U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead

Author: Colin L. Powell, United States Army (Ret.)
Winter 1992/93
Foreign Affairs

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Summary: The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff defines a new national military strategy aimed at accomplishing a range of missions far broader than America's armed forces have known before. Peacekeeping and humanitarian operations will loom larger. Called for is a flexible Base Force with capabilities to meet a host of far-flung threats to America's interests, rather than the single threat of communist power that guided military doctrine through the Cold War.

General Colin L. Powell is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


Enormous Power, Sobering Responsibility

AMERICA IS a remarkable nation. We are, as Abraham Lincoln told Congress in December 1862, a nation that "cannot escape history" because we are "the last best hope of earth." The president said that his administration and Congress held the "power and . . . responsibility" to ensure that the hope America promised would be fulfilled. Today, 130 years later, Lincoln’s America is the sole superpower left on earth.

Often I wonder what Lincoln would think were he here to see us and to marvel at our strength. There are aspects that would make him shudder—the turmoil of our inner cities, our still unresolved racial inequalities, the rising crime and continued drug use—but on balance I believe he would be pleased. Democracy is the most powerful political force at work in the world today. Our values, our persistence, our determination helped bring about this situation. America is not perfect by any means, but the nation does offer its citizens the individual and collective opportunity to strive to be better.

America is still the last best hope of earth, and we still hold the power and bear the responsibility for its remaining so. This is an enormous power and a sobering responsibility, especially since America is no longer alone but is accompanied by a free world growing ever larger and more interconnected.

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. armed forces, I share the responsibility for America’s security. I share it with the president and commander in chief, with the secretary of defense and with the magnificent men and women—volunteers all—of America’s armed forces. In truth, we share it also with every citizen of the nation, for that is one of the unique aspects of America; while many other nations constantly lay claim to "peoples’ armies," our nation actually has one.

America’s armed forces are as much a part of the fabric of U.S. values—freedom, democracy, human dignity and the rule of law—as any other institutional, cultural or religious thread. In the past few months all one needed to do to find dramatic evidence of this fact was to visit American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen at work in the devastation of southern Florida, on the island of Kauai, in famine?ravaged Somalia or at any one of a dozen other places around the world. Everywhere their courage, compassion, competence and dedication surpass even an old soldier’s fondest hopes of what America’s armed forces should be.

These wonderful young men and women of America’s armed forces are crucial to the future of the nation and, ultimately, to the future of the world. The reasons are worth pondering.

Obligated to Lead

NO OTHER NATION on earth has the power we possess. More important, no other nation on earth has the trusted power that we possess. We are obligated to lead. If the free world is to harvest the hope and fulfill the promise that our great victory in the Cold War has offered us, America must shoulder the responsibility of its power. The last best hope of earth has no other choice. We must lead.

We cannot lead without our armed forces. Economic power is essential; political and diplomatic skills are needed; the power of our beliefs and our values is fundamental to any success we might achieve; but the presence of our arms to buttress these other elements of our power is as critical to us as the freedom we so adore. Our arms must be second to none.

Today our armed forces are second to none. Ninety?seven percent of our men and women are high school graduates as opposed to 77 percent in the nation at large. Minorities enjoy better opportunities in the military than anywhere else in America. Our young volunteers are the best and the brightest of the wide diversity that makes up America. And anyone who doubts our ability to wage war decisively needs only to look at our recent triumph in the Gulf War.

In 1989, because of dramatic changes looming over the horizon, we began looking at how to restructure these high?quality armed forces without doing harm to their excellence; in fact, we wanted to improve them even further. Only a fortune?teller could have predicted the specific changes that occurred—the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of the Warsaw Pact, the failed coup in the Soviet Union and the eventual disappearance of that empire. But in the Pentagon we did recognize the unmistakable signs of change—the kind that leaves in history’s dust those who cling to the past.

