the Army’s future force development must be based on current needs, grounded in economic and technological reality, and able to operate in and adapt to the expected operating environment (OE).

The OE is far too complex to be predictable, as past efforts have clearly shown. There are simply too many variables—e.g., politics, economics, natural disasters and nonstate actors— to make any kind of far-reaching plans with any degree of certainty. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Project Solarium” and subsequent “New Look” are often held up, and with considerable justification, as shining examples of a far-reaching strategy that subsequently directed force structures and future planning. But the plans’ large reduction in Army forces and focus on strategic nuclear deterrence did nothing to prepare the Army for what would be an extended conflict in Vietnam. Additionally, the specter of a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union provided a ready-made focal point for a national defense strategy. Compared to the complexity of identifying threats today, this was low-hanging fruit.

This single focal point is clearly missing today, as a reading of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) Report demonstrates:

Past defense reviews have called for the nation’s armed forces to be able to fight and win two major regional conflicts in overlapping time frames. These have been characterized as conflicts against state adversaries, typically employing conventional military forces. This QDR likewise assumes the need for a robust force capable of protecting U.S. interests against a multiplicity of threats, including two capable nation-state aggressors. It breaks from the past, however, in its insistence that the U.S. armed forces must be capable of conducting a wide range of operations, from homeland defense and defense support to civil authorities, to deterrence and preparedness missions, to the conflicts we are in and the wars we may someday face. In short, U.S. forces today and in the years to come can be plausibly challenged by a range of threats that extend far beyond the familiar “major regional conflicts” that have dominated U.S. planning since the end of the Cold War.

From a document that is supposed to look 20 years into the future, this lack of specificity is not helpful.