Receive "The World According to Tom Barnett" Brief
Where I Work
Buy Tom's Books
  • Great Powers: America and the World After Bush
    Great Powers: America and the World After Bush
    by Thomas P.M. Barnett
  • Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating
    Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating
    by Thomas P.M. Barnett
  • The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century
    The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century
    by Thomas P.M. Barnett
  • Romanian and East German Policies in the Third World: Comparing the Strategies of Ceausescu and Honecker
    Romanian and East German Policies in the Third World: Comparing the Strategies of Ceausescu and Honecker
    by Thomas P.M. Barnett
  • The Emily Updates (Vol. 1): One Year in the Life of the Girl Who Lived (The Emily Updates (Vols. 1-5))
    The Emily Updates (Vol. 1): One Year in the Life of the Girl Who Lived (The Emily Updates (Vols. 1-5))
    by Vonne M. Meussling-Barnett, Thomas P.M. Barnett
  • The Emily Updates (Vol. 2): One Year in the Life of the Girl Who Lived (The Emily Updates (Vols. 1-5))
    The Emily Updates (Vol. 2): One Year in the Life of the Girl Who Lived (The Emily Updates (Vols. 1-5))
    by Thomas P.M. Barnett, Vonne M. Meussling-Barnett
  • The Emily Updates (Vol. 3): One Year in the Life of the Girl Who Lived (The Emily Updates (Vols. 1-5))
    The Emily Updates (Vol. 3): One Year in the Life of the Girl Who Lived (The Emily Updates (Vols. 1-5))
    by Thomas P.M. Barnett, Vonne M. Meussling-Barnett
  • The Emily Updates (Vol. 4): One Year in the Life of the Girl Who Lived (The Emily Updates (Vols. 1-5))
    The Emily Updates (Vol. 4): One Year in the Life of the Girl Who Lived (The Emily Updates (Vols. 1-5))
    by Thomas P.M. Barnett, Vonne M. Meussling-Barnett
  • The Emily Updates (Vol. 5): One Year in the Life of the Girl Who Lived (The Emily Updates (Vols. 1-5))
    The Emily Updates (Vol. 5): One Year in the Life of the Girl Who Lived (The Emily Updates (Vols. 1-5))
    by Vonne M. Meussling-Barnett, Thomas P.M. Barnett, Emily V. Barnett
Search the Site
Monthly Archives
Powered by Squarespace
« Blast from my past: "Top Ten Post-Cold War Myths" (2001) | Main | Mac help request »

Blast from my past: "Force Structure Will Change" (2000)

Force Structure Will Change


Thomas P.M. Barnett and Henry H. Gaffney, Jr.



COPYRIGHT: The U.S. Naval Institute, 2000 (October issue, pp. 30-34); reprinted with permission


Each service stands to win—or lose— 
depending on what national security visions 
the new administration embraces.  
System visions favor air forces; 
nation-state visions favor naval forces; 
subnational visions favor ground forces

In January 1993, we wrote an article in Proceedings about the election-year debate on foreign policy and its implications for U.S. Navy force structure planning.[1]  The piece later was cited as one of the journal’s best during its 125th anniversary celebration.  Emboldened by such recognition, we decided to update our analysis to see what the Clinton years have accomplished in shaping the major arguments about what sort of crises and enemies we should focus on—and plan U.S. force structure around.

This endeavor might strike some as quixotic (Clinton had no foreign policy and the world is thus a mess!), but we think the debate has faded into an inertia favoring the status quo of incremental modernization, albeit more by trial and error than by grand strategy.  In addition, we think this election’s non-debate on foreign policy demonstrates just how comfortable the public has become with a consensus that the United States is neither the global policeman nor a 911 force—that the U.S. military rather should be a selective enforcer of “mini-containment strategies” against regional troublemakers.

What does that mean for force structure planning?

  • Despite calls for full-speed ahead on a revolution in military affairs (RMA), the “creeping incrementalism” approach to modernization is not going away soon.
  • The defense budget definitely has a floor, and a yet-to-be-determined ceiling not far above it, and this means stable service shares, which also means each service “transforms” within its own resources.

