Endless Military Superiority
by Michael Klare
The Nation magazine, July 15, 2002
If, as expected, Congress approves the Administration's proposed
military budget for 2003, US military spending will grow by $45
billion in the next fiscal year-a 13 percent increase over this
year's allocation and the largest increase since the early Reagan
era. Some of the additional money will be used to pay for the
war in Afghanistan and to underwrite a hefty increase in military
pay, but much of it will be devoted to the "transformation"
of the military establishment. Even larger amounts will be devoted
to transformation in the coming years, as the Defense Department
begins to replace existing, cold war-era weapons with new, supersophisticated
systems. The initiation of this effort has produced great joy
in the arms industry and sparked a wide-ranging debate over the
relative merits of various technologies and weapons systems. But
while much has been said about the technical and financial aspects
of transformation, very little attention has been paid to its
political and strategic dimensions-the aspects that will have
the greatest impact on US and international security in the years
When pressed on the meaning of "transformation,"
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his associates speak of
the need to abandon longstanding strategic assumptions and to
organize US forces for combat against unfamiliar enemies in unexpected
circumstances. Much emphasis is also placed on the development
of advanced technologies to increase US prowess on future battlefields.
But a close examination of Pentagon statements indicates that
a lot more is going on than a mere desire to utilize new technologies
or to prepare for the unknown. It is possible to detect a fundamental
shift in strategic thinking-a shift with far-reaching implications
for the United States and the world.
When alluding to this shift, Pentagon officials speak of replacing
the "threat-based strategy" that long governed US military
planning with what they describe as a "capabilities-based
approach." This means that the Defense Department will no
longer organize its forces to counter specific military threats
posed by clearly identifiable enemies, but instead will acquire
a capacity to defeat any conceivable type of attack mounted by
any imaginable adversary at any point in time-from now to the
far-distant future. Put differently, this is a mandate for the
pursuit of permanent military supremacy.
The pursuit of permanent supremacy is not a new endeavor.
Ever since the end of the cold war, policymakers have sought to
convert America's sole superpower status into an immutable fact
of life. In the most explicit expression of this outlook, the
Pentagon's draft "Defense Planning Guidance" for fiscal
years 1994 99, drawn up in February 1992, called for a concerted
US effort to preserve its sole-superpower status into the foreseeable
future. "Our first objective," the highly classified
document stated, "is to prevent the re-emergence of a new
rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere,
that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the
This statement, attributed in part to Paul Wolfowitz (then
the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and now the Deputy Secretary
of Defense), provoked a worldwide outcry when excerpts were published
in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Critics, especially
in Europe, charged that it assumed a "world policeman"
role for the United States and the subordination of America's
allies to second-class status in a US-dominated world order. Faced
with this criticism, the Defense Department adopted a revised
guidance document that called for greater collaboration between
the United States and its allies.
Although the idea of US military supremacy was too touchy
to discuss publicly during the 1990s, the concept never fully
disappeared. A number of prominent pundits and strategists continued
to circulate the ideas contained in the original draft of the
1992 guidance document. Then, during the 2000 presidential campaign,
proponents of this approach were given a new chance to advance
their views by George W. Bush. In his most important speech on
military policy, given at the Citadel in September 1999, Bush
reiterated many of the concepts first articulated in the 1992
document. Most significant, he embraced the concept of permanent
military superiority. Pointing to America's huge advantage in
military technology, he promised "to take advantage of a
tremendous opportunity-given to few nations in history-to extend
the current peace into the far realm of the future. A chance to
project America's peaceful influence, not just across the world,
but across the years."
In this speech-reportedly prepared with the assistance of
Wolfowitz-Bush said the United States needed sufficient airlift
and sealift to move troops to any point in the world quickly,
along with sophisticated surveillance devices to locate enemy
forces at any time of day or night, and advanced munitions to
destroy them with minimum risk to American fighters. "Our
forces in the next century must be agile, lethal, readily deployable
and require a minimum of logistical support," Bush declared.
"We must be able to project our power over long distances,
in days or weeks rather than months. Our military must be able
to identify targets by a variety of means" and "be able
to destroy those targets almost instantly, with an array of weapons."
These core ideas-the projection of US power forward in time
and horizontally across the earth's surface, and the use of advanced
surveillance and munitions to overpower less capable adversaries-form
the guiding principles of the Administration's military buildup.
They have governed every aspect of Pentagon planning since the
Bush team occupied the White House. And they have been subsumed
into the Administration's definition of "transformation."
While enjoying strong support from the White House, Secretary
Rumsfeld encountered considerable resistance from entrenched bureaucracies
in the Defense Department when he first sought to apply these
principles. The military services were quite prepared to accept
the billions of dollars promised by the White House for the procurement
of new weapons, but they preferred to spend all of this money
on conventional big-ticket items like tanks, heavy artillery,
jet fighters, aircraft carriers and submarines. Throughout the
spring and summer of 2001, Rumsfeld was rebuffed time and again
when he sought to persuade senior officers to abandon their attachment
to conventional weapons and embrace the new technologies favored
by proponents of transformation.
