Defense Policy

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DEFENSE POLICY. The defense policy of the United States has evolved in response to the changing nature of America's culture, society, economic system, sense of national identity, public and private institutions, and perception of threat to its existence, and core values. Defense is a political function; that is, a choice to use state-sanctioned violence or the threat of violence to advance some particular communal goal. The term is usually applied to actions taken to prevent some entity from using death and destruction as a way of changing the political behavior of another entity. It includes force as an instrument of policy abroad. The term "military" is not quite synonymous since it can be applied to corporate bodies known as armed forces, which are instruments for the use of force. Defense policy suggests some system of anticipating various threats from other nations, non-state groups, and domestic insurgents and for making some provision for denying any prospective enemy with appropriate and proportional violence or war. The issues that cluster around the concept of defense policy include:

  1. The question of who makes it. This can be analyzed by reference to level of government (national, state, local), political role (executive branch sand legislative branch), functional role (political officials and military commanders), and a variety of institutional interactions.
  2. The perception and analysis of threats and the relationship between the likelihood of conflict and the potential seriousness of conflict.
  3. The cost of investing in standing and trained reserve forces and maintaining an industrial base with military potential—and of using money that might go to other social investments.
  4. The degree to which a society is willing to subject itself to military regimentation and the sacrifices attendant to military service.

For the United States, the fundamental law for determining defense policy may be found in Article I, Section 8, and Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution; in the Second Amendment; and in the Militia Act of 1792. The clearest expression of defense policy may be found in the records of the annual congressional authorization and appropriation process; in the annual reports of the Secretary of Defense or his predecessors, the Secretaries of War and Navy; and in Title 10, U.S. Code.

Since its colonial origins, the United States has believed in civilian control of defense policy, but has divided control between the national and state governments. It regards senior military commanders as policy advisors and operational executives. The nation has tended to under-estimate serious threats and to overreact to minor threats, in part because it is reluctant to spend public funds or subject itself to compulsory military service except in times of crisis. The nation depended upon its distance from the military powers of the Eastern Hemisphere (Great Britain, Continental European nations, and Japan) to discourage aggression or to allow adequate time for military mobilization. It did not depend upon allies between the end of an alliance with France (1778–1801) and the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. Its temporary cooperation with other belligerents in nineteenth century punitive expeditions and the two World Wars were responses to pressing crises, not a reflection of defense policy. The United States also assumed that its affluence, its agricultural and industrial productivity, technological ingenuity, and population base guaranteed inevitable victory, even if the earliest stages of war might bring disasters due to unpreparedness.

The Origins

The settlement of North America in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries created armed conflict between the entrepreneurial companies and sponsoring governments of England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands, some of which reached the level of international wars from 1689 until the conclusion of the American Revolution (1783). In addition, piracy was common along the Atlantic coastline and throughout the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. As the white settlers of the thirteen English colonies pushed out from the seaboard to the Appalachians and beyond, they fought warriors of the Native American woodland tribes, until white numbers and lack of European support doomed the surviving Native Americans to forced relocation beyond the Mississippi, a process that began in the 1790s and ended in the 1840s.

By the time of the last war with France (1755–1763), the English Crown had established a regular army in North America and protected its maritime lifeline with the Royal Navy. The colonies, however, also contributed volunteer forces and militia (men called to duty by law for short service) for frontier campaigns. Privateersmen (non–Royal Navy warships) conducted commerce raiding. This colonial experience shaped the defense policy of the United States for more than a century after independence.

The Revolution seemed to prove that the United States did not need a European-style military establishment. For defending the frontier—governed directly by the national government until it created states—a small army of light infantry and mounted forces would have to suffice, supplemented or substituted for by local militias of self-armed citizen farmers. For example, from 1789 until 1814 the Commonwealth of Kentucky could put larger (and often better) forces into the field against the Shawnees than the U.S. Army was able to. Two military giants of the time, the future presidents William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson, rose to prominence as the commanders of federal and state forces in regional anti–Native American, anti-British campaigns. The same scheme applied to the more heavily settled and developed coastal states; permanent coastal fortifications to defend ports and naval bases were built withfederal funds and manned by regular soldiers, but the states had the responsibility of providing field armies to protect cities from invaders who chose land approaches. This system reached its highest development in the defense of Plattsburgh (New York), Baltimore, Norfolk, and New Orleans in the War of 1812. It failed only once—at Washington, D.C.

The Century of Continental Defense

The United States might have duplicated British defense policy and put its reliance upon an active fleet, at least large and expert enough (as Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed) to hold the naval balance of power from the Caribbean to the North Atlantic. The states could not afford such a fleet, and Congress rejected the concept until after the War of 1812 when such a fleet was irrelevant. The only continuity in naval policy was the maintenance of squadrons of sailing ships capable of defending American merchantmen throughout the world from non-European naval forces, whether they were Barbary or Sumatran pirates, or belligerent Chinese, Fijians, or Samoans.

