Do ISIL And Russia Challenge the Priorities of the U.S. Defense Strategy?

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Do ISIL And Russia Challenge the Priorities of the U.S. Defense Strategy?
By: Melissa Dalton

As the United States faces the newly evident prospects of a revanchist Russia in Eastern Europe and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the Middle East, it should reflect on whether it still has the right defense strategy to protect U.S. interests.

Although the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) report does not directly account for the rise of either of these threats, its broad themes and investment priorities are consistent with countering them. First, it rightly prioritizes investments aimed at rebalancing the U.S. military to the full spectrum of conflict, including cyber, space, missile defense, nuclear deterrence, precision-strike, air and maritime anti-access and area denial (A2/AD), intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and counter terror and special operations forces capabilities. Second, the defense strategy rests on three pillars, one of which is building security globally by strengthening the capabilities and capacity of allies and partners to address common security goals. These investments are critical to meet the challenges of not only highend, A2/AD adversaries over the long term but also to deter Russia in grey zone conflicts and counter asymmetric ISIL threats in the near term. In the past several months, Secretary Chuck Hagel and Deputy Secretary Robert Work have built upon the 2014 QDR to stress the importance of maintaining U.S. technological superiority over potential adversaries through an “offset strategy,” harnessing opportunities in robotics, autonomous systems, miniaturization, big data, and advanced manufacturing to meet future challenges. This approach is particularly timely for thinking through the challenges posed by Russia.

However, in order to sustain these investments in a tight fiscal environment, the defense strategy calls for cuts to ground force capacity. The 2014 QDR outlined plans to cut active Army end-strength from its wartime high of 570,000 to 440,000–450,000 (in FY2019), but it warned that if sequester-level cuts were imposed, Army end-strength would go to 420,000. In reality, as CSIS experts have shown, DoD may have to make further cuts to adjust for aggregate growth in costs of personnel, health care, operations and maintenance, and acquisition. The United States may need to reevaluate how much risk it can afford to accept in ground force reductions in light of emergent challenges. At minimum, it should assess whether to adjust the glide slope for ground force reductions to preserve decision space for the president, should he need to buttress the European Reassurance Initiative or to provide a temporary surge of ground forces in Iraq to help local security forces secure gains from coalition airstrikes.

Melissa Dalton is a fellow and chief of staff of the CSIS International Security Program (ISP). Other posts by .


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