Small Wars

This Week at War: The Ask-Tell Era Begins

The military goes back to its core values as it prepares to implement the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal.

"Don't ask, don't tell" and the military's social contract

Last month, the U.S. Senate voted 65 to 31 to repeal the 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy that prohibited gays from openly serving in the military. The Senate vote sent the repeal bill to President Barack Obama, who eagerly signed it into law. The focus now shifts to the Defense Department, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates promising to implement the repeal "as quickly, but as responsibly, as possible." Successful implementation will require a renewed commitment by all to the military's traditional social contract.

Much of the credit for the unexpectedly large Senate majority in favor of repeal may go to a 410-page research report on DADT prepared by the Rand Corp. The report, a 2010 update of a 1993 study Rand had done for the government, was prepared at the request of both the administration and the Senate Armed Services Committee. The report reviewed recent research on group dynamics in military units, conducted surveys and focus groups of current U.S. service members, and studied the experience of other Western countries (with combat experience) that had similarly lifted restrictions on open gay service in their military forces. Senators seemed encouraged by the report's conclusions: Rand predicted that lifting the U.S. ban would have negligible consequences on U.S. military recruiting, retention, unit cohesion, and combat effectiveness. In fact, the authors predicted that the Defense Department will have an easier time adjusting to the end of DADT than it has had adjusting to the widening role of women in the military.

Of particular concern has been what the repeal might mean for unit cohesion, or the ability of small groups of soldiers to form trust and cooperate on critical tasks during stressful situations. Social scientists studying military effectiveness have long concluded that cohesion among members of small units is an essential requirement for battlefield success. The updated Rand study concluded that "task cohesion" -- the commitment of soldiers to the unit's goals -- is a better predictor of small-unit combat effectiveness than "social cohesion," or how much members of the group like each other and prefer to spend social time together. Based on its research, Rand predicted that lifting DADT would not significantly impair the ability of U.S. military units to achieve high levels of task cohesion and therefore battlefield success.

Rand's sanguine predictions concerning the repeal of DADT imply a renewed commitment by all service members to the military's traditional social contract. Under this contract, individuals who join the service agree to forfeit a portion of their individual autonomy and eagerly work hard at achieving the unit's goals. The other side of the military's social contract is the responsibility of the military's leaders to set high standards, to enforce the rules fairly, to assess subordinates based on merit, and to ensure that soldiers who fulfill their part of the bargain are treated with respect. Based on their research, Rand's analysts assume that U.S. service members will agree to this long-standing social contract after the end of DADT. That seems like a reasonable assumption, but it will require the goodwill of all to make it a reality.

Money, missiles, and Army Special Forces are squeezing the Marine Corps

On Jan. 6, Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled the U.S. Marine Corps' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), a powerful and technologically advanced swimming-infantry fighting vehicle that the Marine Corps was counting on to maintain its ability to assault defended shorelines. Gate assured his audience that the death of the EFV program (which should save the government $12 billion) "does not call into question the Marines' amphibious assault mission." But the Pentagon's looming budget problems, combined with the growing ease with which even low-end adversaries are able to acquire guided missiles, may make it increasingly difficult for Marine Corps leaders to assure policymakers that an opposed amphibious assault is a credible military option. The Marine Corps may thus face a particularly challenging period defining its role within the U.S. military.

Although no shots were ever fired in anger at the EFV, anti-ship missiles killed the vehicle. Out of its fear of lethal land-based anti-ship missiles, the Navy -- from whose ships the EFVs would have been launched -- required that the launch point be over the horizon from the shore, perhaps 25 miles from land. This requirement mandated that the 80,000-pound EFV be able to swim at 25 knots (for physiological reasons, the Marine Corps did not want its infantrymen at sea in an EFV for more than one hour). It is likely that this swim-speed requirement drove the engineering boundary of the program beyond an affordable limit.

