11/07/2012 10:32 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

Capability Not Numbers: The Metric of Military Power

Three U.S. Navy ships joined the post Hurricane Sandy relief effort last week, responding urgently to the aftermath of one of the worst storms in history to hit the tri-state area.

Loitering just off the coast, the immensely capable amphibious vessels have been tasked with providing essential helicopter, medical, and engineering support to bolster the courageous efforts of the emergency services. Whilst other ships could have been deployed increasing the size of the contingent, the USS Wasp, San Antonio and Carter Hall specialize in delivering personnel and equipment from the ocean to the land, a space described in military parlance as the littoral, and an environment that the U.S. Marine Corps are specifically trained and equipped to operate in.

Disaster relief is one of many scenarios that generate a myriad of critical tasks spanning the land, air, sea and littoral environments -- the U.S. military is required to operate at peak performance across all, both at home and away. Discussion of ship 'numbers' has provided a centerpiece for discourse during the U.S. presidential campaign, and in the process exposed a rather obsolete perspective of how military inventories should be shaped.

Hitherto, the presidential candidate has debated and contrasted the specifics of 'numbers' -- arguing that the Navy's fleet "is smaller now than any time since 1917," and that current numbers fall short. Using ship numbers to debate an appropriate size for a navy, outside of the context of capability and requirement, is like arguing the effectiveness of an army is based on its number of tanks. But if your mission is to conduct counter-insurgency operations where engagement with the local population and winning hearts and minds is the critical element -- large formations of tanks suddenly becomes a lot less relevant. To be objective -- the president has had four years of being briefed by his generals and is expected to discuss such matters using the metric of capability -- an approach he started to adopt in the third and final debate when countering Romney's claims. This article is absolutely not about leveraging the disastrous events of Hurricane Sandy to expose political weakness. It is, however, an attempt to explicate that capability, not numbers, is the true currency of military power, shaped by a nation's foreign policy, and bounded by its economy.

If you consider that one C-17 Globemaster air transport aircraft can fly faster and lift more than four C130 'J' aircraft, or one Chinook helicopter can fly further and lift more than three Blackhawk helicopters; capability over numbers appears to be a straightforward argument. But if you take this example to the extreme -- just procuring a few enormous helicopters or transport aircraft is not practical either. Although carrying a quarter less than the C-17, those four C130 'J' aircraft can be in four locations at once -- but as with numbers, ubiquity is only relevant in the context of capability. In the maritime environment, a Landing Helicopter Dock such as the USS Wasp wouldn't be the capability of choice for covert surveillance and reconnaissance tasks in unchartered territorial waters; and a destroyer wouldn't be the most suitable option for anti-mining operations.

The point being that to deliver 'effect' around the world requires a bespoke inventory that is tailored to strategic and tactical requirements; a C-17 is procured to take large consignments half way across the world (strategic lift); C130 'J' aircraft are utilized for smaller payloads and relatively shorter routes in higher threat environments (tactical lift). As with ships, arguing that an air force's strength is based on numbers only becomes relevant when the capability of individual aircraft types is understood. Regarding Mitt Romney's argument on what constitutes an effective Navy, wouldn't firepower be a more representative metric of capability? Political scientists Brian Crisher and Mark Souva describe naval power in terms of ship types and available firepower. Crisher and Souva assessed that the U.S. controlled around 11 percent of the world's naval power in 1916 -- in 2011 it has increased five-fold to 50 percent putting the U.S.'s naval power capability well and truly ahead of its nearest competitor -- Russia at 11 percent.

Similarly, firepower is but one factor; stealth, payload, range, endurance, speed, intelligence gathering, and self-protection are other examples of capability that all need consideration on a case-by-case basis depending on the scenario and likely military tasks. The consequences of attrition are also a key consideration. For example -- losing a minesweeper is a tactical loss that could be detrimental to the success of a battle. The sinking of a carrier could have strategic implications on the success or failure of a war -- both constitute one ship on an inventory, but have very different roles. You can see that capability forms the framework of a military's fabric in that every ship, aircraft, helicopter, or armored vehicle brings something different to the party -- but how much or how little is enough, and what constitutes the requirement? The answer stems from a nation's domestic protection strategy and its aspiration to advance specific geopolitical designs in interacting with other states -- or more simply put -- its foreign policy.

The U.S. is a pivotal part of a world that is rapidly changing and with it -- the nature of conflict. The U.S. Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines and Special Forces components are now entrenched in countering insurgencies or wars-amongst-the-people rather than state-on-state conventional warfare. Counter-piracy operations predominate over battles on the high seas and the secondary and tertiary effects of force projection overseas have become the primary answer (for now) to securing the U.S. homeland. Security threats are truly global and often in regions where access is difficult, governance is absent, humanitarian disasters are rife and regional support is divided leaving no clear path to resolution.

