Small Wars

This Week at War: Pakistan Loses the Upper Hand

With bin Laden dead, Islamabad's leverage over Washington may also be gone.

Bin Laden's death will change Washington -- and Pakistan won't like it

The day after U.S. special operations forces dramatically raided Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan seemed to invite an investigation into whether elements of the Pakistani government were complicit in sheltering bin Laden. During a briefing, Brennan asserted, "I think it's inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in the country that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time. I am not going to speculate about what type of support he might have had on an official basis inside of Pakistan ... I think people are raising a number of questions, and understandably so."

But a day later, the administration seemed more eager to limit the damage the raid might cause to its relationship with Islamabad. The Pentagon and the Pakistani military issued a joint statement reaffirming their cooperation against terrorism. And according to the Wall Street Journal, senior administration officials urged restraint in blaming Pakistan's leaders for the embarrassing presence of bin Laden and his family within a few hundred meters of Pakistan's army academy and in the same neighborhood as many retired army officers.

From this perspective, the bin Laden raid is now a matter for historians to ponder: serious policymakers on both sides should focus on the future and on those practical interests shared by the United States and Pakistan. From this point of view, the raid didn't change the interests each side seeks or the leverage each side can deploy against the other and the United States still needs Pakistan's cooperation against terror networks that threaten the West. The U.S. also needs Pakistani support to move supply convoys through Pakistan to its forward operating bases in Afghanistan. For its part, Islamabad still seeks to maintain its connections to the West, to retain its diplomatic options, and to receive financial assistance from Washington and elsewhere. The death of bin Laden hasn't changed any of these facts.

This view may be correct for now but it is not likely to hold. First, with the bin Laden raid such a spectacular success, Obama will likely come under increasing pressure to repeat its success. Previous U.S. direct action incursions into Pakistan were met with harsh reactions from Islamabad, including the temporary shutdown of the supply pipeline through the Khyber Pass. But with the raid's success and the now nearly universal assumption that the Pakistani government is not a trustworthy partner, there will be growing political pressure inside the United States for Obama to treat Pakistan as an "open range" for military operations against terrorist targets.

Second, political pressure will mount on Obama to wind down the war in Afghanistan, something that the president seems willing to accommodate. Bin Laden's death will deliver finality to many in the U.S. electorate. The sense of an end to the 9/11 story will clash with calls to continue the costly counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan's villages. Should Obama accede to an accelerated departure from Afghanistan, it would be another demonstration that the "post-Gates" era has arrived, a point my FP colleague Peter Feaver mentioned this week.

The more forces the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, the more leverage it gains over Pakistan; fewer forces in Afghanistan mean less reliance on the supply line through Pakistan. The bin Laden raid set a precedent for U.S. ground operations inside Pakistan, which Obama will now come under increasing pressure to repeat. It is true that the bin Laden raid didn't change for now the fundamental interests and leverage in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. But the raid did set in motion political forces inside the United States that won't please Pakistan.

Are the Navy's big aircraft carriers too risky?

In my March 18 column, I discussed how China's rapidly growing inventories of ballistic and cruise missiles will threaten the existing U.S. defense strategy in the western Pacific. The latest issue of Proceedings, the journal of the United States Naval Institute, contained an article written by two Pentagon strategists that argued for the gradual phasing out of the Navy's large aircraft carrier fleet. The arguments against the supercarriers go back decades and regularly recur, especially when money gets tight. But this time, the authors argue, the missile threat is too serious to ignore. They argue for a new fleet design. And in doing so, they expose how some of the other defense-cut proposals recently floated in Washington were not thought through.

