Small Wars

This Week at War: The Jawbreaker Option

Forget no-fly zones; if Obama really wants to be rid of Qaddafi, it means changing the balance of power on the ground.

For Libya, think 'Jawbreaker,' not 'Southern Watch'

The current struggle in Washington and European capitals over what to do about Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi sounds very much like a case of déjà vu. A ruler of an oil-exporting Arab country -- a veteran of military confrontations with the West -- faces an armed uprising from citizens in rebellious provinces. He responds by counterattacking with regime loyalists who are supported by air power. Western military forces stationed near the fighting watch as the bombardment and street fighting proceeds. The U.N. Security Council issues a condemnation and the ruler's overseas bank accounts are seized. Western leaders discuss imposing a no-fly zone while a few openly hope that a palace coup will remove the ruler from power.

Two decades ago, this was the situation with Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, just after the remnants of his destroyed army limped back from Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush and his advisors felt certain at the time that Saddam would not last more than a week or two against Kurdish and Shiite revolts that sprang up after his defeat in Kuwait. Little did they know how much irritation he would cause two succeeding U.S. presidents. Although U.S. policy toward Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War resulted in open-ended frustration and then another war, some policymakers apparently seem willing to follow the same path today with Libya.

Just as with Saddam in March 1991, last week Qaddafi seemed certain to go down. One week later, it seems very possible that he could hold on. Although numerous, widespread, and enthusiastic, Libya's opposition is essentially leaderless, disorganized, and untrained for military operations. It now seems a reasonable bet that Qaddafi's trained and ruthless defenders -- supported by loyalist air power -- could scatter the resistance.

The question for President Barack Obama and his officials is whether they are willing to tolerate the damage to U.S. prestige that would occur should Qaddafi crush the revolt and restore his authority over Libya. Qaddafi would join Iran as a U.S. adversary that would have successfully used repression to hang on to power while the Obama administration looked on. Meanwhile, U.S. friends in Egypt, Yemen, and perhaps elsewhere have not fared nearly as well. Fairly or not, the president may decide he is willing to run some risks to avoid this characterization of his administration's foreign policy.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates made plain his concerns about imposing a no-fly zone over Libya. A no-fly zone -- similar to Operation Southern Watch, imposed over southern Iraq from 1992 to 2003 -- would have to begin with a large-scale attack on Libya's air defense system, which includes surface-to-air missile batteries, radars, military airfields, and command-and-control units. Such spectacular bombardment might be politically acceptable if it resulted in a rapid and decisive outcome against Qaddafi. But it wouldn't. Previous U.S.-imposed no-fly zones over the Balkans and Iraq merely resulted in indecisive sieges with no material change to the military balance on the ground.

If Obama decides that a Qaddafi victory would be intolerable, he should consider dusting off the plan (code named Jawbreaker) that routed the Taliban from Afghanistan in late 2001. After the 9/11 attacks, CIA paramilitary and U.S. special operations teams made contact with the Afghan Northern Alliance that opposed the Taliban. The U.S. teams, which at their peak amounted to only a few hundred men, helped the Northern Alliance organize its ground forces for an offensive, provided critical battlefield intelligence to rebel commanders, and directed U.S. air power against Taliban targets in support of a ground offensive. The Taliban's ground forces were shattered and the result was a quick decision rather than a protracted siege.

In Libya, U.S. assistance would aim to provide the resistance with decisive battlefield support it could not otherwise generate on its own. This could include the identification of loyalist military positions and capabilities, surface-to-air missile defense of resistance positions, communications support for resistance field units, electronic jamming of loyalist communications, a shutdown of Qaddafi's propaganda media, training of resistance militia, and staff and logistics support for resistance field units. The vast majority of this support would be non-kinetic and hidden from view, and could be enough by itself to be decisive against Qaddafi.

Naturally, there is a risk that such support would not be decisive. In that case, Obama would face the choice of escalation, employing U.S. air power and perhaps ground forces to break a battlefield stalemate. Another risk is that after successfully deposing Qaddafi, U.S. goals would shift in a way that resulted in another prolonged U.S. military deployment in an Arab country; after toppling the Taliban, U.S. policymakers then decided that indefinite suppression of al Qaeda in the region was necessary, which explains why the U.S. military is in Afghanistan nearly 10 years later.

Against these risks, Obama must weigh the consequences of a Qaddafi victory should the United States opt to provide no material support to the Libyan resistance. A no-fly zone, on the other hand, seems like no choice at all -- committing the U.S. to an expensive and open-ended siege without any effect on the ground, where Qaddafi's fate will ultimately be decided.

Is asking the Army for a quick ending asking too much?

