Small Wars

This Week at War: The General's Dystopia

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff paints a grim picture of the future of military power. Will the Pentagon be ready for it?

On April 12, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed what he called the "security paradox" at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The good news in the world today, according to Dempsey, is that interstate conflict is currently minimal, human violence is at an all-time low, and the United States faces "no obvious existential threat." Yet Dempsey insisted that "I'm chairman at a time that seems less dangerous but it's actually more dangerous." Why?

Although geopolitical trends are ushering in greater levels of peace and stability worldwide, destructive technologies are available to a wider and more disparate pool of adversaries.... What truly concerns me as chairman is that these lethal and destructive technologies are proliferating in two directions. They're proliferating horizontally across advanced militaries in the world, and they're proliferating vertically, down to non-state actors, especially insurgents, terrorist groups and even transnational organized crime. As a result, more people have the ability to harm us or deny us the ability to act than at any point in my life. And that's the security paradox.

As examples, Dempsey noted that dozens of "middleweight militaries" now possess the kind of precision-guided missiles and bombs that were the monopoly of the United States and a few of its allies a decade or so ago. Adversaries now have easy access to the components needed to assemble electronic warfare systems that can confuse U.S. sensors and weapons. Cyberattacks, mounted by both states and lone actors, routinely penetrate supposedly secure networks and could potentially cripple government and private sector command and control systems. "As a result," Dempsey concluded, "anyone with the motivation and the money can design, assemble and field highly advanced, sophisticated weapon systems."

With this ominous report, Dempsey defended the Obama administration's new defense strategy, which, he explained, will create a military force "that can deter and defeat threats at every point along the spectrum of conflict, from lone individuals or terrorist groups to middleweight militaries packing a new punch, and all the way up to near-peer competitors." While Dempsey's diagnosis of the current threat environment feels both accurate and insightful, the strategy he's touting seems deficient in both vision and scale in the face of the threats he described.

Dempsey is certainly correct when he implies that military power has never been more disconnected from population size or available manpower. In the industrial and pre-industrial eras, military power was highly correlated with the ability to mobilize large armies and the resources necessary to sustain them. Nation-states -- the larger, the better -- had a monopoly on this capability.

In a post-industrial era, the correlation between population and military power is sharply reduced. Examples of this transformation abound. Very small countries like Israel and Singapore field military forces far more powerful than their populations would suggest and provide security for themselves in regions with far larger neighbors. Last summer, Special Forces soldiers from the tiny nation of Qatar led the boots-on-the-ground unconventional warfare campaign inside comparatively massive Libya that brought down Muammar al-Qaddafi. Among non-state actors, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon has the military organization and enough sophisticated weapons to rival many states in the region. Mexico's Sinaloa and Los Zetas drug cartels have the resources and structure to merit consideration as small but troublesome quasi-military organizations.

The falling costs and increased dispersion of militarily useful technology has lowered the barriers for organizations, be they nation-states or non-state actors, to become dangerous military threats. For such potential military powers, acquiring warehouses of small arms, munitions, and equipment is merely an afterthought. Anti-aircraft and anti-ship guided missiles, once only for major military powers, are now available for sale or fabrication from commercial components. The dispersion and cheap access to technology applies not only to munitions but also to supporting components such as optics, night vision sensors, communications and navigation devices, and electronic warfare equipment -- areas where the Pentagon has invested enormous sums over past decades. The advantages U.S. forces formerly gained from those investments are now fleeting, a consequence of the falling costs and increased dispersion of such technology.

But it is hard to square Dempsey's description of a world with sharply lower barriers to military power with his defense of the administration's strategic guidance and budget. Even as he describes a world that he believes is "more dangerous" and one where "more people have the ability to harm us or deny us the ability to act than at any point in my life," he also defends a defense budget that cuts the budget by at least $487 billion over the next ten years and cuts not just ground troops but also schedules an early retirement for a long list of Navy ships and Air Force squadrons.