  • The Navy and Marine Corps keep the general course established back in 1992 in “. . . From the Sea”—a warfighting-focused, forward-deployed swarming force that sacrifices some numbers and technology to maintain its day-to-day readiness for quick crisis response.

Incrementalism in the Defense of Force Structure Is No Vice

Wistful Cold War memories have left many U.S. military experts and strategists yearning to continue technological revolutions.  They are alarmed by what has happened in the world in the 1990s, sensing great international disorder combined with confusion in U.S. foreign policy.  The real history is far more benign:

  • Bush and his wise men ably wage the Persian Gulf War, leading many to hail a new form of high-tech war.  The administration’s real accomplishments, however, are forming the coalition that fought the war and masterfully riding along with the Soviet Bloc’s dissolution.  The New World Order really is about the North’s advanced countries cooperating in new ways, with the losers of the world relabeled as “rogues.”  Bush and Cheney start the proportional, incremental shrinkage of the Cold War force, and Desert Storm buttresses the Powell Doctrine’s “overwhelming force” concept.  Then Somalia beckons . . ..
  • Clinton I interprets Bush’s New World Order too expansively, and plunges into humanitarian interventions where our national interests seem nil.  Instead of focusing on defense relations with allies, his administration plays ambulance to the Third World, turning the doctrinal spotlight on military operations other than war.  Aspin tries to set a floor on force structure in the Bottom-Up Review, but the maintenance costs associated with Cold War readiness standards create a squeeze, especially on procurement.
  • Clinton II backs off from the Southern Strategy.  So it is a reluctant “yes” to the Balkans but a quiet “no” to Africa.  The Defense Department refocuses on the fault lines between North and South, and, by playing firewall, settles down to a series of mini-containments that necklace the planet—Cold Warrior reborn as Rogue Warrior.  Aspin’s force levels nearly are reaffirmed in the Quadrennial Defense Review, and the rising costs of sustaining that military squeeze both modernization and force structure.

Across all three periods, each service seeks to adapt itself to the changing security market, though largely through repackaging its product in new “expeditionary” wrappers.  But through it all, each buys—in ever-smaller numbers—those platforms and systems deemed essential to a “full-service” force, meaning one simultaneously:

  • Warfighting oriented (ready for two major theater wars)
  • Globally engaged and military-operations-other-than-war capable
  • High-tech.

As the decade ends, the Pentagon budget features:

  • A fairly static top line, as the deficit is cured and surpluses arrive
  • Rock-solid service shares
  • Continued force structure shrinkage as platform prices and support costs rise. 

In short, despite the hullabaloo about “the” RMA, the supposed brilliance of those “asymmetrical warriors,” and something called network-centric operations, incrementalism still rules force planning.  In addition, if you ask the services what their number one priority is, it’s always personnel and their care.

What might be the alternatives?  We see three competing national security visions, each with a geostrategic focus that favors one service marginally over time.

I. It's the Great Powers, Stupid! 

Those who view the world more as a complex system of security relationships focus on:

  • How the advanced countries get along
  • Number of “poles” in play (uni-, bi-, or multipolar)
  • Whether Russia and China really can be brought into this playpen. 

Geostrategists worry about the big pieces and let everything else fall in line.  Sure, the G-7 runs the economic side of the house, but presidents must lead in these all-important dyad relationships, and they think Clinton played “trade president” to distraction.   This is the cry of George W. Bush’s “Vulcans,” where everything old is to be renewed again—except arms control.  Pointing to proliferation of missile technology that clearly bears the imprint of our old Communist foes, they call for national missile defense, promising (wink, nudge) to protect allies as well.

This camp sees the main foreign policy task of the next decade being the processing of Russia and China into the great power fold on our terms—meaning they learn to play by our rules.  Once the North is in order, the South should fall in line, especially since the rogues would not have anyone of consequence to supply them in their nefarious activities.  However, there is a danger in getting too explicit with Moscow and Beijing about “acceptable behavior.”  While ostensibly trying to consolidate the community of advanced countries, we may end up casting Russia and China into the gap as globalization’s bad boys.

