Speaker Memo One: Winnefeld and Breedlove Speakers

The key thread tying together every talk, reading, and presentation this week was an examination of priorities, particularly as relate to military considerations. As Admiral Winnefeld described in both his presentation and in “Why American Strategy Fails,” the grand strategy of statecraft rests upon a delicate balance of ends, ways, means, and the global security landscape. Admittedly, each element in the quartet is of great importance, but in order to select a ‘way’ or to develop better ‘means,’ a state must first determine what its highest goals are and how important they rank in comparison with each other. The fundamental principle of economics, scarcity, applies just as well to consideration of military priorities: money, equipment, and personnel (i.e., human capital) are limited, so the state must carefully choose how to allocate scare resources in pursuit of those highest goals. Through efficient prioritization, even small states can wield disproportionate influence, as evidenced in the global wariness of the nuclear program in North Korea. By investing extensively in nuclear weapons, a state which otherwise could never hope to compete militarily has repeatedly held hostage the international system’s most major players (Kashin). However, the ranking of national military priorities is complicated, and a variety of factors weigh into state calculations.

Among other limitations, the decision-making apparatus of a state defines how it can set and support military priorities. In Russia, Vasiliy Kashin describes a system of centralized control, wherein a clear hierarchy exists stretching up from every Russian soldier (really every man, as Russia has compulsory service), through a layer of officials, and terminating with President Vladimir Putin. Due to centralized control and the long career of most major Russian leaders, the top layers of government intertwine completely with the military, set priorities for long timespans, and enjoy a degree of cohesion and unquestionability impossible in the United States. In the U.S., on the other hand, contestation and elections underscore every attempt at setting national priorities. With meaningful elections and departmental change looming every four years, the U.S. government struggles to set long-term priorities. With a variety of departments and private contractors vying to set different top priorities, cohesion is rare. With the extensive degree of governmental transparency expected by the American people, secret priorities and strategies become nearly impossible. With the dependence of political power on public approval, elected officials and their appointees often find their hands tied. As I believe General Breedlove said on Wednesday, politics does not enter into the Situation Room/National Security Council meetings, but it hovers right outside the door. The large division in governmental systems extensively shapes Russian and American approaches to the ‘ends,’ ‘ways,’ and ‘means’ of military statecraft.

Second only to the influence of the state structure, the national perception of the future natures of war and conflict determine state priorities and the intended paths to reach them. If, as Jervis does, state leaders view military force as a “fungible” solution, adaptable to subtle, coercive strategies, the state will likely focus on limited deterrents and small-scale demonstrations of force (as the future of force is not rooted in conquest). If state leaders believe the wars of the future will center on power grids, online banking, and disinformation, the state will likely focus on cybersecurity and information warfare. If state leaders fear the nebulous concept of ‘grey zone warfare,’ as mentioned by several readings and speakers (Kofman, Chekov et al., Breedlove and Winnefeld, Thomas), the state will likely focus on flexibility of force and murky concept of plausible deniability. If state leaders still anticipate major international wars, the state will likely build-up conventional military forces and personnel. Though many Russian scholars reject a belief in the Gerasimov Doctrine long-attributed to Russian military thought (Thomas, Kashin), most do accept and acknowledge that war now is more flexible, information reliant, and tech-reliant than before. Such a perceptual change within Russia can be traced directly back to Arab Spring and the spread of the Color Revolutions (Chekov et al.), both of which catalyzed a Russian shift to see the technology and cyber fronts as the future of warfare (Thomas). At the same time, Russia sees the most likely physical conflict as war with NATO. Both considerations absolutely guide Russian preparation for warfare and developmental priorities. Meanwhile, in the U.S., officials tend to feel more “wedded to legacy systems” (Winnefeld et. al), as demonstrated by the longevity of the doctrine of ‘shock and awe’ and the expansive nature of the U.S. military. American views tend to be far more divided—again reflexive of the greater degree of contestation in the American planning process—but perceptions of future wars also trend in the same direction, though the U.S. credits Russia rather than Arab Spring or itself for the shifts. Yet, as expectations of warfare change in both Russia and the U.S., priorities will adapt as well.

One particular dilemma of prioritization concerns the decision of military spread. How global of a military presence does a state need? Is it worth the cost to maintain expensive bases abroad? Could that money be better spent elsewhere? Again, a large gap exists between the current Russian and American strategies. In the U.S., officials invest a great deal of money in the maintenance of forces outside of North America. Whether it be the U.S.-ROK partnership, NATO, USAFRICOM, turbulence in the South China Sea, or conflict in the Middle East, the U.S. maintains a truly global military presence unrivaled by any other great power. Many Americans believe a world-wide military presence represents American dominance and protects U.S. interests around the globe. Also, uniquely, the U.S. military scope is so vast that it actually enables military investment to provide economic gain (as I have heard Georgia Tech professor Philip Wang reiterate). However, some American leaders view such a large, spread-out force as disadvantageous, as the problem of scarcity still applies to even the U.S. military. In the words, of Henry Kissinger, “no country can act wisely simultaneously in every part of the globe at one moment in time” (qtd. Winnefeld 2020). Even Kashin acknowledges that Russia could use an increase in activity in Ukraine to pull American attention and resources away from other pressing concerns, such as Chinese expansion. Thus, some American leaders, including Admiral Winnefeld, call for the formation of a briefer military priority short-list. Meanwhile, in Russia, officials remain constantly wary of military overexpansion. Another byproduct of the enduring nature of the Russian leadership is an acute memory of the consequences of overexpansion in Afghanistan, financial ruin in the 1990’s, and even American entrenchment in Iraq (Kashin). Accordingly, Russian military deployments are limited in nature: they exist only in a regional sphere and follow a system of “noncontact warfare” (Thomas) and “burst mode” (Kofman). Unlike the U.S., Russia seeks to avoid long-term military engagement. A high global presence simply does not make the priority list.

Onсe states define their perception of the future of war and determine how active to be on a global stage, they must determine what specific military tools to prioritize. Within nearly all key actors today, discussion of the so-called “third offset” strategy takes center stage. The first and second offset strategies originated in the U.S., as the military sought to outcompete other states by developing new technologies and capabilities, rather than simply amassing a greater number of weapons. From such efforts, now-common, popular technologies—including the internet—were developed. Now, countries seek the next niche advantage, but each must choose its own methods and sectors for advancement. Within the U.S., the private sector is relied on for innovation, and the government focuses more heavily on purchasing and maintenance (Kashin). The government hopes to reap the benefits of growth in and competition between Silicon Valley and private contractors. Yet, the U.S. does often resort to ‘traditional’ tactics, failing to use a variety of approaches more suitable to the modern age (Breedlove). In Russia, key projects like hypersonic, missile defense, re-modeled nuclear weapons, and information/cyber warfare receive disproportionate funding (Thomas). By investing in innovation and orchestrating strategic, cheap risks, Russia hopes to beat the U.S. to developing an unrivaled capability, spending about 50% of the total military budget on research and development (Kashin). This stands in stark contrast with the more recent American strategy. However, both stances clearly reflect the current state of priorities within their respective states.

The aims a state has for its military clearly define its choice of means and its approach to statecraft. Through effective prioritization, states can maximize their influence. Through failure to prioritize, they risk nothing at all being accomplished. Naturally, the choice of what goals to pursue—and then what subgoals must be set as targets along the way—is complicated, and no clear strategy exists. However, I believe that the United States could benefit greatly from a clearly defined set of top military priorities, ideally set for the long-term and insulated bureaucratically from routine changes in administration.