Small Wars

Persian Poker

The stakes couldn't be higher as Israel's prime minister comes to Washington. But is Obama ready to go all in?

On March 5, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House. The Iranian nuclear program will undoubtedly be the prime subject of the meeting, the outcome of which could decide for the Israeli leader whether to send Israel's air force to bomb Iran.

In a recent column, I discussed the time pressure weighing on Netanyahu and his military advisers, and why the sanctions effort organized by Obama and European leaders is not working fast enough for Israel. At next week's meeting, Netanyahu may ask that Obama publicly issue an ultimatum threatening U.S. military action unless Iran lays itself bare to international nuclear inspectors. Without such a dramatic escalation, Netanyahu and his colleagues may conclude that Israel will have to attack Iran alone, and soon.

Obama will be loath to commit the United States to such a drastic step to resolve a problem it sees as having much less urgency. With an Israeli strike imminent, Obama must select between two courses of action. First, he can attempt to forestall war by joining and reinforcing the Israeli military threat against Iran, in the hope that such a strong commitment will convince Iranian leaders to open their nuclear program to full inspections, or risk losing it to bombing. A March 1 Bloomberg article hinted at 11th-hour support from some officials inside the Obama administration for this course of action. And recent suggestions by unnamed Pentagon officials that Iran's Fordow mountain uranium enrichment site might not be impregnable after all, as previously suggested, could be a late-arriving signal of U.S. resolve.

However, such a late conversion to a hawkish stance would be a great gamble for Obama. Although the president has declared his opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapon and noted that he is considering "all options," he and administration officials have refrained from publicly committing to "red lines" that would convince Iran to open its program or reassure Israel that Iran will not become a nuclear threat. Opposition to a U.S. military strike on Iran seems to be the overwhelming majority view inside Washington, a view affirmed at a recent presentation by retired Adm. William Fallon -- former commander of both the Central and Pacific Commands -- and retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, recently vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Iranian leaders would thus likely view a sudden U.S. ultimatum as a bluff. And given the paramount importance of the nuclear program to the Iranian regime, it would likely be a bluff they see as worth calling.

For Obama, that leaves the alternative of accepting an Israeli strike on Iran and minimizing the consequences to the United States. Obama will want the Strait of Hormuz to remain open, for oil markets to remain calm, and for U.S. allies in the region to feel secure. He will attempt to accomplish this goal by having U.S. air and naval forces around the Persian Gulf make an ostentatious display, by sending reinforcements to the region, by calling on Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production, and by releasing crude oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Obama will also seek to avoid Iranian retaliation against the United States by disavowing the Israeli strike, but also threatening severe retaliation against Iran should it attempt terror attacks against U.S. targets.

Obama will thus hope to keep the United States out of the conflict and minimize damage to the U.S. economy. But subsequent events may complicate this aspiration. For example, it is highly likely that Israeli strike aircraft would fly through undefended Iraqi airspace en route to their targets in Iran. Israeli pilots may even conduct aerial refueling over Iraq in order to maximize their range and time over Iran. Indeed, the Israeli air force may need several nights over Iran to complete mission objectives and respond to Iranian retaliation against Israel.

White House officials will need to plan for a request from Baghdad for assistance defending Iraqi air space. Obama will naturally be highly reluctant to send U.S. forces back into Iraq or set up a confrontation with Israeli jets. Then there's the possibility that Iran might volunteer or be invited to defend Iraq against Israeli encroachment. Should the United States still decline to get involved, Saudi or Turkish intervention into Iraq, in response to an Iranian move, would then seem possible. At that point, the likelihood of regional conflict would increase, with unpredictable consequences for U.S. interests.

As I discussed in my Feb. 10 column, Israel can only delay Iran's nuclear progress. Israel will have to plan for the certainty that after an attack, Iran's leaders will restart the program and move toward nuclear weapons capability as rapidly as possible. Israel will then have to sporadically re-strike Iran and expand its targeting to include Iran's electrical grid, telecommunications system, oil industry, and over time the wider Iranian economy. Iran will naturally attempt to defend itself in every way it can.

Such an open-ended conflict would represent a failure of the international security system. Statesmen will have to ponder why modern international security institutions were not able to prevent a conflict that has long been foreseen.

