Thomas Mahnken, PhD, the president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, discusses game changing ideas to maintain America’s military advantage in an era of great power competition with China and Russia with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Our coverage was sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
Dr. Thomas G. Mahnken
President and CEO
Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments
Reagan National Defense Forum
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, where we’re covering the Reagan National Defense Forum. Our coverage here is sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
The very first of our interviews is with Dr. Tom Mahnken, the President and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Tom, it was great, we talked to you and Kath Hicks at the West Coast Aerospace Forum just a couple of hours ago, so it’s good —
Dr. Thomas Mahnken: — this morning.
Mr. Muradian: It was just this morning. And you were a Commissioner on the National Defense Strategy Commission, the bipartisan group of folks who took a look at the National Defense Strategy. And you and I have talked over the years, we actually talked a little bit about it last year here at the Reagan Forum, about sort of the big changes that are going to be required given the nature of the evolving threats the nation faces, the budgetary situation. I mean even though the panel is suggesting effectively trillion dollar budgets on a sustained basis, that’s unlikely to happen, and I think that the panel and every Commissioner has indicated that.
But we do in the military what we do because we do it, right? These things have worked in the past, they worked in World War II, so we kept doing some of these things. But now the situation is very, very different. And you guys talked in your report about different operational concepts, more innovation. We’ve been talking about that for a long time.
But what do you think are the sort of different game-changing ideas that we need to embrace? A little bit like we did during the inter-war period where we were trying to change the game on our adversaries?
Dr. Mahnken: I think you’re right, that we face a period where the strategic and operational assumptions that have undergirded our planning, whether it’s force planning or operational planning, are increasingly open to question. And that should lead us to look for new approaches, new ways of war, new operational concepts.
You mentioned the inter-war period. I think that’s a great example. We, the United States, identified Japan as a foe at the very end of the 19thcentury, early 20thcentury and started planning seriously in the early 20thcentury. And when we started planning we had a preponderance. We had a dominance. We faced the tyranny of distance in trying to defend our territories in the Western Pacific. We had a lot of advantages. If you look at those early war plans, it was sort of like Desert Storm. It was going to be this transpacific lunge to save the Philippines from an attack.
As the military balance shifted, as Japan built up, as we faced constraints, those assumptions no longer held. What you saw was the Army and Navy had to go back to fundamentals of planning and had to think about the way they conceived of a campaign against Japan. What happened was a transpacific lunge turned into a sequenced campaign.
Well, to make that happen you needed new capabilities. You needed to really develop carrier air power so you could bring your aircraft with you. You needed to develop amphibious operations because you needed to seize bases along the way. You couldn’t just expect unimpeded access to them. You had to develop combat logistics, because you had to bring your logistics train with you. And so you’d see problem, questioned assumptions, operational concepts, and innovation, and many of the capabilities that served us very well in the Pacific War emerging from that.
So today I think the rise of China is one example, combined with the tyranny of distance. The strategic geography of the Indo-Pacific region is calling into question many of our long-cherished assumptions. Whether it was our ability to have unimpeded access to our bases, our allies, whether it was dominance in space, cyber dominance, whether it was our ability to logistically resupply our forces. Those are open to question.
So we need to think about new and different ways to approach these things.
Mr. Muradian: It’s funny, Secretary Gates always used to say we always get the next war wrong, which is actually not true. We’ve historically actually been very very clear-eyed in sort of figuring out what are the problems. I mean if you look, Andy Marshal was talking exactly about the world we face now 20 years ago in terms of the capabilities that we would need and how our technology would be turned potentially against us.
Talk to me a little bit about the proponents for truly different ways of thinking. We have enormous political energy, you and Kath and I discussed this a little bit, of enormous inertia. Not trying to make a judgment at all on the aircraft carrier, but if an aircraft carrier is becoming the new battleship, or if we don’t need submarines, for example, or we need more of whatever, the dynamics are a very hard dynamic now because it’s all tied up in politics and employment and jobs.
What are the proponents for change here, and how to create proponency for change and more authentic, accurate wargaming, not designed to validate hey, I need it to support this concept or that concept, but will truly shake the foundations of current thinking to pave the way for future thinking?
Dr. Mahnken: You put your finger on a key issue which is that the services have been doing some good things when it comes to innovation. I think there are some initiatives out there that are meritorious. But of course both the blessing and the curse of the challenges we face today is that they demand joint solutions. So individual service efforts are likely to be insufficient. So even if you have a Service Chief who’s a real proponent of innovation, he’s not going to be able to carry the day or he’s not going to be able to craft the whole solution of what’s needed.
