Small Wars

This Week at War: Into the Unknown

How can the Pentagon plan for future wars when it doesn't know what its budget will be?

The budget crisis brings uncertainty to the Pentagon -- and U.S. allies

President Barack Obama quickly signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 into law this week, averting a possible default on U.S. government debt. But officials at the Pentagon are still in the dark over what funding they can expect, either for this year or for the rest of the decade. Making plans for multiyear and in some cases multidecade programs and missions requires a few reasonably trustworthy assumptions. The debt crisis that still hovers over Washington will prevent those responsible for defense strategy and planning from getting stable assumptions until 2013 -- and maybe not even then. Until those stable assumptions arrive, no one can have much certainty about U.S. defense strategy or what the Pentagon's global military presence and capabilities will be for the rest of this decade.

The debt deal did pin down $684 billion in security spending for fiscal year 2012 and $686 billion for fiscal year 2013 (security spending is now defined as spending for the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and State; the intelligence community, and the Energy Department's nuclear weapons program -- but not the current wars). The White House asserted that the debt deal cuts the Pentagon's base budget by $350 billion over the next 10 years, though as FP's Josh Rogin reported, such a conclusion is little more than a guess.

Adding to the confusion is the prospect that the Pentagon will suffer an additional $600 billion in cuts over the next 10 years if the Congress's ad hoc budget "supercommittee" fails to push through a second budget deal by Christmas. Although the threat of an additional mammoth cut to the Pentagon is designed to encourage an agreement on Capitol Hill, this "trigger" is an empty threat. The next Congress in 2013 will set its own policies, and both the political climate in Washington and the geostrategic climate abroad are likely to have shifted. Obama himself, the official most responsible for U.S. security, has spoken out against a second large cut to the Pentagon.

But Pentagon officials can't just put important decisions on hold for two years while they wait for solid planning guidance. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his lieutenants are assuming that their damage will be limited to the $350 billion described in the White House fact sheet, but relying on this (relatively speaking) rosy scenario may be a poor bureaucratic and political strategy. Further, it assumes that in the subsequent phases of the budget struggle, negotiators will happily ring-fence the Pentagon and focus only on entitlements, other domestic spending, and taxes -- a dubious assumption.

Panetta and his colleagues would be wiser to assume a more pessimistic budget scenario. By assuming the worst, it will be easier to add unexpected windfalls that may later arrive than to soon have to repeat more wrenching strategic and budget reviews.

More importantly, assuming a pessimistic budget scenario will afford an opportunity for Panetta and his colleagues to confront policymakers with the strategic implications of that scenario. With the pessimistic budget scenarios undoubtedly resulting in significant cuts to force structure, readiness, and modernization, planners could then inform policymakers of which current global security commitments they would like to withdraw from. Planners could describe the future crisis responses or stabilization operations the Army might be too small to handle, the cooperative engagement and disaster relief missions the Navy and Marine Corps won't be able to perform, or the diplomatic strategies U.S. forces will no longer be able to support. Hopefully, the security implications of those outcomes may force some long-neglected reforms in such areas as the Pentagon's health system, its retirement programs, and the supervision of its contractors.

A parliamentary committee in Britain reported that the budget cuts that resulted from the British government's 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) will result in a force too small and too ill-equipped to perform the strategy's intended goals and missions. In a revealing comment, Gen. David Richards, chief of the British defense staff, said, "We are continually working with our international allies to share operational requirements [...] measures we rightly assessed in the SDSR could be relied upon to mitigate capability gaps."

The United States was no doubt foremost among those allies upon which the British SDSR relied. With the budget storm having now settled for a long stay over Washington, one wonders whether Richards and his counterparts in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East will have to reassess the assumptions they previously made regarding the United States and its presumed ability to assist in "mitigating capability gaps." The budget battle in Washington will change strategic assumptions -- and security strategies -- not only in Washington but around the world.

What do demographics mean for military power? Not much.

The rapid growth of China's economy and the realization that its working-age population -- nearly five times the size of the United States' -- is capable of much greater output causes many strategists to wonder how the much longer the United States and its allies can maintain a favorable strategic position in East Asia. Add to that equation the rise of India, whose working-age population will exceed China's in about 15 years. Such huge labor forces, producing even modest output per worker, should be able to translate into formidable military and strategic power.

But a recent report from the Rand Corp. reminds us that demographics are not military destiny. To be sure, population and productive workers are very useful contributors to military might. But these factors alone have not reliably delivered military success in the past and are even less likely to do so in the future.