Small Wars Journal launches its Latin America research center

This week, Small Wars Journal launched El Centro, a new website dedicated to researching small wars in the Americas. El Centro begins its work with 17 fellows, researchers and contributors, an introductory reading list, and will later add a Spanish-language version of the site.

El Centro will publish scholarship and essays on the hemisphere's criminal, cartel, and gang threats, as well as the drug market, migration, and the challenges these forces present to societies and governments on both continents.

Do the struggles between the region's legitimate security forces and the gangs and cartels they are fighting constitute an insurgency, like those U.S. policymakers have become familiar with over the past decade? And if so, are counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics and principles a wise response?

Two recent essays at El Centro argue both sides of this debate. Michael Burgoyne, a major in the U.S. Army and a foreign area officer assigned to U.S. Southern Command, asserts that some of the principles found in the U.S. Army's counterinsurgency field manual were effective against Colombia's Medellin and Cali drug cartels. According to Burgoyne, the Brazilian government's fight against Rio de Janeiro's favela gangs provided an even better test for the U.S. military's counterinsurgency doctrine. With these examples, Burgoyne asserts that U.S. COIN doctrine may be useful against criminal insurgencies elsewhere in the region, including in Mexico.

Burgoyne first establishes that the Colombian and Brazilian cases were in fact insurgencies by explaining how these criminal enterprises grew to become true national security threats in the eyes of local legitimate authorities. According to Burgoyne, the Colombian case showed that when security forces applied U.S. COIN principles such as intelligence-driven targeted operations, small unit empowerment, and support for host nation forces, they could make progress against the cartels. However, the paramount COIN principle of protecting the civilian population in order to win it over to the government's side did not apply in Colombia. Financial targeting of the cartels' assets and direct action operations against cartel leaders were more useful.

In Rio, by contrast, Burgoyne finds that broad U.S. COIN principles such as population security, improved services, economic development, and better governance were tools Brazilian authorities effectively employed against the favela gangs. He infers that with a few adjustments, policymakers should consider applying U.S. COIN doctrine to other criminal insurgencies in the region, including Mexico's drug war.

Brad Freden, a veteran U.S. Foreign Service Officer with experience in Mexico, dissents from Burgoyne's conclusions. Freden does not agree that Mexico faces an insurgency, and instead asserts that Mexico's cartels are simply criminal organizations with no interest in political control or public support -- they just want to be left alone to run their enterprises. Nor is Mexico a failed state; according to Freden, its security forces are capable of quickly asserting their power anywhere within Mexico on short notice. Freden concludes that since Mexico's cartels are apolitical and don't threaten the state, there is no insurgency.

While rejecting the COIN model, Freden does allow for the possibility of applying some COIN principles in Mexico on an a la carte basis. In fact, the Mexican government has applied COIN a la carte for some time. For example, it has used military forces for policing, while corrupt local police forces have been disbanded and rebuilt. With U.S. assistance, Mexico has established intelligence fusion centers, a technique the U.S. military learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, in order to improve collaboration across agencies and to speed up decision-making among security forces. Finally, Mexico is increasingly employing a "whole of government" approach to improve security and intelligence-gathering against the cartels.

It's an ongoing debate, and one that that will continue at El Centro.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Can the Navy and the Air Force Get Along?

On a changing global battlefield, the U.S. military services will have to work together. 

In a recent column, I discussed how the Obama administration's new defense strategy resurrects former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's vision of a high-tech and networked military using slimmed-down manpower to operate advanced hardware. Sept. 11 and a decade of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan tripped up Rumsfeld and his plans. But President Barack Obama's pivot to Asia has brought Rumsfeld's vision back and with it, shifts in resources from the Army and Marine Corps to the Air Force and Navy.

This week, Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force Chief of Staff, and Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, explained how they plan to work together to achieve the responsibilities the new strategy thrusts upon them. In an essay for The American Interest titled simply Air-Sea Battle, Schwartz and Greenert explain the justification and goals of the new warfighting concept that goes by that name. They succeed in explaining how Air-Sea Battle attempts to support "forward presence," the fundamental U.S. diplomatic and military strategy over the past seven decades. They also explain why close coordination between the Air Force and Navy, the underlying feature of the concept, will be essential during an impending era of Pentagon budget austerity.