When I was national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, he and President Mikhail Gorbachev met five times in three years. I was present on three of those occasions. The Soviet leader talked of a peaceful revolution that would return his people to the international community of free nations. He talked of world peace. Gorbachev even sometimes spoke of his own passage from power after he had placed his country on an irreversible course. The more he talked and the more we listened, the more we understood. I recall one meeting where I can best describe my unspoken reaction as, "My God, he is serious!"

While President Gorbachev talked, many others listened as well. The Germans and the Poles and the Lithuanians listened. The Czechs and the Slovaks and the Romanians listened. All of eastern and central Europe listened. Then they acted. Communist governments tottered and fell. The Berlin Wall came down. The Warsaw Pact collapsed, a victim of its internal contradictions. Later, the Soviet Union followed the same course, its own internal contradictions having become finally too heavy for its rotten political system to carry.

President Bush saw this historic change. Working together with his advisers, the president and the secretary of defense outlined a new national security strategy. In the Pentagon we took the new national security strategy and built a military strategy to support it. Then, in August 1990, as President Bush made the first public announcement of America’s new approach to national security, Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait. His brutal aggression caused us to implement our new strategy even as we began publicizing it. Every American was able to see our strategy validated in war.

Today there are other Saddam Husseins in the world. There is one in North Korea, and there is the original still in the Middle East—and no reason to believe his successor would be any different. Moreover, the instability and uncertainty that always accompany the fall of empires are growing rather than diminishing. In the Pentagon we believe our military strategy fits the world we see developing like a tight leather glove.

In the fall of 1992 we are fine?tuning that strategy, restructuring our armed forces so that they are ideally suited to executing it, and proposing a much?reduced multiyear defense budget to pay for it all.

Regional Rather than Global Conflict

THE NEW NATIONAL military strategy is an unclassified document. Anyone can read it. It is short, to the point and unambiguous. The central idea in the strategy is the change from a focus on global war?fighting to a focus on regional contingencies. No communist hordes threaten western Europe today and, by extension, the rest of the free world. So our new strategy emphasizes being able to deal with individual crises without their escalating to global or thermonuclear war.

Two and a half years ago, as we developed the new strategy, we saw the possibility of a major regional conflict in the Persian Gulf—and it turned out we were right—and a major regional conflict in the Pacific, perhaps on the Korean peninsula, where the Cold War lingers on. We knew then, and we know now, that prudent planning requires that we be able to deal simultaneously with two major crises of this type, however unlikely that might be. In our judgment, the best way to make sure their coincidence remained unlikely was to be ready to react to both, so that if we were involved in one, no one would tempt us into the other.

Moreover we can see more clearly today that danger has not disappeared from the world. All along the southeastern and southern borders of the old Soviet empire, from Moldova to Tajikistan, smoldering disputes and ethnic hatreds disrupt our post?Cold War reverie. In the Balkans such hatreds and centuries?old antagonisms have burst forth into a heart?wrenching civil war. The scenes from Sarajevo defy our idea of justice and human rights and give new meaning to the word "senseless." In Somalia, relief operations are underway amid the chaos and anarchy of another civil war that wracks our idea of justice, human rights and the rule of law. Ruthless warlords make money from donated food and medical supplies. Relief workers are threatened if they do not comply with a local dictator’s whims.

We cannot tell where or when the next crisis will appear that will demand the use of our troops. But we can say that in the last three years, our troops have acted in the Philippines (twice), Panama (three times), El Salvador, Liberia, Iraq (three times), Somalia (twice), Bangladesh, Zaire, Cuba, the former Soviet Union, Angola and Yugoslavia. We could also mention our troops’ involvement in U.N. actions from western Sahara, Cambodia and Bosnia?Herzegovina, and in disaster relief actions in our own territory from southern Florida to Guam. Truly it has been a busy season for America’s men and women in uniform.

