Small Wars

This Week at War: Playing Risk

America's new defense strategy makes some pretty bold assumptions about the future of warfare.

The Pentagon's risky new assumptions

Last week, I discussed the release of the Pentagon's new strategic guidance, the document that attempts to explain how the U.S. military services and field commanders plan to cope with a $487 billion cut from their previous 10-year budget plan. Defense analysts now await the White House's detailed defense budget request, a document that is bound to contain a lot of unhappy news for Congress members and defense contractors. I noted last week that the strategic guidance implied substantial cuts to the Army and Marine Corps, implicitly accepting that the United States will no longer be able to send major deployments to two simultaneous crises. But that is just one of many risks the new guidance will force Pentagon planners to cope with.

The cuts to U.S. ground forces will necessarily increase the responsibilities borne by U.S. allies. The strategic guidance discusses the Pentagon's "plan to operate whenever possible with allied and coalition forces." In addition, the document emphasizes the importance of providing security force assistance to build the capacity of partner forces. The authors of the new strategy are counting on this assistance to help fill in for reduced U.S. forces in the future. In reality, however, traditional allies in Europe and elsewhere continue to cut rather than increase their military capacities. Recent U.S. "coalitions of the willing" did produce contributions from many countries, but the majority of these contributions were militarily insignificant. Future U.S. security crises might matter even less to U.S. allies, which will be reluctant to provide significant troop contributions. Planning for allies to do the work previously done by now-furloughed U.S. soldiers is a risk.

In his rollout of the new strategy, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called for U.S. forces to be "more agile, flexible, [and] innovative" as a way of compensating for reduced numbers. But what does it mean precisely to be more agile, flexible, and innovative? Can Panetta and his staff point to specific indicators of agility or flexibility that his forces cannot achieve now but could under different conditions? What training, leadership, or equipment is required to achieve these undefined higher levels of agility and flexibility? Without a more detailed description, it sounds more like sloganeering than a strategy. Panetta and others may express a desire to more rapidly shift forces around the globe in response to crises, but U.S. forces face an increasing challenge of denied access from adversary missiles, a fundamental threat the new strategy is supposed to address. Until the Pentagon resolves the anti-access challenge, improved strategic mobility is itself another problem, rather than a solution to a problem of reduced troop numbers.

The strategic guidance discusses the idea of "reversibility," or retaining the military's ability to reconstitute forces in response to crises. The report describes plans to retain larger numbers of field-grade officers and sergeants in the Army and Marine Corps to accommodate rapid reconstitution of previously shuttered formations. The strategy also discusses an updated role for reserve forces to reconstitute needed combat units. Although these are sensible preparations, in the past it has usually taken two years or more for the U.S. military to fully adapt to major strategic shocks. This is the typical amount of time a large bureaucracy like the Pentagon needs to comprehend a new adversary and its tactics, accept that the new challenge differs significantly from those forecast in prewar plans, and then overcome the bureaucratic hurdles needed to design and implement effective responses. The new strategic guidance may hope to speed up this timeline, but simply assuming it will go faster next time is a risk.

The impending defense cuts increase stress for Pentagon planners because they reduce the margin of error they will have to work with. Possessing redundancy and safety margins of troops, equipment, and bases seems wasteful, even more so during a budget crisis. Getting the new strategic guidance to work during a future crisis will mean hoping that the new planning assumptions come true and that Murphy's Law doesn't strike too often. U.S. military history shows that "planning for perfection" rarely turns out well.

When it comes to Iran, the United States could use a little more help from its Arab friends.

In a Jan. 8 interview, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, admitted that Iran did have the military capacity to block the Strait of Hormuz "for a period of time." Dempsey went on to reassure his questioner that U.S. military forces around the Persian Gulf region could eventually reopen the strait to maritime traffic. After just completing one round of naval maneuvers, Iran promised an even bigger naval exercise in February. Over at least the medium term, the United States will have to bear the primary responsibility for guaranteeing access to this critical portion of the global commons. Over the long run, the United States would like its Arab allies to pick up a bigger share of the burden. Unfortunately, a recent conference sponsored by U.S. Central Command and the Rand Corp. seemed to throw a barrel of cold water on this prospect.

A new publication from Rand discusses the results of this July 2011 conference, which was keynoted by Marine Gen. James Mattis, the head of Centcom, as well as Puneet Talwar, senior director for the Persian Gulf region for the National Security Council. Around 100 regional experts participated in various panel discussions under Chatham House rules, meaning their remarks were recorded but not attributed by name.