II. Mind the Gap! 

Those who view the world more as an economic system focus on:

  • Troublemakers (rogues) who challenge the status quo
  • Regional balances of power that might disrupt economic flows
  • Other regional disruptions that affect the global economy (e.g., a failing Indonesia).

These risk analysts treat every region with sensitivity for its unique vulnerabilities but calculate U.S. interests primarily along financial lines.  Some countries count in the globally networked economy and others do not.  Instability involving the former must be contained, but that involving the latter can be routinely ignored or treated with palliative measures.

This is the réaleconomik of the second Clinton administration after Somalia.  A successor Gore administration probably would take the same approach.  In this vision, rogues are something for the military to take care of while the rest of the government attends to domestic and international economic affairs.  Countries that disregard markets, such as Iraq and Serbia, will always represent either potential economic disruptions or something to be contained.  So when it comes to missile schemes, there is more support for theater defense than national defense.

This camp sees the main foreign policy task of the next decade being the effective management of the economic and technological gaps dividing North and South.  You keep the North’s economic expansion on track by making sure nothing—and no one—in the South messes it up.  When situations down there get really ugly, you do what you have to, but you avoid serious involvement unless key economic fault lines are involved.  This group also will agonize more about human tragedies in failing states, but they will use U.S. military forces only as catalysts to mobilize other nations’ forces.

III. Leave No Failed State Behind!

Those who view the world as a collection of “tribes” focus on:

  • Rising anti-Westernism and the specter of “clashing civilizations,” with key disruptive agents being terrorists and drug traffickers
  • Commodity-dependent economies withering away in globalization’s harshly competitive environment
  • Societies under siege from destructive transnational forces (e.g., narcotics, AIDS, pollution, climate change). 

These social activists believe that the United States needs to care far more about the world’s “backward” economies, where most of the planet’s births and violent deaths will occur.  Forget your pork barrel Star Wars, and shift funds to something more useful!

It is the cry of Seattle Man, and it finds occasional, if sometimes ironic resonance in the campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader.   Antiglobalization types feel pain erupting all over the world from predatory free-trade practices that expose Old Economy sheep to New Economy wolves.  They have seen the enemy and “they is us!”—the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization.  This unlikely coalition sees the adaptation of the global to the local—not vice versa—as the next's decade's main foreign policy task.  The South needs help now, and if it does not get it, it will bring its pain to us—one way or another.  Slowing down globalization’s march also will give much-needed breathing space to the New Economy’s “losers” in the North (e.g., low-tech labor).

Three Visions, Three Militaries

So to sum up the three competing political visions, either the United States concentrates on:

  • The North’s advanced-power relationships—system-level vision
  • The troubled “arc of instability” between North and South—the unruly nation-state level vision
  • The South’s chronic pain—subnational-level vision. 

Admittedly, these are ideal representations that, while reflecting the general thrusts of various elite groups in the United States, offer few firm predictions as to how any one administration would behave once in office.  Anyway, reality usually occupies the mushy middle, where ideal types are rarely to be found. The base case always is continued incrementalism.  Still, it is useful to track how such visions would logically skew force structures to favor one service over another, for it is through such what-iffing that we learn to be careful—lest we get what we wish for.

System visions favor air forces.  The system vision employs the longest, over-the-horizon perspective.  It is concerned with maintaining the United States’ high-tech lead, and that emphasis naturally favors the Air Force as the Future Force.  This approach merges air, space, and cyberspace into a seamless whole, with the operational paradigm being that of system administrator—less warfighting Leviathan and more air traffic controller.  Interventions increasingly are virtualized: we enable or manipulate the combat expectations of others (both allies and foes), but go out of our way to avoid real in-theater presence.  This is the Kosovo air campaign taken to its logical extreme, with force structure planning emphasizing effects-based weapons, stand-off delivery, and networking capabilities.

