Small Wars

This Week at War: Quagmire Ahead

International airpower will be enough to escalate the civil war in Libya, but not to win it.

After a very short discussion, the U.N. Security Council, led by Britain and France, passed a resolution on March 17 that authorizes the use of military force against Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime and forces. The resolution permits the use of "any means necessary" but prohibits a foreign military occupation of Libya. It specifically calls for a no-fly zone and the use of force to protect civilians. The rapid advance of pro-Qaddafi forces toward Benghazi forced the United States to quickly harden its position. Equally surprising were abstentions by China and Russia, allowing the resolution to pass.

Today, Libya responded by declaring a unilateral cease-fire. Qaddafi and his advisors may have been equally surprised by the speed with which the Security Council acted. The declaration of the cease-fire is an interesting gambit by Qaddafi. It will force the international coalition opposing him to suspend the start of an air campaign against Libya. Meanwhile, government forces will still be able to maneuver against rebel positions and move forward equipment and supplies for renewed attacks. And it will give his troops time to switch to an irregular warfare strategy, which I discuss more below.

Obama administration officials may have thought they would have many more days, or possibly weeks, to organize a multilateral response to the Libyan situation. It seems clear they badly misjudged the timetable pro-Qaddafi forces have been able to maintain. Third-world armies have a notoriously poor reputation at military logistics operations, such as frontline supply and vehicle maintenance. But Qaddafi's forces have been able to sustain a remarkably long supply line that now stretches many hundreds of kilometers from their bases near Tripoli. Qaddafi's ability to keep his mechanized spearhead moving forward up to 100 kilometers on some days may have been as surprising to officials in Washington as it was to rebel commanders in Benghazi. Qaddafi's forces were already bombarding Benghazi, and his ground forces should reach the rebel redoubt today or tomorrow.

Although the French government boasted that air strikes against Qaddafi's forces would begin within a few hours after the Security Council vote, organizing an air campaign that will have a meaningful effect on Qaddafi's ground forces will take much longer to organize. Most crucial in this regard is Obama's hesitancy to have U.S. military forces in the lead in this operation. Second is the strong desire by Western powers to have Arab military participation (Qatar and United Arab Emirates are mentioned), hopefully in the very first waves of attacking aircraft. Take away the United States, the most powerful and experienced air power, and add in completely inexperienced Arab air forces, and the result will be many long planning meetings as various European and Arab political and military leaders attempt to cobble together a multilateral air force.

This coalition will not be able to ignore Libya's air defense system, which includes 15 early warning radars, 30 surface-to-air missiles sites, and Qaddafi's fighter aircraft force. Coalition jets will have to suppress this system before they can provide persistent reconnaissance over the battle front and methodically attack Qaddafi's tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery. It is very likely that the battle for Benghazi -- assuming Qaddafi revokes his cease-fire -- will be well advanced before the coalition's air campaign has reached this phase.

The coalition should reckon with Qaddafi's likely responses. Although they are helpful, he does not need his tanks and artillery to regain control of Libya's cities. Once coalition aircraft begin attacking conventional military targets, Qaddafi will switch to irregular warfare techniques. His soldiers and mercenaries will abandon their uniforms and travel by bus, accompanied by civilians, refugees, and friendly media for shielding against air attack. Once inside cities like Benghazi and in close quarters with the rebels, Qaddafi's infantry will similarly be immune from air attack, especially if the coalition is prohibited from deploying ground troops as forward air controllers.

Finally, Qaddafi is a particularly unscrupulous and ruthless adversary with long experience using terrorism as a strategic weapon -- Libya was a large source of suicide bomb volunteers during the Iraq war -- so members of the coalition should expect terror retaliation in various forms.

Although his overseas bank accounts have been seized, Qaddafi already has the necessary money, troops, weapons, and ammunition to sustain a low intensity but brutal campaign against the rebels. The investigation begun by the International Criminal Court has left him and his sons with little choice but to fight on. The United Nations has authorized the wide-ranging use of air power against his regime. Air power will be enough to escalate this war but not enough to win it. Although prohibited for now by the Security Council, "boots on the ground" will eventually be required to remove Qaddafi and his sons from Libya.

Chinese missiles are sinking the Navy's long-range plans

Last week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released an analysis of the Navy's shipbuilding plans. The study showed that the Navy's 30-year plan to buy new warships will not keep up with the retirement of aging ships, and thus the Navy will only briefly (around 2023) reach the number of warships it says it needs to accomplish its missions. In addition, the CBO concluded that the Navy has underestimated by 18 percent (or $93 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars) the amount of funding it will need to implement its 30-year plan, a plan that will fall short of its stated requirements.