So if we think about something like land-based fires, or we think about precision strike, I think there’s a role there for the Army to play, I think there’s a role for the Marine Corps to play, I think there’s a role for the Navy to play in supporting these efforts, and there’s a role for the Air Force as well. But what we need is a joint effort, a true joint effort to see how those individual pieces and parts come together, come together in a real innovative, joint operational concept.
Mr. Muradian: What are the things that you think are more important than not in the future that we’re going into?
Dr. Mahnken: I think strike capabilities are important. I think we are acquiring various precision strike munitions, but thinking about crafting those, putting those together into a portfolio of capabilities that’s both forward stationed, rotationally based, expeditionary, land-based, sea-based, air-based, surface, sub-surface, U.S., allied, a real portfolio approach to meet the challenge I think is something that’s yet to be done.
Mr. Muradian: And you’ve talked about directed energy. I remember Ron Fogelman a long time ago looking at directed energy. Right now our solution to the air defense problem is the shooting of a multi-million dollar missile in order to shoot down something that costs a lot less than a few million dollars.
But directed energy is also a little bit like a mirage, right? It’s just a little farther out of reach than you think.
What’s the art of the doable here in terms of operationalized systems that are going to be able to be that game-changer, right? When speaking at that forum, that’s one of the points you made was that this would be truly a game-changer that negates the advantage and the investment your adversary is making in long-range missilry.
Dr. Mahnken: I think in the area of directed energy the trends that I see are actually quite positive. And I could see it first adopted for things like base defense. Actually Mark Gunzinger and Carl Rehberg of CSBA just recently put together I think a very thought-provoking report on how directed energy, unmanned systems, other capabilities could be brought together to defend our forward bases. As expeditionary as we get, we’re still going to rely on bases, whether it’s air bases or logistical bases. So that base defense mission is a really important one.
I think it also seems to be one that’s well-tailored to some of the nearer term applications of DE, whether ground-based or air-based.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you, we’re at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Research Center. President Reagan was one of the most passionate voices of American exceptionalism, of the idea of the shining city on the hill. And also throughout the Cold War, I mean I had relatives in the Soviet Union who had Reagan-Bush memorabilia because as soon as he called it the evil empire, they said that that entire evil empire began to respect the American President.
So the rhetoric of the American presidency has always been important. But if you look at it, story after story, article after article, poll after poll, is beginning to suggest that Americans may be tiring of that role of the guarantor of the rules-based order. There’s a poll that’s being issued matching this that a remarkable amount of, a majority of Republicans even don’t have faith and believe in NATO, which if you had gone back even ten years ago would have been sort of an extraordinary thought.
How important is the rhetoric? How important is the American commitment to these ideals to be the central pillar of that rules-based order that has ushered in the longest period of prosperity in human history?
Dr. Mahnken: I think it’s extremely important. Joe Nye famously, years ago, made the comment that security is like oxygen. It’s only apparent in its absence. Right? We only notice it when the oxygen’s gone or when the security’s gone. And I think Americans have enjoyed the benefits of American internationalism, of a strong American global role for decades. That hasn’t always been apparent, but it undergirds so much of our society and the way our economy has developed and so forth.
So I do think we need a good conversation about it. I think we need to talk to the American people about it.
What I would say is this issue of America’s role has been up in just about every presidential election since the end of World War II. Almost always a strong internationalism has won out. And I would say that particularly in an era of great power competition I think Americans will appreciate more the benefits of what we have and who we are as that alternative, the authoritarian alternative, grows. Whether we like it or not, that authoritarian alternative is out there, and it’s out there not only in China and not only in Russia, but it’s being accepted by other states in the developing world and that’s not what the United States is about.
Mr. Muradian: There’s a big debate, and I want to get back to operational concept in a second, but I want to just plum this a little bit because thinking of where we are. There’s this sense that well, but it’s a healable rift. Then there are others who are saying no, actually, there is more concrete divergence. And friends of mine who are foreign military officers and defense leaders really worry that there will be a broader divergence between the United States and its allies.
Are you concerned about that? I know you have conversations at the very highest level with a lot of our allied and overseas governments, whether on the civilian or on the military?
Dr. Mahnken: I don’t think we should be complacent, but that’s a little bit short of saying I’m concerned. I think we should never be complacent about our alliance relationships. We should always be listening to our allies and we should always be talking to our allies.
