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American Strategy: Issues and Alternatives for the Quadrennial Defense Review

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz.

September 2000

135 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The combination of a congressionally-mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), a change of presidents, and shifts in the global security environment will force or allow American strategists to rethink some of the basic elements of U.S. strategy and decide if any changes need to be made. It is vital that the defense transformation process be strategy driven rather than dictated by budgets or technology alone. In other words, the first step in assessing the status and the future of American strategy is to examine the concepts and broad alternatives on which it is built. In this monograph, the author begins with a survey of the evolution of American defense strategy since the end of the Cold War. He then describes some the key issues which will shape the upcoming QDR and assesses a range of strategic alternatives ranging from the existing strategy to some new and innovative ones. For each alternative, he describes the key assumptions and the risks involved. He ends with a slate of recommendations including a controlled shift away from the focus on large-scale regional war with rogue states.


Because of the confluence of the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and a presidential election, the years 2000 and 2001 are likely to be important in the evolution of American military strategy. Basic strategic concepts and alternatives will be debated and analyzed. The results will shape U.S. strategy for several decades. This study provides a brief history of the evolution of American military strategy since the end of the Cold War, delineates the key issues which are likely to shape the upcoming QDR process, and assesses a range of strategic alternatives.

Core Issues. Four broad strategic issues are likely to be particularly important during the QDR and as the new president frames his defense policy:

Transformation. Beginning with the National Defense Panel of 1997, a number of influential thinkers have called for a full transformation of the American military to seize the potential of the information technology driven revolution in military affairs. While the specific trajectory of transformation is open to debate, the Pentagon and the military Services have established a number of programs designed to energize change. But some advocates of transformation contend that the Department of Defense is less committed to transformation than it might be. Others argue that the current security environment does not justify the cost and risk which transformation would entail.

Force Shaping. During the early 1990s, American strategists made two crucial force shaping decisions. One was to use “major regional conflicts” like the Gulf War as a yardstick. The second was to move from a predominantly threat-based force shaping methodology to capabilitiesbased ones. For a number of reasons, the current approach to force shaping may not survive QDR 2001. However inadequate the two MTW yardstick, it is not clear what should replace it. In an even broader sense, some defense analysts are beginning to question the use of capabilities as a force shaping criterion rather than existing threats. Even though the Department of Defense is not likely to abandon the capabilities approach in the near term, it will face pressure from Congress, the media, and the public to assure a better match between the capabilities of the U.S. military and the threats it might face. DOD and the Services are unlikely to find a sympathetic ear for acquisition and force development programs based on a hypothetical “near peer competitor” so long as there are few signs of one emerging.

Strategic Focus. The appropriate focus for the U.S. military should depend on trends in the global security environment. The key question is whether major, state-on-state war will remain common enough and threatening enough to warrant building a military force designed primarily to deal with it. There is no agreement on this among strategic thinkers and defense leaders. Given this, QDR 2001 is likely to see several major questions concerning the post-MTW focus of the U.S. military:

• Should the U.S. military continue to focus on warfighting or treat warfighting and non-warfighting functions like peace operations, shaping, and military-to-military engagement as co-equals?

• If U.S. national security strategy continues to stress participation in multinational peace support operations, should the military seek greater efficiency and effectiveness by developing specialized units to focus on these sorts of activities, including long-term nation building?

• Can large-scale, cross-border, conventional war be deterred or defeated by some means other than by combined arms operations by a U.S. dominated coalition?

• Should the U.S. military give greater emphasis to nontraditional adversaries or emerging enemies rather than state militaries?

The Strategy-Budget Mismatch. Today nearly every analyst agrees that the budget predictions which served as the basis for the 1997 QDR are unrealistic. But as is always true with economic and budgetary predictions, various writers disagree on the extent of the shortfall. In the broadest sense, there are three solutions. One would be for Congress to authorize dramatically larger defense budgets, perhaps linking defense spending to a specific percentage of gross domestic product. Another is to attempt to close the gap through greater efficiency. The third approach is to adjust strategy to budgetary realities by redefining national interests and scaling back on security commitments. In all probability, QDR 2001 will not solve the problem and may not even address it. Eventually, though, budgets, commitments, and force levels must be synchronized.

The 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review. A range of strategic alternatives has been developed and debated within the defense community as part of the preparation for QDR 2001. Consensus is emerging that this QDR should be strategy driven rather than budget driven like QDR 1997. This places extra importance on the strategic concepts that will be incorporated into the review process. The strategic alternatives under scrutiny differ in their assumptions, focus, and risk. Five alternatives merit serious consideration.

