Small Wars

This Week at War: SecDef, Reform Thyself!

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

Gates lectures the Navy. Next, he should lecture himself.

On May 3, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered a stern message to Navy: The branch should not count on a taxpayer bailout to fix its shipbuilding problems. Virtually every recent shipbuilding program has been plagued with mismanagement and alarming cost overruns, resulting in a shrinking fleet and longer and more stressful deployments. Gates's advice to a gathering of naval officers and contractors was that they should break with the traditional and instead entertain some "outside the box" thinking. He assured his audience that there would be no increases in the Navy's procurement budget.

Gates's grim fiscal message for Navy planners comes at what might be an important inflection point in global naval power. There is no question, as Gates noted in his speech, that the U.S. Navy possesses overwhelming superiority. But the trends are not so friendly. While U.S. naval contractors struggle to put new affordable hulls in the water, China's fleet continues to rapidly expand. In recent testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm, Robert Willard, commander of Pacific Command, made note of China's preparations for "area denial," a strategy that concentrates anti-ship firepower to deny an adversary's access to a specific part of the ocean. According to Willard, China now has the world's largest conventionally powered attack submarine fleet, continues its testing of long-range, anti-ship, cruise and ballistic missiles, and will launch its first aircraft carrier in two years. During a recent visit to China, two Obama administration officials were told by their Chinese hosts that China would not tolerate any interference in the South China Sea.

In his speech, Gates denounced the Navy's response to the adverse trends Willard described. According to the secretary, the Navy's unimaginative answer is to replace its old warships with newer, more complex, and grossly expensive versions from the same family tree. As the costs of the new ships have exploded, the Navy has been unable to afford one-for-one replacements. The result has been a shrinking Navy and greater stress on the remaining ships and sailors.

Gates called for innovations in the Navy's thinking and design that would bypass the area denial strategy. The first of his suggestions was to greatly increase the Navy's striking range. For example, operating long-range unmanned strike aircraft from aircraft carriers would safely pull the valuable flat tops away of the most dangerous contested waters, negating an adversary's area denial plans. Gates also lauded the new "air-sea battle" concept -- an effort by Navy and Air Force planners to integrate their forces to achieve operating synergy. Such an approach could also provide another technique for bypassing an adversary's area denial strategy.

What is ironic is that Gates himself has stood in the way of his own solutions. While he discussed the need for long-range striking capability, it is Gates who has promoted the short-range F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. At more than $247 billion, the troubled F-35 is the costliest weapons program in history, but no one has been a stronger defender of the program than Gates. While he has slashed and canceled other programs, Gates's latest budget request defends the full purchase of more than 2,400 F-35s for all three services. With such a commitment to the pricey fighter, commanders will be stuck inside the area denial trap, exactly opposite to the outcome Gates hoped for in his speech. Meanwhile, an Air Force long-range strike drone is languishing inside yet another Gates-ordered research study, and the Navy's long-range carrier-based drone experiment proceeds at a leisurely pace. Under Gates's current budget, neither of these two solutions to the area denial problem will be available for at least a decade.

Gates is right to call for a shake-up in the Navy's thinking. But if he is wondering what is holding up some of his own good ideas, perhaps he should have a talk with himself.

There is no Gulf of Tonkin in Korea

South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak is receiving a quick and painful lesson in the politics of crisis management. On March 26, the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan exploded, broke in half, and sank in South Korean waters, killing 46 crewmen. South Korea's defense minister, aided in his investigation by U.S. naval intelligence, concluded that a heavy torpedo was the most likely cause of the disaster. Lee has declared the sinking "was no accident." Although he has vowed to take a "clear and resolute measure" against those who sunk the Cheonan, Lee has hesitated to explicitly blame the North Korean government for the attack.

With it well-known throughout South Korea that thousands of North Korean cannons and rockets loom within striking distance of Seoul, Lee is very unlikely to order even token military retaliation. Most South Korean voters will undoubtedly approve of this conclusion; they along with Lee are happy to gamble that North Korea's Kim Jong Il is not deliberately testing the limits of provocation.

With no follow-up action or talk from the North, why did the attack occur? One reason might be that a rogue North Korean sailor acted on his own, a breakdown in control Kim would not want the world to know about. Another is that Kim ordered the attack in retaliation for previous naval skirmishes between the South and North. The motivation for such a decision would have both external and internal dimensions. Kim might have wanted to remind Lee and his military staff that patrolling near North Korean waters (for, say, intelligence-gathering purposes) can be dangerous. Internally, Kim might have been under pressure from his military staff to permit the attack in order to protect the military's reputation inside the North Korean hierarchy.

If Kim approved of the attack, he probably took account of the South's likely response. If so, he didn't seem too worried. The South's prosperity, and the high level of risk aversion that comes with prosperity ensure that Kim and his cannons looming over Seoul enjoy "escalation dominance."

Not able to strike the North directly, Lee tried the next best thing. On April 30, Lee met with Chinese President Hu Jintao to discuss the incident and, presumably, to enlist China's cooperation in reining in Kim. Three days later, Kim arrived in China for his own consultation with Chinese leaders.

The end result of the appeals to Hu will be a deep freeze in the status quo. China will continue to prop up Kim, avoiding the collapse in North Korea that it fears. China will have to dig a bit deeper into its pocket on Kim's behalf -- the South's previous "Sunshine Policy" is now in full eclipse. Lee will avoid a military escalation, a commitment he and his compatriots are all too happy to dodge. And at the White House, the Obama team is similarly pleased to avoid one more worry. So everyone ends up happy -- except perhaps those looking for justice for 46 dead sailors.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

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.