Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything

"Today, despite growing evidence that a wide array of U.S. military capabilities are depreciating in value, many remain reluctant to engage in the hard thinking necessary for anticipatory transformation -- preparing for emerging challenges by identifying new capabilities to offset or replace those that are progressively wasting."

This charge forms the core of a thoughtful and forward-looking article by Andrew Krepinevich in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs. If it sounds familiar, it should -- Bob Gates has been saying basically the same thing for the last two years.

Much to the dismay of critics like Gian Gentile, Krepinevich remains one of the most influential voices in the American strategic debate, particularly on the subject of force structure. "The Pentagon's Wasting Assets" isn't comprehensive and it isn't perfect, but it's an essential exploration of the myriad ways that asymmetric threats challenge America's standing in the world and a primer on the sort of thinking required to combat those threats.

Perhaps the most significant (and frequent) error made by strategic planners is to assume that future threats must necessarily take the same shape as current ones, differing only in quantity or strength. That sort of thinking dominates both sides of the present debate about the most appropriate force structure for the future (and the attendant choices about spending): we're asked to decide between a force optimized for counterinsurgency and what was once called Low Intensity Conflict, or one built to confront conventional threats, armed and equipped for major combat operations (MCO) against some future great power challenger.

While American military planners consider how to best confront budgeting challenges and resource constraints to deliver the capabilities our political leadership needs, we have to be realistic about how much change is possible. Congressional opposition, competing power bases in the services, and disparate viewpoints about the nature of future threats all conspire to limit the scope of any possible Departmental transformation. Whatever we imagine to be the likely future threats to our national security, we have to appreciate that we're not starting with a blank slate: we have to get to the force we need in the future from the force we have now. And we need to do so while appreciating that our greatest concern may be neither "next-war-itis" or "last-war-itis," but rather the assumption that future war will closely approximate any past wars.

Krepinevich cuts through the COIN/MCO divide, looking at current U.S. force structure and power projection capabilities through the eyes of our adversaries: where are our weak points? How can the enemy work to limit and restrict what we can do now? By answering these questions, we're best able to determine what capabilities are necessary to maintain the influence we currently enjoy while building a long-term strategy for American engagement in the world as that supremacy inevitably wanes.

So what are these challenges? What are "the Pentagon's wasting assets"? First and foremost we'll need to understand the effect of what may in the future be substantially constrained access to the global commons. After the fall of the Soviet Union, "the United States' ability to project military power was effectively unconstrained." Economic dominance and the absence of peer competitors allowed for a proliferation of expeditionary missions throughout the 1990s.

Understanding that this freedom of movement is essential to the projection of American power, U.S. adversaries and competitors are developing a number of anti-access weapons and tactics in response.
China is working to combine Western technology with Eastern stratagems, aiming to be able to seize the initiative in the event of a conflict by exploiting the element of surprise. The Chinese approach would entail destroying or disrupting the U.S. military's communications networks and launching preemptive attacks, to the point where such attacks, or even the threat of such attacks, would raise the costs of U.S. action to prohibitive levels.
(As an aside, the Chinese call this suite of capabilities "assassin's mace," which I've just got to say is an extremely badass name.)

Krepinevich also highlights a favorite example among critics of DoD long-term planning: a war game called Millennium Challenge 2002.

[The war-gaming exercise] pitted the United States against an "unnamed Persian Gulf military" meant to be a stand-in for Iran. The outcome was disquieting: what many expected to be yet another demonstration of the United States' military might turned out to be anything but.

The "Iranian" forces, led by retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, successfully countered the U.S. forces at every turn. The U.S. fleet that steamed into the Persian Gulf found itself subjected to a surprise attack by swarms of Iranian suicide vessels and antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs). Well over half the U.S. ships were sunk or otherwise put out of action in what would have been the United States' worst naval disaster since Pearl Harbor.
The conclusion? "[P]rojecting power into an area of vital interest to the United States using traditional forces and operational concepts will become increasingly difficult." These examples serve to capture the true essence of asymmetric warfare: turning the enemy's strengths into weaknesses.

Which brings us back to today: how do we ensure that our strengths remain strengths, and that our adversaries aren't able to force us to give away those capabilities too cheaply? This very struggle is playing out today in Afghanistan, where questions mount about the utility of air power. Taliban information operations (IO) have been extremely effective in demonizing coalition airstrikes, casting American forces as indifferent to civilian casualties while drawing attention away from the insurgents' own atrocities. "The inability to discern the presence of civilians and assess the potential collateral damage of those strikes is inconsistent with the U.S. government's objective of providing security and safety for the Afghan people," said a recent CENTCOM report. This is certainly true, but how do we make sure we don't abandon an extremely useful capability for the purpose of rhetorical consistency?

(On a related note: I am far from Charlie Dunlap's biggest fan, but he published a very good discussion of "lawfare" in the most recent issue of Joint Force Quarterly. Take a look.)

Krepinevich gives some suggestions (or, in his words, "modest proposals"; I couldn't fail to mention this Swiftian allusion) for how the Defense Department should invest in future capabilities, and he expresses support for the cancellation of the DDG-1000 and Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) programs. His ideas are sensible, though they seem perhaps slightly out of place in a big-think piece like this one.

This scant criticism accompanies a slightly larger complaint: while noting that "before questions about how to adapt military capabilities to future requirements can be considered coherently, there must be a new strategic framework," Krepinevich mostly fails to provide us with one. He does suggest that the U.S. "must pursue a more modest strategy... one that reflects a better balance between goals and resources, features a reduced emphasis on wasting assets, and involves the vigorous identification, development, and exploitation of new areas of advantage." It's difficult to disagree with this assertion, and in future posts I'll try to elaborate my ideas for what shape such a grand strategy would take.

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