Small Wars

This Week at War: Star Wars in the Age of Obama

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

The Pentagon sends mixed messages into space

April 23 was a busy day for the Pentagon's space program. First was a launch from Florida of the experimental X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, a smaller robotic version of the soon-to-be retired NASA Space Shuttle. The Air Force hopes to develop a reusable robotic spacecraft that can carry satellites and cargo into space, stay in orbit for many months, maneuver to different orbital planes, and land on a runway for reuse. Second that day was the launch from California of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2 (HTV-2). The HTV-2 is an experiment to test whether the Pentagon can develop an extremely fast maneuvering glider-bomb that could promptly strike fleeting targets anywhere on the planet. Engineers lost contact with the missile 9 minutes after launch.

The Obama administration will soon attempt to explain two contrasting messages regarding the military use of space. On the one hand, it will call for international cooperation on a variety of space issues. On the other hand, as shown by the April 23 launches, it is hedging its bets by expanding the Pentagon's space power.

In its forthcoming Space Posture Review (SPR), the Defense Department will describe how important space and its space programs are to military success. The SPR will very likely explain how dependent U.S. military operations are on the military's reconnaissance, communication, weather, and navigation satellites. The report will also discuss how these systems are increasingly vulnerable to disruption by U.S. adversaries.

In a preview of the SPR's likely content, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn recently discussed the need for international cooperation in space. Lynn called for "norms of behavior in space" that would include cooperation on space communication spectra, cooperation on navigation and missile warning, and protection of space assets from attack.

Having established the greatest range of space capabilities and with the most to lose from attacks on space assets, it is understandable that the United States government would now call for cooperation in space and the institution of a taboo on attacks on space assets.

In his speech, Lynn recognized that space has become a competitive military environment. Potential adversaries are likely to see a great advantage in offensive space capabilities that threaten the Pentagon's space assets. 

As a hedge, the Obama administration has found itself supporting programs like those launched on April 23. In the future, the Air Force could use a spacecraft like the X-37B to rapidly replace military satellites destroyed by earlier enemy attacks. The X-37B could also have an offensive mission, to maneuver and linger near adversary satellites after a war has started, either to destroy them or to threaten them to deter escalation. The administration will hope that the HVT-2 eventually becomes an "Osama bomb," a weapon capable of rapidly destroying a fleeting target but without appearing on Russian or Chinese radars to be the start of a nuclear war.

The Obama team will attempt to sell a message of cooperation and harmony in space while simultaneously pursuing weapons programs that further expand the United States' dominant military space capabilities. No one should be surprised if America's adversaries hear the wrong message.

Does defending a village mean undermining Karzai?

An April 27 Washington Post article discussed a small victory for an Afghan village defending itself against Taliban intimidation. Two dozen Afghan men, trained by a small detachment of U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers, organized their own neighborhood watch and now patrol their village near Kandahar. Taliban fighters, who recently swaggered through the village and who seeded the village's dirt road with bombs, haven't been active there in months.

Although many top U.S. military officials in Afghanistan are eager to expand such local defense efforts, President Hamid Karzai has rejected any initiatives not under the authority of his Interior Ministry. Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, supports Karzai's decision and has blocked U.S. funding for the military's plans. According to the article, the establishment in Kabul fears that the organization of local militias will bring about the return of warlords, whose marauding led to the Taliban takeover in the 1990s.

On March 24-25, the Small Wars Foundation (the parent organization of Small Wars Journal) co-sponsored a workshop featuring a wide range of experts to study "tribal engagement" in Afghanistan (the workshop produced a summary report and background research materials). The purpose of the workshop was to assess the wisdom of a U.S. government-sponsored "bottom-up" security and development strategy that would essentially bypass the Afghan central government. The workshop also examined what U.S. planners and operators would have to consider in order to implement such an approach.

The workshop participants were well aware that a local community engagement strategy might undermine the Afghan government's authority and risk political fragmentation. But with time running short and the Taliban very effectively implementing their own version of "bottom-up" community engagement, workshop participants concluded that it was unwise to wait for Afghanistan's central government, using a purely "top down" strategy, to provide security and economic development across the country.

So how would a "bottom up" community engagement strategy avoid political fragmentation? Most workshop participants agreed that a community-engagement strategy should focus on the district level, a level of government that is close to the population but also has connections to the provincial governments and to Kabul. Workshop participants also agreed that Afghanistan's government won't improve its legitimacy until district governors are elected rather than appointed by Karzai.

The logic behind a bottom-up strategy in Afghanistan is difficult to refute. Afghanistan is too large, too rugged, and its villages too dispersed from the main roads for Afghanistan's national security forces to effectively patrol. That is why Afghanistan has a long tradition of locally provided security. The conditions that have supported that tradition will not change any time soon.

U.S. military forces in Afghanistan are positioned to expand the kind of community-based "foreign internal defense" mission described in the Washington Post article. Such an effort would likely bring about a faster security increase compared with waiting for the arrival of Afghanistan's still-expanding army and police forces.

One would think that President Obama's staff would be especially interested in rapid gains in local security. The recent NATO conference in Estonia, no doubt informed by Obama's July 2011 Afghan pullout deadline, agreed to an aggressive timetable to turn over security to Afghan forces. This timetable has no chance without improved security, which, in turn, would seem to require more village watch militias like the kind organized by the Special Forces soldiers outside Kandahar. U.S. commanders want to expand this approach. Karzai and Eikenberry have said "no." If the Obama team is serious about its timetable, it will have to resolve this impasse.

