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American Strategy: Issues and Alternatives for the Quadrennial Defense Review

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz. | September 2000

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Stiff and unbending is the principle of death. Gentle and yielding is the principle of life. Thus an Army without flexibility never wins a battle. A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
? Tao Te Ching

The United States is as safe as any nation in recent memory yet remains obsessed with its security. Just as the nouveau riche are more aware than ?old money? that wealth can dissipate as easily as it comes, America, as a late entrant to the cast of great powers, worries that the nation?s influence will crumble and some yet-unnamed opponent will steal a march. Psychologically the United States is an insecure superpower. Rather than savoring predominance, American defense analysts and political leaders increasingly contend that the United States is approaching a point of danger or crisis for its military. Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn), for instance, has argued that ?the hollow state of readiness so many have warned about has already arrived.?1 Daniel Goure and his colleagues at the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSI S) talk of an imminent defense ?train wreck? that may lead to failed military operations, an unwillingness on the part of American political leaders to use the U.S. military, and a lack of confidence on the part of America?s allies.2 And analysts like John Hillen predict a defense ?death spiral? if fundamental strategic changes aren?t forthcoming. 3

Whether the state of American defense is really so dire can be debated, but tough decisions regarding American military strategy have been avoided or postponed since the downfall of the Soviet Union. Throughout the strategic community, support grows for a serious and far-reaching reevaluation of U.S. military strategy. The most basic questions?why, when, and how armed force should be used?are being asked. While it is very difficult to preventstrategic discourse from devolving into debates about what expensive new system should or should not be bought, or whether the military should or should not shrink, such questions cannot be answered without clarity on strategic concepts. Thinking about them is thus a process of immense importance with repercussions not only for Americans, but for the global security system as a whole.

While debate over American military strategy has simmered since the end of the Cold War, it is reaching new levels of intensity. Ironically, this is not the result of an event in the global security envi ronment?a great success or startling defeat?but rather the confluence of a congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and a presidential election. The coming year may see a real revision of American military strategy or simply a few cosmetic alterations. But whether because of what was decided or what was not decided, the years 2000 and 2001 are likely to be important ones in the evolution of American military strategy.

This study is designed to support QDR-related analysis by identifying major issues and strategic concepts. Part I provides context and background. George Santayana?s aphorism that ?those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it," although a cliche, remains true, so this study will begin by tracing the documents, studies, debates, and concepts which shaped the evolution of U.S. defense strategy during the past decade. (A chronology of key strategic documents and reports is included in the appendix.) Part II focuses on issues and alternatives under consideration as part of the QDR process. It will deal primarily with strategic concepts rather than with acquisition or force structure issues. Whether to buy systems like the Crusader or Joint Strike Fighter are very important questions but they only can be answered following debate and consensus on key strategic concepts. Acquisition and force structure are dependent variables, not independent ones; to decide what to buy and then decide what to do with it is not the most effective means ofpromoting American security. Part III will offer conclusions and recommendations.

Finally, the analysis throughout this study will be landpower in orientation. Today the role of American landpower and its strategic significance is being questioned. Decisions that are made concerning key strategic concepts will have immense implications for the size and role of U.S. land forces. By understanding the concepts and issues that constitute U.S. military strategy, decisions about the role and relevance of landpower as well as the setting of strategic priorities will become easier.


1. Senator Bill Frist, ?Our Hollow Military,? reprinted in Congressional Record, September 30, 1998, p. S11187.

2.Don M. Snider, Daniel Gouré, and Stephen A. Cambone, Defense in the Late 1990s: Avoiding the Train Wreck, Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1995; Daniel Goure, ?The Resource Gap,? Armed Forces Journal International, May 2000, p. 38; Daniel Goure and Jeffrey M. Ranney, Averting the Defense Train Wreck in the New Millennium, Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1999.

3. John Hillen, ?Defense?s Death Spiral,? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 78, No. 4, July/August 1999, pp. 2-7.