Military Force Restructuring

M. Shane Smith

October 2003

"The development, quality, and survival of democratic systems depend on governments making armed forces their political servants and policy instruments rather than the other way around." -- David Pion-Berlin

What is Military Restructuring?

Military developments, postures, and organizational structures have long influenced defense doctrines, the perceived costs and benefits of armed aggression, and the perception of potential threats coercive power that may precipitate conflict.[1] For example, prior to World War I, many European policy-makers believed that existing technologies favored countries with an offensive military posture. No country wanted to forego the offensive advantage, and this belief may have hastened the war.[2] In order to lessen the potential for such violent developments, most peace accords stipulate changes in military institutions, organization, and capabilities.

In times of peace, treaties have been used to structure military developments in such a way as to favor defensive -- as opposed to offensive -- military postures. For instance, during the Cold War, Western countries believed that Soviet military forces were best suited to offensive operations, compelling NATO to develop countermeasures, and heightening tensions that could have led to conflict. Therefore, the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty was designed to place quotas on the weapons systems that each country might deploy, favoring defensive doctrines that may have lessened the chance of conflict.[3]

Arms control measures, such as the CFE Treaty, are one way to create less threatening military forces. However, military restructuring can be a much broader undertaking than simply limiting the deployment of weapons. It may be undertaken voluntarily by a government to increase efficiency, to better civil-military relations, or as an effort toward democratization that may increase internal as well as state-to-state stability.[4] For instance, many countries in Africa and Latin America are undergoing significant military reforms, since progress toward economic liberalization and democratic governance requires greater civilian control over their armed forces.[5] Meanwhile, military restructuring has also been a key theme for both Russia and the U.S. since the end of the Cold War, due to new security challenges and changing economic or industrial relations that have accompanied far-reaching technological developments in recent decades.[6]

Military Restructuring as a Peace Agreement

The Dayton Peace Accords helped bring an end to the Bosnia conflict in the early 1990s. The agreement was guided by arms-control and confidence-building measures that called for fundamental restructuring of the armed forces of each of the belligerent parties (Croat, Muslim, and Serb). It was believed that making each participant's defensive capabilities superior to the offensive capabilities of its neighbors would increase stability, and create more durable political relations than reliance on deterrent policies of retaliation.[7]

This approach required significant planning, which is described by Conetta et al.:

The Stability-oriented military postures for the region would emphasize selective area control and defense based on infantry-artillery formations supplemented by a small quantity of counter-attack elements. Planners would identify "defense zones" -- those vital areas most vulnerable to attack -- in which the infantry-artillery elements would concentrate. A small number of high-readiness, independent units would be constituted on the national level for use as (i) a "first line" of defense at a threatened border, (ii) a "rapid reaction" element to contain and interdict infiltrations through remote areas, or (iii) as reinforcements for local defense zone forces.[8]

These strategies emphasize infantry and artillery rather than air and armor formations, with infiltration containment as opposed to force-projection strategies, and can significantly decrease the advantage of initiating hostilities.

On one hand, parties emerging from conflict are hesitant to completely disarm and are highly skeptical of their rivals. Thus, the ability to maintain defensive forces increases confidence and facilitates more cooperative behavior, because the fear of being attacked is somewhat assuaged. It helps avoid a sense of helplessness, which can generate social instability and eventual aggression when a society feels unable to meet potential foreign challengers.[9] On the other hand, there is a very thin line between offensive and defensive capabilities; one's defensive developments may be perceived as a threat by neighboring parties, creating a spiraling effect of increasing tensions. Moreover, the complexities of tactical planning and continued uncertainties among multiple and distrustful parties confound long-term stability without continued vigilance in confidence-building and verification efforts that require a sincere willingness on part of the belligerents to avert conflict.

Military Restructuring and Civil-Military Relations

Tensions between military and civilian sectors have been present in many societies for many years. Indeed, civilians have long grappled with how to subordinate armed forces to their will while maintaining the ability to militarily secure their interests. A society seeks to maintain forces that are large and powerful, to protect against or defeat an enemy, but those forces should not be able to consume civil society or be turned against it.

This is a particularly difficult balance in democratic societies. As David Pion-Berlin suggests, "the development, quality, and survival of democratic systems depend on governments making armed forces their political servants and policy instruments rather than the other way around."[10] The balance often depends on strict hierarchical structures that lead to civilian decision-makers and transparency. However, tensions associated with limiting the authority of the military can threaten these relations and lead to an ineffectual or resentful military.

