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Why the U.S. military can't predict the next war.

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."

Over the past two decades, rather than guessing the geographic location of a fight, the military developed and maintained the two-war construct for defense planning. In 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin initially proposed a "win-hold-win" construct, but eventually shifted to the goal of "maintain[ing] sufficient military power to be able to win two major regional conflicts that occur nearly simultaneously." In 1997, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) sought a military that was "able to deter and defeat large-scale, cross-border aggression in two distant theaters in overlapping time frames." In 2001, it became "capable of swiftly defeating attacks against U.S. allies and friends in any two theaters of operation in overlapping timeframes." In the 2006 QDR, "wage two nearly simultaneous conventional campaigns (or one conventional campaign if already engaged in a large-scale, long-duration irregular campaign)." Finally, in 2010, the Pentagon drove a stake through the two-war construct, and instead embraced "the importance of fielding forces that are versatile and that, in aggregate, can undertake missions across the full range of plausible challenges."

Governor Mitt Romney criticized this shift in Pentagon planning last month, when he told a seemingly puzzled and subdued crowd: "This president has done something I find very hard to understand. Ever since FDR, we've had the capacity to be engaged in two conflicts at once. He's saying, no -- we're going to cut that back to only one conflict." Romney did not make any predictions about what two wars the military should be prepared to fight, nor has he repeated this line of attack against President Obama. Apparently, prospective voters do not want to consider if the United States should be prepared to fight one or two wars, when two-thirds of Americans opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What politicians and generals rarely say (on the record) is that the primary rationale for having an oversized military is not because of a balanced and carefully deliberated grand strategy, but to overcome the Pentagon's dismal record at forecasting conflict. In 1979, Lieutenant Colonel Robert McFarlane, who would become President Ronald Reagan's national security advisor, summarized this approach with refreshing honesty: "Having superior strategic military might has provided an enormous hedge for flabby thinking. We could afford less than optimal strategic planning because push was never going to come to shove. We have had the luxury of being able to be foolish."

The surest way to manage the uncertainty of flabby thinking is to organize, maintain, train, and equip an armed force that can undertake a range of potential requirements regardless of the international security environment or location. Even after it has withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 -- under the Pentagon's current projections -- the United States will retain an Army of 490,000 active-duty soldiers, 18 divisions, 65 brigade combat teams, and 21 combat aviation brigades; a Navy of 285 ships, featuring 11 carrier battle groups that includes 10 air wings, 82 guided missile cruisers and destroyers, and 48 nuclear-powered attack submarines; an Air Force consisting of 54 combat-coded fighter squadrons, 453 air-refuelers, 150 bombers; a Marine Corps of 182,000 active-duty Marines; and a nuclear triad with 1,550 operationally deployed nuclear weapons and perhaps an additional 4,000 in reserve.

In short, that is plenty of military capability, especially in an era when the United States faces no plausible significant security challenges, and the world enjoys fewer violent conflicts, increased political freedom, and greater economic opportunity than at virtually any other point in human history. The U.S. military has what General Mattis described as "a built-in shock absorber, basically can go anywhere and do anything." However, there are tremendous economic and human costs to sustaining such an enormous, latent warfighting capacity. By having a defense budget ($525 billion, not including Afghanistan costs) that is more than 11 times that of the State Department budget, USAID budget, and all foreign assistance combined ($47 billion), you arrive at the "militarization of foreign policy" that senior military officials constantly lament.  

Days after Dempsey told the Air Force ROTC cadet that the U.S. military would "skate to where the puck is going to be," he was asked a similar question by a submariner at the Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Maine. This time, Dempsey replied: "Here's my promise, you're not going to be bored. We'll find you something to do." Whether the something that the submariner is doing is strategically wise, it is a near certainty that the U.S. military will not know what it is -- or where it will take place -- beforehand.

JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImages

National Security

Don't Just 'Do Something'

Why Obama shouldn't send a bunch of ninjas to Benghazi.

