Small Wars

This Week at War: Bombs vs. Shovels

The escalating arms race between the Pentagon's bombmakers and Tehran's tunnel diggers.

Hard targets require big bombs. Big bombs need big airplanes

This week, Bloomberg News reported that in September the U.S. Air Force began receiving the first deliveries of a new 30,000-pound bunker-busting bomb. Called the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), the new bomb is six times heavier than the 5,000-pounder that was previously the Air Force's most-powerful non-nuclear munition. According to Bloomberg, the Air Force's intercontinental B-2 stealth bomber has been equipped to deliver the MOP.

Development of the MOP began in 2004 in response to a request from the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), which develops programs for countering enemy weapons of mass destruction. Potential adversaries have increasingly turned to underground bunkers and tunnels to protect their most valuable assets. Iran's underground uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Qom are quintessential "hardened and deeply-buried targets," a focus of DTRA's attention. North Korea has decades of experience digging tunnels and bunkers for its weapons and military storage facilities. China may have thousands of miles of tunnels set aside for military purposes, the exact nature of which remain a mystery.

In July 2009, the U.S. Central and Pacific commands made an urgent request to accelerate the MOP's development, and the bomb was delivered to the Air Force three years earlier than planned. This request was presumably in response to the discovery of new hardened targets these commanders might be asked to strike and which were too deep for the 5,000-pound bomb to defeat.

There is an arms race underway between the diggers and the bombers. Iran's vast Natanz uranium enrichment plant was built underground to protect it against an air attack. The U.S. Air Force's 5,000-pound bunker-busting bomb may be enough to defeat Natanz's reinforced ceilings. Iran then searched for another site for uranium enrichment and found one in the tunnel system near Qom, which may be under almost 300 feet of rock. MOP's accelerated development may have been in response to the discovery of the Qom facility. The Air Force claims that MOP penetrates 200 feet into the earth before exploding. Whether that would be enough to defeat the Qom facility is unclear. In any case, research on even more powerful conventional earth-penetrating weapons goes on, as U.S. policymakers anticipate that the diggers will keep going ever deeper.

What remains to be seen is whether the Pentagon will find money to maintain this deep-attack capability well into the future. The B-2 (of which the Air Force has just 20) is the only airplane that can deliver the MOP against defended targets; the Pentagon's other stealthy aircraft, such as the F-22 and F-35, are too small to carry the 30,000-pound bomb. Nor do these fighters have the intercontinental range of the B-2. The United States is thus likely the only country that can attack (with a conventional munition) very deep bunkers that are also protected with sophisticated air defense systems.

A top Air Force priority is its next-generation bomber, which would preserve its ability to attack deep bunkers after the B-2 is eventually retired. In an era of defense budget austerity, many analysts have criticized the new bomber program as a niche capability that the Pentagon can't afford.

Military commanders don't like leaving adversaries with untouchable sanctuaries, be they insurgent base camps in Waziristan or tunnels in Iran and North Korea. Strategy in an age of austerity means choosing which risks one is willing to live with. Sustaining a capability to attack the underground world will not be cheap. The alternative is ceding these sanctuaries to an adversary. Pentagon strategists will have to decide whether they are willing to live with that risk.

Will the U.S. base in Australia encourage free riding

U.S. President Barack Obama declared in a speech to the Australian parliament on Thursday that the "United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay." He reassured his audience that "reductions in U.S. defense spending will not -- I repeat, will not -- come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific." While policymakers in the region wait on that promise, Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the permanent basing of up to 2,500 U.S. Marines near Darwin on Australia's north coast. Although a seemingly symbolic move, both the United States and Australia will get some valuable indirect benefits from this agreement.

The U.S. and Australian governments revealed their intention to deepen their military relationship in September. At that time, the discussion centered on greater U.S. access to Australian facilities, not permanent basing of forces. Since then, U.S. officials may have concluded that a more affirmative basing agreement was needed in order to back up Obama's renewed security commitment to the region. But the move starts with just 200 Marines and is no closer to the South China Sea than existing U.S. bases in Guam and Japan. So why bother?

Although initially tiny, relative to U.S. military power in the region, the new U.S. base near Darwin will likely grow to provide important benefits. Over time, the U.S. and Australian funding could expand to fund port and airbase facilities in the area, making the Darwin base a logistics hub supporting larger naval and air operations in the region. The new hub will diversify regional basing options for U.S. commanders, reducing operational risk during crises. The Marine Corps and other U.S. services will gain access to additional training ranges which will improve their readiness. The future hub could develop into a regular location for joint training with other partners from the region, deepening U.S. security relationships. Finally, the Marine Corps commitment to Australia will give its commanders a leadership role in the region, an important asset as the Corps defends its turf back in Washington.

For little cost and risk, Australia gets a boost to the security guarantee provided by its alliance with the United States. Australia's military forces will enjoy the benefits of working with a partner on the leading edge of military doctrine and tactical techniques. In many cases, U.S. and Australian forces will operate similar equipment; a persistent training relationship will deepen interoperability between these forces and improve Australia's military readiness.

In 2009, the Australian defense ministry issued a white paper discussing the country's long-term security interests and challenges. The paper cautiously expressed doubts about whether the United States would be able to fulfill its security guarantee over the long term. As a result, the paper proposed a substantial buildup in Australia's military power, with a focus on pricey naval and air systems, such as a new and expanded submarine force and a large fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

Whether Australia will be able to afford this military investment over the long haul is an open question. The now-expanded military alliance with the United States may give it the option to defer having to answer this question. Should Australia decide to proceed with the white paper's proposed buildup, it may now have the option of stretching out its implementation, and spreading out the expense.

This is not the response U.S. policymakers want to see from allies in the region. The Obama administration does not want its renewed commitment to the region to induce complacency among those receiving the U.S. security guarantee. Regrettably, no one has yet figured out an answer to the problems caused by moral hazard -- insurance policies inevitably subsidize both free-riding and risky behavior. Obama has sought to reassure U.S. partners in the region. But he also wants them to step up their own defense efforts. The perennial trick for any American president is how to do both.

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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