Standing on board the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, Vice President Mike Pence announced on April 30 that the White House reversed its earlier decision to retire the warship early by foregoing its midlife nuclear refueling.
This flip-flop torpedoed the Navy’s narrative that decommissioning was necessary to implement the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s pivot to great-power conflict with China and Russia.
Less than a week later, the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group cut short its deployment in the Mediterranean Sea to head for the Persian Gulf amid a botched attempt at strategic messaging vis a vis Iran.
Prior to its re-tasking, the Lincoln CSG had participated in a high-profile dual-carrier deployment in Mediterranean intended to demonstrate U.S. capabilities to Russia.
Together, these two choices starkly illustrate the limits of the National Defense Strategy and serve as a reminder that strategy cannot wall itself off from politics.
It’s fashionable for defense technocrats to rail against the often frustrating and arbitrary political constraints within which they operate. But to paraphrase the political theorist Thanos: “I know what it’s like to feel so desperately that you are right and yet to fail all the same…. Dread it, run from it, politics still arrives.”
The National Defense Strategy remains open to interpretation. Policymakers should recognize that its call to accelerate U.S. conventional military efforts against China and Russia is an additive demand for resources, unable to be met through quixotic “hard choices” like retiring an aircraft carrier or pivoting significant attention and money away from secondary theaters and threats.
Under a flat defense budget — what the administration proposed for 2020 and beyond — catching up to China and Russia would require dollar-for-dollar trade-offs among missions and weapons systems.
Many of those trade-offs require the assent of Congress, although some rise to the level of the White House. The “hard choices” necessary to carry out the strategy require specific explanations by the White House, Congress, and Pentagon leadership about which missions the military should stop carrying out, such as giving Iran and the Middle East less attention.
Navy officials spent weeks defending the decision to retire Truman as a necessary evil to enable targeted modernization of weapons more relevant to the high-end conventional naval fight against China, such as large unmanned surface ships and long-range missiles. They faced an uphill battle — not one lawmaker had expressed anything other than skepticism about the decision, and for good reason.
Congress certainly would have reversed the decision itself, but the administration beat them to it.
It’s clear that the White House did not consult the Department of Defense before making the Truman decision. It’s equally clear that it would not have mattered.
What tactical or operational arguments could stand against the political image of a vice president saving America’s premier military weapons system as the White House heads into re-election mode?
It’s not impossible to overcome politics. Just last year, the Air Force convinced Sen. David Perdue to allow the cancellation of JSTARS Recap based on the aircraft’s lack of survivability in high-threat environments.
But overcoming the political incentives in Congress to protect current procurement is difficult. It requires sustained efforts over many years to build relationships, particularly for a decisions as inexplicable as retiring Truman.
The Pentagon will be denied the ability to cancel or cut procurement of many other weapons programs before this year is done.
Only a week after the Truman reversal, the re-tasking of the Lincoln CSG showed the same exact dynamics at play at the strategic level.
The National Defense Strategy says very little about second-tier challengers, such as Iran and North Korea. Yet worries about a new Iranian plot prompted Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie to accelerate the Lincoln’s planned arrival in the Persian Gulf, cutting short its deterrence mission against Russia.
The Lincoln CSG was reassigned from operating with the John C. Stennis CSG as a message to Russia. Russian officials must surely have enjoyed watching the United States pull its assets away from the Mediterranean.
The “message” to Moscow, in this case, is loud and clear. The U.S. military does not currently possess enough military forces to meet demand, even if the National Defense Strategy says the Pentagon should focus on China and Russia.
Still, the buzzwords rolled in — Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson called the re-tasking of the Lincoln a great example of “Dynamic Force Employment.”
This concept supposedly throws out the old predictable model of deployments meant to maximize efficiency in favor of greater unpredictability. It’s a favored talking point of the Pentagon, but it’s unclear that it means anything at all in this case.
The Lincoln CSG was already scheduled to visit the Persian Gulf. This carrier re-tasking did not occur any differently than those of the past. Old wine, new bottles.
The absolute incoherence of the strategic messaging accompanying Lincoln’s change in direction also showed that American policymakers are not nimble enough to do more with less.
Why should they then expect the military to carry out more ambitious plans under a stagnant budget?
The National Defense Strategy gets it right by saying the U.S. military needs to spend more financial and intellectual capital to keep up with conventional military advances by China and Russia.
But that challenge, while dire, only adds to the steady-state demands on the U.S. military, which still must deal with Iran, North Korea, violent extremist organizations and much more.
Rick Berger is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he works on the defense budget, the National Defense Authorization Act, military appropriations and acquisition reform, plus other national security budget-related issues. His views do not necessarily represent those of Navy Times or its staffers.