Rand's report points out that China's policymakers probably don't need to be reminded that simply having a large population is no guarantee of security. In both the 13th and 17th centuries, China's Han majority was defeated by Mongol and Manchu invaders in spite of outnumbering these foes by 20 to 100 times. Technology, organization, and will have always been as important as numbers and money in determining military success.

Demographic trends will count for even less in the future. According to Rand, technical expertise supported by reasonable and wisely spent funding will be far more important than manpower for a broad range of likely future military operations. For example, nuclear weapons are an excellent source of security and respect. Israel became a nuclear power in the late 1960s before its population reached 3 million, while North Korea became a nuclear power as its population starved. For these countries and others in the nuclear club, having the will to fund the technical effort was sufficient for achieving a very significant strategic advantage.

Manpower is a similarly minor factor for the creation of many other critical dimensions of military power. Establishing local military control over the "commons" -- air, sea, space, the electromagnetic spectrum, and cyberspace -- is much more a technical than a manpower task. Space, cyber, and electronic warfare rely on a relatively small number of highly trained technicians. Crew sizes on warships continue to decline and it is very likely that within two decades most military aircraft will be remotely controlled. Having control of the commons is a prerequisite for successful manpower-intensive conventional military operations. A technically skilled but population-deprived actor (state or nonstate) can deny its adversary success by denying that enemy access to the commons.

The irregular warfare campaigns the United States has struggled with over the past decade are more examples of how an advantage in manpower did not result in easy success for the larger combatant. Despite weaker numbers and comparatively puny funding, irregular adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan employed impressive technical expertise with improvised explosives, concealed movement, and infiltration. Should the United States ultimately prevail in these two conflicts, it will likely be the result of using its money to support local allies -- a technique also available to other wealthy but manpower-deprived actors.

Rand makes note of the well-known crash in the populations of Europe and Japan and concludes that the United States will have to bear an even greater defense burden in the future. That may be the case, but it doesn't have to be. As its paper explains, military power in the future will depend not on manpower but on a willingness to support militarily useful technical capabilities. Falling populations should not be an excuse for helplessness. Meager numbers and limited funds have been no deterrent to a wide variety of rogue states, insurgents, terrorist groups, and hackers who have instead sought out vulnerable technical gaps. This reality should provide little comfort to defense planners in either Washington or Beijing.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images; U.S. Navy Lt. j.g. Haraz N. Ghanbari/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: The Long Shadow of Battles Past

What lessons can we learn from the way the U.S. ends its wars?

After a long and risky advance far from their supply base, U.S. Army and Marine Corps units smash through the last enemy defenses and advance into the enemy's capital. The opposing president flees and his government collapses. The relatively small U.S. force now finds itself responsible for running the city, while an insurgency that threatens the army's supply line begins to boil. Meanwhile, as the U.S. president attempts to rein in an envoy who is disregarding his orders, he must also figure out how to convert an apparent battlefield triumph into the strategic goals he established at the beginning of the war.

Scenes from Baghdad in 2003? Perhaps, but these could be flashes of Mexico City in September 1847 where Gen. Winfield Scott's army had just arrived after a seven-month march from Veracruz. Like George W. Bush, President James K. Polk found himself in possession of the enemy's capital, but without a counterpart with whom to negotiate a final peace. The war had lasted longer and was more costly than Polk had anticipated. His army -- tiny and inexperienced before the war -- had pulled off daring feats spanning the continent. But now as a result of the unexpected collapse of the Mexican government, Polk risked getting bogged down with "nation-building" and battling insurgents determined to gain control of the road between Mexico City and his army's supplies in Veracruz. Polk kept his focus on his original war aims, the direct westward expansion of the United States to the Pacific Ocean. His envoy negotiated a peace treaty with one of Mexico's Supreme Court justices and Polk withdrew his army from Mexico a few months later.

Needless to say, very few of America's wars have ended so cleanly or delivered so completely on their prewar expectations. To help figure out why, Gen. Martin Dempsey, in 2009 the commander of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command and soon to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commissioned some of the country's leading military historians to examine how the United States has concluded its wars. Col. Matthew Moten, head of West Point's history department, recruited 15 distinguished military historians to each write one chapter of Between War and Peace: How America Ends Its Wars. Beginning with Yorktown and the negotiations that ended the Revolutionary War to Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Between War and Peace brings many perspectives to the long-neglected subject of how America's generals and top policymakers have struggled with war's messy "endgame."