These crises have spanned the range of extremes. They have included humanitarian actions in response to natural disasters and emergency evacuation of American citizens from war zones. They have included the use of very limited force and the use of massive force. For example, a pair of Phantom fighter jets was all that was needed in the Philippines in December 1989; while 540,000 troops and a large part of our arsenal were needed in the Persian Gulf in 1990?91. To deal with such a wide range of possibilities, our armed forces must be capable of accomplishing a wide range of missions.

Future Missions and Clear Objectives

WHAT SORTS OF missions can we envision? I believe peacekeeping and humanitarian operations are a given. Likewise our forward presence is a given—to signal our commitment to our allies and to give second thoughts to any disturber of peace. It is in the category of the use of "violent" force that views begin to differ.

Occasionally these differences in view have been categorized quite starkly as the "limited war" school and the "all?out war" school. For the man or woman in combat, however, such academic niceties are moot. I am reminded of the famous Bill Mauldin cartoon that shows two GIs—Willie and Joe—flat on the ground while machine?gun tracers lick overhead and exploding artillery rounds light up the night sky. Joe says to Willie, "I can’t git no lower, Willie. Me buttons is in th’ way." But while such distinctions as limited and all?out war mean little to a soldier who is clutching the ground while bullets whiz by his ears, they do serve to illuminate our debate.

All wars are limited. As Carl von Clausewitz was careful to point out, there has never been a state of absolute war. Such a state would mean total annihilation. The Athenians at Melos, Attila the Hun, Tamerlane, the Romans salting the fields of the Carthaginians may have come close, but even their incredible ruthlessness gave way to pragmatism before a state of absolute war was achieved.

Wars are limited by three means: by the territory on which they are fought (as in Korea or Vietnam); by the means used to fight them (no nuclear weapons in Korea; no massive mobilization for Vietnam); or by the objectives for which they are fought—the most significant limitation in political terms and therefore the limitation that is most often discussed and debated.

Objectives for which we use "violent" force can range from hurting an enemy enough so that he or she ceases to do the thing that is endangering our interests (air strikes against Libya in 1986 to prevent further Libyan?sponsored terrorism), to unseating the enemy’s government and altering fundamentally his or her way of life (World War II).

The Gulf War was a limited?objective war. If it had not been, we would be ruling Baghdad today—at unpardonable expense in terms of money, lives lost and ruined regional relationships. The Gulf War was also a limited?means war—we did not use every means at our disposal to eject the Iraqi Army from Kuwait. But we did use overwhelming force quickly and decisively. This, I believe, is why some have characterized that war as an "all?out" war. It was strictly speaking no such thing.

To help with the complex issue of the use of "violent" force, some have turned to a set of principles or a when?to?go?to?war doctrine. "Follow these directions and you can’t go wrong." There is, however, no fixed set of rules for the use of military force. To set one up is dangerous. First, it destroys the ambiguity we might want to exist in our enemy’s mind regarding our intentions. Unless part of our strategy is to destroy that ambiguity, it is usually helpful to keep it intact.

Second, having a fixed set of rules for how you will go to war is like saying you are always going to use the elevator in the event of fire in your apartment building. Surely enough, when the fire comes the elevator will be engulfed in flames or, worse, it will look good when you get in it only to fill with smoke and flames and crash a few minutes later. But do you stay in your apartment and burn to death because your plan calls for using the elevator to escape and the elevator is untenable? No, you run to the stairs, an outside fire escape or a window. In short, your plans to escape should be governed by the circumstances of the fire when it starts.

When a "fire" starts that might require committing armed forces, we need to evaluate the circumstances. Relevant questions include: Is the political objective we seek to achieve important, clearly defined and understood? Have all other nonviolent policy means failed? Will military force achieve the objective? At what cost? Have the gains and risks been analyzed? How might the situation that we seek to alter, once it is altered by force, develop further and what might be the consequences?

