[DISCLAIMER: This is long. I thought it was going to be short, but it's long. Don't say I didn't warn you.]
Here's the bottom line up front, as people like to say in the Building: the ground forces are shrinking, and the Department has determined that rapid reconstitution of massed land forces if and when necessary is the spot where we're willing to accept the most risk. This is a perfectly reasonable decision—as Ex pointed out earlier, it's easier to reconstitute trained and ready land forces than it is to produce high-tech weapon systems (like submarines and fighter aircraft) out of thin air. He didn't mention this, but it's also true that the U.S. – a geographically isolated great power under little to no threat of invasion – will also have more lead time than it might otherwise when preparing for the sort of extended and manpower-intensive operations that require significant numbers of ground combat arms formations. All of which is to say: if we're going to fight a long war, we can accept the risk of taking a few months or even years to ramp up to the required personnel numbers.
Don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that it's easy, quick, or inexpensive to produce exceptionally-trained land forces of the sort we've deployed abroad over the last decade. What I'm saying is that it can be done when necessary, and that it's more difficult, more expensive, and in fact often more wasteful to keep more than 800,000 active component land forces humming with readiness and competency 24/7, 365 in a strategic environment where the requirement to deploy even a quarter of that number with minimal warning time in defense of a truly vital national interest is almost inconceivable. (The defense of Korea is a troubling exception.)
Yes, the credibility of U.S. deterrence could diminish if the rapidly-deployable force is downsized, and that has the potential to be destabilizing. But how rapidly can the U.S. military deploy huge numbers of ground forces to a contested theater in case of emergency even with current troop levels? And how many aggressive regimes out there are primarily deterred by the threat of an American invasion force rather than by the overwhelming destructive power of U.S. strike assets? The real deterrent power of U.S. joint forces comes from the absolute guarantee that American air and naval forces will wreak intolerable destruction on enemy maneuver elements as they operate in the field (supplemented by the quick arrival of U.S. rapid reaction forces and forward-deployed Marines), with later-arriving heavy U.S. land forces prepared to retake the intiative, finish the enemy, and hold ground. It may be stating the obvious, but this operational concept is far more threatened by constrained access than by insufficient Army force structure.
One particular line from the document is getting a lot of attention: U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations. COIN is dead, or something like that. (Spencer writes "kiss big counterinsurgencies goodbye.") Bollocks.
Read the sentence again: U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations. Now add ...in the steady-state/under normal circumstances. Because that's what we're talking about here: force structure in the steady-state. If and when the U.S. gets involved in a major, protracted conflict – of whatever type – you can throw all the sizing constructs and operational concepts you see here out the window. If, God forbid, American troops should be sent to "liberate" Iran and American policymakers determine that extended post-invasion stability operations are necessary, then we'll see stop-loss and deployment extensions and temporary end-strength increases and all the other contortions you've seen in Iraq (and to a lesser extent, Afghanistan). What this document is saying is not that such operations will no longer be considered, but rather that the steady-state, "peacetime" U.S. military will not be manned as if we expect to engage in them next month. Manned. Sized. Structured. You know, like the U.S. military in 1938 wasn't sized to simultaneously conduct major combat operations against the world's two most capable military powers in geographically distant theaters. That doesn't mean we couldn't do it; it just means we weren't allocating our national resources as if that was a preferred or expected course of action in the near term.
It's important, too, to make note of the other half of this: the elements of COIN/stability ops capability that aren't easily and rapidly reconstituted – specialized doctrine, equipment, concepts, and so on – are not being abandoned. Stability operations will still be a part of what U.S. forces train on, part of the "range of military operations" or the "full spectrum" or whichever fashionable phrase you want to use. The lessons of recent combat will still be institutionalized in doctrine and TTPs, not to mention in the thinking of those personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and the policymakers who prepared them and sent them there. The U.S. military isn't throwing out COIN—it's just normalizing capabilities and operational concepts associated with COIN as just several of the many things the force may be called upon to do.
Force structure is just force structure. Political leaders decide when, why, and how to employ military power—the Department and/or the services can discard unfashionable operational concepts if they so choose, and they can even constrain the president's near-term options by training and organizing in a particular fashion (especially with the aid of Congress, which makes the resourcing decisions), but the military doesn't get to foreclose certain policy choices. Nor does the president foreclose those options when he gives strategic guidance that impacts force structure decisions; he merely accepts risk, makes tradeoffs, and prioritizes based on expectations and preferences.
For me, the most important and informative statement in the document isn't under the COIN/stability operations heading, but rather in the elaboration of the deter and defeat aggression mission. Many readers will have noticed the obvious allusion to the allegedly discarded two-war planning construct, but there's a lot more to this. (The italics are in the original; I have added emphasis by underlining.)
