National Security

This Week At War: The Pentagon Doesn't Have the Right Stuff

The Navy can't 'contain' Iran -- even if we wanted it to.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, may have shed some light on a corner of America's grand strategy -- the real version that officials don't usually talk about in public.  

During a media roundtable at the U.S. embassy in London on August 30, a reporter asked Dempsey whether he would get advanced warning from the Israeli military, should Israeli leaders decide to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Dempsey said that he did not ask his Israeli counterpart for such warning, explaining, "I don't want to be accused of trying to influence -- nor do I want -- nor do I want to be complicit if they choose to do it. Really. So I haven't asked the question." When asked about Israeli concerns about a "zone of immunity" -- the time when Israeli's leaders conclude their military options against Iran will no longer be effective -- Dempsey expressed confidence in economic sanctions and concluded, "I don't think that the zone of immunity that Israel feels itself bound by, I don't think it's as significant." Finally, Dempsey said he had not prepared any military options in response to an Israeli attack on Iran.

Dempsey's remarks reveal a new approach to security issues in Central Command's area of responsibility (which stretches from Egypt to Afghanistan). Long gone -- and lamented by few -- are the days of using offensive action to resolve perceived problems. That approach wasn't just a Bush-era phenomenon; President Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan in an attempt to seize the initiative, a surge now in rapid reverse. Instead of offense, the new U.S. approach emphasizes defense.

Dempsey's London remarks show an effort to create as much distance as possible between the United States and a potential Israeli strike. The United States is building a new missile defense radar site in Qatar, it will hold a multinational minesweeping exercise in the Persian Gulf later this month, and it will conduct a scaled-back missile defense exercise with Israel later in the autumn. These steps, while important, are reactive and thus provide a contrast with the U.S. approach over the past decade.

According to the New York Times, some Obama officials believe Israel is pressuring the United States to issue an ultimatum, backed by a public military commitment, in response to the Iranian nuclear program, which the IAEA recently concluded is not slowing down. Dempsey's remarks clearly pushed back against Israel's pressure for a commitment to offensive action. But beyond that, they also reveal an attempt by the Obama administration to develop a new strategy in the Central Command region that will require fewer military resources than did the offensive-minded approach of the past.

In contrast with Jerusalem, Washington views Iran as a distant and manageable problem. President Obama has pledged that he will not allow Iran to become a nuclear weapons state and has publicly rejected a policy of Cold-War style containment. However, Iran is not likely to conduct a detectable nuclear weapons test, leaving its nuclear weapons status conveniently ambiguous. And with the memories of the Iraq WMD fiasco still fresh, a U.S. preemptive attack in the face of such ambiguity would seem out of the question.

So, despite what the president has said, in truth, containment will be the long-term strategy. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But the trick will be to implement the strategy with fewer military resources than are currently employed.

The Pentagon currently supplies Central Command with two aircraft carrier strike groups. In order to sustain this commitment, last week the Navy had to send the USS John C. Stennis carrier strike group back to sea four months early and only five months after returning from its last long cruise to the region. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave an almost-apologetic speech to the Stennis's crew before their departure from Bremerton, Washington. This ongoing commitment, mostly in preparation for trouble involving Iran, is absorbing at least 60 percent of the Navy's total carrier fleet and is requiring an operating tempo that is not sustainable for long.

This is not what the Navy has planned for. And although the administration thinks its defensive strategy will reduce Central Command's demand for military assets, that does not seem to be the case. Robert Work, the undersecretary of the Navy, recently explained that the service's long-term assumptions call for permanently maintaining one, not two, carrier strike groups in the Central Command area. Navy planners realize that their responsibilities in the Pacific, always high, will certainly increase as the Chinese navy expands. This implies getting back to the one-carrier commitment to Central Command in order to free up ships for the Pacific. Work explained that the Navy has ways to cope, as shown by the Stennis's early deployment. But such over-scheduling is not an answer to open-ended problems. Covering the near-term risk around the Persian Gulf with two carriers will eventually become untenable as risks in the South China Sea and elsewhere expand.