As an example of this logical process, we can examine the assertions of those who have asked why President Bush did not order our forces on to Baghdad after we had driven the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. We must assume that the political objective of such an order would have been capturing Saddam Hussein. Even if Hussein had waited for us to enter Baghdad, and even if we had been able to capture him, what purpose would it have served? And would serving that purpose have been worth the many more casualties that would have occurred? Would it have been worth the inevitable follow?up: major occupation forces in Iraq for years to come and a very expensive and complex American proconsulship in Baghdad? Fortunately for America, reasonable people at the time thought not. They still do.

When the political objective is important, clearly defined and understood, when the risks are acceptable, and when the use of force can be effectively combined with diplomatic and economic policies, then clear and unambiguous objectives must be given to the armed forces. These objectives must be firmly linked with the political objectives. We must not, for example, send military forces into a crisis with an unclear mission they cannot accomplish—such as we did when we sent the U.S. Marines into Lebanon in 1983. We inserted those proud warriors into the middle of a five?faction civil war complete with terrorists, hostage?takers and a dozen spies in every camp, and said, "Gentlemen, be a buffer." The results were 241 dead Marines and Navy personnel and a U.S. withdrawal from the troubled area.

When force is used deftly—in smooth coordination with diplomatic and economic policy—bullets may never have to fly. Pulling triggers should always be toward the end of the plan, and when those triggers are pulled all of the sound analysis I have just described should back them up.

Over the past three years the U.S. armed forces have been used repeatedly to defend our interests and to achieve our political objectives. In Panama a dictator was removed from power. In the Philippines the use of limited force helped save a democracy. In Somalia a daring night raid rescued our embassy. In Liberia we rescued stranded international citizens and protected our embassy. In the Persian Gulf a nation was liberated. Moreover we have used our forces for humanitarian relief operations in Iraq, Somalia, Bangladesh, Russia and Bosnia.

All of these operations had one thing in common: they were successful. There have been no Bay of Pigs, failed desert raids, Beirut bombings or Vietnams. Today American troops around the world are protecting the peace in Europe, the Persian Gulf, Korea, Cambodia, the Sinai and western Sahara. They have brought relief to Americans at home here in Florida, Hawaii and Guam. Ironically enough, the American people are getting a solid return on their defense investment even as from all corners of the nation come shouts for imprudent reductions that would gut their armed forces.

The reason for our success is that in every instance we have carefully matched the use of military force to our political objectives. We owe it to the men and women who go in harm’s way to make sure that this is always the case and that their lives are not squandered for unclear purposes.

Military men and women recognize more than most people that not every situation will be crystal clear. We can and do operate in murky, unpredictable circumstances. But we also recognize that military force is not always the right answer. If force is used imprecisely or out of frustration rather than clear analysis, the situation can be made worse.

Decisive means and results are always to be preferred, even if they are not always possible. We should always be skeptical when so?called experts suggest that all a particular crisis calls for is a little surgical bombing or a limited attack. When the "surgery" is over and the desired result is not obtained, a new set of experts then comes forward with talk of just a little escalation—more bombs, more men and women, more force. History has not been kind to this approach to war?making. In fact this approach has been tragic—both for the men and women who are called upon to implement it and for the nation. This is not to argue that the use of force is restricted to only those occasions where the victory of American arms will be resounding, swift and overwhelming. It is simply to argue that the use of force should be restricted to occasions where it can do some good and where the good will outweigh the loss of lives and other costs that will surely ensue. Wars kill people. That is what makes them different from all other forms of human enterprise.

When President Lincoln gave his second inaugural address he compared the Civil War to the scourge of God, visited upon the nation to compensate for what the nation had visited upon its slaves. Lincoln perceived war correctly. It is the scourge of God. We should be very careful how we use it. When we do use it, we should not be equivocal: we should win and win decisively. If our objective is something short of winning—as in our air strikes into Libya in 1986—we should see our objective clearly then achieve it swiftly and efficiently.