Alternative I: Shape, Prepare, Respond. Because the United States currently uses the shape/respond/prepare approach, it forms the baseline for the analysis of all alternatives. In fact, many of what are being called strategic alternatives during the QDR preparations are actually variants of the shape/respond/prepare approach rather than discrete strategies.

Variant A: The Respond Approach (Current Strategy). The current variant of the shape/respond/prepare approach gives responding priority in terms of money, time, effort, and talent. Responding, which includes the American reaction to both MTWs and SSCs, is “first among equals” of the three functions. The Respond Approach does entail some strategic risks and costs. For instance, it demands a large and highly skilled force, and a large defense budget. It can lead the United States to over-extension and may discourage partners from adequately developing their own military capabilities. Engagement can cause partners and the American public to overestimate the extent of Washington’s commitment to a nation or a region and also risk “guilt by association” if a military that has undergone American training or education, or which had held combined exercises with the U.S. military commits human rights violations, undertakes aggression, becomes corrupt, or intervenes in the political system of its state. Finally, preparing now for an uncertain future can risk “early lock in” if predictions about the future prove incorrect.

Variant B: The Transformation Approach. The “Transformation Approach” is based on the belief that the United States should accept greater short-term risk by limiting global engagement, canceling procurement of current or next-generation weapons systems, selectively lowering current readiness and operational tempo, cutting some force structure, and shrinking the defense infrastructure in order to accelerate the development and adoption of advanced systems, concepts, and organizations. If this succeeds, it could solidify American military preponderance for decades to come, thus helping assure a more stable global security system and protecting U.S. national interests.

The Transformation Approach is based on several assumptions. First, while the United States is unlikely to face a peer or near-peer competitor for several decades— hence the “strategic pause”—this approach assumes that one will eventually emerge or, at least, try to emerge. The Transformation Approach also assumes that the United States has an accurate roadmap for the current revolution in military affairs so that any changes made bring strategic advantages. And, it is based on the assumption that the U.S. military, in conjunction with coalition partners and allies, can overcome immediate or short-term challenges with existing technology and forces.

Ultimately, the Transformation Approach entails accepting greater short-term risk in expectation of a long-term payoff. If one assumes that the United States has an accurate roadmap for transformation, that the current strategy is economically unsustainable, that a substantial American military preponderance over any conceivable opponent should be sustained, that a decline in current U.S. influence in some regions is acceptable or can be rectified at a later date, and that the current “strategic pause” will persist for several decades, the Transformation Approach makes sense. If any of these assumptions do not hold, the soundness of the Transformation Approach is questionable.

Variant C: The Shaping Approach. The “Shaping Approach” grows from the conclusion that MTWs are increasingly unlikely. This gives the United States a chance to place greater emphasis on the use of the military for shaping and engagement to preempt conflict, increase regional stability, augment the capabilities of American partners, and deter the “states of concern.” It would also allow significantly smaller defense budgets since shaping activities are less costly than warfighting, and since greater regional stability would allow force reductions.

While a Shaping Approach would help save defense dollars and potentially augment regional stability in some parts of the world, it would be a risky venture if predictions about the demise of large-scale war prove wrong. Moreover, a Shaping Approach assumes that the recent democratic reforms and economic growth will continue. Clearly the U.S. military would not undertake engagement with oppressive, nondemocratic partners. It is possible that the first decade of the 21st century will prove to be the high water mark of political reform and democratization, with regression toward authoritarianism or fragmentation taking place as the political and economic expectations of the citizens of transitional states are frustrated. A Shaping Approach also risks guilt by association, creeping commitment, and over extension.

Variant D: The Warfighting Approach. The “Warfighting Approach” is based on the belief that shaping, engagement, and preparing should be secondary functions for the U.S. military. What distinguishes the Warfighting Approach from the Respond Approach is the separation of major war from smaller scale contingencies. The warfighting approach is based on the belief that the focus of the American military should be MTWs or, at least, large-scale war, with SSCs accorded lower priority. Like the Transformation Approach, the Warfighting Approach advocates diminishing American engagement in shaping and SSCs. But, rather than doing this as a means of shifting resources to transformation efforts, the warfighting approach advocates diminished engagement strictly on the basis of strategic prudence: by expending so much time, effort, and money in regions of the world less important to the United States, Washington is increasing the risk to U.S. interests in the core regions.

While the Warfighting Approach to U.S. military strategy would be a more focused and cheaper one than the current strategy, it would entail an increase in both short-term and long-term risk. By abandoning shaping and engagement activities, conflicts that might have been deterred or avoided may break out. The U.S. military would play only a limited role in smaller conflicts in noncore regions. This would erode the position of leadership currently held by the United States and could leave the U.S. military unable to perform functions demanded of it by the American people and their elected leaders.

