Thinking about the Present and Future of US Military Power Projection

This is the third in a series of posts from a recent research symposium organised by Dr Ellen Hallams on ‘The Reconfiguration of American Primacy in World Politics: Domestic and International Challenges.’ In this piece, Dr Jeff Michaels explores the role of the military in US foreign policy.


One of the great ironies of so much of the commentary about US defence policy, or that which deals with its global implications, is that so little is understood about what the US armed forces are, and are not capable of, much less what they are actually up to, despite the enormous amount of evidence available about them.  Whereas during the Cold War, the limited amount of evidence about the Soviet military, much of it highly suspect, forced scholars and intelligence analysts to develop critical methodologies for interpreting it, contemporary analysis of the relatively ‘open’ US military system suffers from a false sense of confidence, with the result that there is far too little criticism.

The reasons for this are unclear. Perhaps the sheer volume of detailed information about the US military is so overwhelming that only the ‘headlines’ receive attention. Perhaps the focus on individual crises reduces interest in a more holistic understanding of a highly complex and global system. Perhaps the US military is viewed as being so powerful that the practical limits of this power are not viewed as a subject for serious contemplation – a phenomenon particularly apparent during the counterinsurgency revival that is often associated with General David Petraeus. Or perhaps, the critical study of the capabilities of today’s armed forces, regardless of country, is not considered a priority for scholars working in the field, and the limits to the study of the US military is simply part of a broader trend.  On this last point, it is instructive that despite the billions of dollars devoted to the development of the Iraqi and Afghan military systems, institutions incidentally that are the key underpinning structures of Western policies in both countries, analysis of these systems have received very little interest or priority compared to any number of other aspects of the two conflicts.

Similarly, a ‘taken for granted’ mentality seems to exist where the US armed forces are concerned, especially among US allies whose own defence policies must account for US military power in one way or other. One prominent example of this mentality can be seen in the reactions, particularly in Europe, to the 2011 announcement of a ‘pivot’ (later ‘rebalancing’) to Asia, which was viewed as a major shift of US policy, and one that had important implications for ‘European security’.  By contrast, the actual military content of this policy received little attention.  Yet viewed with a critical eye, it was immediately apparent that the military content was relatively insignificant, not only in its own right, but also relative to other key developments in the operational roles and geographical dispositions of the US armed forces that have occurred alongside the large-scale withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In this regard, a key limitation of most analyses is an over-reliance on a top-down approach in which policy direction is believed to derive from senior officials and will be implemented accordingly by the bureaucracy.  These analyses tend to give great weight to public statements of policy intent. Such an approach gives little independent agency to the bureaucracy, and mistakenly equates policy statements with policy action.  A more effective approach is to examine the interaction of the top-down with the bottom-up. Thus, to take the example of the ‘pivot’ again, this ‘new’ policy has typically been seen as deriving from the Obama administration. Almost no attention has been devoted to the roles played in promoting the ‘pivot’ by the US Navy and Air Force, nor of the US Pacific Command, nor of other actors in the wider US defence system associated with ‘peer competitor threats’ that had been marginalized in the post-9/11 period.

These bottom-up drivers are crucial to understanding the strengths and weaknesses of US policy. They are also essential to understanding the continuities and discontinuities of US policy.  The re-emergence of the ‘peer competitor’ in the US defence discourse is an interesting development in this respect, and also a dynamic one. Whereas several years ago, coinciding with the Asia ‘pivot’ discourse, China was emerging as the key future adversary, more recently US defence chiefs have referred to Russia as the top threat, followed by China, Iran and North Korea.  Interestingly, ‘non-state actors’ such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda have fallen to the bottom of the priority list, possibly reflecting a cost-benefit appreciation, based on earlier experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, that the application of significant US military power, at great expense, has resulted in few positive returns.  Put another way, those sections of the US military that deal with the large-scale application of force,  to say nothing of political elites and public opinion, have lost interest in ‘counterinsurgency’ and ‘stabilization’, and are quite content to defer these matters to those sections of the military that deal with the small-scale application of force – historically the norm for the US during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods.

Should this latest reordering of priorities be viewed purely as a reaction to external developments, or can a convincing case be made that infighting amongst different bureaucratic actors is at least partially responsible for this shift?  Actually, the external development explanation is less convincing than the internal development one, precisely because it is the actors within the US system that give these external developments meaning.  If one examines the origins of the ‘China threat’ discourse, and its evolution within the wider US defence discourse, relative to any actual ‘threat’ posed by the Chinese military what is striking is the way in which the emerging pre-9/11 ‘China threat’ disappeared once the ‘war on terror’ took centre stage.  In the decade after 9/11, Chinese military capabilities increased year after year, yet it was only with the marginalization of the ‘war on terror’ that the ‘China threat’ regained its prominence.  Incidentally, the marginalization within the US defence discourse of ‘terrorist’ and ‘insurgent’ threats in Iraq and Afghanistan occurred despite little indication of any actual decline posed by those threats. In other words, a gap can be identified between the prevailing discourse and the reality on the ground.  Trendiness in US threat assessments can also be seen in the recent and rather random emergence of Russia as the ‘top threat’ in the US defence discourse, more than a year after the Russian annexation of Crimea, and with little significant change in Russian behaviour in the interim.

Whilst focus on changes in the US defence discourse is important, it can also be misleading by channelling analysis into certain areas and directing attention away from other areas, with the consequence that important developments are overlooked.  The various conflicts, threats, and issues previously mentioned in this article represent only a handful in which the US military plays a role or deals with on a regular basis.  By its very nature, the US is a global military power, and is the only country in the world with a logistics system able to project and sustain significant military power overseas. The maintenance of this system is not only an enormous administrative and diplomatic task in its own right, but it is also the fundamental ‘enabler’, along with the military’s regional ‘combatant command’ system, that drives the unique way in which the US military operates.  Nor has this system been abandoned in recent years – it remains fundamentally in place, and in some areas it is being expanded.  In recent years, arguments about US ‘decline’, often associated with ‘military decline’, or about a regional emphasis on Asia at the expense of other regions, have ignored the existence and crucial importance of this ‘global’ logistics system for the application of US military power.  Unfortunately, the broader political and military implications of these structures have received little or no scholarly attention.

One final point to note relates to the way in which the US military is coping with that other enormous challenge for all Western armed forces, namely the decreasing utility of military force and the increasing poverty of military theory.  The US may be theoretically able to project significant military power in any range of conflict scenarios given the capabilities it possesses, but two key obstacles are likely to limit its willingness to do so. The first is the decreasing political, public, and military appetite for large-scale, costly, and potentially lengthy interventions.   Given the costliness in terms of blood and treasure fighting poorly armed adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is almost unthinkable to contemplate even costlier action against more sophisticated adversaries.  The second obstacle, closely related to the first, has been the inability of the US and other Western military systems to find effective ways of employing expensive military forces that are politically, economically, and socially acceptable. Military ‘scripts’ for successful outcomes  in contemporary conflicts are notable either by their absence, or by their absence of mind, though in fairness this is largely due to the lack of reasonable policy ends set them by politicians and the constrained policy framework they must operate within.  Consequently, whereas it may be difficult to say how the US military will cope with this challenge, it is much less difficult to say that the future of US military power projection will be largely defined by the way it copes with it or fails to do so.

Image: USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) and aircraft from Carrier Air Wing 2 perform an aerial demonstration in the South China Sea May 8, 2006, Via Wikimedia Commons.

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