Small Wars

This Week at War: COIN.com

Pentagon planners are dusting off the Cold War deterrence playbook to plan for cyberattacks, but Iraq and Afghanistan would be better models.

The Pentagon's cyberwarfare doctrine begins to emerge

This week, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Pentagon strategists are completing a document that outlines the government's cyberwarfare strategy. The Pentagon is expected to publish an unclassified version next month. According to the Journal, Pentagon strategists are prepared to declare that a sufficiently damaging cyberattack against the United States could be viewed as an "act of war," warranting equivalent retaliation. And that retaliation would not necessarily be a U.S. cyber-counterstrike. As one official put it, "If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks." It is good that the government is finally establishing a doctrine for dealing with cyberwarfare. But strategists still must grapple with a challenging form of warfare that combines elements of Cold War-era deterrence theory and modern counterinsurgency doctrine.

According to the Washington Post, the Pentagon has developed a list of cyberweapons, including various worms and viruses, for use either in support of an existing military campaign or for use, with presidential approval, at the strategic level. According to the emerging doctrine, U.S. military commanders in existing war zones would have the authority to use cyberweapons to collect intelligence from adversary networks and support tactical operations in a broader military campaign. At the strategic level, presidential approval would be required for attacks against an adversary's industrial infrastructure like the Stuxnet worm against Iran's nuclear complex.

It is not so simple to find a neat divide between strategic cyberattacks requiring presidential approval and tactical attacks delegated to field commanders. The doctrine appears to reserve to the president the decision to attack portions of an adversary's civilian infrastructure. But in an ongoing military campaign, adversary military forces will use portions of the civilian infrastructure -- for example, the telecommunications system -- for tactical military purposes. This will certainly be true if the adversary is a nonstate actor. A local commander's tactical use of cyberweapons could have wider strategic effects. As with all doctrine, the emerging cyberwarfare doctrine will undergo many changes after decision-makers encounter practical experience.

The Journal article highlighted the threat to use traditional military power in retaliation for a cyberattack that cripples U.S. infrastructure. Reserving the right to expand the boundaries of retaliation should not come as a surprise. Earlier this year, Gregory Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, discussed a similar retaliatory policy when he rolled out the National Security Space Strategy. As I discussed in a column at that time, that strategy seeks to use diplomacy and soft power to protect U.S. assets and interests in space. But if it became necessary, Schulte asserted a broad retaliatory policy to deter attacks on U.S. space interests. The emerging cyberwarfare doctrine appears to follow the same principle.

Announcing such a policy is one thing. Implementing it in a crisis won't be easy, as Cold War policymakers discovered to their discomfort. Recently, anonymous hackers attempted to penetrate Lockheed Martin's networks and apparently did succeed in cracking into Google's Gmail service. Having caused no deaths or widespread economic calamity, such attacks wouldn't seem to rise to the level requiring the kind of punitive retaliation discussed in the Wall Street Journal piece.

But these incidents expose some of the dilemmas cyberwarfare strategists will face. Who exactly were the attackers? The problem of attribution remains unsolved, at least to the degree necessary to convince world opinion that punitive and deadly U.S. retaliation would be legally and morally justified. The emerging U.S. cyberwarfare doctrine will presumably seek to hold governments responsible for the cyberattacks that originate from their territory. Such a policy is designed to elicit cooperative behavior from governments. But it creates opportunities for mischief by nonstate actors and will set up an agonizing test of the U.S. government's retaliatory credibility.

Policymakers are tempted to view cyber warfare through the lens of deterrence theory. But as long as the attackers remain anonymous, cyberwarfare more closely resembles counterinsurgency -- a form of warfare where the U.S. government is still struggling to crack the code.

Does Obama have three more years for Afghanistan?

The Obama administration's plan for Afghanistan is to gradually shift responsibility for the country's security to Afghan forces, a task slated to be completed by the end of 2014. After that, the administration anticipates maintaining a much smaller U.S. force in the country to support the Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism operations in the region. Barack Obama and his advisors hope to show a clear beginning of this transition this summer with a more-than-token withdrawal of U.S. combat forces.

But this timeline implies at least three more years of fighting in Afghanistan for U.S. troops, on top of the decade they have already spent there. In the past few weeks, evidence of the war's political friction has appeared in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States. Military commanders want to stick to the plan for an orderly transition to Afghan responsibility, but whether that three-year timeline can survive is now in question.

The raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad has sent U.S.-Pakistan relations to a new low. In May, Pakistan ejected 20 percent of the U.S. Special Forces soldiers that are training its Frontier Corps. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen made yet another trip to Islamabad in an effort to patch up relations. However, the visit revealed no news regarding the Afghan Taliban sanctuaries on Pakistani territory, which are widely believed to be under the protection of Pakistan's intelligence services.

On May 28, a U.S. airstrike on Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan who had ambushed a U.S. Marine patrol killed 14 civilians, including 11 children, after the insurgents took cover inside a nearby compound and continued to fire on the Marines. In response, President Hamid Karzai demanded an end to all coalition air attacks on Afghan homes, declaring that this was his "last" warning on the issue of coalition-inflicted civilian deaths. Asserting that coalition troops were on the verge of becoming occupiers instead of allies, Karzai warned that "history shows what Afghans do with trespassers and with occupiers."

The war's popularity inside the United States may be fading as fast as Karzai's tolerance. The House of Representatives barely rejected -- 204 to 215 -- an amendment that would have required the administration to establish a faster timeline to exit Afghanistan. Twenty-six Republicans and all but eight Democrats voted for the measure. According to the Washington Post, a group of civilian advisors to Obama will soon make the argument that the financial cost of the Afghanistan war -- $113 billion this fiscal year and $107 billion next year -- is too much when the goals and the risks of obtaining those goals are considered. To these advisors, spending on Afghanistan operations is a ripe target for fast budget savings.

Of course, none of these developments are really new. Rather, they are new eruptions of old syndromes. Leaders on both sides undoubtedly agree that the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is an unnatural coupling, which has always bounced from crisis to crisis. Karzai has always chafed at the foreign military presence in his country and the treatment he receives from U.S. officials. And it should be no surprise to see members of Congress vote against a long war, especially when the vote won't count for anything.

The danger isn't that Pakistan will completely sever relations with the United States, that Karzai will walk out of his palace and join up with Mullah Omar in Quetta, or that Congress will cut off funding for the war. The real danger is to the enthusiasm and will required by all actors to execute Obama's transition plan. Karzai's diminishing confidence in the coalition and its tactics could undercut the effort to recruit motivated and effective Afghan soldiers and police, the real "exit strategy" for the coalition. Deepened Pakistani intransigence over the Afghan Taliban would hobble the effort to pacify the Pashtun portion of Afghanistan. The result would be deterioration rather than an orderly transition to Afghan control.

Obama is counting on holding all of the players together for three more years of combat. He may be counting on too much.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: The Jet That Ate the Pentagon

The F-35 is cutting into the Defense Department's most important priorities.

Policymakers get 11th-hour second thoughts on the Joint Strike Fighter

The troubled and long-delayed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program came under renewed scrutiny this week. The Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and many foreign partners plan to buy thousands of the fighter-attack jets over the next two decades to replace a variety of aging aircraft, but the development schedule of the stealthy fighter has slipped five years to 2018 and the projected cost to the Pentagon for 2,457 aircraft has ballooned to $385 billion, making it by far the most expensive weapons program in history.

The Government Accountability Office reported that although Pentagon management of the program is improving, developers have only completely verified 4 percent of the F-35's capabilities. The program received another blow this week when the Senate Armed Services Committee learned that the Pentagon will likely have to spend $1 trillion over the next 50 years to operate and maintain the fleet of F-35s. Evidently reeling from sticker shock, Sen. John McCain demanded that "we at least begin considering alternatives." But is it too late to prevent the F-35 program from devouring the Pentagon's future procurement budgets?

Air Force officials themselves may now doubt the wisdom of the size of the commitment to the F-35. According to a recent Aviation Week story, Air Force Undersecretary Erin Conaton placed new emphasis on the importance of the Air Force's next-generation long-range bomber. With procurement funds sure to be tight in the decade ahead, Conaton hinted that the Air Force may have to raid the F-35's future budgets in order to help pay for the new bomber.

The rapidly changing strategic situation in Asia and the western Pacific should compel policymakers to reexamine the size of the commitment to the F-35. Yet another critical report on the F-35 from the Pentagon's acquisition office dated Dec. 31, 2010, revealed that the Air Force version of the attack jet would have a combat mission radius of 584 miles, just short of the original stated requirement of 590 miles, and significantly less than a recent expectation by program officials that the jet would be able to strike targets 690 miles away without midair refueling.