As a nation with important interests in multiple regions, our forces must be capable of deterring and defeating aggression by an opportunistic adversary in one region even when our forces are committed to a large-scale operation elsewhere. Our planning envisages forces that are able to fully deny a capable state's aggressive objectives in one region by conducting a combined arms campaign across all domains – land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace. This includes being able to secure territory and populations and facilitate a transition to stable government on a small scale for a limited period using standing forces and, if necessary, for an extended period with mobilized forces. Even when U.S. forces are committed to a large-scale operation in one region, they will be capable of denying the objectives of – or of imposing unacceptable costs on – an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.(Just as a quick aside from your frustrated and fusty Clausewitzian correspondent: isn't the imposition of unacceptable costs just another way of denying the enemy his overall objectives? Isn't that the very point of imposing unacceptable costs?)
Viewed alongside the pronouncement about stability operations and force sizing, this passage tells the reader a great deal about where the Department is headed. There's a later paragraph that hints at the same theme, identifying the need to examine the appropriate balance between active and reserve components in the development of future forces and programs. But the bit I've excerpted above really does tell us something new, something that's been hinted at but that we didn't already know: the administration has determined that active component forces should be structured and maintained to serve peacetime engagement, assistance, and deterrence functions and to conduct decisive, high-intensity, short-duration combat operations. Force structure necessary to conduct protracted operations of nearly any type – offensive, defensive, or stability operations – will not be immediately available—it will need to be mobilized from the reserve component or created wholesale through temporary end-strength increases. That's what the underlined bits are telling us, what with the slightly obfuscatory and non-standard "standing forces" and "mobilized forces" terminology: we can still do this extended, large-scale stabilization stuff if we need to, we just have to dip into the reserves.
And if we're honest with ourselves, we've been doing this for the last eight to ten years anyway! The difference is that the 2003 military (or the 2007 military, or the 2009 military, or the 2011 military) told the country yep, we've got this. The DoD Instruction (pdf) for stability operations (and before that, the Joint Operating Concept for Military Support to Stabilization, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction Operations) announced to the world that the joint force understood what was required of it and could do the job. Those documents didn't say they'd need an end-strength increase or three, stop-loss, longer deployments, compression of the standard rotational cycle, and ready access to an operational reserve to pull the whole thing off, but that's just picking nits, I suppose. What this 2012 guidance does is finally admit that the country does not – cannot – maintain sufficient wartime force structure indefinitely—that a peacetime military and a wartime military are not and cannot be the same size! We've lied to ourselves about that in the spirit of the endless, un-scoped Global War on Terror or Long War or Protracted Conflict, but we're finally coming to terms with that objective fact—one that the defense industry, the congressional armed services committees, and the recently cash-swollen Pentagon haven't wanted to concede.
And so we've come full-circle back to what I was talking about above: this isn't a renunciation of manpower-intensive types of missions, but merely a recognition of the fact that we don't need all that manpower on hair-trigger in the steady-state. Which is to say that if we decide we're going to occupy a country and install military governance, or that we're going to pacify a population in support of a partner government, or that we're going to pour a lot of resources into a post-conflict stabilization mission... we're going to have a little time to work up to it.
One final addendum to a post that has (perhaps unsurprisingly) ended up 500% longer than I intended: why are people saying that this document sets priorities? Spencer writes that counterinsurgency is "ninth on a list of defense priorities," while Nora Bensahel says in a CNAS press release that the strategy review "prioritizes among the missions that U.S. forces will be expected to conduct." I don't see this. What I do see is a listing of the ten "primary missions of the U.S. armed forces," pretty much stripped straight out of last year's National Military Strategy. (Counter terrorism and irregular warfare; deter and defeat aggression; project power despite anti-access/area denial challenges; counter WMD; operate effectively in cyberspace and space; maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent; defend the homeland and provide support to civil authorities; provide a stabilizing presence; conduct stability and counterinsurgency operations; and conduct humanitarian, disaster relief, and other operations.) It's true that COIN is listed ninth, but I can't find any indication that they're in priority order. And then there's this mystifying caveat tacked on to the end of the list:
The aforementioned missions will largely determine the shape of the future Joint Force. The overall capacity of U.S. forces, however, will be based on the requirements that the following subset of missions demand: [CT/IW; deter and defeat; nuclear deterrence; homeland defense].Uh, what? The shape of the force is going to be tailored to the whole mission set, but the "overall capacity of U.S. forces" is going to be based on these four missions (presumably the most vital)? Don't they have this exactly backwards? It would make sense to me to say that the overall capacity of the U.S. military must be sufficient to conduct activities across the entire range of missions, but that the force would be tailored (in "shape," by which I mean prioritization of various capabilities, types of forces, and so on) primarily to conduct the specified subset of that range.
In any event, I don't see any prioritization here. I see "this is the stuff we should expect to be able to do all the time, including in peacetime, and here's the stuff that we're going to want to do at other times, and that we may need to surge or grow or 'reverse' or modify or whatever to be able to accomplish if things don't go as we expect." And I suppose that's a sort of prioritization, but only so much as we can say that "win the wars we're in and try to avoid other wars" is a priority over "do things that are painful but sometimes necessary in contingencies."