In "Twilight of the $UPERfluous Carrier," Navy Captain Henry Hendrix and retired Marine Lt. Col. J. Noel Williams explain why the growing anti-ship missile threat makes it too risky for the Navy to continue to rely on a handful of large aircraft carriers to control the sea and project power ashore. Hendrix and Williams instead recommend distributing naval air power over a larger number of smaller carriers which would reduce risk and complicate an adversary's planning. The authors call for retaining the current fleet of large carriers but not building any more. The existing carriers would gradually phase out over the next 50 years. To replace them, the authors recommend expanding purchases of an amphibious assault ship currently being produced for the Marine Corps. This ship is an aircraft carrier about half the size of the Navy's largest carriers, but at one-third the cost.

But in order to make the Hendrix and Williams proposal work, the Pentagon would have to make its full planned purchase of the troubled Marine Corps version of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B, which does not need the large carrier's catapults to get into the air. The F-35B has been a favorite target lately of defense reformers and those hoping to make further cuts to the defense budget. Hendrix and Williams also foresee the Navy's future unmanned drone jets operating from the small carrier, as well as the full range of helicopters, Marines, special forces personnel, and more.

In addition to reducing risk and complicating an adversary's planning, employing a much larger fleet of small carriers would make it easier for the United States to maintain a forward presence, show the flag, engage with foreign partners, and deter conflicts. The small carriers can also perform a much greater variety of missions than can the large carriers. In the meantime, over the next 50 years the large aircraft carriers would transition to a mobile reserve, for contingencies requiring heavy power projection capability.

The Hendrix and Williams proposal is a sharp contrast to the other recently released defense reform proposals. Proposals from the president's Fiscal Commission, the Dominici-Rivlin panel, and Gordon Adams at the Stimson Center all go in the opposite direction. They would cancel the F-35B but apparently retain the Navy's plans for maintaining indefinitely its fleet of large aircraft carriers. The result of these plans would be the concentration of all of the Navy and Marine Corps strike aircraft at sea on a handful of increasingly vulnerable ships.

The other plans targeted the F-35, the Osprey aircraft, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and other programs that have been hobbled with cost overruns. By comparison, the Navy's large aircraft carrier program seems much less troubled. But picking program winners and losers by these criteria and not in the context of mission requirements, adversary capabilities, and combat risk could be a recipe for disaster when contractor efficiency is disconnected from combat requirements. Hendrix and Williams have proposed a fleet design with the future battlefield in mind. How the defense contractors measure up delivering that fleet, they leave to others.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Company Men

Do CIA directors make good defense secretaries?

Do CIA directors make better defense secretaries?

In a sweeping but long-anticipated reorganization of his national security team, President Barack Obama has nominated Leon Panetta, his CIA director, to be the next secretary of Defense. When confirmed, Panetta will replace Robert Gates. According to the New York Times, Gates -- himself a former director of Central Intelligence -- has been voicing his support in calls to leaders on Capitol Hill in recent days, saying he recommended Panetta as his replacement six months ago. The Times also noted that of all of the candidates to replace Gates "it was Leon the whole time." Is there something about CIA directors that makes them especially qualified to be defense secretaries?

Many analysts have focused on Panetta's past as chairman of the House Budget Committee and his time as director of the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. With Obama having tasked the Pentagon and other security agencies to come up with an additional $400 billion in savings over the next 12 years, Panetta's experience with the federal budget could be a critical skill in the period ahead.

A defense secretary serves not only the president, but his other "customer," the Congress. Panetta's longevity inside Washington's circles nearly matches Gates's. His past experience as a congressman and his recent experience at CIA will ensure smooth relations on Capitol Hill and there should be virtually no opposition to his nomination to the Pentagon.

But it's likely that these were not the most critical reasons why he became the easy first choice for the Pentagon. In pushing for Panetta, Gates is undoubtedly counting on his old institution, the CIA, to have thoroughly prepared its current director in two crucial ways.

First, the Pentagon is a massive organization, requiring great management experience from its leader to be effective. The CIA is also a large organization, which Panetta has led for over two years without incident. Having been through the same progression, Gates must feel comfortable with Panetta's management ability.

