Small Wars

This Week at War: Size Matters

Why the Pentagon should be thinking bigger (literally).

Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, has created a tempest with an article in the latest issue of Proceedings, published by the U.S. Naval Institute. Defense analysts have zeroed in on Greenert's assertion that U.S. adversaries will eventually be able to use unusual radar-wave forms and high-powered computing to find even the most elusive stealth aircraft. Many observers interpreted this acknowledgement by the Navy's top officer to be a crack in the Pentagon phalanx defending the troubled and hugely expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. A Navy spokesman later denied that Greenert intended any such implication and declared the Navy remains committed to the F-35.

The larger point of Greenert's essay was an argument for a fundamental reassessment of how the Pentagon should approach weapons procurement. His discussion of the fleeting advantage of stealth technology was an example of how the accelerating advance of technology renders weapons platforms such as aircraft and ships obsolete and vulnerable at a breakneck pace. Yet due to the immense expense of such platforms, Pentagon acquisition officials will require them to stay in service for decades. The task for designers and program officials is find a way to keep platforms relevant even as new technology quickly makes them obsolete.

For Greenert, the answer is to fashion platforms such as aircraft and ships to be large, simple "trucks" rather than exotic, yet soon-to-be-obsolete, "luxury sedans." Platforms carry payloads such as missiles and sensors, which field commanders change depending on the required mission at that moment. It is much easier for weapons designers to upgrade to new payloads as technology advances -- a process much cheaper than upgrading platforms to the latest technology. Thus, according to Greenert, it makes more sense to focus technology investment on the payloads and economize on the platforms by buying simple "trucks."

This is hardly a new concept for weapons procurement and is a technique the Pentagon has successfully employed numerous times over the past five decades, resulting in huge savings to taxpayers. Yet the success stories of platform adaptation have more often been the result of fortuitous improvisation rather than calculated design. The platforms that have most successfully adapted to new roles have one dimension in common: they have all been some of the biggest ships and aircraft in the U.S. arsenal. Successfully implementing Greenert's adaptable "truck" concept may require Pentagon planners to favor "big box" platforms over their little brothers.

Greenert opens his essay by noting that the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise made it through five decades of service because it was easily able to upgrade its payload  -- the aircraft it hosted -- as new generations of aircraft replaced obsolete models. Enterprise's huge size also contributed to its adaptability; it had the space, storage, and electrical power generation capacity to receive new aircraft types, adjust crew requirements, and upgrade ship equipment, factors that have constrained the adaptability of smaller ships. Other examples of adaptation include the temporary conversion of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk into a sea base for special operations forces at the start of the Afghan war in late 2001 and the arrival in the Persian Gulf this month of USS Ponce, an amphibious assault ship now operating as a floating forward base. Just as Enterprise has seen several generations of aircraft on its decks since the 1960s, more than a few classes of smaller escorting destroyers and frigates have come and gone, too. Having learned from Enterprise's example, the Navy has built adaptability into the design of its new Gerald R. Ford class of aircraft carriers.

Size and electrical power constraints may obstruct the Navy's current plans to upgrade the fleet's air and missile defense capabilities. Fleet commanders must contend with advancing anti-ship missile threats. The Navy has also been tasked to play a major role in a national missile-defense system and the Obama administration's European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense plan. The Navy is developing a next-generation Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) suite to cope with these requirements. However, there are doubts about whether the current Arleigh Burke class of guided missile destroyers -- the intended host of the AMDR -- has the space and power capacity to take full advantage of the new radar's capabilities. If not, Navy program managers should consider adapting the larger San Antonio class amphibious assault ship, both to accommodate the new radar and to host a much larger arsenal of interceptor missiles than the Burke destroyers can support.

The Navy's biggest submarine has also been one of its most flexible and adaptable platforms. The 1994 nuclear posture review determined that the Navy did not need four of its 18 large Ohio class ballistic missile submarines. Instead of scrapping the boats, the Navy removed the 24 strategic nuclear missiles on each and replaced them with 154 Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles (one of these subs, the USS Florida, used its Tomahawks to take out Libya's air defense system at the start of last year's Operation Odyssey Dawn). There is also room on each of these four converted subs for up to 66 special forces personnel, their equipment, and facilities to insert these commandos ashore. The large space and power available on the big Ohio class submarines made such conversions worthwhile. In the future, Marines on Navy surface ships will face increasing risk approaching enemy shorelines defended with anti-ship missiles. Large submarines converted into troop carriers could permit a clandestine approach to a defended shoreline and would have the capacity to support the landing of hundreds of assault troops, who could clear a beach for follow-on forces.

