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Obama Should Copy Nixon: Avoid Foreign Conflicts, Use Allies, Invest in R&D

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

WASHINGTON: Nixon, Ford, and Carter aren’t anyone’s three favorite presidents. But defense policymakers today could learn something from how they handled the hard times of the 1970s: They shifted costly security burdens to foreign partners while pulling US forces out, and they cut defense budgets generally while protecting long-term investments in “seed corn” technologies that would pay off later, like stealth then or robotics now.

Those are some surprising conclusions of a report on “Strategy In Austerity” being released today by Andrew Krepinevich and his co-authors at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Looking at both US and British history, the report argues that current prophesies of American decline are overstated. We’ve been in dire geostrategic and economic straits before, Krepinevich and company write, but we still managed to strategize our way out — and it didn’t take Founding Father-class leadership to do it.

Most defense literati look back on the 1970s as the dark era of the “hollow force,” when the military was shrinking, its equipment was obsolete, and its troops were demoralized and undisciplined. That’s all true, but even so, successive administrations managed to keep funding research and development in a few key areas that laid the foundation for the Reagan buildup in the eighties, the Gulf War victory in 1991, and indeed much of America’s military successes since.

Today’s mainstay weapons like M1 tanks, F-16 fighters, and Aegis warships were largely bought in the eighties but developed in the seventies. Precision-guided munitions like laser-guided bombs saw some of their first successes towards the end of Vietnam but developed dramatically during the 1970s, along with early computer networks and digital command systems, scaring Soviet observers, who feared the US was on the cusp of a “military-technical revolution.” The 1970s also saw crucial experiments in the radar-evading technologies that would become known as “stealth,” which CSBA argues so unnerved the Soviets that they spent far more on anti-aircraft defenses than the US did on the planes to attack them — what CSBA approvingly called a “cost-imposition” strategy.

Nowadays, though, the US is on the losing end of most “cost-imposition” competitions, with threats like roadside bombs and naval mines costing far less than the countermeasures America is forced to buy to protect its forces. So what are today’s equivalents of smart bombs and stealth in the seventies, military technologies with a potential long-term payoff that could swing the balance in America’s favor?

Robotics,” Krepinevich said immediately in an interview with Breaking Defense, prior to the report’s release. (“Strategy In Austerity” itself is relatively silent on such recommendations). What’s killing us today — sometimes literally, sometimes just financially — is the difficulty of defending our troops against relatively cheap attacks, he said: “To the extent you can take people out of the vehicles, then the requirements for force protection are dramatically reduced.”

Energy efficiency is another area of research that can save both money and lives, Krepinevich continued. The current force burns huge amounts of fuel, not just for vehicles on the move but for generators to power sensors, radios, and computer networks on base. Getting all that gas to forward bases was a big burden even in oil-rich Iraq, let alone in remote, rugged Afghanistan. Fuel convoys not only cost money to run but put lots of military and contractor personnel on the roads in unarmored vehicles full of an explosive substance, a recipe for casualties. Fuel efficiency and alternative power sources take some of those vulnerable tankers off the road.

A slightly longer shot still worth pursuing, Krepinevich added, is materials science: A breakthrough in new, lighter, stronger forms of armor could rebalance a tactical and budgetary context which currently requires bulky, expensive protection — an MRAP for example — against cheap forms of attack like IEDs. And CSBA has already put out a whole report on what it sees as the near-term potential for laser weapons to protect US forces by shooting down incoming missiles.

All these are long-term investments. “It may take five years. It may take 50 years,” Krepinevich said. “It some cases it may never materialize.”

In meantime, until new technologies mature and the economy recovers, the report calls for a strategic “holding action” along the lines of Nixon’s 1969 “Guam Doctrine.” Nixon’s most obvious strategic move was to withdraw from Vietnam, putting the burden of the war there on the South Vietnamese, much as Obama plans to make Afghanistan responsible for its own security after 2014, albeit with continued US support. (Congress cut off the aid Nixon had promised Saigon, sealing its fate in 1975; here’s hoping we and Kabul do better). But Nixon also sought to reduce the threat by reaching out to China, literally neutralizing a threat by turning an enemy power into a neutral one, and to the Soviet Union, negotiating arms control treaties (on which Moscow cheated).

Obama’s strategic guidance from this January does seek to limit our military commitments abroad and help allies to help themselves, both approaches Nixon would have approved. But the much-touted “Pivot to Asia” and the associated “AirSea Battle” concept are widely seen, including in Beijing, as pitting the US against a rising China; Nixon would have made nice, or even made concessions. Inflaming relations with a potential adversary is a good way to start an arms race, and the US can’t afford one — let alone a war.

That’s the lesson of another historical case study in the CSBA report, how Great Britain handled its relative decline prior to World War I. While the UK successfully sought allies and invested in new technologies, much as the US did in the seventies, it failed to defuse its conflict with Imperial Germany, a rising power with a prickly sense of national pride, a deep fear of foreign meddling, and an authoritarian government willing to divert domestic discontent onto foreign conflicts — much like China today. Ultimately it wasn’t economic decline or imperial overstretch that doomed Britain as a world power: It was two world wars. That’s a lesson for the US to heed today as well.

What do you think?