September 11 and the subsequent mobilization of American power
for the war in Afghanistan changed this picture in a number of
significant ways. First of all, it gave the advocates of radical
transformation a free hand to put their ideas into practice sooner
and on a much bigger scale than they had ever envisioned. The
apparent success of their efforts-in particular, the use of highly
mobile, lightly armed Special Forces units to coordinate airstrikes
by bombers equipped with laser-guided munitions-earned them enormous
prestige in Washington.
Second, the outpouring of public support for the war against
terrorism allowed Bush to secure from Congress sufficient funds
to procure virtually all of the big-ticket items sought by the
armed forces and to finance the more visionary systems favored
by the transformers as well. The $45 billion added to the 2003
military budget is a testament to these extraordinary circumstances.
Finally, September 11 produced a significant alteration in
the military posture favored by the President and his closest
advisers. When first outlining this posture, in his 1999 Citadel
address, Bush eagerly endorsed the extension of US power in time
and space; at the same time, however, he explicitly rejected a
prominent US role in peacekeeping and other "low intensity"
operations. "We will not be permanent peacekeepers,"
he said at the time. "This is not our strength or our calling."
But in the wake of 9/11, he has added low-intensity combat to
the roster of military operations in which US forces will be expected
to attain superiority.
The proposed Defense Department budget for fiscal year 2003,
which begins on October 1,2002, reflects all these developments.
Most significant, it includes substantial funds both for "legacy"
systems-tanks and planes developed during the cold war and favored
by the military services-and for "transformative" systems
preferred by the people around Bush and Rumsfeld. It also calls
for the expansion of US "power projection" capabilities,
so as to allow the rapid deployment of forces to distant battlefields.
And it entails an acceleration of scientific and technical efforts
aimed at the development of new types of weaponry for the wars
of the distant future.
Most of the public commentary on the 2003 military budget
has focused on the provision of vast sums for the procurement
of "legacy" systems like the F-22 Raptor air-superiority
fighter and the Joint Strike Fighter. Even with Rumsfeld's cancellation
of the multibillion-dollar Crusader artillery system, the budget
is crammed with big-ticket items. For this reason, the budget
has come under attack from some military analysts who favor a
big increase in Pentagon spending but who fault Rumsfeld for allocating
too much money to legacy systems and not enough to innovative,
high-tech weapons. "There are bits and pieces of transformation
in the budget," says Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for
Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, but not enough to make a
fundamental difference. "I worry we are locking ourselves
in by committing now to buying some of these weapons systems like
fighter jets in such large numbers over the next two decades,"
he told the Wall Street Journal on March 28.
Krepinevich's comments have been echoed by some on the left
who view the 2003 budget increase as a giant payoff to the nation's
military companies-many of which contributed substantial funds
to Bush's presidential campaign. But while it is certainly true
that the new budget is extraordinarily generous to the builders
of conventional military equipment, like the F-22, it would be
a mistake to focus solely on that phenomenon and ignore the radical
transformation of the US military establishment envisioned by
the new budget.
To fully appreciate the long-term significance of the Rumsfeld
program, it is useful to separate the budget plan into the three
axes or dimensions of military planning: vertical, horizontal
and temporal. The vertical dimension refers to the relative intensity
or destructiveness of combat-the "ladder of escalation,"
from low-intensity conflict up through major regional wars to
global conventional war and on to nuclear war. The horizontal
dimension refers to geographical reach-the military's capacity
to "project power" to distant locations. Finally, the
temporal dimension refers to the military's capacity to anticipate
and prepare for combat with enemies in the distant future.
In the past, US strategy has placed explicit or implicit limits
on the movement of American forces along these three axes. With
respect to the vertical dimension, Pentagon doctrine has always
stressed US superiority at the upper end of the axis but essentially
disdained preparation for limited war-the assumption being that
any military establishment capable of overpowering a major adversary
would have no difficulty in defeating a host of minor enemies.
As for the horizontal axis, US strategy has always placed a premium
on Europe, East Asia and the Middle East, the three areas deemed
to be of greatest strategic importance to the United States. Finally,
strategy has generally stressed preparation for likely encounters
in the near to mid-term, focusing on a clash with the Soviet Union
or, more recently, with familiar adversaries like Iraq and North
But the new Pentagon strategy takes an entirely different
stance. Instead of setting limits, it seeks to insure US dominance
at every conceivable point on all three axes. On the vertical
axis, the new strategy calls for a US capacity to prevail in any
type of warfare, from terrorism and insurgency on up to all-out
nuclear war. Although the greatest emphasis will be placed on
beefing up US capabilities in mid-range conflicts, considerable
funding will also be devoted to low-level warfare-counterterrorism,
counterinsurgency and "police" operations.
To enhance US capacity in such operations, the Pentagon is
boosting the strength of the Special Operations Forces and providing
them with a wide array of new equipment. Major initiatives include
acquiring four AC-130U flying gun platforms (of the type used
to pound enemy positions in Afghanistan) and converting four Trident
ballistic-missile submarines into "strike submarines"
that will carry Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles and will
be able to infiltrate small squads of Special Forces commandos
into the coastal areas of hostile powers.