In the over two decades since the beginning of the EFV program, adversary anti-ship missiles have become more capable -- a 25-mile launch point for the EFV may no longer provide much protection. In 2006, Hezbollah damaged an Israeli patrol boat with a Chinese-made C-802 land-based anti-ship cruise missile, a weapon with a range of 74 miles. China's new anti-ship ballistic missile, if perfected, could attack warships up to 1,500 kilometers out to sea. Lethal and long-range anti-ship missiles in the hands of both state and nonstate actors threaten the Navy's ships that would transport the Marines to a suitable point for launching an amphibious assault. The Marine Corps' problems convincing policymakers that an opposed amphibious assault remains a viable option extend beyond its problems with the EFV.

In light of the Marines' problem with anti-ship missiles, Brian Burton, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, has joined other analysts in recommending that the Corps downgrade the amphibious assault mission and focus instead on another strength: its talents with "small wars" and with training indigenous security forces in a variety of conflict zones.

Neither the Marine Corps nor its competitors within the Defense Department will find this course very appealing. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon's medium-term organizational strategy, calls for the U.S. Special Operations Command to generate and maintain about 660 special-operations teams, the large majority of which will come from the Army Special Forces. In the post-Afghanistan era, the first task of these teams, particularly the Special Forces, will be training indigenous security forces and coping with various small wars. The Marine Corps will have a role, but a supporting one, as the Special Forces and Special Operations Command guard what they will see as their home turf. Neither the Marine Corps nor the Army will want this bureaucratic squabble.

Top Navy and Marine leaders are confident they can solve the anti-ship missile problem. Last November, Navy Undersecretary Robert Work and his deputy Frank Hoffman discussed the problem and explained how innovative tactics and new capabilities promise feasible solutions. In the meantime, the cancellation of the EFV draws attention to the troubles the Marine Corps faces, but also offers an opportunity to make a clean start addressing them. If the United States is to maintain the credibility of its alliances and its status as the leading maritime nation, Navy and Marine Corps leaders must show that they have believable answers to these questions.

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Gates's China Syndrome

The U.S. secretary of defense believes that better military relations with Beijing can help avoid an arms race. But is that what the Chinese want?

View a slide show of China's growing military power

Will China listen to Gates?

On Jan. 9, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will leave on a three day visit to China, where he will meet with his counterparts in the Chinese government. According to Gates's spokesperson, the trip is "aimed at improving our mutual understanding and reducing the risk of miscalculation." Achieving a sustained military-to-military relationship between the United States and China has long been a goal of Gates. For the secretary, the ultimate purpose of such a relationship is to avoid a wasteful and potentially dangerous arms race between the two powers. What remains to be seen is whether Gates's hosts have the same view and whether they currently have much incentive to listen to their guest.

As a trained historian and former Cold Warrior, Gates is well aware of the costs and dangers of military competitions among great powers. Now in the eleventh hour of what will presumably be his last tour of public service, Gates is hoping that a system of regular contact between U.S. and Chinese defense officials will increase transparency, reduce suspicion, and ease the pressure that would otherwise push for greater military preparation on both sides. Gates is now deeply immersed in defense budget planning and feels the pressure smaller budgets will place on U.S. forces. Should Gates be able to avert an arms race with China, he would achieve a success that would eclipse those he may yet achieve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Gates, the U.S.-China military relationship benefits both sides and should logically be a high priority for both countries. Unfortunately, Chinese behavior on this issue does not support that view. In recent years, China has viewed Gates's desire for the relationship as mostly a U.S. interest, which Beijing has alternately granted and then withdrawn as a bargaining chip. The most recent such power play occurred a year ago after the Obama administration approved a weapon sale package to Taiwan. After much pleading from Gates in 2010, Beijing agreed to restart the meetings. With the Chinese having broken off the relationship in the past, another flare-up seems likely to cause a new shutdown in the channel. It seems clear that Gates and his Chinese counterparts assign different values to the military-to-military relationship.

If the United States is to avoid an arms race with China, it may need a different approach than merely assuming that the Chinese also want to avoid that race. Chinese policymakers may have concluded that the coming decade is no time for China to restrain its military production. Important new Chinese systems such as an anti-ship ballistic missile, a fifth-generation stealth fighter, new submarine models, and an aircraft carrier are completing their research and development phases. By contrast, the U.S. government is under severe financial strain and will have to impose more cuts in weapons procurement. It did not help Gates's negotiating leverage when, just prior to his departure for Beijing, photographs of tests of China's new stealth fighter appeared in the media and Adm. Robert Willard, Gates's commander in the Pacific, announced that China's medium range anti-ship ballistic missile -- the so-called "aircraft carrier killer" -- had achieved "initial operational capability." Gates, by contrast, held a press conference at the Pentagon three days before his departure to Beijing where he announced more spending cuts.