Since World War II, the United States has pursued a steady strategy of maintaining military forces in the western Pacific, Middle East, and Europe, around the periphery of Eurasia. In the early decades of the Cold War, this "forward presence" of U.S. power was there to protect U.S. allies from what was believed to be an expansionist Soviet Union. After the Cold War, U.S. policymakers continued forward presence to provide regional stability, prevent arms races from breaking out, and to keep open the sea lanes and "global commons" that world trade has counted on. But with the U.S. military capacity to continue that policing coming under question, military planners devised the Air-Sea Battle concept, a smarter and deeper integration of Air Force and Navy capabilities, in an effort to reinforce the long-standing U.S. forward-presence strategy.

However, the Schwartz and Greenert essay only hints at the stiff challenges Air-Sea Battle is expected to overcome. These challenges raise fundamental questions over long-standing military assumptions, portend more friction between the military services, and create doubts about whether the United States will be able to sustain its forward-presence strategy.

Military strategists began work on the Air-Sea Battle concept when it became clear that the development of long-range precision missiles threatened the ability of Navy surface ships and non-stealthy U.S. warplanes to operate in the sea lanes and airspace where the U.S. military has roamed freely for decades. Participants in the global trading system have long assumed that the U.S. Navy and Air Force would keep shipping lanes and air traffic routes open in the western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and around the Middle East. But potential adversaries like China, Iran, North Korea, and even non-state actors like Hezbollah are now acquiring very capable anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, calling that assumption into question.

Equally important for the United States is the viability of its forward-presence strategy. The forward positioning of U.S. military forces in East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East has provided credibility to Washington's post-World War II alliance system. But a growing surface-to-surface missile threat could turn those forward-deployed U.S. troops into hostages rather than assets. And the "anti-access/area denial" threat posed by anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles could prevent U.S. commanders from supplying, reinforcing, or moving deployed forces forward during a conflict.

As Schwartz and Greenert explain, their goal is to create synergies and better cooperation between the Air Force and Navy in order to respond to these challenges. For example, in last year's military campaign over Libya, Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from Navy ships, suppressed the Libyan air defense system and cleared  a path for NATO strike aircraft. Likewise, in some situations long range Air Force early-warning aircraft could protect Navy task forces better than the Navy might be able to do on its own.

At the theater level, U.S. combat headquarters like Pacific Command or Central Command will improve war plans with Air-Sea Battle lessons in mind and establish training exercises to test out those concepts. And at the Pentagon, Schwartz and Greenert discuss how the Air Force and Navy will coordinate procurement to achieve Air-Sea Battle objectives. For example, the Air Force and Navy can make sure that their joint purchases of systems such as the Global Hawk reconnaissance drone, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, electronic warfare systems, and space hardware are coordinated with Air-Sea operational goals in mind.

All sensible enough. But despite these measures, the structural challenges posed by adversary missiles remains immense. When the United States is going up against adversaries on the Eurasian landmass, these continental adversaries will enjoy home-court advantages over U.S. expeditionary forces. Precision ground attack missiles may make fixed U.S. bases in the region untenable. The remaining naval and air forces will necessarily operate at the end of vulnerable trans-ocean supply lines and with a limited set of basing options. Adversaries by contrast will have many more basing choices and will be close to their logistical support.

Next is the problem of finding the adversary's missiles. Modern ballistic, cruise, and anti-aircraft missiles operate from truck-mounted launchers, which can move around, hide, and then return to action somewhere else. In 2006, the Israeli air force had difficulty finding Hezbollah mobile launchers while searching a relatively compact area in southern Lebanon. In a hypothetical conflict against China or Iran, U.S. reconnaissance assets would have to search very wide areas, including inside cities and residential areas. With current technology, the "finders" will struggle against the "hiders."

Finally, the United States will find itself on the losing side of marginal costs. It is much cheaper for "home team" continental adversaries to produce and field additional missiles and launchers than it is for the United States to acquire and deploy additional aircraft carriers, submarines, and air force bombers to the far side of the world. This explains why the Pentagon has always been keen to maintain its technological edge through high research and development spending; it is attempting to make up with quality what adversaries have often enjoyed in quantity. Even so, the cost of even hundreds of additional anti-ship missiles, which could swamp U.S. defensive schemes, is almost trivial compared with the cost of another U.S. aircraft carrier. Air-Sea Battle planners thus face some daunting challenges.