A combat radius of 584 miles leaves planners with few options when contemplating operations over the vast distances in the Asia-Pacific region. As I discussed in a recent column, China's growing inventories of ballistic and cruise missiles are already capable, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, of striking the U.S. Air Force's main bases in the region. These missiles are also putting the Navy's aircraft carriers increasingly at risk, which could compel the Navy to move the vessels out of the F-35's strike range.

The solution is combat aircraft with much longer ranges, which would operate from distant bases less vulnerable to missile attack. This would explain Conaton's increased emphasis on the new long-range bomber and the Navy's interest in a long-range combat drone that would launch from its aircraft carriers and some of its amphibious ships.

There are still significant roles for the F-35 and many of its leading-edge stealth and electronic capabilities. The F-35 can defend against enemy aircraft, can collect and distribute intelligence from over a battlefield, and can attack heavily defended targets within its range. In any case, the program is "too big to fail," or at least "too big to kill," and it is far too late in the day to now consider alternatives. But it seems increasingly likely that the Air Force and Navy will eventually truncate their planned purchases and redirect those savings into new long-range platforms. Doing so would cause the unit cost of the F-35 to spike even higher which would likely lead many foreign partners to drop out. But that regrettable consequence may be necessary if the Air Force and Navy are to have the money to buy capabilities that will actually be useful in the vast stretches of the Pacific.

Defense cuts will mean more risk. Is the Marine Corps the Pentagon's best hedge?

At remarks delivered at a recent dinner sponsored by the Center for a New American Security, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos asserted that the Marine Corps will be one of the country's principal risk management tools in the decade ahead. Inevitable cuts to the Pentagon's budgets will require policymakers to take greater security risks, but Amos argued that the Marine Corps's unique attributes will provide a useful hedge against some of the added risks policymakers will have to assume. Amos argues that the Marine Corps's broad portfolio of capabilities and organizational culture make it particularly well-suited to respond to unknown risks. Is the Marine Corps a good hedge against strategic risk? And what can Amos and his colleagues do to improve the Corps as a risk management tool?

In an earlier column, I discussed the Marine Corps's plan for its post-Afghanistan future. That plan calls for cuts to many of the its conventional frontline combat capacities and increased investments in some specialized and irregular capabilities. Marine Corps planners are betting that they won't get bogged down in another large, open-ended campaign such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither will they have to fight another big tank battle as they did against Saddam Hussein in 1991. With the new force structure, the planners are optimizing the Corps for rapid-crisis response, dust-ups with murky but dangerous "hybrid" non-state actors, and for assisting and partnering with allied military forces around the world.

Hedging and risk management are all about preparing for surprises. Although a seemingly oxymoronic concept, leaders can promote attributes that enhance an organization's ability to rapidly adapt to surprises. Surprises are by definition unknowable. But organizations can prepare for surprise by improving their ability to adapt.

Amos asserts that the Marine Corps has a balanced portfolio of wide-ranging capabilities, which its planners can tailor to meet a variety of contingencies. The Marines train in many climates and terrain, also preparing them for numerous possibilities. And Amos explained how the Corps plans to become lighter and more mobile after Afghanistan, improving its response time during crises.

These are all helpful attributes for rapid adaptation. But the most powerful attributes of adaptation are intangible and are found within an organization's culture and human capital. For example, organizations that are "confidently paranoid" respect the threats posed by their competitors while retaining the confidence to devise effective solutions. Adaptable organizations decentralize decision-making and expect subordinates to take responsibility for solving problems with little guidance from above, even when this results in "learning mistakes" and inefficiencies. Adaptable organizations reward subordinates for creativity and resist punishing those whose ideas failed or wasted resources. Adaptable organizations tolerate "organizational entrepreneurs" and the messy organization charts that can result.

Perhaps most notably, adaptable organizations require seemingly wasteful redundancy, healthy budgets for education and rotational assignments, and experimentation, much of which will go awry. Preparing for surprise requires a willingness to accept failed approaches, recruiting and then letting go people who aren't suitable, and what will appear to be much wasted overhead.

The Marine Corps takes pride in the development of its junior leaders and in the amount of responsibility it places on them. But how much the Marine Corps has tolerated the inevitable learning mistakes, inefficiencies, and messiness required for effective adaptation has varied over time. Building an adaptable organizational culture for the Marine Corps may not be cheap. But it may be cheap if it avoids a future military disaster.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Image