In Between War and Peace Moten and his historians explore how these American military engagements reached their culminating points, how each war's ending differed from the goals at the beginning of the conflict, and how the war's end would shape the future peace. Moten's aim, in the end, was no less than hoping, "that some future president, confronted with threats to American national interests and needing some time to think, will tuck this volume under his arm as he departs for a weekend of reading and reflection at Camp David."

Readers looking for a quick survey of American military history from 1775 to 1991 will find much to enjoy. Moten's historians are deeply knowledgeable experts who bring interesting insights to all of the conflicts, even the Civil War and World War II -- where one could scarcely expect to read something new. Between War and Peace is most valuable for its chapters on episodes such as the Second Seminole War and the Batangas campaign in the Philippines in 1901, wars that shed light on today's counterinsurgency struggles. Those chapters and others about America's "small wars" remind us that the big, largely conventional wars such as the Civil War and the World Wars are the odd exceptions in American history. Between War and Peace also reminds us that the low-intensity irregular campaigns against the Seminole and Filipino insurgents were just as frustrating to soldiers and policymakers as are those in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

In spite of these strengths, Between War and Peace suffers from the anthology's multi-author format. Although Moten aspired to produce a book that would inform policymakers and strategists, some of the historians could have provided a deeper analysis of the alternatives available to policymakers at critical points and a discussion of the risks and consequences of those options. Particularly disappointing were the chapters on the World Wars, which repeated well-worn battle narratives while largely neglecting discussions of the strategic choices and consequences faced by the combatants. Showing the variation that comes with an anthology, Conrad Crane's superb chapter on the Korean War focuses on the United Nation command's attempts to compel an end to the fighting through adjustments to its aerial bombardment tactics. Col. Gian Gentile followed his incisive summary of the Vietnam War with a scathing indictment of a generation's worth of U.S. policymakers and a call for better strategic thinking. And Andrew Bacevich's dissection of the endgame of Operation Desert Storm explained why even the most ferocious military bombardment may accomplish much less than it appears and why some conflicts go on for decades before they resolve the underlying issues.

For policymakers wanting a deeper analysis of choices, risks, and consequences, Gideon Rose's How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle should be at the top of the pile on their nightstand. Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs and a former National Security Council staffer, approaches his task from the perspective of a policymaker rather than a historian and it shows. From Woodrow Wilson's floundering at Versailles to President Obama's decision to "surge" 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, Rose shows how the "lessons" of the previous war, no matter how inapplicable, seem destined to overwhelm the judgment of even the smartest presidents. Rich in primary sources, How Wars End shows how a century's worth of U.S. presidents, many with deep experience and historical knowledge, were unable to escape the shadow of the last war as they fashioned their war aims and struggled through the endgame. The results have invariably been flawed wartime strategies and unstable and costly post-war circumstances.

Both Rose and many of the historians represented in Between War and Peace repeatedly emphasize the need for policymakers to begin war planning at the end, that is, to describe the stable and self-sustaining endstate the conflict should achieve. Failure to properly perform that first step almost guarantees a bitter experience. In addition, policymakers would do well to make honest and informed appraisals of their adversary, his strengths and likely reactions, and the tools and resources available to the policymaker. Both Rose and Moten's historians reprise the serial failures committed by U.S. policymakers on these assessments. For example, in their chapters on the Vietnam War, both Col. Gentile and Rose describe with bewilderment how Washington's "best and brightest" statesmen achieved only the most shallow understanding of Vietnam and, even worse, their own country's strategic strengths and weaknesses.

As Rose explains, the "last war" casts a long shadow, and it is that lingering imprint that explains why successive generations of U.S. presidents and their advisors have invariably been unable to perform rudimentary strategic analysis. Over the last century, presidents strived to either not repeat the mistakes made in the last war or to replicate, typically in wildly different circumstances, whatever went right the last time. Why has this pattern recurred for so long? Foreign crises generate debate in and out of government. From these debates, presidents formulate war policies which they must explain and defend to the Congress and the public. But memories seem to be short -- both the public and policymakers very often retain the last war as their only reference point for "good" and "bad" strategy. It is this, more than any other argument, that best offers an explanation for why presidents have been drawn into mistakenly defining their war in the last war's terms. Getting better outcomes from war will require better strategic analysis. And that will require both the public and policymakers to know more than just the last war.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images