Small Wars

This Week at War: Arms Race on the Gulf

Will it take Saudi nukes to deter Iranian nukes?

A coming Mideast arms race?

Last week, Prince Turki al-Faisal, formerly Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, raised blood pressure levels when he suggested that his country would consider becoming a nuclear weapons state if it found itself between a nuclear-armed Iran and Israel. Such an outcome would be a severe setback to the Obama administration's vision of working toward a world without nuclear weapons. With Iran's nuclear program proceeding apace, will more nuclear weapons, owned by either the United States or Saudi Arabia, be required to deter a future Iranian nuclear capability?

The annex of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran discussed the program's military dimensions and was the agency's most alarming yet. International sanctions and suspected covert action (such as the Stuxnet computer worm, the assassination of a few Iranian nuclear scientists, and mysterious explosions at Iranian military sites) have slowed but not stopped Iran's progress. Absent the arrival of some heretofore missing and persuasive sanction, the United States and its partners in the region face the prospect of eventually having to deter and contain a nuclear-capable Iran.

A recent report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) discussed the price of deterring Iran, which the authors asserted would be more costly than many have appreciated and would require much more preparation than the United States and its partners have made thus far.

Among the difficulties is the inherently subjective nature of deterrence -- which requires persuading adversaries to not do certain things, by threatening measures that U.S. planners estimate these adversaries would not tolerate. But these calculations depend on imprecise cross-cultural estimates of costs and benefits, where there is much room for misperception and miscalculation. In addition, Iran has created a diffuse structure of governing authority. This opaque arrangement, combined with Iran's expertise with irregular warfare and covert action, gives Tehran a method for taking hostile action while avoiding the responsibility for doing so.

Prince Turki seemed to suggest that Saudi Arabia requires its own nuclear force to, at a minimum, deter a classic and existential Cold War-style nuclear ballistic missile threat to the kingdom. The acquisition of a Saudi nuclear deterrent would be highly destabilizing. Very short missile flight times within the region, combined with fragile early-warning and command-and-control systems, would create an extremely dangerous hair-trigger posture on all sides. The Saudi acquisition of a nuclear deterrent would also be a crushing blow to the prestige of the United States as a military ally and to the diminishing role President Barack Obama has sought for nuclear weapons.

If, in the interests of stability, prestige, and nonproliferation, the United States wishes to dissuade Saudi Arabia from becoming a nuclear power, a U.S. security guarantee and adequate U.S. military forces in the region may be necessary. The AEI report noted that there has been little consideration of what military posture the United States might be required to maintain in the region to enforce deterrence and containment of a nuclear-capable Iran.

It would be a blow to the vision expressed in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) if the United States eventually found itself stationing nuclear weapons around the Persian Gulf, as it had to in Europe and the Western Pacific during the Cold War. The NPR discussed "a devastating conventional military response" as an alternative form of deterrence. But looming cuts to U.S. conventional forces and the cultural friction created when U.S. forces were previously stationed in Saudi Arabia greatly reduce the credibility of this alternative.

Prince Turki and perhaps others in the Saudi royal family apparently believe that nuclear weapons will be required to deter a future Iranian nuclear arsenal. U.S. officials have good reasons to prefer that such a nuclear deterrent not be owned and operated by Saudi Arabia. But that likely means the United States will have to substitute its own deterrent instead. That's exactly the outcome the White House hoped to avoid.


Transitions in Iraq and Afghanistan will shake up U.S. ground forces.

On Thursday, Dec. 15, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta presided over a brief, low-key ceremony at Baghdad's airport that officially ended the Iraq war. Panetta held the surprise event two weeks before the Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline in order to thwart insurgent plotters and allow the few remaining U.S. soldiers in Iraq to get home before Christmas. Earlier in the week, Panetta met with Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Allen announced that next year U.S. forces will step back from direct combat against the Taliban and shift instead to training and advising Afghan forces. The transitions in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with looming cuts to the Pentagon's budget, will bring substantial changes to the organization of U.S. ground forces and even to the definition of who is a soldier.

Allen's proposed mission change in Afghanistan will require reconfiguring U.S. forces from a structure designed for combat to a structure more suited for partnering with Afghan units. Training and advising partner military forces is typically a job for older and more experienced officers and sergeants such as those found in the Army's Special Forces. By contrast, the general-purpose Army and Marine Corps combat forces now engaging the Taliban in southern and eastern Afghanistan are more heavily staffed with first-enlistment troops, who are gaining experience while filling out the ranks of their squads.