The first conflicts sparked by Air-Sea Battle will occur inside the Pentagon, as the services attempt to justify their weapons programs amid strained procurement budgets. In spite of Pentagon budget cuts, program managers hope to push forward on a new strike fighter jet, a new Air Force bomber, new ships and aircraft for the Navy, and numerous other systems. There won't be enough money to go around. When implementing Air-Sea Battle, top Pentagon leaders will need to make choices that deliver "the most bang for the buck." For example, the ancient debate between the Navy's aircraft carriers and the Air Force's long-range heavy bombers could resurface.

The new Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, under construction in Virginia, is now expected to cost $15 billion (this figure excludes the cost of Ford's airplanes and escort vessels, which could total another $15 billion). For its part, the Air Force plans to buy up to 100 new stealthy bombers for $55 billion. The Ford's $15 billion price tag would pay for 27 of the Air Force's new bombers. According to one study, one of these heavy bombers could carry the bomb load of 10 of the Navy's new carrier-based F-35C strike aircraft. Five new bombers could equal the striking power of the Ford's entire air wing, with much greater range, and without risking the lives of thousands of sailors to missile attack (the F-35 has a combat radius of only 600 miles). Give $15 billion to the Air Force and the Pentagon can get the striking power of five Gerald R. Ford carriers. Even if the new bomber experiences wild cost overruns (the Air Force claims the new plane will use already-proven components and little new technology), this "bang for buck" trade seems compelling.

Navy officials will argue that the Ford, being the first in its class, will be the most expensive, with subsequent ships in the class becoming less costly. They will also argue that the Navy has extensive experience preparing for missile attacks and that a future carrier-based unmanned strike drone could greatly extend the carrier's striking range, further reducing the missile threat.

But the Navy's most important argument is that the aircraft carrier and all of the Navy's surface ships display U.S. military power in the Persian Gulf, in the South China Sea and everywhere allies need the visibly reassuring presence of U.S. military power. Stealth bombers and submarines, which by design are secretive creatures, are not capable of showing the flag. They thus have little visible value in supporting U.S. forward presence, the cornerstone of Washington's diplomatic and security strategy. Only the Navy's surface ships and fixed overseas bases -- increasingly vulnerable to missile attack -- do this job.

Schwartz, Greenert, and future top-level planners at the Pentagon will struggle against the structural barriers confronting the Air Sea Battle concept. It does not help that the Pentagon's budget could get cut by $1 trillion over the next decade while China's military budget may double by 2015. In the long run, the most visible symbols of U.S. power -- its fixed overseas bases and the Navy's surface ships -- may not be able to keep up against the missile threat. By contrast, the Air Force's long-range stealthy bombers and the Navy's submarines -- the secretive systems that provide the least visible support to the U.S. forward presence strategy -- will be the most powerful components of U.S. striking power.

The U.S. government deployed forces in South Korea, Japan, and Europe to supply stability and prevent conflict from starting. Stealth bombers and submarines may not be able to show the flag, but they can inflict punishment, presumably in retaliation, or threaten punishment in an attempt to deter conflict.

Should the proliferation of missiles overwhelm Air-Sea Battle's attempt to save the forward presence strategy, U.S. planners may have to fall back to a strategy of over-the horizon deterrence, enforced by survivable submarines and long range stealthy bombers. In this case, U.S. planners may opt to maintain a thin veneer of forward deployed military forces, mostly as a "trip wire," while withdrawing the most valuable and mobile units out of adversary missile range, to avoid having them trapped in a sudden conflict.

U.S. policymakers may find it difficult to keep allies reassured while they pull most of their forces out of missile range. Observers will also question whether out-of-sight submarines and bombers will be able to maintain stability as well as visible forward deployed forces did in the past. Such a strategy worked for strategic nuclear deterrence. Whether it could work for broader conventional deterrence is less clear. If it can't, the United States may need a dramatically new diplomatic and military strategy.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images