US defense envisions multiple conflicts
By Matthew Berger
WASHINGTON - A report and budget request from the United States Department of
Defense reveal both new and old priorities for President Barack Obama's
Strategically, the military recognizes new, non-traditional threats ranging
from failed states to cyber-warfare to climate change, but there is little
change in the military spending habits of the Obama Pentagon versus that of his
The new Quadrennial Defense Review, a congressionally mandated report on the
direction of US national security strategy, marks several major breaks from
past reports. Whereas previous QDRs have had at their heart a strategy in which
the country is
able to fight two separate conventional wars, the report released on Monday
shifts the focus to multiple and diffuse simultaneous threats.
"We have learned through painful experience that the wars we fight are rarely
the wars we plan,’’ Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters at the
New threats require new responses, and the report emphasizes having increased
numbers of special forces, drones and helicopters as well as preparing for
conflicts that take place in the realms of counterinsurgencies and cyberspace.
"Although it is a manmade domain, cyberspace is now as relevant a domain for
DoD [Department of Defense] activities as the naturally occurring domains of
land, sea, air, and space," the report notes.
The report no longer lays out just how many conflicts the military should be
called on to fight.
Charles Knight, co-director of the Commonwealth Institute's Project on Defence
Alternatives, sees this as problematic. "They had never in the past defined
what they meant [by a two-war strategy] but at least it had the number two in
it ... now you can go on forever dreaming up possible military engagement," he
Among the objectives of the Pentagon's strategy is the aphoristic "prevail in
today's wars", which Gates noted is appearing in a QDR for the first time.
"Success in wars to come will depend on success in these wars in progress," he
The strategy also hopes to "prevent and deter conflict", which Gates sees as
happening through increased funding for diplomacy and development since the
largest future threats will potentially come from "failed and fractured
New to the report this time around is a section on preparing for climate- and
energy-related challenges. Climate change will affect the DoD's operations, the
report says, citing a previous report showing how "climate-related changes are
already being observed in every region of the world".
It mentions rising sea levels, water shortages, melting Arctic ice, and extreme
weather events as effects that could have geopolitical impacts.
"While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an
accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian
institutions and militaries around the world. In addition, extreme weather
events may lead to increased demands for defense support to civil authorities
for humanitarian assistance or disaster response both within the United States
and overseas," the QDR says.
The report also lays out how the military is addressing climate-related issues,
both in its own operations - in terms of reducing DOD's reliance on fossil
fuels, for instance - and in helping develop energy efficient and renewable
The Pentagon sees energy security - "assured access to reliable supplies of
energy and the ability to protect and deliver sufficient energy to meet
operational need" - as a strategic priority, and one which greener energy can
help it secure.
Fiscal Year 2011 defense budget
This strategic planning represents the broad groundwork for the White House's
decision on what to keep in and cut from the military budget. Proposals on the
budget were also released on Monday.
This fiscal year 2011 budget request calls for a record $708 billion in defense
spending as part of the budget's overall $3.8 trillion spending. This includes
$159 billion for the ongoing operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan as
well as an additional $33 billion to be added onto the 2010 budget for those
operations, at $129.6 billion.
The budget request would also cut funding for several major weapons programs.
The White House had also called for these cuts last year before congress
rejected them, likely due to pressure from well-funded defense contractor
On Monday, Gates called for an end to the "quixotic pursuit of high-tech
equipment", saying "every defense dollar spent on a program excess to
real-world military needs is a dollar not spent [elsewhere]".
The defense budget still represents an increase of 3.4% from the previous year,
which continues a rising defense budget trend begun under George W Bush.
"When including war costs, Pentagon spending has grown by 70% in real terms
since 2001," noted the Center for a New American Security's Travis Sharp in a
policy briefing on Monday.
When evaluating the size of the DoD budget as a percentage of gross domestic
product (GDP), it is lower than at most points over the past 50 years, Sharp
"Policymakers should not rely on too heavily on any single metric - whether
dollars expressed in real terms or as a percentage of GDP - and thereby ignore
the complexities inherent in something as unwieldy as the US defense budget,"
But some see the fact that Obama has been maintaining a Bush-era level of
defense spending as inherently problematic.
Miriam Pemberton, an analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies, is critical
that the cuts do not go far enough.
"I think that this is a post-9/11 budget that tries to focus on asymmetric
threats instead of major theater wars, but the problem is all the procurement
and hardware for major theatre war. They've sort of added on to the old tech
instead of replacing it," she contends. "It's a budget of add-ons instead of
choices. They haven't made many hard choices."
Knight made a similar point, saying, "What stands out is how little has changed
from the Bush administration to the Obama administration."
But there has been one major shift in the QDR under Obama, Knight said. "The
writing is much better ... the ideological rhetoric is toned down, but the
outcome is very, very similar. We still have the same defense policy.
Basically, it's just been dressed up in a different way."