While restructuring efforts may be undertaken as a means to better civil-military relations, they often have opposite effects that heighten societal tensions. Many former communist and dictatorial states continue to liberalize their economies and to democratize their governments, which often require significant restructuring of and cutbacks in their military establishment. Reductions may ignite unrest, if soldiers are unable to find other jobs and military leaders feel less control over their own fate. Moreover, those whose economic welfare depends on the military, such as defense industries and communities surrounding military bases, are likely to resist change. Even in times of peace, decisions to restructure military forces, close military bases, or reshape procurement programs are politically costly; people's livelihoods and interests are at stake and they may become politically mobilized. While this is often reflected at the polls in the United States, it has led to more radical movements in other countries.

Restructuring to Meet New Challenges

It is often thought that the structures underpinning a nation's military establishment influence future defense planning and strategies. Military institutions are formed in response to specific threats, which eventually fade and are supplanted by new ones. Yet, the momentum behind the existing institutions may obstruct the changes required to meet the emerging threats. For instance, during the Cold War, European and American militaries were singularly focused on large weapon systems able to fight a prolonged continental war over a large landmass. By contrast, the sporadic ethnic conflicts of the 1990s were carried out with conventional weapons and threatened regional stability, such as in Rwanda, the Balkans, and East Timor. Western forces were largely unprepared to handle these outbreaks and to intervene in a timely fashion, because their militaries were still structured around heavy weapons for use with massive armies, not for use within complex and conflictual societies. Recently, Europe and the United States have made efforts to restructure their forces so they are able to rapidly deploy lighter forces to quell low-intensity conflicts.

It is not just that military structures may prolong the time before policy-makers are able to meet new challenges, but that not restructuring once a challenge has dissipated or shifted may actually lead to other and largely avoidable conflicts. It is widely believed that military developments by one country will lead to counterdevelopments by others, greater political tensions, and possibly even war (see security dilemma). Thus, a country that sees another's military developments as threatening will likely develop an unfriendly counter-position that could arguably precipitate hostilities. For instance, the U.S. continued to rely on heavy, Cold-War-era military platforms after the fall of the Soviet Union. This reliance may have heightened suspicions in Moscow that U.S. policy-makers were intent on subjugating Russia's weakened military, which hindered East-West cooperation and paved the way for continued distrust and potentially antagonistic behavior.

Military restructuring is a tool that can be used to help avert or end societal conflicts both within and among nations. By developing less offensive military postures, one may be able to avoid conflicts (see essay on preventive diplomacy and violence prevention) that are associated with the security dilemma. Yet, reliance on military restructuring to keep the peace would be unwise. Rather, a real commitment to secure peace is necessary, with benign military structures acting to reinforce this commitment; the difference between offensive and defensive capabilities often lies with the intent of each actor and is, therefore, ambiguous to others.

Restructuring can also be used to manage civil-military relations, to assuage inherent tensions that may lead to social conflict. However, such restructuring is often a risky endeavor that potentially has political, financial, and human costs. Although force restructuring is necessary as the challenges to a society shift and change over time, existing military structures often hinder such change and can create otherwise avoidable conflicts.

[1] For instance, see Berry R. Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine: France , Britain , and Germany between the World Wars (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984); and, Steven Van Evra, "Offense, Defense, and the Causes of War," International Security Vol. 22, No. 4 (Spring 1998), pp. 5-43.

[2] For a comprehensive discussion of the subject, see Steven E. Miller, Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War: An International Security Reader (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985).

[3] See Richard A. Falkenrath, Shaping Europe's Military Order: The Origins and Consequences of the CFE Treaty (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995).

[4] For the debate surrounding whether democracy lessens the potential for violent conflict, see Michael E. Brown, Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Steven E. Miller (eds.), Debating the Democratic Peace (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1993).

[5] See Remonda Bensbat Kleinberg and Jannie A. Clark (eds.), Economic Liberalization and Civil Society in the Developing World ( New York : St. Martin 's Press, Inc., 2000); and, Bruce W. Farcau, The Transition to Democracy in Latin America: The Role of the Military (Westport: Praeger, 1996).

[6] For changing security challenges and efforts toward military restructuring, see Ashton B. Carter and John P. White (eds.), Keeping the Edge: Managing Defense for the Future (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001); and, Jan Geert Siccama and Theo van den Doel (eds.), Restructuring Armed Forces in East and West (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994); and for restructuring needs associated with economic and technological changes, see Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry, Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1999), pp. 175-215.

[7]Carl Conetta, Charles Knight and Lutz Unterseher, "Defensive Restructuring in the Successor States of the former-Yugoslavia," Project on Defense Alternatives, Briefing Report #6, available on-line at:

[9] For instance, see Theda Skocpol, States & Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, & China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

[10] David Pion-Berlin (ed.), Civil-Military Relations in Latin America: New Analytical Perspectives (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001), p. 1.

Use the following to cite this article:
Smith, M. Shane. "Military Force Restructuring." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <>.

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