The Obama administration’s Pentagon budget proposal gives some indication about the thinking of the new administration on the role and status of U.S. forces abroad. Most telling is the decision to phase out production of the F22 Raptor and other high profile, high-tech weapons systems. According to Gates, these systems are not suited for the new missions of the U.S. military, which have tended to focus on counter-insurgency operations and nation building. Blogging at Small Wars Journal, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling argues that, “Unlike previous eras of great power politics, the United States now has more to fear from weak states than strong ones.” (His entire talk is brief and makes a compelling case.)
The single-largest obstacle to reforming the military to enable it to address contemporary challenges comes, according to Yingling, not primarily from the military but from the bureaucracy. The F22 Raptor, for example, costs about $360 million per copy. Parts for the aircraft are produced in 44 states, making it a Congressional boondoggle. Members of Congress who have production facilities in their home states are unlikely to oppose the project, no matter how ill-suited the plane may be to current operational needs. As a result, the military gets what Congress wants it to have.
The details of Obama’s plans have not been made public yet, and the quadrennial forces review is not scheduled to be undertaken until next year. Nevertheless it seems clear that we must avoid the temptation to fight the last war. The Cold War is over, and massive state-on-state conflict seems increasingly unlikely. Future threats are far more likely to come from non-state actors, like al Qaeda, or (increasingly) from threats like global climate change or state collapse. And no matter how technologically advanced an F22 is, it’s unlikely to help address those challenges.