The Air Force similarly provides examples of its "big box" aircraft -- its long-range bombers -- outliving many generations of smaller fighter aircraft. Now in its sixth decade of service, the B-52 has seen careers as a nuclear bomber, a cruise missile "truck," and as a conventional bomber flying close air support missions in Afghanistan with satellite-guided bombs. Now it is reinventing itself once again for maritime missions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The 1970s vintage B-1 bomber has followed a similar path, from the nuclear mission in the 1980s to one of the premier close air support aircraft over Afghanistan. It is the B-1, not small fighters, that has dropped 60 percent of the bombs in support of ground troops in Afghanistan. And like the B-52s, the B-1s are now outfitting for maritime reconnaissance and strike contingencies. The Air Force's big bombers have been adaptable because they have had the space and electrical power to take on new equipment and because their large payload bays have provided the flexibility to accept a wider variety of munitions. Finally, their long range has meant that theater basing constraints have never been an issue.

Technology is the Pentagon's double-edged sword. It has brought the U.S. military impressive, but inevitably fleeting, advantages. Greenert's "truck" model recommends shifting the technology race to the payloads rather than the platforms. This will mean designing adaptability into systems from the beginning rather than counting on clever improvisation later on. For Greenert, the simple but adaptable trucks provide the best long term value for the Pentagon.

Greenert's logic is appealing but has its limits. Simple or not, the "big boxes" are still very pricey; there remains a strong correlation between platform size and cost. And no matter how capable or capacious, a ship or aircraft can only be in one place at one time. As long as the United States military retains global responsibilities, it will need enough quantity to maintain a presence where those responsibilities require. The Pentagon thus cannot afford just big box ships and airplanes.

In addition, commanders will still need a fully diversified portfolio of capabilities. Even if the trucks are poised with large magazines of long-range missiles, they still need to be told where to shoot those missiles. That will require a stealthy aircraft, manned or unmanned, that can find and cue targets while loitering for long periods inside defended airspace. That essential task will fall on the F-35, the F-22, the Air Force's next-generation bomber, and the Navy's future carrier-based drone. Greenert was right to remind his readers that the Pentagon's uncontested advantage in stealth is coming to an end. But it is also true that the competition between aircraft and air defenses has been going on since World War I. Stealth was not the last move in this game.

U.S. Navy/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: The Next Afghan War

Could there be a hot war between Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Rather than winding down with the planned departure of NATO troops by 2014, the war in Afghanistan may just be undergoing a metamorphosis, as has happened many times since strife began there in the late 1960s. A slowly escalating old-fashioned war between Afghanistan and Pakistan may soon emerge, joining the internal insurgencies both of those governments are attempting to smother and pitting one state against the other. Cross-border sanctuaries and Islamabad's covert support to the Taliban are well-known features of the current violence. But as the Western military presence inside Afghanistan draws down, the trends leading to direct military escalation between Afghanistan and Pakistan are likely to continue.

The Afghan government will face an increasingly difficult security situation after 2014 and will need a new strategy if it is to survive. The number one security problem from Kabul's perspective is the continued presence of Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan, and the support the Afghan Taliban continues to receive from Pakistan's intelligence service. For a decade, U.S. and Afghan officials have pleaded with the Pakistani government to halt this support, to no avail. For Islamabad, groups like the Haqqani Network -- which specializes in periodic raids in downtown Kabul -- are proxy forces that Pakistan can use to keep Afghanistan weak and pliant.

After 2014, the Afghan army and police will bear nearly the full burden fending off the Haqqanis and other cross-border Taliban forces. Afghan military leaders are likely to conclude that they cannot reach a stable end-state by only parrying the Taliban's attacks. The only hope of ending the war on favorable terms is through offensive action against the Taliban's sanctuaries in Pakistan or action that inflicts pain on the leadership in Islamabad. If Kabul hopes to negotiate a settlement with Islamabad and the Taliban, it will have to acquire some leverage first. And that will come only after it has demonstrated a capacity to threaten the Taliban's sanctuaries and other assets inside Pakistan.

