Two weeks ago, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered the Landon Lecture to hundreds of U.S. servicemembers and students at Kansas State University. During the question and answer session, a cadet in the Air Force ROTC asked, "What [do] you see being the focus of our nation in 5 to 10 years, where I'll be serving?"
Paraphrasing a quote by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, Dempsey replied: "Somebody said to him once, you're not really a physically imposing guy, how come you're such a great hockey player? He said, 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it's been.' That's what we're trying to do."
In May, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta echoed this sentiment with even greater conviction when he described Pentagon priorities in an era of slightly reduced defense spending and a leaner military: "We've got to focus on where the main threats are. That means we continue a major focus on the Pacific region and we continue a major focus on the Middle East, because that's where the potential problems are for the future."
This forward-looking approach from the Pentagon's senior leadership is admirable, in that it attempts to counter the old adage that "generals fight the last war." There is just one glaring problem with this degree of certainty: The U.S. military has a terrible record of predicting where conflicts will emerge and where they will be deployed to fight. The next time you hear lists of emerging threats and future conflicts, bear in mind the following observations from senior military officials over past few years:
1. In October 2010, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen acknowledged: "We're pretty lousy at predicting where we'll go. We're pretty lousy at predicting the kind of warfare we'll be in, if the last 20 years, or so, serve as an example."
2. In February 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told West Point cadets: "When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more -- we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged."
3. In March 2011, General James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee: "I think, as we look toward the future, I have been a horrible prophet. I have never fought anywhere I expected to in all my years."
4. In May 2012, Major General H.R. McMaster admitted: "We have a perfect record in predicting future wars -- right? ... And that record is 0 percent."
Given the acknowledged certainty of uncertainty from these officials, it is safe to say that the Pentagon does not possess an armed conflict crystal ball. This is especially the case if you believe that the world is becoming "a more unpredictable and dangerous security environment." Given this inherent unpredictability, how does the Pentagon plan for the future?
To think about the problem facing military planners of predicting future U.S. military engagements, I spoke to Colonel Kevin Benson (ret.), whose distinguished 30-year career in the U.S. Army culminated with his appointment as the director of the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Graduates of SAMS are referred to as "Jedi Knights" for their rigorous education in preparation for becoming the elite planners of U.S. military operations wherever they are deployed. (Colonel Benson subsequently earned a PhD from the University of Kansas for his outstanding dissertation chronicling the history of SAMS from 1983 to 1994.)
Benson, who is still involved in concept development exercises for the Army, told me that "it is important to study the force you might actually fight against, rather than do generic planning for nonspecific scenarios, like against 'Orange Land' or the 'Krasnovians,'" which is how U.S. military referred to the Soviets during the Cold War. Benson said that modeling future adversaries helps planners ask important questions, such as: "Are there forward staging bases nearby? If not, what would it take to get there? What type of forces would be required?" Despite the necessity of using specific scenarios for the concept development and operational planning process, Benson noted, "I have deep doubts about the ability to predict where the U.S. military would fight."