I am preaching to the choir. Every reasonable American deplores the resort to war. We wish it would never come again. If we felt differently, we could lay no claim whatsoever to being the last, best hope of earth. At the same time I believe every American realizes that in the challenging days ahead, our wishes are not likely to be fulfilled. In those circumstances where we must use military force, we have to be ready, willing and able. Where we should not use force we have to be wise enough to exercise restraint. I have infinite faith in the American people’s ability to sense when and where we should draw the line.

Future Military Structure

BECAUSE OF THE need to accomplish a wide range of missions, our new armed forces will be capabilities oriented as well as threat oriented. When we were confronted by an all?defining, single, overwhelming threat—the Soviet Union—we could focus on that threat as the yardstick of our strategy, tactics, weapons and budget. The Soviet Union is gone. Replacing it is a world of promise and hope—exemplified by the former Soviets themselves as they struggle mightily to make a transformation that the world has never witnessed before. But the U.S.?Soviet standoff imposed a sort of bipolar lock on the world and, in many ways, held the world together. That lock has been removed. Now tectonic plates shift beneath us, causing instability in a dozen different places.

In a few cases, such as Korea and southwest Asia, we can point to particular threats with some degree of certainty; otherwise, we cannot be exact. Most of us anticipated very few of the more than a dozen crises our armed forces have confronted in the past three years. That will not change. We must be ready to meet whatever threats to our interests may arise. We must concentrate on the capabilities of our armed forces to meet a host of threats and not on a single threat. This is a very different orientation. It is so different that some of us have trouble adapting to it; we are so accustomed to the past. Indeed most of our lives were dedicated to the old way of thinking. But in the Department of Defense I believe we have made great progress in changing to this new emphasis on capabilities as well as threats.

Conceptually we refer to our new capabilities?oriented armed forces as "the Base Force." This concept provides for military forces focused on the Atlantic region, the Pacific region, contingencies in other regions and on continued nuclear deterrence.

Across the Atlantic—in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East—America continues to have vital interests. We belong to the most effective alliance in history, NATO. In light of the changes that have taken place in Europe, NATO has revamped its strategic outlook and restructured its forces as dramatically as we have our own.

One of the key features of NATO’S changed posture is its new focus on the east. For over forty years NATO underwrote the security and prosperity of western Europe. Now it is time for NATO to underwrite the security and prosperity of the east. This may be the most important post?Cold War task we undertake.

America cannot accomplish this task without active participation in NATO. U.S. ground troops in Europe are still vital. Although far fewer troops will be necessary, now that the Warsaw Pact has dissolved, America needs enough troops to meet its commitments. This "enough" will be debated hotly in the months to come. Proposals range from 75,000 to 150,000. But I believe our political leaders understand that the debate is about the numbers and not the presence.

In 1990 we deployed massive U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf. Using those forces in 1991 we fought an overwhelmingly decisive war. We did this to liberate Kuwait and to strip a regional tyrant of his capacity to wage offensive war and thus destabilize the region. With two?thirds of the world’s oil reserves in the region, this action was certainly in our vital interest.

Nothing has changed about the importance of the Middle East. What has changed is that Kuwait is free, oil is flowing and Saddam Hussein threatens no one outside his own borders. A U.S. military presence is crucial to ensuring that this stability continues.

American forces in the Atlantic region—on land and at sea—are part of our conceptual package of Atlantic forces. Also part of that package are forces based in the United States whose orientation is toward the Atlantic; should a crisis in the region demand more forces than we have forward?deployed, these forces would reinforce then as rapidly as possible.

In our Base Force we have provided for the same sort of conceptual force package focused on the Pacific region. There too America continues to have vital interests, our security relationships with Japan and the Republic of Korea being at the top of the list.

We have also provided for what we call a "contingency force package." Troops and units in this conceptual package will be located in the United States and be ready to go at a moment’s notice. The time from their alert to their movement will be measured in hours and minutes, not in days.

