Small Wars

This Week at War: Europe Powers Down

What would a break-up of the European Union mean for NATO?

The European Union might be falling apart. Could NATO be next?

The hourly swings in Greece's debt drama continue to fascinate onlookers in much the same way as a multi-car highway pileup. Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou seemed to back away on Thursday from his proposal to submit the strict austerity terms of Greece's latest bailout to a referendum. Such a referendum would actually amount to a vote on whether Greece will stay in the European Union and keep the euro as its currency.

Papandreou's own future as prime minister, and who might replace him, is very much in doubt. Stepping back from the hourly political maneuvering and increasingly desperate financial engineering behind the bailouts, what remains is a Europe that is quickly running out of money, and whose leaders have grown tired of their colleagues' brinkmanship. This does not bode well for the NATO alliance, which will need funding for military investment and leaders who can cooperate.

Policymakers in Germany and the other hard currency countries in northern Europe also seem to be tiring of the routine. There doesn't seem to be an end to the bailouts they are paying for. Both the European Central Bank and the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development are predicting another recession in Europe this winter, which would reduce the likelihood that Greece will be able to get its finances in shape to near-zero. For Brussels, the purpose of the bailouts was to keep Greece in the common currency and thus prevent capital flight out of the euro from occurring in any other of the weak countries around the Mediterranean. Now however, Jean-Claude Juncker, chairman of the eurozone's committee of finance ministers, says that plans are in place to handle Greece's exit from the euro.

If this happens, the focus in Germany, France, and elsewhere in the north will likely shift from saving Greece to preventing contagion and saving their banks. If Greece enjoys a relatively successful return to the drachma, it will encourage Portugal, Italy, and Spain to consider the same escape route from their troubles. The result would be the end of the European Union in its current form. It would also inflict damage on Europe's financial system that would take years to repair.

The consequences for NATO would be profound. Economic dislocation and financial austerity would mean more downward pressure on European defense spending. Manpower cuts could make a long-lasting NATO stabilization effort such as the one in Afghanistan, requiring the constant rotation of ground combat forces, out of the question. During the 1990s, when the Soviet threat to Europe collapsed and NATO completed missions in the Balkans, leaders looked to "out of area" missions to keep NATO thriving. But the cost to supply NATO's military forces in Afghanistan has been substantial -- gutted defense budgets in Europe could put an end to future out-of-area interventions.

Cutbacks in equipment inventories and modernization would make it more difficult and risky to sustain an air and naval operation such as the one recently completed in Libya. If, in the future, NATO had to replicate a Libya-type operation with fewer and older aircraft, its pilots could be at greater risk going up against a challenging enemy air defense system. And fewer aircraft would mean fewer missions per day, which would likely extend the campaign, perhaps beyond the bounds of political patience. Less money for modernization in Europe would further widen the technical gap between European and U.S. military capabilities, making defense cooperation across the Atlantic more difficult.

At a cultural level, a bust-up of the European Union would cripple the long-standing dream of greater European solidarity. Instead of greater European cooperation and cohesion, the recession and resulting possible crack-up of the European Union has instead revealed perceptions of selfish scheming, manipulation, broken promises, brinkmanship, and arrogant domineering. Those perceptions will not help the differing cultures in Europe sustain an effective military alliance.

NATO has provided U.S. policymakers and military planners with familiar allies, some of whom have joined the United States on recent military expeditions. Sour experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused that benefit to the U.S. to wither a bit. Now, a political and financial crack-up in Europe risks drying up much of Europe's military capability. That will increase Europe's risks and leave a hole in U.S. policymaker's plans.

The Pentagon does a quick re-write of its 2010 strategy

Last month, the Defense Department formed the Strategic Choices Working Group, a panel charged with updating -- by Thanksgiving or thereabouts -- the Pentagon's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). As its name implies, the QDR is supposed to provide a long-term review of defense strategy at four-year intervals. The fact that the 2010 version is in need of a Mulligan well before its expiration date shows that there is something awry with the Pentagon's strategic planning process. Not long after it was released in February 2010, the QDR was criticized for failing to do its most important job, namely taking a long-term view of defense strategy. It also failed to set any priorities among missions and resources. Now with between $450 billion and $1 trillion in cuts looming, the Strategic Choices Working Group will lay out the tough alternatives that were avoided in 2009.

The 2010 QDR actually did accurately describe the increasingly difficult challenges facing U.S. military forces. The report discussed the proliferation of precision missiles and submarines, non-state actors with advanced weapons, and threats posed to U.S. cyber and space systems. But although the report listed actions the department needed to take to address these challenges, it deferred important decisions into the future. Rather than making tough calls, the report called for yet more studies and white papers on a variety of esoteric subjects, a standard tactic of a bureaucracy incapable of taking decisive action.