The United States has an interest in promoting a NATO-like political and military alliance among its Sunni Arab allies in the region as a balancing force to Iran. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), composed of Saudi Arabia and the other smaller Sunni countries on the western side of the Persian Gulf, would ideally be the basis of this balancing force. Regrettably, the conference participants concluded that the GCC remains bogged down by mistrust and a lack of coordination. Even worse, just when rising tensions with Iran should be increasing cooperation with the United States, Washington's relations with most GCC countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, are worsening.

Events in 2011 afforded several GCC countries a chance to flex their military muscles and to do so in cooperation with other GCC members and the United States. For example, GCC member Qatar was a major player in the Libyan rebellion, supplying both fighter aircraft and a large contingent of special-forces advisors to the rebels, an action that was supported by other GCC members. Yet the conference concluded that GCC support for the Libyan rebels was motivated by animus toward Muammar al-Qaddafi and was therefore not a precursor for better military cooperation among members in the future. Similarly, the Saudi-led GCC intervention to prop up Bahrain's royal family is expected to do little to improve GCC military coordination against the Iranian threat. In fact, the conference suggested that the internal crackdown in Bahrain may have damaged the Bahrain royal family's credibility and may eventually place U.S. military bases in the country in jeopardy.

According to the conference participants, the Arab Spring has created collateral damage to U.S. relations with key Gulf countries. Leaders in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere were not pleased with the Obama administration's abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. U.S. policymakers seem to make a clear distinction between external threats to the Sunni Arab countries, to which the United States has pledged to respond, and internal threats, which the United States sees as each country's responsibility. The Sunni monarchies, fearing Iran's covert and irregular-warfare capabilities, do not so neatly see the distinction between Iranian-sponsored external and internal threats. The conference reported that some GCC leaders, having lost some confidence in U.S. reliability, are now looking east to India and China to diversify their security relationships.

U.S. diplomats and regional commanders such as Mattis are caught in several dilemmas. Over the long run, U.S. officials want to encourage more self-reliance and cooperation among GCC states. Yet they also want these countries to have enough confidence in U.S. guarantees that they won't wander off to establish alliances with the likes of China. Similarly, the Arab Spring seemed to bring about the possibility of greater self-government in the Arab world. But U.S. officials have also discovered that pushing this fundamental value might put at risk U.S. security relationships in the region and thus increase the burden on U.S. forces responsible for global commons like the Strait of Hormuz. Mattis's conference showed that solutions to these dilemmas are as far away as ever.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: The Gathering Storm in the Gulf

What Iran should learn from Japan's pre-World War II mistakes.

The Iranian Navy is playing with oil prices

A recent 10-day training exercise conducted by Iran's Navy included a test of an upgraded anti-ship cruise missile, presumably designed to counter the regular presence of U.S. 5th Fleet warships nearby. Before the Iranian exercise began, the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier strike group sailed from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea. The carrier received some parting advice from Gen. Ataollah Salehi, the commander of Iran's armed forces. "We warn this ship, which is considered a threat to us, not to come back, and we do not repeat our words twice," Salehi said.

It would be difficult to find a credible naval analyst who thought that a clash between the Iranian Navy and the U.S. 5th Fleet would turn out well for Iran. But Tehran has apparently doubled down on Salehi's warning; the Iranian parliament is now considering a bill that would prohibit foreign warships from entering the Persian Gulf without prior permission from the Iranian government. This would violate long-standing international maritime law.

In contrast to its occasional all-thumbs response to irregular warfare situations, a conventional naval battle around the Strait of Hormuz would play to the U.S. military's strongest suit. American advantages in sensors, targeting, command and control, precision weapons, electronic warfare, training, and many other dimensions would quickly crush Iran's air and naval forces. Iran would also be unlikely to derive any political or diplomatic benefit from sparking a clash in the strait. Even competitors like China would expect the United States to fulfill its role as protector of the global commons (at least in the Strait of Hormuz). Iran would be seen as violating international maritime law. And the more the shooting accelerated, the more Iran would suffer. This is the definition of "escalation dominance," which would favor the United States as fighting intensified (and might therefore give the United States an incentive to escalate an outbreak of combat). Salehi and his officers must surely understand this.

So what is Iran up to? The looming imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran's Central Bank and by Europe and perhaps Japan and South Korea on Iranian oil exports might force Iran to have to sell its oil to its few remaining customers at a discount from market prices. To make up for this lost revenue, Iran might find saber rattling a useful way of boosting crude oil prices. Whether Iran can sustain such a risk premium without actual shooting occurring at some point remains in doubt.

We might see Iran resorting to its own strong suit: covert action and irregular warfare. Tehran's goal would be to impose economic and political pain on the United States, Europe, China, and other oil importers and boost the oil-market risk premium to its own financial benefit. Iran might attempt to achieve this by clandestinely laying naval mines in tanker shipping lanes, as it did during the Tanker War of the 1980s. The result then was an escalating naval confrontation that culminated in the U.S. Navy's Operation Praying Mantis in 1988, a defeat for the Iranian Navy.