I think many of the trends that are affecting the United States are transnational trends. So there is a new wave of nationalism, whatever you want to call it. That’s affected the United States but it’s affecting many parts of the world as well. So to the extent that it goes beyond our shores, we need to be talking to allies about it. They’re not immune from that as well.
Mr. Muradian: Let me go to operational, thinking about the future. The United States military has invested quite a lot of time, and a lot of its force structure is based on just being there. Being forward, being deployed. The Navy, if you look at its global force planning structure says well, I need X amount of frigates to be here, X amount of destroyers to be there, and that builds sort of the force plan.
But in the inter-war period actually we didn’t do much of that. Most of our time was spent actually practicing for the big game. Going out and doing gunnery exercises.
Do we need to fundamentally change the concept of readiness, which you talked a little bit about, a lot of which is kind of BS-ish, no offense intended to all the readiness people out there. But really, some of this stuff does not at all appear to be.
Talk to us about the different readiness model and the different intellectual and training and innovation model we need to see across the forces.
Dr. Mahnken: You’re right. The U.S. Navy of the inter-war period or the Royal Navy of the inter-war period or the 19thcentury would not have done presence the way we’ve done it since the end of World War II. That’s why God created the frigate. God created the frigate for presence missions, right? And we have —
Mr. Muradian: I’m glad you used the term and you said God created the frigate. Not the Littoral Combat Ship. But go on.
Dr. Mahnken: That’s exactly right. And how many frigates do we have now, right?
The challenge is, we adopted a very different posture in the wake of World War II and the early Cold War for understandable reasons. The prospect of a war breaking out rapidly, the nuclear revolution. So we adopted a model where we put our capital ships forward constantly. Again, something that the Royal Navy or the U.S. Navy of the past would never have done. Those are your capital ships, you keep in home waters to train, to prepare for the big contingency.
But in doing that we not only adopted a model for ourselves, we acculturated our allies, we also acculturated our potential adversaries to think of American expeditionary power as the carrier strike group. So if we do move to a new model, and I think we do need to, the Alternative Fleet Architecture Report that CSBA published talks about that, that different model of a deterrence force or deterrence forces, and then a big kind of reinforcement.
If we go to that model we’re going to have to acculturate others to that model. They shouldn’t think that just because the carrier isn’t right there every day that we’re absent. So I think it has to be a very thoughtful approach to a new form of presence, a new model of deterrence, conventional deterrence, and a new operating model.
One of the things that the report says, which is terrifying in the very beginning of it is, that that which we have expected for a long time of military superiority and dominance is something that is fragile and won’t be there. Then the real kicker is that we could actually in conflict lose. Lose humiliatingly and in a very big way with tectonic consequences. When we talked to Eric Edelman and Gary Roughead, the co-chairs of the commission, one of the things that Ambassador Edelman said, who works with you at CSBA, was that if the United States actually under-invests in its defense but continues to act like a super power, it’s really the most dangerous potential combination.
But Americans have been used to hearing we’re the best, we’re the best, we have the best military. American people in uniform hear that all the time. Is it time to have a much more honest conversation with the American people that our military superiority is far, far more fragile and will need more investment, change, even if it means stopping building weapons that may have political implications wherever it is in the country?
Dr. Mahnken: Look, the truth is we don’t know whether we’re the best. At least we don’t know whether we’re the best in forms of warfare that we haven’t practiced for decades, if ever. So I believe that American sailors are tremendous. I believe that our ships are great. Our munitions are great. I don’t know how the U.S. Navy would stack up in a high-intensity war against a capable navy because the truth is the last time we did that was 1944. I won’t even give credit for 1945 because I think the Imperial Japanese Navy was already so attrited by 1945.
So we talk a lot about, well, the Chinese don’t have any experience in modern warfare. That’s true. In many ways, we don’t have experience in modern warfare. So I think we can say we’ve got great soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines. We can say we produce great systems. But that’s different from saying we are the best.
The truth is, we don’t know. I think the National Defense Strategy, the National Defense Strategy Commission are a call to action to prove it. Prove it through the development of innovative operational concepts. Prove it through the development of innovative capabilities. Prove it through realistic training, wargaming, rigorous assessment. That’s in the end what we had to do in the inter-war period. And even there, we ultimately learned through combat just how good we were. Also that combat revealed our defects as well.
Mr. Muradian: Tom Mahnken of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Tom, it’s always a pleasure. Thank you so very much.
Dr. Mahnken: Always a pleasure, Vago. Good seeing you.