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

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