Alternative II: A Counter-Asymmetry Strategy. The idea behind the counter-asymmetry strategy is that responding to existing or potential threats should, in fact, remain the central focus of American military strategy, but the current strategy prepares for the wrong kind of challenge. The counter-asymmetry approach to U.S. military strategy recognizes this and would adjust force structure, operational concepts, and equipment accordingly. The question then becomes: what forms of asymmetry will be most common and, more importantly, most problematic for the United States?

A counter-asymmetry approach to U.S. military strategy would de-emphasize forces and capabilities used for traditional force-on-force combat in open terrain, and focus instead on counter-terrorism, homeland defense, missile defense, urban operations, operations without large in-theater bases, dispersed nonlinear operations, military robotics, and other activities that might thwart asymmetric activities. The U.S. military would also need to develop hybrid hierarchy-network organizations to counter networked opponents.

The primary risk of a counter-asymmetry approach is guessing wrong. The United States could undertake great efforts to prepare for a type of enemy or a type of conflict that never emerges. This would not only be expensive, but could also undercut support from the American public and its elected leaders, and erode morale within the U.S. military. Ultimately preparing for the wrong kind of asymmetric threat could be just as dangerous as not preparing at all. There is also the same risk seen in several other strategic approaches under consideration, that shifting the focus of the American military away from MTW might make it more likely to occur. In all probability, the time is not yet right for the United States to shift to a counter-asymmetry strategy.

Alternative III: Preventive Defense. All variants of the shape/respond/prepare strategy reflect the belief that the United States has three levels of national interest—vital, important, and humanitarian—and that U.S. military power should be used to promote or protect all three so long as the expected costs and risks are in accordance with the significance of the interest at stake. It is, in other words, a military strategy appropriate for a superpower that has the ability and the will to become involved in many kinds of issues and in many places. There is a growing movement, though, that contends that such an unlimited national security strategy will ultimately prove insolvent. Thus the United States needs to resist the temptation to use military force on problems and issues that are ultimately peripheral or secondary and focus on truly important national interests. The United States needs, in other words, a national security strategy of constraint and focus rather than one of unconstrained enlargement and engagement.

Former Clinton officials William Perry and Ashton Carter advocate a strategy that focuses on “A” list threats that might challenge the survival, way of life, and position in the world of the United States. These include the danger that Russia might descend into chaos, isolation, and aggression; the danger that Russia and other Soviet successor states might lose control of their weapons of mass destruction; the danger that China could become increasingly hostile; the danger that weapons of mass destruction will proliferate and present a direct military threat to U.S. forces and territory; and the danger that catastrophic terrorism might occur on U.S. territory. Such issues do not capture the headlines like humanitarian disasters but, according to Perry and Carter, will determine the future security of the United States.

The preventive defense strategy is based on several key assumptions. The most important is that shaping activities on the part of the U.S. military can have a positive effect on developments in China and Russia, and can lower the danger from terrorism. The preventive defense strategy also assumes that the threat from rogue states will, at worst, remain steady and may actually decrease, so a modest improvement in U.S. forces will preserve an adequate military advantage. Finally, preventive defense assumes that “C” list problems will not expand or escalate into more serious threats. They can, in other words, be handled with a very modest effort or even ignored, with no long-term repercussions. Risks arise if any of these assumptions prove false.

Alternative IV: Supporting Regional Structures. Current strategy notes that the U.S. military usually operates with partners, but in every type of coalition operation except peacekeeping in peripheral areas, the United States plans to be the dominant member. A strategy of supporting regional structures would reverse this so that the normal state of affairs would be for the U.S. military to be the supporting coalition partner rather than the supported one. This could diminish the chances that U.S. actions will provoke opposition or intimidate other states. It could also be a more affordable and sustainable strategy than one in which enemies are always defeated by American-led coalitions.

A U.S. strategy of supporting regional security structures would reflect the fact that local states are more interested in and better able to understand their region’s security than are Americans. It would also take advantage of the fact that regional and subregional security organs are taking form in nearly all parts of the world. At the political level, such a strategy would help with the formation of multinational security structures where none exist, and assist with the development of those that do. During peacetime, the U.S. military would augment the effectiveness of regional structures, primarily through support to regional exercises, combined training, and professional military education. During crises or conflict, the United States would provide support to regional structures according to specific needs. This might be improved command and control, missile defense, intelligence support, transportation, medical or other types of combat support, and combat service support. In some instances, the United States might bolster a regional structure with long-range fire support or even landpower.