How is it that the Pentagon, with base spending totaling $530.6 billion this year, finds itself struggling to cover long-known risks such as Iran? Part of the answer lies with the sheer breadth of the Pentagon's security responsibilities, which span the globe and range from activities such as providing  veterinary assistance in East Africa, to fighting insurgencies in Central Asia, to chasing drug-runners in the Caribbean, to deterring nuclear war, and much, much more. With such a list of duties, $530.6 billion might not be unreasonable.

Strategists and policymakers have always debated what duties should properly be on the Pentagon's list and what priority those duties should rate. Regarding the present and future challenges around the Persian Gulf and the western Pacific, the Pentagon's forces, despite their size and scope, are mismatched to the challenges at hand -- the Pentagon has too many capabilities that are unsuitable for these problems and too few that are. Regarding Iran, although the U.S. Air Force has abundant tactical air power, political sensitivities on the Arabian Peninsula, combined with the vulnerability of forward bases to missile attack, apparently prevent the deployment of much of this tactical air power as a hedge. This has left Central Command excessively dependent on aircraft carriers instead. In the Pacific, China's expanding anti-ship and land-attack missile capabilities increasingly threaten long-standing U.S. basing plans, operating concepts, and procurement decisions, revealing more emerging mismatches between what U.S. commanders have and what they will need to accomplish their assigned missions in the region.

Top Pentagon officials bear responsibility for allowing these shortfalls and mismatches to accumulate. Shortly after assuming office in November 2006, Defense Secretary Robert Gates railed against "next-war-itis" -- what he saw as his staff's excessive attention to future problems, to the exclusion of current problems such as Iraq and Afghanistan. One would think that the Pentagon staff was large enough so that no such choice was required. In any case, those future problems are now here and are more challenging than they need to be because of earlier inattention, poor forecasting, and resistance to adaptation.

It is the nature of large bureaucracies to resist change. However, the outside world is constantly changing, and the Pentagon must adapt. With auto-pilot the default, vigorous leadership is required to impose adaptation. However, according to a recent Washington Post article, we should not expect such disruptive leadership from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who the staff seems fond of precisely because he is not disruptive (a description that also applied to Gates). If someone doesn't turn the rudder soon, the Pentagon will find itself complicit -- in ensuring its own irrelevance.

Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mark R. Alvarez/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Small Wars

Strategic Error

When the big picture misses the point.

The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon's central provider of military intelligence to field commanders and policymakers, recently rededicated itself to the mission of strategic warning. Its new five-year plan commits the agency "to prevent strategic surprise." This week the two-thousandth U.S. soldier died in the now eleven-year Afghan war. Many will see this milestone as just one of the many painful consequences of the intelligence community's failure to warn policymakers about the 9/11 attack. From that perspective, it is understandable that DIA's leaders seem to be putting strategic warning at the top of their priorities.

But will the renewed commitment to strategic warning actually make the United States safer? Improved strategic warning won't improve safety if policymakers don't act on the warnings they receive. And despite the intelligence community's best efforts, surprise is nonetheless inevitable, if only because adversaries are constantly probing for openings. DIA and its fellow intelligence agencies are not wrong to step up efforts at preventing strategic surprise, but it is actually just as important to focus on tactical warning. And, ultimately, the real burden falls on policymakers to follow through on the warnings they receive and to prepare for the surprises that will inevitably occur.

A declassified CIA essay from 2003 attempted to explain the difference between tactical and strategic warning. Tactical warning focuses on specific incidents, targets, or perpetrators, with a goal of deterring or limiting damage from an adversary's attack by alerting friendly forces and resources already in place. Strategic warning, by contrast, focuses on long-term developments that, when brought to the attention of policymakers, will allow officials to redirect resources, formulate contingency plans, establish new programs, form new relationships, and otherwise meaningfully prepare for new conditions and trends.

Some may consider the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the September 2001 attacks to be strategic surprises, due to the magnitude and consequences of those events. But by the CIA definition, these were tactical, not strategic surprises. The U.S. government was long aware of Japan's designs on the Pacific and had been developing a war plan for decades prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. Similarly, the U.S. government was well aware of al Qaeda before 9/11 and was slowly -- if inadequately -- responding to the threat. The intelligence failures in both cases were tactical, not strategic.