In 2009, when the QDR was written, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates scorned what he termed "next-war-itis" and called on his subordinates to not lose focus on Iraq and Afghanistan. The result was a hesitation to shift Pentagon investments toward, for example, naval and air threats in the Asia-Pacific region.

The QDR is the result of a seemingly endless slog of staff meetings, where all of the services are encouraged to defend their "equities" in the interest of inter-service harmony. Such a bottom-up deliberative process ensures broad acceptance of the result. But it also guarantees that disruptive proposals will be hammered flat. Equally important, like other key government strategies, the QDR becomes a public document. Top national security policymakers will strenuously resist publicly declaring in such documents which objectives or allies rate higher than others. As a result, no priorities are set.

But, to badly paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the prospect of a trillion-dollar budget cut concentrates a defense planner's mind wonderfully. The Strategic Choices Working Group is tasked with formulating a rational strategy in light of much more difficult conditions than were assumed in 2009. The group will likely bypass the QDR's laborious, consensus-driven, bottom-up process, which affords it the chance of recommending some much-needed changes in force structure and weapons programs. The Navy and the Air Force may be the relative winners from the review, with the Army coming up short. If this turns out to be the case, it will be interesting to observe whether the Army avails itself of an appeals process through Defense Secretary Leon Panetta or Capitol Hill.

A congressionally-mandated independent review of the 2010 QDR recommended scrapping the process in the future, due to some of the weaknesses mentioned above. The urgency of the looming budget crunch may now force the Pentagon to make some of the tough decisions it should have made in 2010. But tough strategic decisions for the Pentagon are only beginning. What remains to be seen is whether top policymakers will establish a decision-making process that will be up to the challenges ahead.

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Small Wars

This Week at War: Mowing the Grass

Kenya and Turkey struggle to control the chaos next door.

Turkey and Kenya ‘mow the grass.' But the grass will grow back

The past two weeks have witnessed two little-covered but significant cross-border military incursions. On Oct. 20, Turkey sent its army into Kurdish Iraq to hunt its longtime nemesis, the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK. The Kenyan army entered southern Somalia on Oct. 16 in an attempt to hunt down al-Shabaab militants, blamed by the government for kidnappings of foreign tourists and aid workers inside Kenya. These incursions join a long tradition of raids into ungoverned spaces. However, this lineage offers up few examples of lasting success against troublesome militants.

The Turkish army sent 22 battalions, numbering about 10,000 men and supported by fighter aircraft and helicopters, to attack five PKK sites inside Iraq. This large raid, for which the Turkish army had clearly spent much time preparing, occurred just one day after coordinated PKK attacks inside Turkey killed 26 soldiers and police. Since July, an additional 27 Turkish soldiers had been killed in various PKK attacks and ambushes, incidents which no doubt instigated the army's preparation for the Oct. 20 invasion.

Turkish raids against PKK bases inside Iraq have been going on for years and the latest offensive will almost certainly not be the last. The best hope for a lasting solution will be a common strategy worked between the Turkish government and Iraqi Kurdish authorities. According to the New York Times, the two governments are cooperating on the PKK problem. But this cooperation is also not new and has yet to fix the problem. With the United States soon to remove all of its troops from Iraq, including those that are policing the Kurdish-Arab fault line inside Iraq, no one is expecting the Kurdish regional government to put much effort into the PKK problem.

Since September, militants from Somalia have kidnapped five European tourists and aid workers, dealing a severe blow to Kenya's critical tourist industry. Starting a border war might not seem the best way to restore positive press coverage. But Kenyan policymakers likely concluded that simply letting the situation drift was not an answer either.

On Oct. 16, the Kenyan government ordered two army battalions, with armored vehicles and air support, into Somalia. After over a week of maneuvering in southern Somalia, on Oct. 28 Kenyan troops finally had a significant clash with al-Shabaab militants, whom Kenyan authorities blamed for the kidnappings inside Kenya (an accusation al-Shabaab denied). This week, France said it would support the Kenyan incursion with air transport of military equipment to the Somali border.

According to the BBC, Somalis along the border welcomed the arrival of the Kenyan army and the dispersal of the al-Shabaab militants previously lurking there. If true, this presents the possibility that the troops might be able to stand up pro-Kenyan Somali militias that could prevent the reinfiltration of the al-Shabaab into the border area after Kenyan forces return home.