Although that may sound discouraging enough, rapid advances in both the numbers and lethality of adversary anti-ship missiles will force the Navy to dramatically rethink how it goes about it business. This will very likely mean that the Navy's shipbuilding plan, and CBO's analysis of it, will both soon be sent to the shredder.

In a recent essay published in the Naval War College Review, Vitaliy Pradun, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, described in detail the rapidly growing threat Chinese missiles pose to U.S. Navy surface warships operating within about 1,000 kilometers of the Chinese coast, a zone that includes many important United States allies and numerous shipping lanes vital to global commerce. According to the CBO, the Navy's shipbuilding plan contemplates the purchase of 142 new surface combat ships over the next 30 years. Pradun's description of the threat posed by missiles to these ships calls into question the viability of the Navy's plan.

Rather than attempting to match the United States in aircraft carriers or warship and aircraft quality, Pradun describes how the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) has carefully focused its resources on missile development and acquisition in order to achieve specific advantages over U.S. naval forces in the Western Pacific. According to Pradun's analysis, it does not matter that China doesn't operate aircraft carrier strike groups or the most modern naval destroyers or fighter aircraft. China's inventory of many hundreds of long-range ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles will soon be in a position to overwhelm U.S. fleets that venture too close to China during a war. In addition to the threat to the Navy's surface forces, Chinese missiles are already positioned to cripple the U.S. Air Force's bases in the region, a conclusion the Congress's U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reached in its 2010 annual report.

According to Pradun, Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles, which the PLA has fitted to nearly every boat, ship, submarine, and aircraft, out-range U.S. anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. Pradun also described an increasingly elaborate radar, sonar, and reconnaissance satellite network China has built to track U.S. naval forces in the Western Pacific. In addition, Pradun discusses why U.S. missile defense efforts are not keeping up with the numbers, speed, and accuracy of the PLA's missiles.

Pradun concludes that Pentagon planners need to redesign how U.S. forces will operate within the zone the PLA apparently intends to contest. He recommends a dramatic shift to missiles and aircraft with much longer ranges than those currently operated by the Navy and Air Force. In the scenario Pradun describes, the troubled and expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program won't be of much help. What are needed instead are the Air Force's next generation long-range bomber, the Navy's carrier-based long-range drone aircraft, a new anti-ship cruise missile that at least matches what the PLA already has, and a new technique -- perhaps a ship-based laser -- to defend against saturation missile attacks.

Last week the CBO revealed why it thought the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan was underfunded. When placed next to Pradun's analysis, the CBO report hardly matters. Without a change in course, it will soon become too risky for the Navy to enter a large swath of the Western Pacific during a crisis with China. In a few years, we should expect the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan to look a lot different than today's.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Libya's Endgame

President Obama, Muammar Qaddafi and Libya's rebels are all planning their next moves. Whichever side wins, it's the machine mechanics on the ground who probably deserve the credit.

Libya's rebels scramble to hold out

The armed uprising against Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi appears to be cracking, and it may collapse before U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have sorted out their policies toward the rebellion. Qaddafi, the rebels, and Obama will each have to quickly consider their political and military strategies as what may be the endgame approaches in Libya.

According to the BBC, military forces loyal to Qaddafi have broken through the rebel's defenses outside Ras Lanuf, the oil town that was the western perimeter of the rebel's stronghold over the eastern half of Libya. A few days earlier, rebels were ejected from Bin Jawad, the next town further to the west along the coast road. The risk now is that rebel morale and cohesion will shatter and that they will be unable to establish another defensive line before loyalist mechanized forces advance down the coast road toward Benghazi, the capital of the rebellion. Further complicating the rebel's task is the apparent collapse of rebel resistance in the western town of Zawiya, near Tripoli. Pacification of Zawiya would allow Qaddafi to redeploy reinforcements for the push on Benghazi.

Qaddafi's key vulnerability at this moment is the ability of his forces to maintain his advantage in mobility. The combatants are fighting down the coast road and the adjoining open terrain between towns. The military advantage will go to the side that keeps its tanks and infantry fighting vehicles -- all highly susceptible to breakdowns -- repaired and in the fight. Should Qaddafi ultimately win the war, those most deserving of credit might be those contractor mechanics he has undoubtedly hired to keep his armored vehicles running.

Knocked back on its heels and perhaps with its time nearly up, the Libyan resistance has belatedly launched the political element of its strategy. The Libyan National Council, the rebel leadership group, rolled out its members to a Wall Street Journal reporter covering the war from Benghazi. The rebels were careful to put a moderate and technocratic face on their movement. The rebellion scored a success when it convinced the French government to officially recognize it. And in a trip next week to Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has agreed to meet with representatives of Libya's resistance.