The U.S. Navy's finest hour in the era was the isolation of Mexico and the conduct of multiple amphibious landings on Mexico's coasts, a critical part of the over-whelming American victory in the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), the century's largest conflict related to North American territorial expansion. The Mexican-American War also showed that the traditional militia-based system of wartime mobilization was inadequate for creating an expeditionary force for extended service out-side America's borders. The American armies still in the field in 1848 mustered about half the 100,000-plus soldiers who entered federal service.

The American Civil War saw the assumptions of defense policy played out at a level of bloodletting and destruction, and with a length of conflict, that made it the worst war in the nation's history The number of Union and Confederate combat dead (diseases not counted) was proportionately higher (as a percentage of the white male population, aged eighteen to forty-five) than the total number of American deaths during World War II.

Nations—especially democracies—do not normally design their armed forces to fight themselves, so the Civil War produced many false lessons or simply reinforced old assumptions. One, for example, was that the United States needed an internal transportation system adequate to move troops to its borders or threatened coasts; roads and navigable rivers again proved their usefulness in 1861–1865, and the railroads demonstrated a strategic importance that shaped national transportation policy for a century. Yet even as the national population grew and wealth accumulated in the late nineteenth century, the nation spent proportionately less and less for defense (perhaps 1 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP) and put fewer and fewer men in uniform (fewer than 50,000 in all three services) in relationship to the population. The volunteer militia, known as the National Guard, numbered around 100,000—or four times the regular army.

Since Mexico and Canada posed no military threat and the United States remained on good terms with Great Britain, the only foreign threat would be a fleet and invasion force from Asia or Europe, an unlikely danger. The national government assumed the lead in developing and funding the "first line of defense," which was an ocean-going fleet of modern battleships and a system of modern concrete fortifications with heavy coast defense guns, both supplemented with aircraft by 1920. The defense of the mainland forty-eight states went untested, but it was probably adequate. A revolution in Mexico produced a war scare in 1916–1917, and the regular army and National Guard placed more than 130,000 men along the border and sent a punitive expedition into Mexico of 12,000 regular soldiers.

The Mexican troubles dramatized a new strategic truth: the United States had developed international interests that required a larger, regular extracontinental expeditionary force (including aviation) and a naval force to protect it on its oceanic deployments. The military occupation of Alaska (after 1867) did not provide a test, but troubles in the Caribbean (Panama in 1885) and the Pacific (Samoa in the 1880s and Hawaii in the 1890s) gave the first hints that traditional defense policy would have to change. The War with Spain (1898), the annexation of the Philippines and the subsequent Filipino rebellion (1899–1902), the creation of the Canal Zone (1903), and the annexation of Guam and Hawaii, as well as a punitive expedition in China (1900), showed that any form of empire required imperial forces. Both the army and the U.S. Marine Corps of 1917 were five times larger than their counterparts of 1898. Expeditionary forces were viewed as essential in exercising American influence in China and the western Pacific and for preempting potential German and French intervention in the Caribbean. Militia forces, however, were barred from "peacetime" service outside the continental United States, and Congress would not create a competitive Federal Reserve ground force.

The World Wars

American participation in the two World Wars demonstrated that the assumptions of the Century of Continental Defense were not wrong, but simply not appropriate for a world at war. The system of the fleet-in-being, coastal defenses, and sea-and land-based air forces made attacks on the United States proper unlikely—at least with conventional forces. The challenge in 1917–1918 and 1941–1945 was to create massive air, land, and naval forces and then transport them to Europe and the Asia-Pacific Rim where the wars were fought. An allied coalition in both cases gave the United States the time to muster the will and to mobilize the forces for war. The nation put 4.8 million people into uniform in 1917–1918 and then quadrupled that figure in 1941–1945. It spent $32 billion in the first war and ten times that amount in the second.

In the first war, American troops appeared in England, France, Russia, and Italy. In the second war, they campaigned in Asia from India to China and in the Pacific from Hawaii to Okinawa; in the war against the Italian-German Axis, they fought in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. American aviation forces contributed little in World War I, but they became an essential part of every campaign in World War II and attempted to force Axis surrenders by strategic (urban-industrial) bombing. The United States started on the road to high technology warfare in the first war and became fully committed to the military exploitation of several important technologies: the electromagnetic spectrum (radios and radar), undersea sound-ranging (sonar), fuses for all sorts of munitions that did not require a direct hit (proximity and variable time fuses), the internal combustion engine for mechanized and motorized vehicles and aircraft, advanced medical treatment for wounds and illnesses, and food prepared and packaged for long travel and extended times. American engineers conquered every place and clime. If the United States did not always make the best weapons systems (as with, for example, the M-4 tank), it simply built more than the enemy. Its trucks and artillery were the envy of all the belligerents.

The Cold War

For five years after World War II, the United States attempted to come up with a new variant of its traditional policy, with one new addition: the fleet gave way to the nuclear-armed bombers of the Strategic Air Command as the first line of deterrence and defense. The potential foe was new, the Soviet Union, but its goals were old. It sought hegemony over Eurasia through Russian military forces and the subversion of European and postcolonial regimes in the Middle East and Asia, through local Communist revolutionary movements engaged in "wars of national liberation." The prospect of Russian influence spreading through international communism affected parts of Latin American and Sub-Saharan Africa as well.