Because of the September 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans, Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA are reportedly developing "perhaps a dozen or more" target packages consisting of terrorist encampments and individuals suspected of being involved. A senior U.S. official said that "highly pre-decisional...options are being teed up," should President Obama request them (he reportedly has not), though the official warned, "[I] don't think that a final list of who was involved is solid." Given that U.S. surveillance drones were flying over Libya well before the Benghazi attack and have been conducting a "stepped-up, more focused search" for perpetrators since then, it is certain that America's spies and special operators will find targets -- perhaps as few as ten individuals -- against which Obama can authorize an attack.

As is true with any terrorist attack against American citizens, military bases, or diplomatic sites, Obama faces tremendous pressure to "do something" in response, especially as Republicans cite the president's supposedly weak foreign policy as a cause of the attacks. While the president vowed that "we will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done," it is highly unlikely that justice will involve capturing suspects, interrogating them, and trying them in U.S. courts. Instead, given Obama's unprecedented reliance on using lethal force against terrorist suspects, rather than placing U.S. soldiers at risk to capture them, the suspected Benghazi perpetrators will find themselves in the crosshairs of drone-launched Hellfire missiles.

If Obama authorizes an attack, he should be aware that counterterrorist strikes in retaliation for specific terrorist plots or operations have rarely deterred the targeted group from attacking again. The theory that military retaliation leads to either specific deterrence (in which a targeted adversary is warned against undertaking a specific behavior) or general deterrence (in which a standing threat is broadcast to potential adversaries to convince them not to undertake certain behaviors) is one countless policymakers are continually asserting. To quote just one famous example, President Bill Clinton told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton, "It would scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters in the middle of their camp. It would get us enormous deterrence and show those guys we're not afraid."

Despite this widely held belief, there is little evidence that force deters terrorism. This concept is best evaluated by examining the president that spent the most time considering retaliatory force in response to terrorism: Ronald Reagan, during whose presidency the United States suffered the most terrorist attacks on Americans and U.S. diplomatic outposts. Though President Reagan is remembered for articulating a muscular foreign policy that emphasized "peace through strength," in practice he largely refrained from retaliating against acts of terrorism.

Reagan came into office warning terrorists that, "when the rules of international behavior are violated, our policy will be one of swift and effective retribution."  But Reagan rarely acted on that vengeful vision, largely because both he and the uniformed military did not think such shows of force achieved anything. As he told reporters in January 1982: "I think terrorism is the hardest thing to curtail. As a matter of fact, I've said for many years that probably the only defense you have against terrorist attacks is really infiltration to try and find out in advance what their plans are." Moreover, Reagan and his civilian advisers repeatedly made two demands on military planners of retaliatory options: a minimal chance of civilian deaths, and a response occurring just after the related terrorist attack -- which is very difficult given the time it takes to develop sufficient intelligence and maintain forces ready for rapid-deployment.

In October 1983, Shia militants linked to Hezbollah bombed the Beirut International Airport, killing 241 U.S. military personnel, mostly Marines. The U.S. military developed a range of retaliatory options, including ones against the alleged sponsors: Syria and Iran. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy Richard Armitage recalled, "We wanted to put a cruise missile into the window of the Iranian ambassador in Damascus." A broader range of targets in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon were also considered. However, Gen. P.X. Kelley, commandant of the Marine Corps, wondered whether attacking terrorists or state sponsors would make deployed U.S. troops any safer. As the Washington Post later reported: "The intelligence community could not assure Kelley that a retaliatory strike would have a deterrent value, making his Marines more secure.... Kelley concluded that the risks to his men outweighed the gains from retaliatory action."

Although on November 14, 1983, Reagan authorized a joint U.S.-French retaliatory strike, for reasons that remain unclear Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger refused to authorize U.S. aircraft to take off. Thus, the largest number of U.S. soldiers killed on one day since World War II was met with no military response.

