Small Wars

This Week at War: Doing More With Less

How can the U.S. still field a global military force in an age of austerity?

Adaptability will have to fill in for money and manpower

In a speech this week to senior leaders of the National Guard, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey revealed his outline of U.S. military strategy for the remainder of the decade. Dempsey's task is to reshape the military to accomplish anticipated missions, respond and adapt to surprises, and do all this with much less funding than previously expected. Fewer soldiers with fewer new weapons will be expected to do a wider variety of tasks. Whether the Pentagon can organize itself for such flexibility and whether soldiers can learn to be "jacks of all trades" remains to be seen.

In a recent essay for Foreign Policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that the Asia-Pacific region will be the new center of U.S. policy. Dempsey's military strategy will support Clinton's diplomatic plan -- he announced that the Pacific will be his top military priority. It is comforting to know that the diplomats and soldiers might finally be cooperating on grand strategy.

But Dempsey reminded his audience that in spite of the emphasis on the Pacific, the United States remains a global power with worldwide responsibilities. Risk will likely rise in those areas where resources are thinned. Dempsey discussed three strategies to get more out of his remaining forces.

First, he called for a reformulated relationship between active-duty and National Guard and reserve forces. Implied in this proposal is a transfer of many active-duty Army forces, especially heavy tank and mechanized units, into the National Guard and reserve. With demand for such forces expected to drop following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, defense budget planners no doubt see this move as a way to save money on active duty personnel and training costs. The Air Force and Marine Corps will also likely be asked to similarly contribute. But a remaining concern is how quickly the Pentagon will be able to reconstitute reserve forces into effective combat units during a crisis.

Next, Dempsey called for a transformed relationship between special operations and general purpose forces. He noted that the capabilities of these forces have already been merging over the past decade. On a per soldier basis, special operations forces are expensive to train, equip, and maintain. Relative to its total budget, the Pentagon could achieve modest savings by having lower-cost general-purpose soldiers perform some designated special operations missions, such as foreign internal defense training. Such occasional substitution would free up special operations capabilities for missions requiring highly technical or covert skills. Dempsey was also likely referring to enabling support for special operations, which in the future may be provided in more cases by general purpose forces.

Dempsey's broadest and most-challenging strategy is to build a force that is capable of quickly executing military operations along the entire spectrum of conflict, from peacekeeping and training partner forces through high-intensity ground combat, including exotic capabilities such as cyberwarfare, defending space assets, and long-range strikes against heavily defended targets.

The Pentagon will have some amount of military capacity at all of these points on the spectrum of conflict. The challenge for Dempsey and his planners is whether the department will have on hand the needed quantities of  particular capabilities when a crisis demands them. That is a forecasting problem, made more difficult by looming fiscal austerity, the full extent of which is still unknown.

Complicating the task are thinking adversaries, who attempt to exploit weaknesses. Inevitable forecasting errors and thinking adversaries create the need for rapid adaptation. Dempsey experienced this personally; he arrived in Baghdad in June 2003 to command a high-tech armored division designed for open country warfare, only to find himself in the middle of a growing urban insurgency. The Army and Marine Corps eventually adapted in Iraq, but it arguably took years to complete at a painfully high cost.

Dempsey and his colleagues are planning for less money, fewer troops, but no significant rollback in the Pentagon's global responsibilities. They will look to places like the National Guard and the past decade's operational experiences for savings and efficiencies. But this decade will throw up its own surprises. The Pentagon used to solve surprises by throwing money and manpower at the problem. Now, adaptation will have to do the job instead.

Struggling for leverage against Iran

This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its latest report  on the Iranian nuclear program. Some of the report's more sensational details had already leaked out last week, provoking vague saber-rattling from Israel and ensuring that the report would make it to this week's front pages. As expected, the report's annex presented new evidence showing that Iran is working on an implosion-type nuclear bomb design and is attempting to miniaturize this design in order to fit it to its medium-range ballistic missiles. What hasn't changed is the international response to Iran, which has, since the beginning of this episode in 2002, been divided, muddled, and ultimately ineffective at persuading Tehran to reconsider its nuclear policy.

In spite of the IAEA's heightened concerns, the Russian government quickly made clear that it would not support a new round of economic sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. Thanks to Russia's preemptive veto, China was free to quietly walk away from the issue.

This may account for the strangely quiet response by President Barack Obama's administration to the provocative IAEA report. It would be pointless and embarrassing for the White House to call for new international action against Iran only to have its call rebuffed. The administration is likely to find unilateral action against Iran's central bank or oil industry similarly unappealing, as they could risk disrupting the global financial payment system, which is currently in no position to take on more risk.

U.S. policymakers have long hoped to persuade Iranian leaders that their nuclear program is making Iran less -- rather than more -- secure. This is becoming an increasingly tough case to make in Tehran. Sanctions have hurt Iran economically but they have also likely reached their limit. Russian and Chinese vetos at the Security Council, plus Iran's oil exports, ensure that the United States and Europe won't push sanctions much farther. The IAEA hasn't restricted Iran's steady progress on uranium enrichment or bomb design. Iran's nuclear-industrial complex has adapted to recent alleged Western covert actions, such as the Stuxnet computer attack and the assassination of nuclear scientists. The overall program rolls on. Finally, while one might think that Iran's nuclear ambitions would spark a balancing response from Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arab states in the region, coordinated defense planning among these countries remains feeble.

With nothing else working, the United States will most likely turn to deterrence and containment in an attempt to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran from achieving regional hegemony. Modeled after the early years of Cold War, such an approach would entail continued political and economic isolation of Iran, an explicit threat of devastating military retaliation in response to overt aggression, and waiting patiently for political change inside Iran.

This policy would be a stretch to implement. In addition to preventing the most obvious acts, such as overt Iranian military aggression, this policy will also be asked to dissuade a nuclear Iran from engaging in subversion-by-proxy and other forms of hybrid warfare. The policy will also be tasked with dissuading the Iranian government from profiting from weapons proliferation, as North Korea and Pakistan did when they sold components to Iran. During the Cold War, deterrence and containment prevented the Big War but had little effect on many other modes of conflict. When employed against Iran, proponents of deterrence and containment should have similarly low expectations.

Obama administration officials are no doubt well aware of the arguments against a preventive attack on Iran's nuclear complex. Such an attack would have only a temporary effect on the Iranian program, it would unify Iran -- possibly even including the now-marginalized political opposition-- against the United States, and it would make the United States an international pariah. For these reasons and others, Washington will be very reluctant to strike first.

But in a conventional shooting war against Iran, the United States, with its vast air and naval power, would enjoy "escalation dominance" -- the more a conventional conflict intensified, the more it would be able to bring its military superiority to bear. U.S. policymakers don't want to start shooting. But they might not mind if shooting starts. Any number of local sparks -- not least a fatalistic calculation by Israeli decision-makers -- could start a fire that could later draw in U.S. Central Command's firepower. If Iranian leaders believed this, it might make a containment policy, with all of its limitations, more effective.

U.S. Navy via Getty Images

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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