Dempsey and other military leaders will note that U.S. forces have benefited greatly from the Pentagon's investment in research that has allowed U.S. forces to substitute technology for manpower. For example, a few U.S. Army artillery cannons, firing a small number of precise satellite-guided shells, can produce battlefield effects formerly requiring an entire artillery battalion. A single jet fighter with laser-guided bombs now does what a squadron was assigned to do 25 years ago. And the Undersecretary of the Navy, Robert Work, has asserted that the 300-ship Navy he plans for later this decade will be more powerful and as present in as many places as the 600-ship navy of the 1980s. This is the administration's reasoning for why it can shrink the military while still fulfilling all of the required missions.

However, policymakers have also committed the U.S. military to obligations spanning the globe. The United States has taken on responsibility for patrolling the "global commons," such as international waterways and airspace vital to global commerce. These duties require the Pentagon to invest in expensive expeditionary capabilities, and in sufficient quantities to maintain a meaningful presence at important places in the global commons such as the South China Sea. The dispersion of military technology that Dempsey described will allow a greater number of potential adversaries adjacent to the global commons (most of whom will not have to spend money on globe-spanning expeditionary capabilities) to narrow the technological gap versus the U.S. forces, negating what Pentagon planners assumed was an enduring U.S. advantage. American quality might no longer be an efficient substitute for quantity.

More worrisome is the disparity between the rapidly evolving nature of the security environment described by Dempsey and the plodding, status quo nature of the Pentagon's Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP). The imminent end of the war in Afghanistan has provided the Defense Department with the opportunity to make a bolder adjustment for the future world Dempsey described. The FYDP, by contrast, continues long-established weapons programs (albeit at reduced funding), makes few notable changes to the structure or organization of U.S. forces, and largely ignores the question of whether the legacy organization and procurement priorities it maintains are well-suited to the distributed military threats that Dempsey described.

The inevitable result will be U.S. military forces tasked to do much more with less. Dempsey boasted of a force capable of defeating "threats at every point along the spectrum of conflict." But under his assumptions, there will very likely be many more of these threats at several points along the spectrum as the cost of acquiring entry and mid-level military power continues to decline.

There is a gap between the world Dempsey has described and the forces and doctrines that will be available to future U.S. military commanders. His remarks envisage an expanding set of threats. Many of these will not end up being serious enough to merit attention from the Pentagon. Policymakers should define which security problems merit the Pentagon's notice and those that allies and other agencies should monitor. Such clear guidance will help the Pentagon focus on the threats that can alter the global strategic balance as opposed to those that are non-strategic nuisances.

For those that remain on the Pentagon's plate, planners should ponder whether the FYDP's forces, organizations, and weapons are really a good match for the world Dempsey has described. Aside from spending cuts, the administration's new plans are not that new. The next team to arrive at the building will have some leftover work to catch up on.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Iran's North Korea Scenario

This week's missile launch shows the possible downside of crippling sanctions.

After a 15-month suspension, negotiations over Iran's nuclear program will resume this weekend in Istanbul. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany hope to make progress on an agreement that will block Iran from any path to a nuclear weapon, something Tehran has stated it doesn't want. Years of talks have achieved almost nothing. U.S. and European negotiators might have slightly higher hopes for this round. For the first time, sanctions are causing a drop in Iran's oil exports, adding to the threat of Israeli air strikes on Iran's nuclear complex -- both sources of leverage Western negotiators previously lacked.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presented a brave face over the prospect of a global embargo of Iranian crude oil. On an April 10 visit to Hormozgan province, Ahmadinejad declared, "I should say that we have so much funds that even if we don't sell for two, three years the country will still be managed easily."

Accepting for the moment Ahmadinejad's claim of two to three years of cash reserves, one wonders whether he has planned for what happens after that. Iran's standoff with the West has already dragged on for nearly a decade and another two years or more would seem unremarkable. Meanwhile, Iran's oil revenues are falling and could drop much lower as the embargo on Iranian oil expands and investment in the oil sector dries up. Western leaders will welcome the leverage they believe this will create for them. But the consequences for the broader Iranian society are likely to be grim. For one possible scenario, Western leaders might want to look to this month's other nuclear flashpoint -- North Korea.