Finally, we provided for a conceptual package of strategic nuclear forces. Notwithstanding the historic reductions proposed for the world’s strategic nuclear stockpile, when and if these reductions are complete, we will still have nuclear weapons in the world. We must continue to deter the use of these weapons against America or its friends and allies. This can only be done with a modern, capable and ready nuclear force. We will rely heavily on the most secure leg of our nuclear triad, the ballistic missile submarines. But we will maintain a resilient and capable triad with forces in the other two legs as well, manned bombers and land?based ballistic missiles.

Our Base Force is dynamic. There is nothing sacrosanct about its number of tanks, ships or missiles, its structure or its manpower. We can decrease or increase weapons numbers; we can add or delete structure, and we can mobilize manpower—all depending on how our interests evolve and what threats to those interests develop over time. But as we develop our Base Force, we must avoid making two serious mistakes. First, our military must not become "hollow" as it was in the early 1970s. A hollow force has lots of structure—divisions, squadrons, ships—but no trained manpower to fight in them. In other words we pay for weapons, equipment, ships and aircraft with the money we would have used for our people. If we do this, maintaining the high?quality force we now have will be impossible. Second, we must not go too far, too fast. This is the easiest mistake to make and, therefore, the one that troubles me most.

In the last three fiscal years America has already released 431,000 people from active duty and civilian rolls. This has caused a direct loss of 400,000 jobs in related defense industries across the nation. Stunningly it has also cost the loss of almost 800,000 jobs in the nondefense sector. In sum, we have released into an already severely challenged job market over 1.6 million people. Couple this economic cost with the absolute certainty that accelerated reduction rates will destroy the high morale of our armed forces, and it becomes easy to understand my deep concern. Neither Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney nor I want a future president to turn to the armed forces and discover that they are unready for action. I firmly believe the American people are of the same mind.

If we proceed prudently along the path mapped out by the Department of Defense, we will make neither of these mistakes, we will not become a hollow force and we will not break the force while making worse an already weakened economy. In the exciting but still dangerous days that lie ahead, presidents, Congresses and the American people will be able to count on their armed forces for whatever task they want them to accomplish.

A Fourth Rendezvous with Destiny

TODAY, UNLIKE that December day in 1862 when President Lincoln spoke to Congress, the prospects for America are anything but bleak. It is true we have substantial economic challenges facing us, as well as a burning need to reaffirm some of our basic values and beliefs. But if Lincoln were alive today, I do not believe he would trade December 1992 for December 1862.

I believe Mr. Lincoln would be especially excited by the prospects that now lie before his nation. Only three times in our history have we had a "rendezvous with destiny," as President Franklin D. Roosevelt called our challenge in World War II. The American Revolution was one such historical moment because it gave birth to America. The Civil War was another because it made our revolution complete; it made America what it is today. World War II, as Roosevelt so clearly recognized, and the Cold War that followed—which he could not see—combined to provide us the third such occasion. These two wars cleansed the world of tyrannies bent on hegemony and began the spread of democracy and free markets and, as the Soviet Union finally disappeared, accelerated their spread at a dizzying rate.

The summons to leadership that we face at present is our fourth rendezvous with destiny. Answering this summons does not mean peace, prosperity, justice for all and no more wars in the world—any more than the American Revolution meant all people were free, the Civil War meant an end to racial inequality, or World War II and our great victory in the Cold War meant the triumph of democracy and free markets. What our leadership in the world does mean is that these things have a chance. We can have peace. We can continue moving toward greater prosperity for all. We can strive for justice in the world. We can seek to limit the destruction and the casualties of war. We can help enslaved people find their freedom. This is our fourth rendezvous with destiny: to lead the world at a time of immense opportunity—an opportunity never seen in the world before. As Lincoln said in 1862, America could not escape history. In 1992, we must not let history escape us.