Small Wars

This Week at War: Moral Hazard at NATO

Europe may not be able to rely on America's free security guarantee forever.

In blasting NATO, Gates explains what moral hazard feels like

In what he termed his "last policy speech as U.S. defense secretary," Robert Gates ripped into his policymaking peers at NATO headquarters in Brussels last week for allowing "significant shortcomings in NATO in military capabilities, and in political will" to occur. Gates noted that although the non-U.S. alliance members have more than 2 million troops in uniform, these countries struggle to deploy 40,000 soldiers into an effective military campaign. Gates also pointed to NATO's embarrassing performance in Libya, noting that European members, despite having a multitude of officers collecting paychecks at frivolous staff billets, have failed to generate the intelligence support and command capabilities needed to wage an effective air campaign. Gates warned of a "dismal future for the transatlantic alliance."

Gates's frustration was no doubt sparked by the realization that his department has become the victim of moral hazard. The United States provides a free security guarantee to Europe. Europeans, meanwhile, have responded in an economically rational way by taking greater risk with their external defense. With the collapse of the Soviet Union removing the last plausible military threat, it was logical for European policymakers to avoid spending on expensive space, communications, and intelligence systems that the United States was largely providing for free. Gates and many other U.S. policymakers see an alliance with too many free riders; Gates noted that only five of the 28 allies spend more than the agreed target of 2 percent of GDP on defense.

In the short term, Gates fears that the United States will have to bail out the Libya operation. This week, Adm. Mark Stanhope, Britain's top naval officer, warned that budget limits and unit rotation requirements could force NATO combatants over Libya to soon have to choose between Libya and Afghanistan. Should a shortfall of European forces in either campaign result, Gates undoubtedly fears that the United States will have to make up the gap.

Over the longer term, the moral hazard issue extends beyond NATO into the Western Pacific, the South China Sea, and soon the Persian Gulf. For example, the United States has a great interest in signaling to China that it has strong security commitments to its partners in the region. Washington likewise wants those partners to share the defense burden and to also avoid provocative behavior. The stronger the signal it sends to China, the less incentive the partners have to do their part. In the Middle East, the United States will likely respond to the emerging Iranian nuclear threat with a security guarantee for its Sunni Arab allies on the west side of the Persian Gulf. It is just as likely that a future exasperated U.S. defense secretary will someday tour that region, reprising Gates's final speech to NATO and pleading with the Arab allies to do more for themselves. Of course, the United States could opt not to issue the Persian Gulf security guarantee and risk either a regional nuclear arms race or watch another major power to move into the region with its own guarantee. No U.S. administration would tolerate these outcomes.

Gates concluded his speech by warning Europe's leaders that the next generation of U.S. leaders lacks nostalgia for the Cold War struggle and could walk away from the NATO alliance. In the future, Europe will undoubtedly have to do more for its external defense. That doesn't seem like a problem now since there is no apparent external threat. But should they have to more fully insure themselves, European defense planners should consider how they would rebuild their defenses. They should consider how much time it would take to mobilize political and budgetary authority to prepare for these threats and how long it would take to rebuild the required military forces. Most notable in this regard is the risk of losing both a defense industrial base and functioning military institutions, which once gone might never be restored, at least within a relevant time frame.

Gates's speech displayed his frustrations with the decision to intervene in Libya, which quite possibly will see the United States having to pay up on an insurance policy that Gates never wanted to write in the first place. More broadly, the military security guarantees the United States has issued to Europe and elsewhere are risk-management tools that come with benefits and annoying costs. Gates has warned Europe that its insurance policy may be cancelled. If that happens, the continent's leaders will have to think about their security risks in old and unfamiliar ways.

The U.S. government sends its civilians to fight in Yemen

In last week's column, I discussed how the U.S. government is inexorably "civilianizing" its military operations in response to irregular adversaries who have adopted a civilian appearance to gain an advantage. The U.S. government will increasingly find itself assembling its own civilianized army comprised of covert intelligence operatives, paramilitary groups, and local militias to battle modern irregular opponents. This week U.S. officials revealed that the next test of this game-plan will occur in Yemen, where it will now have to track down al Qaeda without the help of the Yemeni government.

According to the Washington Post, there will be a large buildup of CIA assets for the Yemen mission. This buildup will include CIA-operated Predator drones, which will fly from a new airbase now under construction somewhere in the region. This expanded CIA effort in Yemen will supplement and perhaps supersede a small counterterrorism operation that has thus far been run by the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

The recent collapse of government authority in Yemen accounts for the reshuffled U.S. counterterrorism command structure. JSOC operated in Yemen with the permission of the Yemeni government and in support of its counterterrorism units. But with the departure of  President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was wounded in a rocket attack, government authority seems to have collapsed. Yemeni counterterrorism teams have also apparently abandoned the hunt for al Qaeda. With local government support to the JSOC operation either withdrawn or effectively suspended, it has become necessary to start a covert operation under CIA authority to continue the hunt for al Qaeda.