According to the U.S. government's Energy Information Agency (EIA), crude oil accounts for nearly 80 percent of Iran's exports and half of its government revenue. That revenue will decline sharply this year. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that Iran's oil exports are expected to decline by 800,000 to a million barrels per day starting this summer, down from daily exports of 2.2 million barrels per day in 2011. This could reduce Iran's foreign exchange earnings from oil by a third to almost half later this year.

Iranian leaders had hoped that tight global supplies of oil combined with high prices would make the removal of Iranian oil from the market unacceptable. However, IEA's March 2012 oil market report included a rapid rebound in Libya's production, a jump in Saudi Arabian pumping, and smaller output increases in Iraq, Angola, and Nigeria that are offsetting the export decline from Iran. Meanwhile, weaker than expected economic growth in Europe and China may be limiting for the moment the global demand for oil, making the removal of Iranian exports from the market even more feasible.

Economic sanctions are also inflicting increasing damage on Iran's long run oil production potential. Iran's oil fields suffer a natural output decline rate of 8 to 13 percent per year, a higher production decline rate than most other oil fields around the world. Continuous reinvestment in upstream production is required to offset this natural decline. However, sanctions on Iran's oil industry and banking system are curtailing the foreign partnerships that the Iranian oil industry has relied on. EIA's latest short-term energy report, published on April 10, forecasts that Iran's oil production will decline by about 500,000 barrels per day by the end of this year, down from 3.55 million barrels per day at the end of 2011. In 2010, Iranian crude oil production hovered around 3.7 million barrels per day. Should the EIA forecast for 2012 hold, Iran's oil output will have declined nearly 18 percent in two years, with further substantial declines likely to follow should sanctions continue to restrict foreign investment in Iran's oil industry.

With these trends in place, it is not unreasonable to contemplate the end of net oil export from Iran within a few years. Although one should be cautious about extrapolating, if Iranian oil production declines at about a ten percent annual rate (in line with EIA's current forecast and the rough natural decline rate for Iran's fields), Iranian production could be down to two million barrels per day sometime in 2015. That would approximately match the country's daily consumption, leaving nothing for net exports. The result would be disastrous for government finances, foreign exchange earnings, and presumably the larger economy.

With this outlook for oil revenues and foreign exchange earnings, Iranian society will have to brace for deepening hardship. The disputed presidential election in June 2009 resulted in a sharp crackdown on dissent. Iran's internal security forces may have to further expand their vigilance should growing economic dislocation result in further unrest.

Western leaders are assuming that economic privation -- the result of their sanctions regime -- will compel a change in Tehran's calculations regarding its nuclear program, but the North Korean experience is not a supportive case study. In the face of crippling sanctions and political isolation, the leadership in Pyongyang has concluded that its nuclear and missile programs are its most valuable bargaining chips -- indeed, a failed test of a long-range missile and a possibly imminent nuclear weapon test show that Pyongyang is pressing on with these priorities regardless of the international consequences. Meanwhile, North Korea's internal security forces, the most repressive in the world, have successfully suppressed any grumbling over the country's collapsed economy. North Korea's economy is a basket case due to both international sanctions and the regime's need to maintain tight political control over society, but that has reinforced, not lessened, the government's repressive tendencies.

Is Iran on the road to becoming the next North Korea? As with Pyongyang, Tehran's nuclear and missile programs are important symbols of prestige, politically popular, and provide an otherwise poorly-armed country with negotiating leverage in a dangerous neighborhood. If this is the view of Iran's leadership, the prospects for a lasting deal with the West would be as poor as they have been with North Korea. To produce their own leverage, Western leaders prefer economic sanctions, which end up striking the broader population rather than the regime itself. And as with North Korea, economic sanctions could gradually compel the Iranian government to institute a police state with a command economy as a means of maintaining internal control. Just like North Korea, the result for Iran could be isolation, crushing internal repression, and economic collapse.

With this bleak outlook, Western policymakers may figure that time is on their side. They must be assuming that the leadership in Tehran will not be able to survive an economic collapse or that it will it not be able to erect the internal security apparatus necessary to maintain control, should deepening economic dislocation result in rebellion.

In this, Western leaders are implicitly asserting that North Korea is a one-off case, not replicable elsewhere. They may be right, but it seems that Iranian society may have to suffer through the experiment in order to find out.