Force-Sizing Constructs Nixed in NDS, Goodbye “Anti-Access” Strategy

Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva speaks at the McAleese/Credit Suisse Defense Conference in Washington, D.C., Tuesday. DVIDS photo by Sgt. James McCann.

There was no force-sizing construct—a rubric that sets out how many brigades, ships, and fighter squadrons the US military should have—in the National Defense Strategy, and no one should hold his breath waiting for one, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva said Tuesday.

Speaking at the McAleese/Credit Suisse Defense Conference in Washington, Selva said the department has “labored” since the end of the Cold War to come up with governing formulae for how big the various elements of the military should be “absent any real consideration of who might threaten the nation.” Each Quadrennial Defense Review, he said, came up with variations on “we’re going to fight two wars … simultaneous [or] divided by 30 days [or] … 15 days, are we going to win one, deter one … Nobody ever said win one, lose one.” To his mind, those constructs were “trite.”

“I think history says, that’s failed us,” he asserted. “From the first QDR to the last QDR,” the force-sizing constructs weren’t helpful because, though they didn’t become law, they limited thinking and were used chiefly to decide “who gets to win” inside the Pentagon “on the size of a particular part of the force to do a particular piece of the strategy.”

The new National Defense Strategy embraces what Selva called “dynamic force employment.” It’s a “realization that the world is a dynamic place, it’s not static.” A force-sizing construct, he said, would drive investments relevant for today, but “will not serve us a decade from now, nor will it serve the process of building a budget that will define the force structure of a decade from now,” because of the constantly changing political and technology challenge.

There are individual answers to questions such as, “How much is enough? Where are you going to use it? Against what threats? To accomplish what tasks?” Selva observed.

He said he’s “parted company with a substantial piece of the department that wants to talk about the threats as if they are monolithic.”

Dynamic force employment, rather, sets end goals first, Selva said.

“It will be a rare day from this point forward that you hear me talk about ‘anti-access’ ever again,” he asserted. “Or ‘area denial’ again. Because those are the threats that are put in the way of force projection. We ought to be talking about ‘guaranteed force projection,’ ‘assured force projection:’ The capability, capacity, and tools to get inside of the threats that are posed by our potential adversaries.”

What the NDS does is call out that great power competition is back, “and those two big pacing threats are Russia and China,” Selva observed. “Not that everything else is a ‘lesser included case,’ but if you’re able to dynamically employ your force against those two threats, you’ll be able to take care of a lot of the rest of the problems in the world.”

Selva said force-sizing constructs in the past “locked us into an argument over the validity of the construct,” and didn’t allow for a “clear-eyed debate about the capability and capacity to address the threats that were right in front of us.”