In this vision, the United States seeks a future of niched advanced-country militaries that play “spokes” to our “hub” (i.e., we worry about major security disruptions and they take the lead on local ones).  The information umbrella replaces the nuclear one, and a Northern Hemispheric Security Zone finally realizes the Vancouver-to-Vladivostok dream of the Baker-Shevardnadze era.  Once joined in interlocking fashion, the North’s countries (United States, other NATO, Japan, Russia, and eventually China and maybe even India) effectively criminalize warfare in the South, policing all such outbreaks as simply “illegal” in the globalized economy.  This is the mergers and acquisition approach to international security—we effectively buy out our competition over time.

Nation-state visions favor naval forces.  The nation-state vision addresses the actual and potential messes created by an Iraq or other unruly state at the North-South boundary, along which much of the advanced world’s lines of communication lie.  It is concerned with maintaining the United States’ capacity to project power rapidly around the world, possibly in a unilateral fashion.  That emphasis naturally favors the Navy and Marine Corps as the Response Force.  This approach blends responses to rogue states and their putative antiaccess/asymmetrical strategies into a littoral strategy, with the operational paradigm being that of the SWAT team.  Coalitions serve as window-dressing during conflicts, but later as an important source of stay-behind, on-the-ground, peace enforcers.  Interventions are increasingly routinized and drawn out into lengthy, sequential containment operations.

This is the Iraqi containment process taken to its logical extreme, with force structure planning emphasizing platform survivability, the capacity for loitering and constant surveillance, and the day-to-day application of discrete force at will—thus to contain any and all challengers to the North’s growing Zone of Peace.  Meanwhile, the South’s Zone of Conflict is largely tolerated because it lies outside the pale of globalization’s New Economy.  In the lexicon of Thomas Friedman, the United States concentrates on making sure the “Lexus” world keeps functioning smoothly, applying military power in those few areas of the “Olive Tree” world where local instability might cross the gap.[2]  This is the outsourcing approach to international security—we do what we do best (high-end, rapid power projection) and then subcontract follow-on operations to local firms.

Subnational visions favor ground forces.  The subnational vision has the shortest and most real-time perspective of never-ending messes that lie outside the community of advanced countries.  It is concerned almost exclusively with keeping the violence “over there,” while adopting the emergency room credo of “treat ’em and street ’em.”  There is no sense of eventual rehabilitation, just a desire to stay on top of the flow by keeping sufficient numbers of boots on the ground, an emphasis that naturally favors the Army and National Guard as the Constabulary Forces.  This approach merges military operations other than war, cooperation with nongovernmental organizations and private voluntary organizations, and U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping coalitions into one big sloppy whole.  All interventions are quagmires on some level, because we always are treating chronic cases.  This is the Haiti humanitarian operation taken to its logical extreme, with force improvements emphasizing logistics, infrastructure restoration capacity, and nonlethal technologies.

In this vision, the United States seeks to prevent a future known as The Coming Chaos, where the South’s bad neighborhoods simply swell beyond capacity and eventually pour into the North’s great gated community.[3]  Some inevitabilities along this path are:

  • The development of regional police forces leading to an eventual global one, probably sponsored by the advanced nations cooperating in the United Nations
  • The increasing use of mercenaries or contract military personnel in peacekeeping operations
  • The evolution of U.S. ground forces toward greater reliance on reserves. 

This is the privatization or divestiture approach to international security: we effectively spin off the military-operations-other-than-war portfolio from the Defense Department, with the Army’s constabulary forces as catalysts for multinational interventions that limit our involvement.

What Really Matters to Key Constituents 

How does the United States choose among these alternatives, if it decides to choose at all? We have talked mostly about the services, because they have to build and manage the forces, but there are many other players: the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), unified commanders, the defense industry, Congress, and the American public.  Practically none of these voices, however, is really engaged in the outside (i.e., economic) world or thinks in grand strategic terms.  They are fundamentally domestic or inwardly looking constituents.

Across the Clinton years, OSD has been scared away from having a focused strategic outlook.  Thus, it has let all strategies bloom in a crowded seedbed, with none emerging to full stature.  In addition, OSD suffers from an internal clash between the acquisition types, who—in cahoots with defense industry—want all the great new technologies, and the bean counters, who struggle with the services in balancing programs under the flattened top line.  In all, OSD is torn among all three visions.