In last week's column, I asserted that U.S. Army and Marine Corps leaders, who are already planning for reductions in their forces after their engagement in Afghanistan concludes, may face even further reductions if they cannot explain how U.S. ground forces will be relevant to security problems in the post-Afghanistan era. The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated to some U.S. policymakers that general-purpose ground forces may not be a very good tool for solving many of today's irregular security challenges.

Nathan Freier, a retired U.S. Army officer and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is among a rare group of analysts openly discussing what the future holds for the Army after Afghanistan. In a recent essay for the U.S. Army War College's Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, Freier offered up his recommendation for what the Army should prepare for. If soldiers thought Iraq and Afghanistan were unpleasant, Freier thinks the next challenges could be even tougher.

Freier asserts that Pentagon planners would be wise to begin with some stern assumptions. Resources, especially for the Army, will be in decline. Allies will be of little help. Adversaries will continue to use irregular warfare techniques to avoid U.S. military strengths. And Washington will expect U.S. forces to solve a greater variety of "small war" security challenges, but will demand that military planners avoid risks, casualties, and long campaigns as they do so.

Freier's worst-case scenario is a "large-scale limited opposed stabilization campaign." In this scenario, the United States would face a political collapse and a security breakdown inside a politically fragile country, resulting in either large and uncontrolled refugee flows or the loss of control over nuclear or other mass-destruction weapons. Freier further posits that the population of this country is hostile to U.S. intervention and that there is no functioning central authority as a useful partner. Even if U.S. officials would prefer to remain detached from the chaos, the security and humanitarian consequences of benign neglect would be too painful to endure.

In such a scenario, Freier foresees the need for 90,000 to 230,000 soldiers deploying to the immediate theater of operations to conduct stabilization operations. At the high end, such a force would be more than twice the force currently in Afghanistan and nearly 50 percent larger than the maximum "surge" force in Iraq in 2008. Freier suggests that U.S. planners should count on a two-year commitment at this level followed by a much smaller but lingering presence, a forecast that would imply an extensive mobilization of reserves and at least one rotation of fresh brigades to the war zone.

It is on this point that Freier's properly gloomy planning assumptions become improbably bright and sunny. The United States has no record of such a prompt exit from such a large military campaign. The only way such a prompt exit could occur is if U.S. forces were able to rapidly train indigenous security forces to replace U.S. forces. Such "security force assistance" must become an essential tool of U.S. government policy. Although a critical tool, there is no record of the United States executing a security force assistance mission both rapidly and on a large scale. More likely, and contrary to what Freier expects, would be many more rotations of U.S. general-purpose forces -- in other words, another Iraq or Afghanistan.

Faced with that less sunny assumption, U.S. policymakers will demand a major rewrite of the plan. They will ask for options that get to the finish line faster. Freier has alerted policymakers to the difficulties ahead and has challenged military planners to prepare options that are both militarily and politically realistic. Unfortunately, no planner knows how to write such an operations order.


Small Wars

This Week at War: Qaddafi's Collapsible Military

Libya's army has completely disintegrated in recent days. It was supposed to. 

Qaddafi didn't need his army. He may not be the only ruler who thinks so.

In last week's column, I discussed whether there might be a gap between warfare in the 21st century and the style of warfare for which the Pentagon prepares. I wrote, "And with nation-states now having strong political incentives to avoid having their soldiers overtly engaged in warfare, their leaders may increasingly hire irregulars and anonymous proxies as their combatants." Little did I know then how well this sentence would apply to Libya's leader, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, now holding out in a last bastion around Tripoli. Despite his eccentricities, the colonel's views on the military and its role in protecting a modern state are not so different from those of major world powers, including the United States.

Although once a soldier himself, Qaddafi has had little use for his own military. The sudden rebellion in Libya has caused the regular army in Libya to collapse. This was a feature of the army, not a bug. A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies on the military balance in North Africa described the poor state of the army's training, leadership, and logistical support. In particular the authors singled out the lopsided ratio of Libya's weapons supplies to manpower as "militarily absurd." Like all autocrats propped up on the tiniest sliver of support, the last thing Qaddafi would have wanted was a cohesive and functioning army patrolling Libya's streets.

Qaddafi has preferred mercenaries and street thugs rather than regular soldiers for his security. He has avoided keeping a competent army, an institution that would have been a threat to his rule. With few external threats and all of the biggest risks to his power coming from inside the country, Qaddafi rationally preferred outsiders for security -- as we have witnessed, they have less compunction pulling the triggers when necessary. The recent events in Egypt supported Qaddafi's security strategy -- Egypt's well-established and nationally respected army removed Hosni Mubarak from office relatively quickly.