This is the future of irregular warfare, at least in the world's most difficult, ungoverned spaces. The first preference of the U.S. government is to deal with other legitimate governments and their institutions. Over the past decade, when there was no such government, it was U.S. policy to "nation-build" a suitable sovereign counterpart that could control its territory and work with U.S. government officials. But after the costs of such efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little chance the United States is going to attempt similar efforts in ungoverned al Qaeda hangouts like Yemen or Somalia.

Instead, the United States will have to fall back to a long-term strategy of cultivating useful relationships with tribal leaders, warlords, and other local powers. If the U.S. government wants to find targets for drones and chase al Qaeda in other ways, it will have to give up on nation-building and go straight to local sources instead.

The arc of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship over the past decade is another illustration of a transformation from military to civilian warfare. At the beginning of this period, the United States hoped to assist the Pakistani military to fight al Qaeda and other radicals inside Pakistan. But as the relationship has collapsed, the U.S. has had to civilianize its military effort inside Pakistan. Gone are U.S. military trainers for the Frontier Corps. Instead, the United States will have to rely more on its unilateral covert intelligence effort to support the CIA's drones, bypassing the Pakistani government -- as it also did to track down Osama bin Laden.

The forthcoming CIA operation against al Qaeda in Yemen will thus utilize techniques the agency has already had to adopt in Pakistan. Legally, it will be a deniable covert action which will put the CIA in the lead. The CIA's drone air force looks set to expand. And the agency's clandestine service and paramilitary officers will likely be in the lead on the ground, developing targets for the drones and others. The Pentagon's JSOC will play a supporting role, as it did in the raid on bin Laden. But it seems like the war in Yemen will be run and fought -- on both sides -- by civilians.

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Rise of the Irregulars

The U.S. isn’t militarizing intelligence, it’s civilianizing the military.

Need to fight a war? Recruit a civilian, not a soldier

Last week, the Washington Post's David Ignatius discussed how the line between the Central Intelligence Agency's covert intelligence activities and the Pentagon's military operations began blurring as George W. Bush's administration ramped up its war on terrorism. In his column, Ignatius took some swipes at former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for exceeding his authority by encroaching on turf legally reserved to the CIA. The Defense Department also was criticized for taking on too many diplomatic and foreign aid responsibilities as well. Ignatius expressed concern that without clearer boundaries separating covert intelligence-gathering from military operations, "people at home and abroad may worry about a possible 'militarization' of U.S. intelligence."

Ignatius missed the larger and far more significant change that continues to this day. In order to survive and compete against the military power enjoyed by national armies, modern irregular adversaries -- such as the Viet Cong, Iraq's insurgents, the Taliban, and virtually all other modern revolutionaries -- "civilianized" their military operations. Rumsfeld's intrusions onto CIA and State Department turf were initial attempts at civilianizing U.S. military operations. Whether it realizes it or not, the U.S. government continues to civilianize its own military operations in an attempt to keep pace with the tactics employed by the irregular adversaries it is struggling to suppress. This trend has continued after Rumsfeld's departure from government and has significant implications for how the United States will fight irregular adversaries in the future.

In modern irregular warfare, the most difficult problem is identifying and finding the enemy. Insurgents benefit from the "home-field advantage" and their ability to blend in with the civilian population. It is natural that when U.S. military forces are tasked with rooting out insurgent cells in such situations, they seek to infiltrate the same civilian population to gain target intelligence. It should, therefore, be no surprise to find the U.S. military's special operations units behaving more like the CIA's operatives and agents, whose civilian status is a better match to the mission.

The CIA has used its authorities and relative flexibility to assemble a blend of covert civilian and paramilitary capabilities, a blend much more suited for modern irregular warfare. As a civilian intelligence agency, the CIA has the authority and resources to establish relationships with a variety of indigenous partners, some official and some not. According to Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars, the CIA has recruited a large Afghan paramilitary force, a combined covert intelligence and military force that can engage in a wider range of activities than a standard Afghan army unit. The CIA has poached many former special operations soldiers into its own paramilitary ranks. These paramilitary operatives have the authority to do everything they used to do while they were in the military -- such as organizing direct action raids -- while also performing operations limited to the CIA, such as covert missions inside countries not at war with the United States.