Alternatively, Iran might opt to disrupt the global oil market by sabotaging Iraqi, Kuwaiti, or Saudi oil fields. Such actions would be reckless and would be politically damaging to Iran if discovered.

The simmering standoff between Iran and the United States has some parallels with the origins of the Pacific war in 1941. To persuade Japan to withdraw its marauding army from China, the United States and other countries imposed ever-tightening sanctions, culminating with an oil embargo that put Japan's back to the wall. It was politically impossible for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to enter the war without a grave provocation, even if allies were urging him to do just that. But after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and elsewhere, America's great industrial advantage became decisive. Similarly, it's politically untenable for President Barack Obama to fire the first shot at Iran. But Iranian military action that, say, closes the Strait of Hormuz for a time could result in the world's begging for U.S. military action.

Few doubt that Japan's policymakers blundered badly when they opted for war against the United States. Yet these leaders also thought it was impossible to abandon their China policy. Iranian leaders are caught between demands for full International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of its nuclear program and the U.S. 5th Fleet. Iran may have a card or two left to play, but it would be illogical for shooting to be one of them.

After a decade at war, foot soldiers get the pink slips

On the morning of Thursday, Jan. 5, President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and other defense officials unveiled the outline of the Pentagon's new defense strategy, which Panetta described as a "strategic shift" to the future. The presentation included only broad strategic guidance, and officials refused to discuss the new strategy's consequences for specific programs or budgets. The task for Obama, Panetta and others at the briefing was to reassure both allies and adversaries about the future of U.S. military power while simultaneously explaining how Pentagon planners were going to get by with $487 billion less than they recently expected. Panetta and others at the podium acknowledged some of the risks that would result. How potential adversaries will interpret the new strategy remains to be seen.

The new strategic guidance ignores the additional $600 billion defense-budget sequestration that was triggered in November by the failure of the deficit-reduction supercommittee and that is due to strike in 2013. At the briefing, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the upcoming Pentagon budget, absorbing the $487 billion blow, will be stunning enough to many on Capitol Hill. Boeing's announcement on Thursday that it is closing a large aircraft plant in Kansas, with the possible loss of 2,160 jobs, may foreshadow some of the economic pain to come, even after the Congress presumably voids the impending sequester.

Without discussing numbers, Panetta and his colleagues warned of deep cuts to the Army and Marine Corps. The accompanying strategic guidance document plainly states that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" [italics in original]. It will be difficult to find many observers agitating for more "large-scale, prolonged stability operations." The risk, however, is that the United States could find itself caught short by simultaneous crises that boil over before the Pentagon can mobilize, retrain, and deploy Army and Marine Corps reservists.

The ability to cope with two major regional crises nearly simultaneously is a long-standing assumption that the Pentagon has been edging away from for a decade. The Obama administration is now definitively abandoning it. In the case of multiple crises in the future, the United States may find itself using heavy air and naval firepower in scenarios that in the past might have been deterred by the timely deployment of ground troops, troops that in the future might not be available.

The administration's new strategy is also likely to take an ax to the forward presence of U.S. forces, especially outside the Asia-Pacific region. Panetta said that the U.S. presence in Europe will "adapt and evolve," which is a synonym for European base closures, troop withdrawals, and a downgraded relationship with NATO. Given the low external security threat to Europe (a sharp contrast with Asia), this makes some sense. Europe, however, remains an important transit hub for U.S. operations in the Middle East. The result will be one more strategic risk the Obama team apparently thinks it will be able to manage.

While ground-force staffing, personnel costs, and some weapon systems will be cut or delayed, there are winners in the strategic review. Special operations forces, cyberwarfare programs, unmanned systems, and intelligence gathering will get more funding. More broadly, the new strategy is counting on forces that will be, in Panetta's words, "more agile, more flexible, ready to deploy quickly, innovative, and technologically advanced" to make up for what these forces previously possessed in numbers. How those troops that survive the budget cuts will become more agile, flexible, and innovative remains to be explained.

Interestingly, it was the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and vice chairman, Adm. James Winnefeld, who stressed the need to retain a capacity to regenerate forces and capabilities during future crises. Winnefeld described the need to be "humble" regarding this or any strategy and thus to make no irreversible decisions. Dempsey defended the strategy as being the right one for this moment in time, implying that as circumstances change, so will the strategy.

Dempsey and Winnefeld may be resigning themselves to a repeat of this budget-and-strategy drill in less than a year, under either a new Republican president or changed circumstances as Obama's second term begins. In the meantime, the reality of defense cuts will soon arrive on Capitol Hill, in constituencies in Kansas and elsewhere, and in the perceptions and calculations of Washington's friends and adversaries.