Small Wars

This Week at War: Outsourcing the Drug War

Can U.S. private contractors turn the tide in Mexico's violent drug war?

Preventing the ‘Escobar Scenario' in Mexico

According to a recent New York Times story, the U.S. government is stepping up its assistance to Mexico's security forces in the battle against drug cartels. The article described a growing presence of private security contractors from the United States, along with a few CIA operatives, at some Mexican federal police and army bases. Many of the contractors are retired members of U.S. military special operations forces and the Drug Enforcement Administration. According to the article, the contractors are providing specialized training to a few selected units in the federal police and other security forces. Even more important, the contractors and CIA officers are establishing intelligence analysis centers alongside Mexican command posts.

Policymakers responsible for the U.S. assistance effort in Mexico seem to be applying some lessons learned during America's decade of war. The intelligence analysis centers the U.S. contractors are now setting up in Mexico are innovations developed by U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, and elsewhere. As described by General Stanley McChrystal in an essay he wrote for Foreign Policy, the centers are deliberately located down at the tactical level and gather collectors and analysts across intelligence agencies together in one room. The goal is to improve collaboration and more rapidly respond to incoming information and adversary activity. A decade of practical experience across the globe has refined this concept, which the United States is now exporting to Mexico.

The use of unobtrusive civilian contractors is another consequence from the last decade of experience with irregular conflict. I have recently discussed the increasing "civilianization" of warfare. Irregular adversaries have long taken on civilian guise in order to avoid the superior firepower usually wielded by nation-states. U.S. policymakers today find it politically untenable to use conventional military force, especially ground forces, against irregular adversaries. Increasingly more convenient are civilian substitutes such as CIA paramilitaries, contractors, and hired proxies. Mexico has long had severe cultural and legal prohibitions on a foreign military presence, especially from the United States. This will increasingly be the rule elsewhere in the world. But as we can see in Mexico and elsewhere, the U.S. government now has a well-established workaround.

U.S. assistance to Mexico may improve the tactical skills of elite Mexican security forces and a sophisticated intelligence operation may find targets for these shooters. But are Mexican policymakers directing their troops against the right targets? The rate of violence is as high as ever and there is no obvious decline in the flow of drugs into the United States. What is Mexico's counter-cartel campaign achieving?

At this relatively early stage in the conflict, the Mexican government's first goal is to prevent the creation of an alternative criminal center of power that could threaten the authority of the state. In the early 1990s, Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellin cartel, arguably became such a threat to the Colombian government, forcing it to resort to extrajudicial means to kill him and destroy his organization.  Escobar used his drug income to become one of the wealthiest men in the world and used his money and private army to suborn large portions of Colombia's government, its parliament, its judicial system, and its security forces. According to Killing Pablo, Mark Bowden's account of Escobar's demise, Escobar's remaining opponents inside the government had to form a deal with right-wing paramilitaries to crush Escobar. Mexico's policymakers don't want a replay of that episode.

The Mexican government cannot stop the drug trade or its associated violence. But it can focus its police and military efforts against the top leadership of the largest cartels, a strategy it now seems to be executing. The goal is to prevent the "Escobar Scenario" from occurring in Mexico. Deliberately fragmenting cartels as they become menacingly large will invariably lead to more violence as surviving subordinate gang members fight over new feudal boundaries. This ugly process may now be occurring in Acapulco after the recent arrest of Moisés Montero Alvarez, the leader of Acapulco's Independent Cartel.

Acceptance of more violence and drug traffic may seem little different than surrendering to the problem. But at this point, simply preventing a rival to state authority should be counted as success enough. The U.S. government's intelligence contractors in Mexico will very likely make a critical contribution to that goal.

There is a win-win solution for the South China Sea -- if China will take it

This week, China's first aircraft carrier, a retrofitted 1980s Soviet model spared from the wrecking yard, left its dock in Dalian for its first sea trials. China is years away from having a combat-ready carrier strike group. As its crew and engineers work out the bugs, analysts are left to wonder what missions the Chinese government intends for its growing naval power. After the Taiwan Strait, China's leaders may have their attention on the South China Sea, where tensions with Vietnam, the Philippines, and the United States have flared up over the past few years. Just one year ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared in Hanoi at the ASEAN Regional Forum and dramatically stood up against China's encroachment into the area, declaring, "[t]he United States, like every nation, has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea. We share these interests not only with ASEAN members or ASEAN Regional Forum participants, but with other maritime nations and the broader international community."

In spite of Clinton's diplomatic intervention in support of the smaller countries around the South China Sea, disputes over the sea remain unresolved. In an essay in the latest edition of Naval War College Review, Peter Dutton, director of the Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute, asserts that the international quarrel over the region is actually three distinct disputes. Dutton argues that reframing the dispute into its three components could lead to a "win-win" resolution rather than a "win-lose" clash. Reframing the dispute into its three components could also force China to reveal its real motives and intentions, which have thus far been murky.

According to Dutton, the South China Sea problem is first a territorial sovereignty dispute over the sea's numerous small islands, rocks, and reefs. Using the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Dutton, formerly a Navy judge advocate, finds little legal support for China's claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire sea, a claim that seems to originate with a line the old Nationalist government drew on one of its maps in 1935. In addition, an island-by-island, rock-by-rock tally of continuous administration and control does nothing to further China's maximal claim.  In her appearance at the ASEAN conference in Hanoi, Clinton maneuvered around the embarrassing non-ratification of UNCLOS by the United States by also referring to its ancient alternative, customary international law. She also assured her audience that even though the United States has yet to ratify the pact, "[i]t has strong bipartisan support in the United States."

The potential for hydrocarbons, minerals, and fishing, Dutton's second component, may be the more important source of friction over the sea. Dutton sees several precedents for resolving this dispute. Dutton points to the Treaty of Spitsbergen which settled a sovereignty claim over an island between Norway and Greenland, the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization a multinational agreement that regulates Atlantic fishing, and China's own agreement with Vietnam over fishing in the Gulf of Tonkin as examples of agreements that have resolved disputes over island sovereignty and maritime resource management.

Dutton's third component concerns China's attempts to rewrite long-accepted norms concerning the freedom of navigation for military purposes. In March 2009, Chinese vessels confronted USNS Impeccable while it was surveying in international waters. China claimed that it had the legal right to deny the freedom of navigation for military purposes within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone, a claim unsupported by UNCLOS or customary law. Needless to say, China's sovereignty claim over the South China Sea, if accepted, would give it control over the Asia-Pacific region's most important and heavily trafficked sea line of communication, a non-starter for the United States and its ASEAN partners.

What is Dutton's win-win solution? Regarding the South China Sea's resources, Dutton foresees a straightforward negotiation that would set aside the sovereignty issue, equitably allocate economic claims, and lead to mutually-beneficial exploration, an outcome China should have no good reason to resist.

However, if China now believes that it must obtain territorial sovereignty and military control of the sea as the only way of protecting its security, the region will be headed for "win-lose" and conflict. China's attempts to chip away at freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in 2009 and 2010 stirred a regional backlash that climaxed with Clinton's appearance in Hanoi. China will not enhance its security if its weak claim of sovereignty hardens a regional alliance against it. On sovereignty, the win-win for all sides is to drop the issue. What remains to be seen is whether China is interested in the sea's resources or much more. Dutton's plan to divide the problem by three could help reveal China's intentions.

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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