Gates continues to hope that a sustained military-to-military relationship between the United States and China will allow both sides to discuss their intentions and thus avoid dangerous misunderstandings. But he and other U.S. policymakers have to reckon with the possibility that China intends to use the upcoming period of retrenchment at the Pentagon to close the gap with U.S. military power in the region. If that's the case, U.S. policymakers will need to rethink their assumptions.

Can an army fighting a drug war stay clean?

A batch of State Department cables recently released by WikiLeaks described the darkening mood among top officials in the Mexican government. In late 2009, the United States ambassador to Mexico reported that some of these officials concluded they were losing control of parts of the country to the drug cartels and that they had little time remaining to salvage the situation. Cartel violence subsequently intensified in 2010. Now, officials on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border are calling on their military forces to restore order. Officers on both sides have good reasons to be wary of these calls to duty.

In October 2009, Carlos Pascual, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, reported in a cable about a conversation he had with Geronimo Gutierrez, a deputy minister in charge of Mexico's domestic security. According to Pascual's cable, Gutierrez expressed a concern that the government could lose control over several regions. Gutierrez estimated that the Mexican government had just 18 months to show progress against the drug violence if the government's campaign against the cartels was to be sustained.

Regrettably, 2010 turned out to be the worst year yet for Mexico's drug war, with more than 13,000 killed, up from an estimated toll of 9,600 in 2009. Gutierrez's fears may now be coming to pass. A battle in Ciudad Juarez between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels for control over a smuggling route through El Paso, Texas, is turning the city's noncombatants into war refugees. Since the battle began in 2008, estimates of 110,000 to 230,000 of Ciudad Juarez's pre-drug war population of 1.4 million have fled the city. A small number of these refugees have arrived in El Paso, some setting up the businesses they abandoned south of the border. Some 6,000 Ciudad Juarez businesses closed in 2010, a year that saw over 3,000 murders in the city, a body-count that made the city one of the most dangerous places on earth. In Juarez, as with many other places in Mexico, Gutierrez's ministry did not achieve the turnaround in 2010 he had hoped for.

With local police forces thoroughly corrupted by cartel money, the Mexican government has turned to its army to restore order. Juarez reportedly now has 10,000 soldiers patrolling its streets. But according to the leaked cables, Mexico's army appears in many cases to be a reluctant enlistee in the war against the cartels. The cables describe the army as hesitant to share information with the police or to cooperate with them on operations. U.S. diplomats also fault the Mexican army for being ponderous and risk-averse.

The leadership of the Mexican army had good reasons, at least initially, for their hesitation in working with the police. The army was one of the most respected institutions in Mexican society. Institutions with such a status are naturally reluctant to risk their reputations, especially with an activity like domestic policing that is so fraught with risk. Cooperation with the police must have been a non-starter, given that many police officers were known employees of the cartels. Of greatest concern for Mexican army officers must be the very great fear that their organization will be similarly corrupted by drug money.

Officials in the United States may now end up subjecting the National Guard to the same risk of drug-money corruption. Last summer, the Obama administration deployed 1,200 Guardsmen to the border to fend off illegal migrants. Congressmen from both parties want to give authority to border state governors to deploy thousands more for a variety of missions, including drug enforcement.

Guardsmen currently deployed to the border are restricted to observing and reporting, leaving actual contact with migrants and smuggling suspects to the Border Patrol and local police. This policy should please Guard officers as much as it does civil rights advocates concerned about a creeping militarization of policing. Given the pressures on both sides, one wonders how long U.S. officials will be able to keep the military away from the messy and corrupting drug war. As for Mexico's army, its officers should accept that they are across their Rubicon; their reputation is now in play so they might as well try their best to win.