Globalization and a more connected world through social media and cyber technologies have enabled terrorist and criminal organizations to transcend national boundaries and leverage their own relatively low-tech capabilities to devastating effect. Governments and their departments can no longer address 21st century threats in isolation -- a comprehensive approach (as it has been termed) is now a mandatory part of U.S. intervention doctrine. The triumvirate of mainstream governmental departments has had to adopt a synergistic and transparent approach in reacting to current and future threats abroad. Communications capability alone between the State Department, U.S. aid and defense (representing governance, nation building and security respectively) poses a significant problem when classified computer and voice-based systems are incompatible or need complicated firewalls to establish basic connectivity. When you introduce intra-departmental issues into an inter-nation environment, where coalition partners are also pursuing a similar cross-departmental strategies, the problems are exacerbated exponentially. Equipping the entire U.S. military with MacBooks is pointless if the State Department is using a different operating system. A rapidly changing security landscape demands continual assessment of expensive new capabilities well outside of the traditional military hardware norms, as well as being equipped to conduct large-scale conventional warfare underpinned by the ultimate deterrent of a nuclear sledgehammer. Scholars and military strategists frame the dilemma as preparing for 'the' war, the current counter insurgency in Afghanistan, versus 'a' war, an unknown balance of predictions catering to a broad range of likely scenarios that could come to the boil in any part of the globe. Ensuring the security of America today is a very different conundrum to countering the conventional threats prevalent in 1917, demanding a broad range of diverse and multi-role capabilities that enable a flexible and sometimes unorthodox response.

Identifying and establishing a strategy to counter rapidly shifting global threats to domestic security is, in relative terms, the easy bit. Affording and implementing new capability to support such policy arguably defines the art of the possible. The economic boundaries are complex. As fiscal policy cannot move fast enough to counter economic and stock market turmoil, defense procurement cannot keep up with a rapidly changing security environment. Expensive defense programs procuring specific capabilities such as air defense fighters, anti-submarine warfare aircraft, and stealth helicopters can take over 20 years to deliver and cost governments billions. Capital outlays reach far wider than just the physical equipment; research and development (R&D), training of personnel, new doctrine, infrastructure, IT systems, as well as running costs and upgrade requirements over the life of the capability, all add to the price tag. The 'user requirements', a document that contractually binds defense contractors to delivering what defense departments have specified, can only be amended to a point. Over a span of 20 years, incorporating new technologies or changes in requirement are either very expensive, delay the overall programs, or are simply undeliverable. Programs that make it into service can be outdated, over budget, and require expensive and protracted in-service modifications to deploy to contemporary theaters of conflict.

According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, $46 billion has been spent on cancelled U.S. programs in the last decade. Gaining the upper hand through a technological edge is also an expensive business. Research and development of stealth for example has cost the U.S. billions; a worthwhile investment some may argue, until China or Russia invent a means of detection. Procurement of military capability is an increasingly expensive business, and with a fragile U.S. economy, Defense's capacity to support national interests abroad is becoming increasingly difficult. Afghanistan and Iraq have cost the U.S. some $1.6 trillion to date; overall costs including the projected welfare and benefits commitments to veterans out to 2040, continued payments to support the Afghan National Army, and U.S. support beyond 2014 amount to some $4-6 trillion. U.S. Foreign policy in the last decade has required the military, along with the state and U.S. aid departments, to conduct two parallel and unaffordable large-scale operations. Ownership and deployment of the most sophisticated and powerful military in the world comes at a hefty cost. The Economist reported that America's annual Defense budget in 2010 amounted to nearly $700 billion (19 percent of the Federal Budget), totaling more than the next seventeen nations in line including China, the second largest at $110 billion. The UK came in third with an annual budget of some $34 billion but has already succumbed to fiscal pressures, decommissioning its sole aircraft carrier last year. Foreign Policy remains the handrail for military equipment planners, but with a national mortgage of $16 trillion, a looming fiscal cliff and a slow economic recovery, capability is rapidly being defined by affordability.

Given the fragility of the U.S. economy, political discourse would be wise to embrace the metrics of defense capability over numbers as budgets decrease. A 'less is more' approach to procurement, defining military strength as a mix of hybrid equipments that can be utilized across a broad range of tasks -- will stand U.S. defense capability in good stead as affordability bites. Disaster relief, if recent history is anything to go by, will place increasing demands on the military at home -- investing in capability over numbers will therefore ameliorate the inevitable divergence between Defense's ability to spearhead homeland security, whilst providing significant contributions to support regional stability abroad. As for the capability of the U.S. Navy, delivering firepower that surpasses its main competitor by 400 percent, with the smallest fleet since 1917 -- is value for money that any administration should be proud of, and a philosophy that will stand America in good stead as she emerges from economic hardship.

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