Initial trials of such incursions may have begun. Last week, the Pakistani government accused the Afghan National Army of a cross-border raid into the Upper Kurram District. Two Pakistani tribesmen were killed during a 90-minute gun battle. Although this particular incident may be more a case of hot pursuit rather than a deliberate attack, it also shows the Afghan army's willingness to step up its aggressiveness.

The Afghan government may also find it useful to employ the same tactics that Islamabad is using against Afghanistan. Pakistan has its own problem with Taliban insurgents, with these rebels using the Afghan side of the border as a sanctuary from Pakistani security forces. Indeed, in June, a Pakistani Taliban raiding party crossed from its Afghan sanctuary into Pakistan, captured 18 Pakistani soldiers, and videotaped the severed heads of 17 of these prisoners. Pakistan's army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani subsequently complained to U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the coalition commander, and urged him to take action to control the Taliban sanctuaries inside Afghanistan.

It seems doubtful that the Pakistani Taliban finding haven in Afghanistan are agents of Afghanistan's intelligence service. But the Afghan government has likely concluded that it needs to obtain leverage over Pakistan if it is to obtain a satisfactory settlement to the war. If the Pakistani Taliban lurking in Afghanistan are a potential source of that leverage, it might be only a matter of time before Kabul makes contact with the Pakistani rebels.

Kayani probably realizes that there is as little chance of him getting a positive response from Allen and Karzai as there is of Pakistan doing anything meaningful about the Taliban problem that runs from east to west. That would explain why the Pakistani Army is taking matters into its own hands the old-fashioned way. Beginning in March, it fired a series of cross-border rocket barrages targeted at suspected Pakistani Taliban base camps in Afghanistan's Kunar province, resulting in the deaths of four civilians.

The Haqqani attacks in Kabul and against U.S. targets in eastern Afghanistan have compelled U.S. officials to consider cross-border special operations raids against Haqqani camps inside Pakistan. Given the military hardware currently in place, the intelligence on the Haqqanis the United States has developed, and the experience its special operations raiders have accumulated, U.S. forces are unlikely to ever get a better opportunity to hit the Haqqani Network and thereby create some incentives for a settlement. But the White House currently has a higher priority, namely disengaging from the conflict. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's apology to Pakistan for a cross-border "friendly fire" incident last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers has reopened the supply lines from Afghanistan to the port at Karachi, which the United States will need to extract its mountain of equipment by the end of 2014. The requirements of an orderly withdrawal trumped the risks of widening the war and further angering Islamabad.

Although the United States can withdraw from Afghanistan, the Afghans, at least the vast majority of them, cannot. They are stuck with the Haqqanis, Pakistan's intelligence service, and Islamabad's long-term interest in a weak Afghanistan. The only path to a reasonable settlement lies through offensive action inside Pakistan. Afghans will have to be willing to go where the U.S. military (drones excepted) have feared to tread.

Until the Afghan military can develop greater offensive punch, it will have to turn to proxy forces such as the Pakistani Taliban as tools to gain leverage over Islamabad. Should such proxies fail, Kabul will have to turn to an outside power to support its development of helicopter mobility and artillery and air support, essential elements of a capability to directly attack the sanctuaries and other objectives inside Pakistan.

When he signed the strategic partnership agreement pledging support to Afghanistan through 2024, it is unlikely that President Barack Obama had such a war in mind. But once Kabul becomes solely responsible for Afghanistan's security, it will undoubtedly turn to the United States first to help it develop the offensive capability it believes it will need. Should Washington demur, Kabul will call New Delhi, which could be eager to help.

After 2014, Pakistan should see the wisdom in wrapping up the remainder of al Qaeda and settling the conflict with Afghanistan. NATO's withdrawal will actually reduce Islamabad's leverage and expose it to more forms of pressure. Continuing the conflict will only encourage outside intervention.

If Islamabad decides to fight on after 2014, we should expect to see a messy, multi-level conflict much like the 18th century French and Indian War. That war featured insurgencies, proxy armies, old-fashioned nation-state war, and great power intervention from the far side of the world. A similarly complicated scenario may be headed for the Durand Line. The Afghan war may be about to mutate again -- policymakers should get ready for the change.

A Majeed/AFP/GettyImages