To perform this support function, the U.S. military, both the CINCs and the services, would need some reorganization. The U.S. Army, for instance, would form dedicated support divisions specifically designed to augment allies in areas where they are weak. At the same time, the United States would retain effective combat units for those instances where regional structures are inadequate or where conditions dictate unilateral American military actions. It would also continue a robust process of experimentation to explore and integrate emerging capabilities.

A strategy of supporting regional structures entails two important types of risk. The first is the risk that allied or partner states may not be able to defeat aggression on their own. Another risk is that a strategy of supporting regional structures might lead to a decline in the ability of the United States to dictate or control the outcome of crises and conflicts around the world. This is undeniable, but may not be undesirable.

Alternative V: Strategic Reconfiguration. In this alternative, the vital tasks of American strategy would remain the same: responding to MTWs, responding to SSCs, shaping/engagement, and preparing for the future. All components of the armed forces and the Department of Defense would stress preparation, particularly experimentation and concept development. But, responsibility for the immediate tasks—MTWs, SSC, and shaping/ engagement—would be reassigned. Strategic reconfiguration would entail: (1) refocusing American strategy so that SSCs are equal to or have a higher priority than MTWs; and, (2) refocusing U.S. land forces on SSCs.

Strategic reconfiguration is based on several assumptions: MTWs instigated by cross border aggression by rogue states is becoming less likely; should it occur, it could be defeated and reversed by a combination of regional forces, standoff American fires, and other methods of American support; SSCs, shaping, and engagement will be the primary tasks of the U.S. military; and SSCs, shaping, and engagement usually are not amenable to standoff solutions. If all of these assumptions hold, strategic reconfiguration entails acceptable risk. If any of them do not hold, strategic reconfiguration could increase the chances that aggressor states will instigate MTW, make ultimate defeat of MTWs impossible or more costly, and, as a result, diminish U.S. influence in those regions where MTWs are possible.

The Evolution of American Strategy. Three types of relationships form the building blocks of American national security strategy: relationships of affinity, necessity or humanity. Much of strategy can be distilled into decisions concerning the priority and forms of these relationships. Even as U.S. strategy approaches the point of great decisions that will shape the future, the Army tends to think operationally rather than strategically. To assure its long-term relevance, the Army needs to place greater emphasis on strategic level analysis. The confluence of the 2001 QDR, a presidential transition, and the Army’s transformation process provides an excellent opportunity to do this. This begins with basic concepts—what should be done and what could be done.

The Army makes three defining contributions to the joint team. The first is versatility. The Army covers a larger part of the spectrum of military tasks than any of the other Services. The second is ability to attain strategically decisive results in war. The third is the potential to provide broad-spectrum support to allies and friends. Given these characteristics of the Army’s contribution to the joint team, Army leaders should do two things during the 2001 QDR. The first is to design force and concept development programs that augment these defining characteristics— versatility, full spectrum decisiveness, and broad-spectrum support. The second is to assure that these defining characteristics become central components of American military strategy. While versatility has moved in this direction as the array of tasks given the U.S. military expanded, greater effort is needed to amplify the role of full-spectrum decisiveness and broad-spectrum support.

The contours of the 21st century security environment, which were unclear in 1997, are moving into view. There is not only the opportunity for more substantial strategic change, but also a growing need for it. Given this, the soundest military strategy for the United States in coming years is one that blends components of all five of the strategic alternatives that have been discussed here. It should integrate the following characteristics:

• Increased emphasis on joint, combined, and inter-agency experimentation, research, and development, but avoidance of lock-in to one particular type of future force. Phrased differently, the U.S. military should prepare for transformation but not yet undertake it ;

• Abandonment of the two MTW force shaping yardstick;

• Greater emphasis on asymmetric and nontraditional challenges (to include cancellation of procurement applicable only or primarily to MTWs);

• Movement toward a national security strategy that stresses collaboration and partnership rather than dominance and unilateralism. Development of concepts and organizations designed specifically to support regional partners and allies during peacetime, crisis, and war (including a national security strategy that concentrates on aiding with the formation and development of regional structures);

• A broadened approach to the issue of decisiveness to include a strategic meaning as well as an operational one;

• A strategic focus on potential peer competitors, specifically Russia and China. Modest engagement with these nations while retaining the capability to shift to containment if they prove unwilling to cooperate on the construction of global and regional security systems.





Part I: The Evolution of American Military Strategy

Part II: Core Issues

Part III: The Evolution of American Strategy


Chronology of Key Strategic Documents and Reports

About the Author

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