Unfortunately for Kenya, foreign intervention in Somalia has a very poor record, as U.S. veterans of the "Black Hawk Down" incident from 1993 recall all too well. Then, a U.N. humanitarian relief mission, organized with the best of intentions, was drawn into Somali factional fighting, ending in a debacle. More recently, Ethiopia's invasion and occupation of Mogadishu in Dec. 2006 ended two years later with a retreat home after accomplishing almost nothing.

Turkey, Kenya, and other countries bordering ungoverned spaces will have to contemplate how to provide security over the long haul. The establishment of security zones on the other side of a border may seem appealing. But no one will want to replicate Israel's experience in southern Lebanon between 1982 and 2000. During that time, the Israeli army patrolled a security zone and recruited local militias. The result was an enervating guerilla war and the metastasizing of Hezbollah, which grew into a state-within-a-state.

As with Turkey and the PKK, Kenya likely faces a future of periodic clashes with al-Shabaab. They will "mow the grass," which has a nasty habit of growing back. Not much of a solution, especially for policymakers under pressure to "do something."

Can the Pentagon break its reliance on faulty forecasts?

This week, the congressional "supercommittee," charged with finding $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction before Thanksgiving, showed some signs of life, when its members resumed bickering in public over their competing plans. As a result, budget planners at the Pentagon are still wondering how much money they will have to work with over the next decade, one more reminder of how precarious their forecasts are.

Richard Danzig, Secretary of the Navy in the Clinton administration and now chairman of the board of the Center for a New American Security, discusses in his new report, Driving in the Dark: Ten Propositions About Prediction and National Security, why the Defense Department spends so much effort on predictions, why such effort is misguided, and what defense planners should do to better prepare for a future they have no chance of accurately describing in advance. As a former senior leader inside the Pentagon, Danzig has much insight into why the defense bureaucracy has become so seduced by inevitably unreliable forecasting. He also has a few good suggestions for improvement. Regrettably, Danzig's reforms come at a price that will be increasingly difficult for the Pentagon to pay.

Danzig's first five propositions explain why humans in general, and the Pentagon in particular, are so attached to forecasting. Forming predictions is a natural response to uncertainty. Human behavior depends on implicit predictions to cope with everyday life. Danzig notes that huge bureaucracies like the Department of Defense rely on inherently biased predictions to reinforce and defend their well-chartered courses. All large organizations have a tendency to protect their established assets and positions. It should come as no surprise that their predictions will support the status quo -- and that such predictions thus have a high probability of eventually being wrong.

Danzig's five solutions focus mainly on reforming the Pentagon's weapons procurement process. According to Danzig, the weapon acquisition process should make decisions much faster, before technological advancement makes such decisions obsolete.

More controversially, he recommends that weapons be designed to be adaptable to multiple functions but also be designed to have shorter service lives. Here Danzig contrasts the limited adaptability, and thus utility, of the F-22 air superiority fighter, which does only one job, with the B-52 bomber, which the Air Force has been able to adapt to a wide variety of missions over the decades.

However, Danzig's own examples don't do a good job supporting his propositions. Rather than having a short service life, the B-52 will serve for at least seven decades -- the Air Force has found ways to regularly upgrade the basic platform to keep it relevant. Danzig calls for adaptable systems capable of multiple functions. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to be the ultimate adaptable system, replacing a long list of legacy aircraft for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and many foreign militaries. Yet it has turned out to be the most costly and troubled acquisition program in the Pentagon's history and not an experience the Congress or any acquisition official would care to repeat. The most adaptable and flexible systems have been the "big boxes" like (as Danzig notes) the B-52 bomber, the Navy's aircraft carriers (especially the Marine Corps' helicopter carriers), and its huge ballistic missile submarines, four of which it successfully retrofitted for cruise missiles and special operations. But the "big boxes" are also the most expensive weapons and usually the toughest sells on Capitol Hill.

Danzig saves his best proposition -- nurture diversity and create competition within the department -- for last. As I have discussed in past columns, the best way to cope with inevitable strategic surprise is to maintain a broad portfolio of military capabilities, to support bureaucratic competition, and to reward leaders for risk taking, creativity, and experimentation. This will require spending on what will appear to be redundant capabilities (for example, an Army and a Marine Corps), on military capabilities that will likely never be used, and on training and personnel assignments that appear to be superfluous to the main mission.

Mitigating the risk of surprise and responding to it after it has occurred is mostly an intellectual problem. Danzig's last proposition is addressed at human capital, the improvement of which is neither cheap nor easy. But developing adaptable people and organizations will be cheaper than relying on inevitably faulty predictions.