The unified commanders have been searching for a post-Cold War role.  Recently they have begun presenting engagement in a diplomatic vein to justify maintenance of last year’s forces.  The problem is, they don’t know whether to engage more with new states or with old friends.  Distant from Washington, they cling to the past—stridently asking to keep the forces they used to have.  They are torn between the national and subnational visions, not quite knowing which gives them a better play in the game.

For defense industries, survival is most important.  Yet they fight for a limited pot.  They still are the source of innovation in technology, so they naturally favor the system vision.

The Hill thinks about people, bases, and the defense industry—all domestic concerns.  As deliberative bodies of elected representatives, they do not have “strategic vision.”  They repeatedly make clear that “perfect readiness is never having to use the forces overseas.”  They are constrained between the administration’s budget submission and their own budget committees.  If they had a choice, they would buy the system vision, for it means high technology and no messy international involvements.  The marginal upward changes they make to budgets are mostly in this direction, when they are not otherwise concerned with military pay and benefits.

The public is relatively indifferent to these debates.  They are torn between pride in technology and humanitarian concerns about the South.  This leaves them relatively indifferent to the state-level, mind-the-gap, vision.

What This Suggests for Naval Force Structure Planning

The defense community concerned with these debates is a very narrow group, not well connected to the public—and they are split in all three directions.  There is a great opportunity for leadership to clarify direction, but at the same time, there is no clear pressure from the external environment as to what the choice might be.

We know there are constraints that, until broken, mean all strategies cannot be serviced.  These constraints include:

  • The top-line defense budget—the prospective (and dubious) federal surpluses all have been allocated by the candidates, with very little additional for defense
  • The legacy forces and the personnel that operate them—one of the United States’ great strengths, but a force that constrains innovation and change
  • Presence commitments abroad—for the time being, the United States will station nearly 100,000 military personnel in both Europe and East Asia, with maybe 25,000 containing Iraq
  • Service shares—in the absence of clear strategic choice, they remain the same. 

As noted, the domestic drivers currently are stronger than the international ones.  Oddly enough, the domestic constituents do not line up strongly on the vision favoring naval forces, even though they enjoy a slight advantage in budget shares.

Naval forces, then, will end up hedging against several strategies—within the cited constraints.  They cannot afford the forces they have right now, much less to recapitalize them at the pace and to the extent they want.  They may well have to give up a little on both input (less of the most advanced technology) and output (more shrinkage in force structure), but this still leaves them in a great position to support the mind-the-gap vision as the United States’ premier Response Force.


[1] Thomas P. M. Barnett and Henry H. Gaffney, “It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Ride,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1993, pp. 23-26.

[2] See Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999). 

[3] Read anything by Robert Kaplan and you’ll get the general picture.  See The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War (New York: Random House, 2000); or his The Ends of the Earth : From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia, a Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy (New York: Vintage Books, 1997).


Dr. Barnett is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, serving as a senior strategic researcher in the Decision Strategies Department of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies.  Dr. Gaffney is a research manager at The CNA Corporation, serving as Team Leader in the Center for Strategic Studies.  They would like to thank Professor Bradd C. Hayes for his feedback on an earlier draft of this essay.

Reader Comments (1)

'The administration’s real accomplishments, however, are forming the coalition that fought the war and masterfully riding along with the Soviet Bloc’s dissolution.'

Only a few media articles at the time noted the need for Bush to carefully assist the Soviet Union's dissolution in Central and East Europe without triggering an overreaction from Soviet extremists, or excess violence and emotion from cultural and political groups in the 'liberated' countries. It was also interesting that Saudi Arabia and Iran quietly cooperated with the complex and subtle Bush military effort in Iraq when those countries had been chronic aggressive competitors in the Middle East.

Even aggressive international Islamic activists, that later joined AQ ventures, also cooperated with Bush/NATO efforts to ease the conflicts as South Central Soviet satellite states obtained gradual separation from Russian control. The centuries of conflicting cultural and religious backgrounds in those states made political explosions very possible. The Bush/NATO/Russian players involved were possibly lucky, but I think they were also wise and sophisticated.

August 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlouis Heberlein

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>