After a decade of war, the Army and Marines Corps are well aware of the mismatch between their standard organizations and the staffing requirements of the advisory mission. Several years ago, the Army experimented with an "advise and assist" brigade, units that underwent specialized training and reorganization to conduct training and advising in Iraq and Afghanistan. And earlier this year, two Marine officers published a paper at Small Wars Journal summarizing their recommendations for how U.S. ground forces should organize advisory and assistance groups for Afghanistan.

With the U.S. advisory effort likely to last past 2014 in Afghanistan and with similar projects likely arising elsewhere this decade, the Army and Marine Corps may find it necessary to permanently establish brigade- and regiment-sized advisory commands. Should this occur, it would have significant implications for how these services recruit, train, organize, and equip their forces in the future.

In Iraq, the failure of the U.S. and Iraqi governments to negotiate a follow-on status of forces agreement means that aside from a handful of U.S. military officers at the U.S. Embassy, all U.S. military forces will leave the country. But the military-training relationship between the United State and Iraq is likely to carry on, with civilian contractors (most formerly soldiers) doing the work previously done by actual soldiers. Assistance to Iraq's continuing campaign against al Qaeda will similarly get an assist from contractors, civilian intelligence officers, and other paramilitary forces. This "civilianization" of military activity will continue to be a convenient workaround when the use of actual military forces is politically unrealistic.

In the recent rebellion in Libya, we saw another "outsourcing" of military activity. While U.S. and NATO air forces provided close air support to Libya's rebels, Obama promised that no U.S. military boots would be found inside Libya. No worries: Qatar, an Arab ally of the United States, provided to the rebels the hundreds of special operations advisors whom Obama felt constrained from providing himself, and in doing so, acted as a U.S. auxiliary.

Steep cuts in defense spending are likely to hit U.S. ground forces especially hard. But the Army and Marine Corps can adapt by reconfiguring their forces to perform in the ways just described and to prepare for future remobilization and reconstitution, should a future large crisis demand it. In an essay for Armed Forces Journal, Robert Killebrew, a retired Army officer, argues for an army composed of fewer junior trigger-pullers, more experienced officers and sergeants suited for advisory duty, a robust military-school system to keep soldiers and allied officers on the cutting edge, and readiness to quickly reconstitute full combat units with new recruits in a crisis.

We can thus see the concept of the soldier stretching to include not just a rifleman, but also a trainer, advisor, contractor, paramilitary, auxiliary, and commander in waiting. This is nothing new in either world or U.S. history. But there are implications for how Pentagon planners ponder reshaping the Army and Marine Corps.

Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Disposable Warfare

When you go to war with robots, occasional losses are unavoidable.

Drone crash inside Iran will not slow down war robots

This week we learned that a stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) crashed 140 miles inside Iran with its wreckage recovered by Iranian security forces. Dubbed "the Beast of Kandahar" in 2009 after it appeared at a U.S. airbase there, the RQ-170 flew clandestine missions over Abbottabad, Pakistan, collecting intelligence prior to the May raid that killed Osama bin Laden. According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. officials considered a covert mission to either recover or destroy the wreckage before Iranian forces were able to reach the crash site, before concluding that the drone's technology likely didn't warrant the risk of another intrusion into Iran.

Rather than slow the march toward the future of drone warfare, this incident only supports the expanded development and deployment of smarter and more capable drones. That means that U.S. officials and commanders will have to live with more such losses of sensitive drone hardware to adversaries.

According to the Washington Post, the CIA has been flying intelligence gathering drones over Iran for several years. The absence of an embassy or consulates in Iran hinders the ability of the CIA to develop an agent network in the country. The U.S. intelligence community is thus highly reliant on satellites, drones, and other electronic snooping to gather intelligence on the country. The intelligence community is likely finding drones, especially ones like the stealthy RQ-170, especially valuable at scooping up electronic data on Iran's government and military communications, its air defense system, telemetry from its weapon systems, and observing patterns of behavior on the ground. And when a drone crashes (this time very likely due to a mechanical problem), the U.S. does not find itself bargaining for another Francis Gary Powers, the CIA pilot captured in Soviet Union in 1960 when his U-2 spy plane went down.

The lesson learned from this incident is not to hold back on drone employment but rather to build better drones and to accept the risks that come with their use. Stealthier drones will soon be able to provide continuous observation of suspected targets, gathering information that was not previously available to policymakers, thus reducing some of the guesswork from decision-making. Drones will be able to fly very long missions beyond the physiological endurance of human aircrews. In expansive theaters like the Asia-Pacific region, this capability will reduce U.S. dependence on forward bases currently vulnerable to missile attack. Long-range UAVs on aircraft carriers will allow the Navy to conduct strike operations from much longer ranges and with greater safety to its ships. Finally, long-endurance drones will provide isolated infantry patrols with continuous scouting and fire support.