American defense policy, however, reverted to old patterns: only one-plus million service personnel on active duty and spending in the range of 1 to 2 percent of the GDP. The Soviet nuclear weapons program and military pressure on Czechoslovakia and West Germany began to change estimates about an adequate force in 1948–1949 and spurred American entry into NATO. No changes in spending, force structure, modernization, and manpower levels occurred, however, until the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. By 1953 the defense budget had become 13 percent of the GDP (it had reached 45 percent in World War II). By almost every measure of size and effectiveness, the armed forces increased by an order of three in terms of divisions, ships, aircraft wings, nuclear weapons, and logistical establishment. The Cold War defense policy had taken shape.

Although the end of the Korean War brought a one-third reduction of force structure, the policies of nuclear deterrence and forward, collective defense could clearly be seen in the post-1953 armed forces. The Strategic Air Command became a force of 2,000 aircraft, which declined in numbers as the air force added 1,054 intercontinental ballistic missiles to its inventory by 1967. The navy contributed a force of large, missile-firing submarines that reached 41 boats at its peak strength. The Russians developed their own "triad," but it was heavily weighted to large ballistic missiles with heavy warheads. Both sides calculated that 1,500 to 1,700 warheads used on each other's cities and military targets would put both nations back in the Stone Age. Concerned about having adequate forces for retaliation after absorbing a surprise first strike, both sides sought some source of stability, first by increasing the numbers of delivery vehicles and warhead power, then by increasing accuracy and warhead numbers, and then by negotiating arms control agreements. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 showed how delicate the balance of terror might be. Keeping the threshold of nuclear war high also encouraged the development of theater and tactical nuclear weapons and conventional forces. The United States placed its greatest emphasis on the forward defense of Europe and northern Asia. Its air, ground, and naval force in England, Europe (especially Germany), and in the Mediterranean reached 300,000-plus while its forces in South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan numbered over 100,000. Strategic reserve forces were placed in Hawaii and the mainland United States, but the nation never created maritime and air mobility forces adequate to place even a fraction of these forces abroad rapidly. Pre-positioning of supplies and the creation of overseas bases helped some, but even in the Persian Gulf War (1990–1991) it took months to place a 500,000-person expeditionary force in the theater of operations.

The Vietnam War (1965–1973, as far as American combat participation is concerned) was another difficult test of power projection. By 1967, when the United States had adequate forces and base structure in Southeast Asia, the government and the general population had lost their taste for defending a people they did not understand or admire. The Vietnam War also increased the speed of the government's abandonment of the draft, reestablished in 1948 to aid the army, but exploited by all the services to attract recruits. When the draft expired, the services shrank by almost a third, which then forced the United States to spend as much money to recruit and train a single soldier as most people spent for a public university education. The manpower shortages did increase career opportunities for non-white service personnel and women, groups that soon made up 10 to 30 percent of the active duty forces. Sensitivity to the rising cost of defense (over $300 billion a year, despite its shrinking portion of the GDP) and the prospect of casualties did not completely inhibit American military intervention in trouble spots throughout the world before and after the Vietnam War. Conventional American forces fought and took casualties in Lebanon (twice), Panama, Grenada, Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq, and in the Persian Gulf "tanker war." Special operations forces and paramilitary forces supported by the Central Intelligence Agency fought in Iran, Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Colombia, Hungary, and the Philippines. Throughout the Cold War period, the planning for a conflict with the Soviet Union served as the foundation for force structuring with a few concessions for regional problems. After 1991 the planners tried to reconcile two approaches: meeting the demands of simultaneous regional wars in north Asia and the Middle East, and acting on the conviction that a "spectrum of violence" or "asymmetrical warfare" required a wide range of military capabilities not tied to a specific contingency plan. The promises of advanced technology for aerospace warfare complicated planning by raising the price tag and increased the risk of technology failure in "information warfare," where the first deaths are diskettes, not humans.

The Gulf War may have been the last war that can be traced to the defense policies of the Cold War. The September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., may have been the first battles in a new warfare in which conventional military forces may not be either targets or the instruments of victory. There are still, however, some continuities that go back to 1945, including a belief in the importance of coalition forces operating under some sort of international mandate, the essential requirement for appropriate technology in the hands of highly skilled service personnel, and a public demand to keep casualties as low as possible. The effectiveness of the operational forces of the army, navy, air force, and marine corps is far more important than the theoretical military strength of a mobilized America on the World War II model. Such a force will not be inexpensive. Even before 2001, it required almost $350 billion to maintain a force of barely 1.3 million (with a smallest portion of this force forward deployed since 1950). The requirements of peacekeeping under United Nations or NATO sanctions provide additional demands—with an endless number of future possibilities for such operations in the Middle East and Africa. Whatever American defense policy will be in the twenty-first century, it will not be the same as the policies of the two previous centuries.


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Allan R.Millett

See alsoAir Defense ; Air Force, United States ; American Expeditionary Forces ; Army, United States ; Civil Defense ; Council of National Defense ; Defense, Department of ; Defense, National ; Marine Corps, United States ; Military-Industrial Complex ; Navy, United States ; Strategic Defense Initiative .