Fixing Our National Security Process

For those of us who came of age in the profession of arms during the Cold War and Vietnam, the events of the past two months have been profoundly unsettling. And it’s really not — as Jed Babbin wrote lightheartedly last week — that we’ve discovered the Fountain of Eden in the sancta sanctora of the Kremlin. It is, though, a realization that our most basic national security process — that of measuring the rapidly-evolving threats to America’s security, comparing our capabilities to them and repairing any mismatch — is badly out of whack.

It will be up to the next commander-in-chief to fix the process, or replace it entirely.

What we need is a non-partisan process that provides a framework for defining and prioritizing national interests, that anticipates threats for each interest, proposes the optimal means to address those threats and links multi-year budget requirements to those means.

There is plenty of evidence that our process is broken, especially in the military. Specifically, our armed forces are conducting too many operations that are of questionable value to our national survival or could be better addressed through other means, while very important interests are inadequately addressed, dangerously extending our forces.

Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are questionably critical to our national survival and have effectively limited our ability to address the re-emerging critical Russian threat. Moscow has thousands of nuclear weapons, its leaders are spewing war-like rhetoric and its recent invasion of the Republic of Georgia has caught the U.S. unprepared to respond.

Our current process has also allowed our military to deteriorate. Our armed forces are exhausted by too many back-to-back combat tours. They are equipped with inadequate and ancient equipment such as 50-year-old aerial tankers and 40-year-old helicopters, and operations and maintenance costs consume the cash needed to recapitalize the force for the nation’s future wars.

Consider a four-step process to fix the current mess.

First, we need a framework to define and prioritize our national interests. A Nixon Center study, “America’s National Interests,” identified four categories of interests: vital, extremely important, important, and less important or secondary. Rand president Jim Thomson, who participated in the study, said “… this hierarchy represents the extent to which the US should be willing to expend its military power or national treasure in order to defend certain interests.”

Vital national interests are those which are essential for the survival of our nation. These might include access to energy resources, protection from nuclear attack, and protection from crippling cyber attacks. Any one of these could jeopardize our survival or way of life. We should be willing to defend these interests with our military and national treasure.

Less important interests don’t warrant the same level of national commitment as do protecting the population from nuclear attack. We may care about promoting democracy in the third world or defending human rights, but they shouldn’t trump America’s self-preservation interest, nor should they drain away resources needed to protect more important interests.

Second, the process must anticipate threats to our national interests. We need vastly better intelligence-gathering mechanisms and forward-thinking analysts, which, working together, help our leaders anticipate emerging threats that jeopardize our interests.

Consider our access to energy resources as a vital national interest. Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world’s oil passes and which — if shuttered for long — could devastate the Western World’s economies. Should Tehran follow-through with that threat, our vital interest would be jeopardized.

Protecting our nation from nuclear attack is a vital interest. Clearly, we are threatened by Russia’s nuclear arsenal and, as nuclear technology proliferates, perhaps others like Iran will threaten America.

The Bush administration has used much of our military and considerable national treasure to fight the “global war on terrorism,” implying that terrorists are a threat to our vital national interest. Certainly, terrorists with weapons of mass destruction have the potential to kill thousands of innocent people, but it’s doubtful that transnational extremist networks threaten our nation’s survival. Protecting the nation from terrorist attacks is likely at best an extremely important national interest but shouldn’t divert resources away from our vital interests.

Our new process must anticipate and rank these threats against all our interests.

Third, the process must identify the means to defeat each threat against our interests using the appropriate national source of power. There are four national sources of power – military, economic, political-diplomatic–informational—moral. Under most situations the military source of power should be used last because a hammer – the military – is seldom the best tool to fix problems.

The current and previous administrations have really dropped the ball when applying the correct national source of power. They have by default turned to the military to reconstruct Iraq when the State Department should have provided the needed resources. Then again, the federal government’s response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster was to turn to the Pentagon when the Federal Emergency Management Agency failed.

But when the military is legitimately required, the process must define any mismatch between the threat and current capabilities. That will require an analysis of the nation’s ability to address all threats to our prioritized interests. Policy makers must then answer the question: Do we have enough of the right military means to protect those interests?

Consider Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. What naval, air and ground forces and associated technologies would be required to either prevent that from happening or reopen the straits after Tehran closes the strait? That’s a “means” solution to a vital interest.

How can we defend against a nuclear missile attack from Russia or Iran? Clearly, the order of magnitude of the threat is radically different between the two countries. The proposed ten American ballistic missile interceptors destined for silos in Poland by 2013 would be insufficient to deter a serious effort by Russia but likely would kill Shahab missiles launched by Tehran at Europe or future extended range Shahabs that could reach America.

What’s the best means to defeat terrorists? The “best means” might be a combination of homeland defense and special operating forces but unlikely the entire Army and Marine Corps.

Our means analysis must also include a foreign ally component. We should join alliances that advance our interests rather than just drain our limited resources.

Any budget-prudent means analysis will eliminate duplication. We must think about the desired outcome and forget about traditional military service missions and technologies. Force the process to demonstrate that the desired outcome against the threat can be optimally provided by the recommended means without regard to who provides it or how much it costs.

Finally, the process must build a budget that links each interest to the threat(s) and the best means. Clearly, our vital interests must be funded, but the less important interests may not be funded, thus requiring the nation to accept some risk.

Congress must embrace this non-partisan process and pledge not to lard it with perks for home districts. The budget should be presented as means-driven, and the risks associated with not funding interests must be clearly identified.

Our current national security strategy process is broken. As a result, America is strategically vulnerable. The new commander-in-chief must create a process that protects America’s interests and Congress must be willing to accept responsibility for the risks it refuses to afford.