By contrast, the Iranian revolution in 1979 and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 were strategic surprises in the sense that both occurred so quickly that policymakers did not have a chance to either deter or mitigate their effects in advance through new programs, shifts in resources, or the establishment of new useful relationships and alliances. Policymakers were left scrambling with these tasks largely after the fact. Strategic warning could have allowed the Carter administration to better prepare for the consequences of Iran's upheaval. And with more warning, the U.S. and its allies might have been able to reposition military forces to deter Saddam Hussein's takeover of Kuwait.

Haunted by these and other shortcomings, the U.S. intelligence community is now engaged in long-term comprehensive research projects such as Global Trends 2030, a large strategic forecasting report the National Intelligence Council will release later this year. Global Trends 2025, released in November 2008, described long-term demographic, economic, environmental, and institutional trends and discussed their implications. With money increasingly short, policymakers will be under pressure to prioritize defense spending, and they will look to the intelligence community to help them identify the threats that matter and those they can safely ignore. However, the Global Trends reports show the cultural gap between policymakers and intelligence analysts; while the report was undoubtedly insightful to its authors, it is hard to find any connection between reports such as Global Trends and changes policymakers have made to actual policies and programs.

Intelligence analysis deals in probability estimates of future events and solving puzzles to avert surprise. Policymakers by contrast are often focused on today's crisis and want a "straight answer" to their questions, not a probability distribution. This cultural gap and the differing institutional pressures separating policymakers and intelligence analysts can create dangers. Surprise is failure for the intelligence community. It is thus no wonder that as an institution it is focused on what might be lurking in its blind spots. But that search should not come at the expense of well-known problems, such as the U.S.-China rivalry, that are clearly in the windshield. Policymakers need to ensure that while the intelligence community is working hard to avoid another embarrassing surprise, it is not losing its focus on problems that are well-known and that may be developing into crises.

That means that strategic intelligence and warning, while vital, should not come at the expense of tactical warning. Tactical warning capabilities, when known by an adversary, can be just as effective at deterring conflict as strategic warning. Had U.S. commanders in the Pacific in 1941 displayed better tactical warning processes, Japanese decision-makers, realizing they could not achieve tactical surprise, may have been dissuaded from attacking. According to the Pentagon's 2011 report on China's military power, China's military doctrine emphasizes surprise, deception, and offensive operations. This increases the importance of U.S. tactical warning capabilities in the Pacific, which commanders and policymakers would be wise to both reinforce and display as a means of bolstering stability. As a Washington-based agency, DIA may see strategic warning as its proper role, with tactical warning a responsibility for field operators such as U.S. Pacific Command. But if tactical warning is short-changed by increased attention to strategic warning, risk may increase. It is the responsibility of policymakers to ensure that all levels of the intelligence bureaucracy are properly covering essential intelligence missions and requirements.

It is also up to policymakers to take responsibility for their relationship with the intelligence community. Policymakers should give useful guidance to analysts on intelligence priorities, receive intelligence products with an open mind, and accept their role for either changing policy and programs accordingly or acknowledging why they opt not to. Strategic warning will result in increased safety only if policymakers act on the warning.

How to act is not always simple or obvious. The Clinton and Bush administrations received strategic warning about al Qaeda but until 9/11 underestimated the threat's potential. Before 9/11, the U.S. government also failed to fully appreciate how al Qaeda had switched from being a strategic to a tactical warning issue. Similarly, while the authors of Global Trends 2030 and other strategic analysts are off in search of the next ephemeral "unknown unknown," policymakers have a responsibility for clear and present challenges, such as formulating strategies for the U.S.-China competition. Policymakers need to accept their part of this responsibility while also demanding continued support from the intelligence community.

Policymakers should likewise take responsibility for the fact that despite their best efforts, intelligence analysts will inevitably be surprised. Policymakers would be in a better position to deal with surprise if they retained reserves of diplomatic and military resources to draw on when required. Without adequate reserves, investments in warning, such as military intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, become even more critical. Neglecting both adequate reserves and warning tools compounds risk. Austerity may be a fact of life in today's Washington, but taking such compound risks is a gamble no one has to make. Policymakers, you've been warned.

National Archive/Newsmakers