But for Obama and Gates, the most critical preparation Panetta has received is his acquired knowledge about the external security challenges the United States will face in the years ahead. The CIA's paramilitary activities in Afghanistan, its relations with Pakistan's intelligence service, and the CIA drone program over North Waziristan have undoubtedly consumed much of Panetta's time. But his briefing books have also included the growth of China's missile and naval forces, the development of Iran's nuclear and missile forces, the growing role of militarized drug cartels in Latin America, and many other threats.

The defense secretary's most important job is to make sure that the country's military forces are prepared for future challenges. The first step in achieving that mission is to understand what those will be. The CIA has its version of what those challenges are, which are now inside Panetta's head. Gates seems comfortable with that.

Does Panetta have a grand strategy?

At an April 21 press conference at the Pentagon, Gates attempted to establish the ground rules for the latest review of defense spending. Responding to Obama's call to find an additional $400 billion of savings from security spending over the next 12 years, Gates insisted that this latest budget exercise result in a presentation of risks and consequences to Obama. Gates explained:

So what I hope to do is frame this in a way that says, if you want to cut this number of dollars, here are the consequences for force structure. Here are your choices in terms of capabilities that will be reduced or investments that are not made. And here are the consequences of this.

This is about -- this needs to be a process that is driven by the analysis, and where it is about risk management with respect to future national security threats and challenges, as well as missions that our elected officials decide we should not have to perform or shouldn't -- can't perform anymore because we don't have the resources.

I want to frame those choices, because the easy thing for everybody is to just do a broad percentage cut, because then there are no evident consequences. And what I want to do is frame this in a way the consequences and the risks are identified so people can make well- thought-out decisions."

Gates is hoping that Obama's call for cuts turns into a serious debate about U.S. grand strategy. Formulating such a strategy implies defining objectives, assessing available resources, setting priorities, and accepting the risks and consequences for those objectives. Although a seemingly logical process, recent presidents have shied away from performing such an exercise and for good reasons. Gates, the most experienced hand in Washington, knows this. But with his departure from the Pentagon now set for June 30, Gates won't be around to guide the strategy project he believes is so important. That task will fall to his presumed successor, Leon Panetta, whose views on grand strategy still remain a mystery.

Hasn't the Obama administration, like its predecessors, already produced some elegant grand strategy documents? Last year, the administration published its National Security Strategy. The Pentagon produced its own Quadrennial Defense Review. These documents richly describe ambitions and aspirations. But they are nearly silent about the limitations under which U.S. policymakers must increasingly function. And this means that these documents avoid the hard-headed analysis decision-makers under constraints must face, namely setting priorities, taking risks, accepting consequences, and ultimately cutting adrift goals -- and partners -- that cannot be supported.

If Obama and his Office of Management and Budget are serious about additional defense cuts, Gates wants the risks and consequences out in the open. Setting priorities and accepting limits means announcing that some allies and friends still merit protection while others don't. Previous presidents have never been explicit about such line-drawing, a crucial result of grand strategy formulation; to do so would undermine the clout of U.S. diplomacy. More broadly, openly declaring explicit limits on security missions the United States will and will not perform would imply forfeiting influence over events in some areas, something U.S. policymakers since World War II have consistently declined to do. They have concluded that the best way to maximize diplomatic influence and maneuvering room is to be vague and leave the impression that all goals and all friends matter equally.

But as the Pentagon's dollars grow short, such a strategy will increasingly rely on bluff. When the interagency process, for logical reasons, resists making strategic choices, Gates's nightmare -- equal budget cuts across the existing force, leaving all capabilities hollowed out -- will be the default option.

Gates believes that a substantive national debate on strategy, risk, and consequences will educate the public and, he hopes, minimize the chop the Pentagon will receive. He is now counting on his hand-picked successor Panetta, a CIA director fully briefed on the world's security challenges, to wisely manage this latest security review. But where Panetta stands on grand strategy remains to be seen.

Alex Wong/Getty Images