A Defense Agenda for 21st-Century Warfare

ON SEPTEMBER 11, America suffered a deliberate and coordinated attack on its soil. Despite numerous warnings that terrorists could attack the U.S. homeland and significant increases in counterterrorism spending during the last Administration, the hijacking and commandeering of U.S. civilian planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center exposed a vulnerability that few Americans expected even though terrorists already had hit U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the USS Cole, military installations in Saudi Arabia, and the World Trade Center.

No longer can policymakers ignore the fact that America is under attack. Nor can they ignore the recommendations of various studies and congressionally appointed commissions about deficiencies in the U.S. armed forces, America’s vulnerability in space, and the growing threat of ballistic missiles and biological attack.

Elements of a New Agenda

It is fortunate that President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld already had begun taking steps to modernize and transform the U.S. armed forces into a 21st century fighting force – one that could appropriately address both conventional threats and unconventional threats like terrorism. The events of September 11 confirmed the appropriateness of this course. Clearly, the new U.S. defense and security agenda must include:

Accelerating development and deployment of ballistic missile defenses. The September 11 attacks underscore the realization that terrorists and terrorist states are not easily deterred. Aggravating the threat is the fact that the key states involved in terrorism are also developing long-range ballistic missiles. Terrorists who seek to inflict massive loss of life and property in the United States may have no qualms about launching a missile carrying nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.

To protect Americans against such devastation, ballistic missile defenses must be deployed as soon as possible. To do this, however, the United States must announce that it considers the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with the Soviet Union defunct. It must also streamline the missile defense development and acquisition process, fully fund the President’s missile defense program, and begin developing specific architectures for near-term deployment.

Activating an immediate and coordinated homeland defense program. The events of September 11 show that the U.S. homeland faces imminent threats from non-conventional terrorism and attacks against critical infrastructure. The first systems put in place should be those that detect and defend Americans from biological agents released by any means. A program also must be launched to produce – as rapidly as possible – adequate stocks of antidotes and vaccines for the most likely biological agents.

In addition, a central authority should be established to coordinate the White House effort to defend U.S. territory from attack. Its primary job should be to organize the federal agencies to deal with the homeland threat and to establish clear operational lines for the use of the military in homeland defense. No Department of Defense resources should be spent on missions better handled by others.

Increasing deterrence of near-term aggression. Though deterrence will never be 100 percent reliable, maintaining the ability to fight and win wars in diversified situations and environments can discourage many of America’s enemies from hostile acts. If deterrence fails, as it did on September 11, and war ensues, America’s armed forces must be strong and ready to respond.

To this end, the United States military should expand the most flexible elements of its forces. This should include increasing the attack submarine fleet and reopening the B-2 bomber production line; it also means continuing the broad-based modernization of the fighter fleet and maintaining the current level of aircraft carriers.

Strengthening America’s space assets and space presence. In future conflicts, space control or even space dominance may prove decisive. Nations that learn to utilize the full benefits of this strategic high ground for civil and military purposes will be dominant powers in this century.

For the United States, this will mean defending America’s satellite system by making it more survivable and by deploying anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities. ASAT capabilities will be necessary to control space in times of conflict if adversaries use satellites to conduct operations. To ensure the survivability of America’s space-based systems, the United States should deploy distributed military satellite networks – smaller and widely dispersed satellites with duplicative functions. The government also will need to develop a military space plane that is able to replace damaged or old satellites and possibly conduct military operations.

Transforming the forces for quick-reaction global operations. A longer-term goal of transformation (say, for example, 10 years) should be to create a military force capable of conducting worldwide operations to attack and destroy widely distributed targets rapidly. This force should include advanced cruise missiles, unmanned combat aircraft, “space bombers,” new submarines, low-visibility surface ships, directed energy weapons such as lasers and microwaves, and space control assets.

Most of these systems require far fewer soldiers to operate than do current systems. Further, such revolutionary capabilities would maximize the advantages of robotics, miniaturization, and automation. Central to such a military revolution would be networks of land, air, sea, and space sensors that collect targeting data and other information with which to monitor enemy activities in real time, or the presence of chemical, nuclear, or biological contaminants. In addition, they would be used for developing navigation tactics for all forces.