President Reagan instead permitted the director of central intelligence, William Casey, to undertake aggressive covert actions against suspected terrorists in an attempt to deter future attacks. Casey -- without notifying the Congressional intelligence committees -- met with Prince Bandar, then the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and worked out an elaborate scenario "off the books," in which the Saudis paid $2 million to hire professionals to assassinate the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, with a car bomb. Instead, as a mosque emptied in Western Beirut on March 8, 1985, a massive car bomb exploded, killing 80 civilians and injuring nearly 200 others, but missing its intended target: Sheikh Fadlallah.

The attack did nothing to deter terrorism, and was itself a clear act of terrorism using Reagan's own definition: "Why would anyone want to just park a car with a bomb in a street where they don't even know the people that are going to be killed and blow them up? That's exactly why they have the word ‘terrorist.'"

In June 1985, TWA Flight 847, carrying over 100 U.S. citizens, was hijacked between Athens and Rome. During a stop in Beirut, the hijackers murdered a 23-year-old American sailor, Robert Dean Stethem, and threw his remains on the tarmac. After the remaining hostages were eventually freed, Reagan promised that the hijackers would be "held to account" and contingency plans against Hezbollah targets were updated. Senior military members opposed limited strikes; instead, as one general put it, "If we do anything, it should be something big." However, the chief of naval operations, Adm. James Watkins, told Naval Academy cadets: "Retribution and punishment are not part of a moral course and will not suffice as reasons to take action against the terrorist. Rather, we should act in accordance with our needs for self-defense and protection."

President Reagan agreed. When asked why he was not responding to the TWA hijacking with his promised "swift and effective retribution," Reagan replied, "Retaliation in some peoples' minds might just entail striking a blow in a general direction, and the result would be a terrorist act in itself and the killing and victimizing of innocent people." A senior White House official further explained: "Vengeance is not a satisfactory basis for policy." 

However, in April 1986, Reagan did retaliate against Libya for its involvement in the bombing of a Berlin disco that killed two American servicemen -- as well as an increasing number of minor U.S.-Libyan military skirmishes. As the Washington Post headline noted: "Reagan's Use of Force Marks Turning Point." A senior administration official admitted, "The difference now is that everyone recognizes we're going to have to hit back at the terrorists." Several administration officials explicitly said that the political objective of the attack against Libya was to "teach [Muammar] Qaddafi and others the lesson that the practice of terrorism would not be free of cost to themselves," as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger later wrote

In preparing a response, as long-time defense journalist George Wilson reported, "the Joint Chiefs looked at every conceivable military target" and "recommended against bombing targets in Libya that were not linked directly to terrorists." Ultimately, Reagan chose four targets connected to the terrorist attacks, and one target set consisting of Libyan air defenses. U.S. fighter combat aircraft successfully hit most of the targets, including the Aziziyah Barracks compound in Tripoli where it was believed the Libyan leader lived.

The results were meager: Libya's infrastructure was not significantly damaged and Qaddafi survived, becoming more defiant than ever. Moreover, Libya's support for international terrorism increased in response: Libyan-controlled terrorist groups assassinated British and American hostages in Lebanon, and most significantly, blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.

These examples show that a more prudent response to terrorist attacks is to understand why counterterrorism efforts failed, and how they should be adjusted and enhanced. Force is undoubtedly an essential tool against individuals directly responsible for terrorist plots and operations, and has successfully disrupted safe havens, killed suspected senior leaders and low-level militants, and raised the risks and costs of planning operations. However, the belief that drone strikes and special operations raids against terrorists or state sponsors will deter future acts of terrorism has a poor track record. President Obama faces tremendous pressure to bomb those suspected of attacking the Benghazi consulate. It would allow him to "look strong" one month before the election, provide some sense of justice for those victims' families, and serve as an act of vengeance against the perpetrators. But force won't stop another attack.

BRENNAN LINSLEY/AFP/Getty Images