President Barack Obama's administration has maintained its own resistance to getting involved in the Libyan civil war. According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration has decided to take action in Libya only as a member of a much broader international coalition, for example after intervention has been approved by the Arab League, NATO, or the U.N. Security Council. Approval by these organizations typically requires consensus, which is bad news for the rebels holding out against Qaddafi's counterattacks.

Obama undoubtedly knows that he will face intense criticism if he stands by while Qaddafi ruthlessly crushes the rebellion. Knowing this, we must presume that outcome, assuming Obama allows it to occur, is part of a larger calculation of risks. What might those calculations be? Topping the list might be that Obama and his advisors have decided that they want to encourage no more rebellions in the Arab world, particularly in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere on the Sunni side of the Persian Gulf. Egypt's Tahrir Square may have been exhilarating, but Obama and his advisors may now have had enough of that kind of excitement. If it will incentivize tranquility in Riyadh, Obama may be willing to let Qaddafi win this one.

Think grand strategy is too hard? It's really not, say Kaplan and Kaplan.

The latest issue of the National Interest features an essay on America's grand strategy by Robert D. Kaplan (recent author of Monsoon and many other books on current history) and Stephen S. Kaplan, who recently retired after a 30-year career at the CIA. Titled America Primed, Kaplan and Kaplan puncture the myth that an effective grand strategy is a puzzle too difficult for Washington's statesmen to solve. In fact, the Kaplans argue that the grand-strategy puzzle practically solves itself -- as long as future U.S. presidents exercise some restraint, prudently tend to their military power, and can finesse a few straightforward dilemmas.

The United States' paramount geostrategic objective should be to ensure that no one power or alliance of powers effectively dominates Eurasia. What will make grand strategy so easy, they suggest, is that all of the other consequential powers -- they mention China, Russia, and India -- have problems of their own and possess few of the advantages held by the United States. And competition among Russia, China, and India should ensure that Eurasian power remains divided.

Kaplan and Kaplan explain those strategic advantages the United States enjoys that will keep it on top for many more decades. None of the three aforementioned consequential powers has the global alliance system that the United States has throughout the "Anglosphere," Europe, and East Asia. Compared with the United States, China, Russia, and India lack the soft-power stature and skills to build such alliances, at least for many years into the future. Best of all, according to the Kaplans, a bit of a growing military menace in China and Russia is actually a good thing from Washington's perspective; it focuses minds among America's allies in Asia and Europe and makes them more eager and cooperative partners. For the same reasons, they argue, there is little to fear from Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs -- the reaction by America's Sunni-Arab allies will boost Washington's influence in the region and may even lead to a rapprochement between Israel and the Arabs.

The Kaplans' advice for Central Asia is two-fold: Get tough with a misbehaving Pakistan, and get out of Afghanistan, without leaving a mess behind. Here, the Kaplans haven't figured out the Catch-22 that Afghanistan has become any better than anyone else. The United States can't get tough with Pakistan while it still has a large army in Afghanistan. But neither do policymakers in Washington seem willing to take the risk of a collapse in Afghanistan even though it is clear they desperately need the $100 billion spent annually in Afghanistan for air and naval modernization in the western Pacific. The Kaplans argue, "[T]he United States can only start to withdraw from Afghanistan, without its current regime being toppled shortly thereafter, if Islamabad fundamentally alters its policy. Pakistan's military and ISI will not do that without the application of more political and economic pressure." But Washington cannot apply that pressure while Islamabad controls the supply routes, and thus the war, in Afghanistan. The Kaplans don't have a convincing answer to this dilemma.

In the Kaplans' tour of the globe, many of the world's most significant geopolitical problems, apparently governed by the forces of regional self-interest, seem to practically balance themselves, at least from Washington's perspective. It would be comforting to think that the American electorate won't have to reliably elect a succession of Bismarckian geniuses in order to maintain global stability. Unfortunately, it won't be that easy.

The Kaplans describe what could be an effective operating principle for American grand strategy, namely regional balances around the Eurasian periphery, backstopped by U.S. security agreements with allies in each region.

To make such a system work, U.S. statesmen will have to display wisdom along three dimensions. First, they will have to ensure that the United States will continue to be able to afford the required military power. Second, they will have to convince allies that the United States still has the will to use its military power while at the same time not squandering that power fruitlessly. Third, U.S. statesmen will have to avoid the problem of "moral hazard" with its allies, convincing them to make significant contributions to the regional balancing system while those allies simultaneously know that the United States will be their backstop (or "bailout").

These are timeless dilemmas for which neither the Kaplans nor anyone else has written a formula. Future U.S. presidents might not have to all be Bismarcks. But neither can they count on grand strategy taking care of itself.