Human intelligence would support technological means, allowing forces to sustain a rapid pace of operations with little logistical support. Development of this type of force would require significant investments in space-based reconnaissance, surveillance, and communications, as well as innovative and flexible logistical options, secure command-and-control networks, and expanded basing options.

Diversifying force projection. Aircraft carriers and the U.S. Marine Corps will remain fundamental to America’s ability to project power, but U.S. military forces should seek to diversify their power projection capabilities. The Navy should develop a more stealthy missile-intensive platform, such as the arsenal ship or a missile submarine, to augment the current fleet. This platform should be able to operate independently, thus avoiding many of the threats that surface ships face and requiring far less support. The Pentagon should move forward with a plan to convert no more than four of its ballistic missile submarines to cruise missile platforms.

The U.S. Air Force should diversify its air-to-ground strike options. It should procure enough tactical aircraft over the next 10 years to ensure a modern force, similar in size to today’s force, to meet near-term threats. It should minimize the long-term procurement of aircraft that only marginally improve current capabilities and instead invest in a reliable unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). Additionally, it must modernize its bomber force and develop a new long-range air-launched cruise missile.

Restoring the combat focus of deployments and modernization. On balance, peacekeeping and other long-term non-combat missions detract from warfighting readiness. The reason: When troops are participating in non-combat missions, they are not training for combat. As the September 11 attack demonstrated, the U.S. military must always be at a high state of readiness because no one can predict when the armed forces will be called upon to defend the nation.

Furthermore, the United States may still have to fight major wars in Iraq, Korea, or some other region where large, heavy land forces will be needed. A warfighting-ready Army is America’s insurance policy against near-term failure in force transformation. This is not to imply that the Army should remain technologically stagnant. Instead, every Defense program should enhance the ability of the U.S. military to fight and win wars.

Over the past decade, however, U.S. resources have been drained by non-combat missions. Moreover, equipment used in these missions was built for engaging the Soviet Union, not for peacekeeping. This discrepancy in purpose translates into deficiencies in application. Now the deficiencies of America’s warfighting forces in its non-combat missions are helping to define the requirements for the Army’s modernization. Instead of reflecting the changing security environment, current modernization efforts tend to reflect America’s past commitment to non-combat operations. Continuing along these paths is folly because deterring aggression will require a strong combat capability, not an ability to conduct non-combat operations.

Eliminating waste by closing excess military bases and irrelevant weapons systems programs. Currently, the Pentagon maintains a 20 percent to 25 percent excess base capacity. Significant savings could be generated by eliminating this excess; the cumulative savings from the four previous rounds of base closures is around $16 billion. Additionally, the United States needs to begin looking for new basing arrangements overseas, as well as new modes of military basing. The coming conflict in Afghanistan demonstrates the need for new basing arrangements in potential conflict areas.

The Pentagon must reduce or halt the production of some of its major weapons that draw important funds away from other priorities. For example, the B-1B bomber program should be reduced in the short term and replaced with a more modern bomber program as soon as possible. Development programs that should be halted include the Army’s Crusader and the Navy’s DD-21 systems. Although each of these can make positive contributions to defense, their costs are too high in terms of what they take away from the transformation effort. It is essential that the Pentagon begin its transformation now, and making a clean break from these systems will make that process easier.

Reducing the “tooth-to-tail” ratio of U.S. forces to free resources and streamline military operations for greater efficiencies. On the personnel side, for example, the staffs of many higher-ranking military officials could be reduced substantially. Likewise, numerous opportunities exist to eliminate duplicative services within the Defense Department.

Operationally, the immediate focus should be on acquiring new technology that allows certain weapons to operate with less support. The development of hybrid engines and fuel cells, for example, would mean that fewer fuel vehicles would be needed to support field operations. Additionally, sensors and networked information systems would allow smaller numbers of people to cover larger swaths of territory.


President Bush is clear that part of America’s response to the devastating September 11 attacks on the United States will be a sustained military effort to eradicate the terrorist networks and the state sponsors behind them. This effort will require a significant military investment. Although such a campaign may change some near-term priorities, it also will underscore the importance of implementing a long-term force modernization and transformation strategy.

Mr. Spencer is Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. This article was first published as Heritage Backgrounder 1476.