Additional funding will also be devoted to nuclear warfare
and space-based systems. Under the Nuclear Posture Review, submitted
to Congress in January, the Administration will reduce the number
of nuclear warheads deployed on operational missiles and bombers
but establish a large "responsive capability" made up
of once-operational weapons that could be quickly restored to
active status. (The new arms-reduction agreement signed by Presidents
Bush and Putin in May puts no restrictions on measures of this
sort.) Funds will also be committed in the Energy Department budget
for a study of the possible modification of existing nuclear warheads
for use in strikes on underground bunkers, and for measures aimed
at reducing the time it would take to resume the testing of nuclear
weapons (in case a decision to do so is made by this or a future
On the horizontal axis, particular emphasis will be placed
on the enhancement of US capabilities to project-power to distant
battlefields. Such missions typically involve two types of equipment:
"mobility" systems, whose function is to deliver US-based
troops to far-off battle zones; and "anti-access-denial"
systems, whose task is to overpower the "access denial"
forces employed by an enemy to foil an invasion of its territory.
To enhance power projection, the new budget sets aside $4
billion for twelve C-17 intercontinental cargo planes. Work will
also begin on an amphibious transport ship and a new class of
"maritime prepositioning ships"-large vessels with helipads
and built-in docks that will be used as floating supply depots
in areas far-removed from existing bases. And to bolster anti-access-denial
capabilities, the Pentagon will begin development of a new long-range
bomber and acquire additional Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs,
pilotless spy planes like the Predator, used in Afghanistan).
Even more significant, perhaps, is the Pentagon's plan to
enhance US capabilities along the temporal axis-developing weapons
that will not be used for many years against enemies whose identity
can only be guessed at today. As explained by Secretary Rumsfeld
on January 31, the nation must be prepared to defend itself "against
the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen, and the unexpected"
and must prepare its forces "to deter and defeat adversaries
that have not yet emerged to challenge us."
One might ask why we should spend vast sums at this time of
domestic austerity in order to defend against enemies that do
not now and may never exist. By the same token, one might speculate
that preparing now for future combat with a hypothetical adversary
like China or India could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that
it generates fear and hostility among foreign leaders who might
otherwise choose to become friends or allies. But such arguments
will meet with deaf ears at the Defense Department, where officials
are determined to press ahead with a wide range of visionary and
Most of the programs in this category are still in the research
and development stage, or are hidden in secret ("black")
accounts distributed throughout the budget. Some, however, have
been the subject of public discussion. One such endeavor is the
Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, an armed UAV that would hover
over enemy territory and strike targets of opportunity when prompted
to do so by their American ground controllers, located dozens
or even hundreds of miles away. Such systems, says Chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers, "have the potential
to change significantly the way we fight and perhaps even the
nature of warfare itself."
Another new system being funded in 2003 is the DD(X), a high-technology
warship that will incorporate a wide range of innovative weapons
and technologies. Although details are still sketchy, it is expected
to incorporate radar-evading stealth technologies of the sort
now found only on aircraft, and to carry a wide variety of antiship
and land-attack missiles.
Some weapons now on the drawing board will make it to fullscale
production; others won't. The point is that these systems are
being developed in the absence of any credible threat from any
adversary possessing anything even remotely resembling America's
existing military capacity. No nation or combination of states
in the world today can overcome America's military establishment,
and none are likely to appear on the horizon with this ability
for another three or four decades, at the very least.
The question facing all Americans, therefore, is whether the
expenditure of hundreds (later thousands) of billions of dollars
to defend against hypothetical enemies that may not arise until
thirty or forty years from now is a sensible precaution, as contended
by the President and Defense Secretary, or whether it eventually
will undermine US security by siphoning off funds from vital health
and educational programs and by creating a global environment
of fear and hostility that will produce exactly the opposite of
what is intended by all these expenditures.
Another vital question is prompted by the Administration's
new emphasis on anti-access-denial systems. Stripped of jargon
and obfuscation, this is a plan to enhance America's capacity
to invade and overpower hostile countries with a significant defense
capability, like North Korea and China. In essence, this means
shifting the primary orientation of US forces from defense against
aggression (the original purpose of NATO) to offense and intervention.
Surely this will not go unnoticed in other parts of the world,
and will undoubtedly prompt countries that may have cause to fear
US intervention to beef up their defensive (anti-access) capabilities-thus
justifying further US spending on anti-access-denial systems.
Here again, one has to wonder whether we are not exposing ourselves
to an increased level of risk by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
These are critical questions that deserve intense debate at
every level of society, yet Congress has rushed to endorse virtually
every Pentagon initiative without the merest pretense of oversight.
We must put pressure on our representatives in Washington to give
careful thought to the long-term implications of a strategy of
permanent military supremacy.
Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies
at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, is defense correspondent
for The Nation. He is the author, most recently, of Resource Wars:
The New Landscape of Global Conflict (Owl).
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