The odds of Qaddafi surviving much longer, let alone re-establishing control over his country, seem very long. But his chances are still much higher than they would be if there was a cohesive security force, such as a competent army, opposing him.

As mentioned, Qaddafi could get away without a strong army because Libya faced few significant external military threats. The regular army was not a suitable instrument for the dangers he worried about. He's hardly alone in this view. Similarly, many other modern powers, including China, Russia, and most countries in Western Europe, have not been able to identify conventional military threats to their territories and have opted to reduce their traditional ground forces. By contrast, missile and naval forces in China, nuclear forces in Russia, and internal security forces everywhere seem to be growth businesses.

As for the United States, senior Marine Corps leaders are assuming that policymakers will not entertain any repeats of the stabilization campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan anytime soon. They seem to be presuming that a lesson from those campaigns is that conventional U.S. ground forces were not the appropriate tool for those missions. Thus, Marine Corps leaders are planning on a force reduction from 202,000 Marines to 186,800 or even lower. Based on similar assumptions, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, discussed plans to reduce the Army from 570,000 soldiers to 547,000 by 2014, with a further reduction to 520,000 possible.

These Army and Marine Corps generals are making plans to maintain smaller but high-quality and well-equipped forces when impending budget cuts arrive. Such planning seems only prudent. But to avoid even more dramatic cuts, these generals will have to convince policymakers that their conventional ground forces will be a relevant solution to the nature of security problems in the 21st century.

For the Marine Corps, it's nice to feel needed

In a recent column, I discussed the struggle the U.S. Marine Corps faces finding a sensible role for itself after it completes its work in Afghanistan. In that column, I discussed how modern guided missiles, now available to a wide array of potential adversaries, make the traditional Marine Corps mission of amphibious assault riskier than ever. Some analysts have suggested that the Marine Corps should instead focus primarily on training and advising foreign partner military forces. But this would set up a clash with the Army's Special Forces and with Special Operations Command, which already have the lead responsibility for that mission. With Pentagon spending inevitably getting a chop, it is a bad time for the Marine Corps to be without a viable mission and struggling to convince its sponsors on Capitol Hill that it should continue to be worthy of significant funding.

So it was not a moment too soon when Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, called for the Marine Corps to play a larger role in the Pentagon's new AirSea Battle Concept. The AirSea Battle Concept (described in depth in a report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments) was first officially introduced in the Pentagon's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The QDR discussed a concern that future advances in adversary air defense systems, anti-ship missiles, and submarines could make it too risky for U.S. military forces to operate in certain parts of the "global commons" at sea, in the air, or in space. The AirSea Battle Concept will be a doctrine calling for the Navy and Air Force to integrate their services' unique capabilities into a joint strategy designed to overcome an adversary's attempt to establish such "no-go" zones.

In the post-Afghanistan era, the challenge presented by China's military buildup -- and the possibility that China will someday be in a position to establish "no-go" zones in the Western Pacific and South China Sea -- will very likely rank at the top of the Pentagon's priorities. Implementing the AirSea Battle Concept will thus likely be a major organizational focus of the Defense Department throughout the rest of this decade. The fact that Willard, the top field commander in the Pacific, has specifically invited the Marine Corps to the big Navy-Air Force party should be pleasing to Marine Corps leaders who otherwise might have wondered when the ax was going to fall on their service.

By calling for an increased role for the Marine Corps in a hypothetical air and naval campaign in the Pacific, Willard has saved the Marine Corps from having to convince skeptics why its amphibious capabilities are necessary. The task now falls on Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force planners to solve the guided-missile problem that continues to bedevil the prospect of landing marines on an even modestly defended shoreline.

In a recent speech, Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos explained how the Corps will return to amphibious and expeditionary missions after being essentially a second land army in Afghanistan. To make a relevant contribution to the AirSea Battle Concept, the Marine Corps will have to fix two major problems. First, it will have to fix its problem with landing craft; Amos declared that after the cancellation of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program, the Marine Corps is starting from scratch on a new family of troop carriers. Even more important for Amos is to fix the highly troubled Marine Corps vertical takeoff and landing version of the F-35 fighter aircraft, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates has placed on a two-year stay of execution. Should Amos succeed in fixing this airplane, commanders will have a jet fighter capable of operating from a wide variety of amphibious ships, and not from just a few Navy aircraft carriers.

When he called for the Marine Corps to play a larger role in the AirSea Battle Concept, Willard likely concluded that the Corps' capabilities would reassure allies in his region and complicate the planning of potential adversaries. This could not have come at a better time for Amos and his Marines. But whether the Marines can fix their problems and make a useful contribution to Willard's plans remains to be seen.