Meanwhile, the utility of conventional ground forces continues to diminish. After the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, a political backlash against overt military interventions is already evident. This week the House of Representatives rebuked the Obama administration over the intervention in Libya and narrowly avoided voting in favor of immediate withdrawal. The House also narrowly defeated a measure that would have required a faster exit from Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that a future defense secretary advocating another large intervention in Asia or Africa "should have his head examined." The continued presence of U.S. conventional ground troops in Iraq is so politically toxic to both Iraqi and U.S. policymakers that the State Department is planning to recruit a small army of 5,100 civilian security personnel to protect its facilities and diplomats next year.

The common thread in all these developments is that conventional military operations, especially sustained ground operations, attract too much attention and are too politically fraught to be useful against irregular adversaries. These adversaries adopted a civilian guise in order to evade Western firepower. Western governments in turn are civilianizing their military operations in order to evade the attention that comes with overt deployments and to achieve the operational flexibility required to succeed on the terrain where irregular adversaries operate. This will mean the increased use of covert intelligence operations, official and indigenous paramilitary groups, the recruitment of local militias, and civilian security contractors. With this civilianization of military operations, regular soldiers will be left wondering why they weren't invited to the next war.

The U.S. military should get ready to taste its own precision-guided medicine

Of all the casualties suffered during the past decade of war, one -- the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) -- did not die soon enough for many military analysts. In the 1990s, a group of theorists inside the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment predicted that precisely aimed weapons, cued by exquisitely perceptive sensors and control systems, would allow the United States military to completely dominate any battlefield it entered. For many analysts, RMA's promises of dominating future battlefields led to excessive investment in technology in the 1990s at the expense of better soldier training, especially for small-unit leaders. The result they believed was a military unprepared to face irregular adversaries. After a decade of mostly inconclusive fighting and over 6,000 U.S. soldiers killed in action, many bitter combat veterans are happy to see the wizard's dreams of RMA dominance cast onto the ash heap of history. As has happened after other technological jumps forward in warfare, the Pentagon's theorists failed to respect adversaries' ability to adapt to a changing threat.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seemed to demonstrate the irrelevance of RMA theory, especially for irregular campaigns against non-state actors. U.S. soldiers who had to focus on the immediate task of surviving and succeeding in these wars quickly lost any interest they may have had in RMA theory. But, to badly paraphrase Trotsky, although today's soldiers aren't interested in RMA, RMA is interested in them. The RMA theorists of the 1990s foresaw U.S. warfighters employing sophisticated sensors, command networks, and precision weapons against vulnerable enemies. The results in the real world this past decade have been underwhelming. But today's RMA theorists may have found a new vulnerable target for precision strikes -- the United States military itself.

In a paper written for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C. military think-tank, Barry Watts, a former U.S. Air Force officer and Pentagon analyst, prepared a current scorecard on RMA's shortfalls and progress. The Maturing Revolution in Military Affairs reveals that in attempting to structure itself to take advantage of the promises offered by RMA, the U.S. military may have made itself vulnerable to an adversary's RMA campaign.

Even though the United States continues its long irregular wars against insurgents in ungoverned places such as Afghanistan, it has continued to build a worldwide infrastructure to support RMA warfighting techniques and employ those techniques in its current irregular campaigns. Satellite communication networks relay commands and data to and from hunter-killer airborne drones. Nearly all munitions are guided by satellite or laser. Most soldiers have radios and other electronic devices tying them into large command networks. And vehicles and aircraft find their way by satellite or electronic signals.

Watts discusses how vulnerable this sensor and communications structure has become to enemy attack. Irregular adversaries have adapted to U.S. RMA capabilities by dispersing and masking their identities. By contrast, Watts describes how vulnerable satellites networks, over-centralized command systems, and an overreliance on large hub bases, are vulnerable to precision missile attack. The Air Force and Navy, the services least affected by enemy action this decade, have made themselves the most vulnerable.

U.S. ground forces, the most exposed to combat, are the most prepared to survive against an RMA-capable adversary. The concentrated buildup of U.S. ground forces in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1991 and 2003 would have been ripe targets for an RMA-capable adversary. By contrast, over the past decade the Army and Marine Corps have adapted to counterinsurgency by dispersing small units across wide spaces. Although this was done to increase effectiveness in a low-intensity counterinsurgency campaign, this structure and the skills and techniques required to implement it will also be useful for surviving and succeeding against high-end adversaries equipped with RMA capabilities designed for finding and destroying massed concentrations of military forces.

Many military leaders lost interest in RMA because its promises to dominate the battlefield weren't fulfilled in Iraq and Afghanistan. America's adversaries learned to adapt to the revolution's effects. Just like the adversaries they recently fought against, the original revolutionaries will now have to adapt.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images