Next-generation drone development seems to be ahead of schedule. The Navy's combat UAV demonstrator project recently took 16 flights rather than the anticipated 49 flights to reach initial flight test milestones. This rapid advance in robotic aircraft is in stark contrast to the delays experienced by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, many caused by software problems in the F-35's manned cockpit. In explaining the Navy UAV's test success, the program manager, in a subtle dig at pilots, said, "we will not have to fly the platform as much as manned systems, which are less predictable."

We now know that the CIA has waged a long and expansive aerial reconnaissance campaign over Iran. Without unmanned drones, such an effort would have requiring risking pilots over Iran, which undoubtedly would have limited the campaign's scope and persistence. With advanced drones in its inventory, the United States was able to make more and longer flights, thus gaining far more intelligence than otherwise. Future drones will be more expensive and more technically advanced than the RQ-170 and will contain much more sensitive components and technology. Crashes will be unavoidable. Policymakers will have to accept this risk if they are to gain the many benefits the drones will deliver.

Does the United States need a new maritime strategy?

This week, President Hu Jintao urged China's navy to "make extended preparations for military combat." Although U.S. officials downplayed the remarks, Hu's speech comes in the context of China's recent assertions of territorial claims in the South China Sea, maritime incidents involving Chinese fishing boats and Japanese patrol craft, and concerns in East Asia over China's strategic intentions.

In October 2007, the U.S. government published the nation's current maritime strategy in a document titled A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. Signed by the leaders of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, "CS-21," as the strategy came to be known, sought to explain the importance of seapower to U.S. interests and how the country's three naval services would cooperate to protect those interests. What is now in question is whether abrupt changes in the strategic environment since 2007 now call for a new maritime strategy and whether the Navy needs to re-argue its case to Congress and the public.

Although it's just four years old, CS-21 was written in a world much different than today's. Though 2007 was a dark time for U.S. ground combat power in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the seas there was almost no question about U.S. dominance. Chinese naval developments were more a curiosity than a concern. Piracy had been subdued near the Strait of Malacca and had yet to metastasize around Somalia. Most importantly, the U.S. economy and financial system still seemed strong and a collapse in the defense budget and naval shipbuilding was then unthinkable. In that context, and without a specific military threat to counter, CS-21 focused on the importance of the global trading system and the role seapower had in protecting that system. CS-21's answer was to improve cooperation, not only among the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, but also with allied naval forces toward a goal of more effectively promoting and protecting the global system.

Four years of economic and political turmoil has created a new and much more challenging context for maritime strategy. In a recent essay, U.S. Navy Captain Charles C. Moore II leveled some stinging criticisms at CS-21 and in doing so, showed how this changed strategic context will require the Navy to reorganize its priorities.

Moore notes that CS-21 shied away from describing specific naval threats. The rise of the Chinese navy, piracy in littoral areas, and the general proliferation of precision anti-ship missiles among state and non-state actors makes this omission no longer tenable. Moore asserts that the maritime strategy should tie in more closely with the goals and aspirations of the top-level National Security Strategy of the United States. With many common goals and language in the two documents, the lack of specific linkage is a missed opportunity for the sea services to show how they are directly supporting the country's overall national security objectives. Having described the ends sought and the threats to those ends, Moore then insists that the maritime strategy state the fleet requirements and force structure necessary to achieve the strategy's goals, something CS-21 did not specifically discuss.

A scramble for shrinking defense resources is now underway. Unfortunately for the Navy, polls show that the public views it as the least important and prestigious of the services, aside from the Coast Guard. Yet the future security environment, combined with the Obama administration's stated "pivot" toward the Asia-Pacific region, only boosts the importance of the three maritime services. The disconnection between U.S. strategic priorities and the public's perception is a problem for the Navy, but also an opportunity that a new strategy could address.

Earlier this year, Bryan McGrath, a retired naval officer and the lead author of CS-21, wrote that he believed the United States now needs a new maritime strategy. This strategy should be tightly linked to the nation's top national security goals. It should explain the role seapower plays in national security and describe the current and future threats in the maritime realm. Finally, it should defend the force structure required to achieve the stated national maritime security goals. A lot has changed in the four years since CS-21 came out, and the Navy needs a new message.