Small Wars

This Week at War: Do We Still Need Special Ops?

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Have the U.S. military's unconventional warriors defined themselves out of a job?

What exactly is unconventional warfare? The U.S. military's special operations warriors have struggled with the definition for decades. To some, unconventional warfare encompasses the entire gamut of activities off the traditional battlefield, including support for foreign militaries, support for friendly guerillas, and behind-the-lines reconnaissance and raiding. Doctrinal purists object to this notion. To them, unconventional warfare means something very specific -- support for resistance movements battling governments hostile to the United States. Last year, the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School organized a conference attended by all of the stakeholders in the U.S. special warfare community for the purpose of finally settling on a definition. This they did. But in doing so, did they made unconventional warfare completely unusable as a tool for policymakers?

Here is the new approved definition: "activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area."

The idea of the United States supporting a resistance movement harkens back to U.S. support for French, Yugoslav, and other partisans resisting German occupation during World War II. During the Cold War, Green Berets prepared to drop into Eastern Europe to organize resistance if the Soviet army were to invade Western Europe. But the concept of unconventional warfare was later tarnished by the consequences of U.S. support for the Shah of Iran's overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953, failed meddling in Cuba in the 1960s, and the Contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Unconventional warfare has since had to achieve a very high burden of proof to defend its legitimacy.

With the new definition now written into various U.S. Army field manuals, special operations units will begin to implement training programs to prepare U.S. forces to execute such a mission if called on to do so. But if the special operators are preparing for something that is either politically unrealistic or that purposely avoids the most dangerous threats to the United States, will the unconventional warriors have defined themselves out of a job?

Col. David Witty, who led last year's effort to define unconventional warfare, rejects these arguments. He notes that the definition targets governments or occupying powers and not non-state actors, who many analysts believe to be the most dangerous threat. Witty asserts that the new definition in no way restricts the ability or means for special operations forces to attack, in alliance with a resistance movement, non-state actors like al Qaeda. According to Witty, such a campaign would fall under counterterrorism, an activity separate from unconventional warfare.

More broadly, is it politically realistic to believe that the United States might ever again "coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power"? For Witty, that is a decision for policymakers, and not soldiers, to make. He considers the use of unconventional warfare at least as likely as the clash of regular armies in open warfare, a scenario for which most would agree the U.S. military should also be prepared.

Although it has a troubled past, the appeal of unconventional warfare as a policy option is likely to rise. Supporting insurgents to overthrow an unsavory government seems like a bad idea. But that idea may seem much less bad when compared to all of the alternatives, especially those the U.S. government has tried recently and will wish to avoid trying again. The job for Witty and his special operations colleagues is to make sure policymakers have a usable option should they call for it.

If you can't know the future, how do you prepare for it?

After spending years retooling itself for counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the U.S. Army now unprepared for high-intensity warfare involving an adversary equipped with tanks, artillery, and missiles? In the summer of 2006, the Israel Defense Forces, having spent years immersed in counterterrorist constabulary duties, found themselves bloodied by highly skilled Hezbollah fighters armed with sophisticated weapons and prepared for high-intensity operations.

Some U.S. Army officers fear the United States may be similarly unprepared. The need for foot soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan has diverted soldiers in the armor, artillery, and other branches to serve as infantrymen, depriving them of the experience they require to master their original fields. Three Army colonels, all very successful counterinsurgency commanders in Iraq, declared in a paper they wrote for the Army chief of staff that the artillery branch was nearly untrained and essentially unprepared for large-scale combat. Col. Gian Gentile, an outspoken combat veteran of Baghdad and now a history professor at West Point, declared that "The Armor Corps in the American Army is gone." Gentile asked:

But what if the American Army has to fight somebody in the future beyond insurgents laying IEDs and small arms ambushes that is usually handled effectively by infantry platoons? What if a heavy Brigade Combat Team in Iraq was told to pick up and head east and do a movement to contact into a threatening country?

Could we do it? It would be hard to do such an operation without the intellectual framework of an Armored Force that the American Army used to have, but of late has gone away. It will be hard, very hard to get it back. Competent field armies, skilled in all-arms warfare, are not made overnight."

Gentile's questions are mostly philosophical, addressing what he believes is a new and disturbing state of mind among top Army officers. But the questions raised by all four colonels also address specific technical questions for which the Army should have quantitative answers.

The Army should be able to tell the secretary of defense or the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (assuming they were interested) how many heavy brigade combat teams (those equipped with tanks, mechanized infantry, artillery, etc.) have  demonstrated their proficiency to Army training standards within, say, the past three months. The Army should also be able to report how many additional heavy brigade combat teams would be similarly combat ready in one month, three months, six months, and so on, should a situation requiring that capability arise.

Hopefully, the Army has answers to these questions (which undoubtedly are secret). Whether the answers are alarming to officials in the chain of command or to congressional oversight committees are judgments in risk management. These judgments include assessing the size and qualities of potential threats, their probabilities, and their associated warning times. In 2006, Israeli policymakers either misjudged these factors or overestimated the high-intensity combat readiness of their forces.

The concerns raised by the four colonels are part of a larger question about the U.S. military's ability to adapt to strategic surprises of any kind. Retooling for counterinsurgency (which took at least four years) has left the Army much less prepared for other contingencies. Knowing how many units are ready for various kinds of wars is important. Perhaps even more important is building a military force that is specifically designed to rapidly retool itself regardless of the surprise.

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