Thursday, January 26, 2012

Defense budget preview: Schoenbaum and Mearsheimer, 1982

This morning, I happened across quite a prescient exchange of letters (pdf, $) from an old issue of International Security. In it, David Schoenbaum and John Mearsheimer discuss and debate various conclusions of the latter man's 1981 review of Brian Bond's British Military Policy Between the Two World Wars, a book that was thought to have been particularly relevant to the force structure and defense budgeting debate of the early 1980s. I hope to spend a great deal more time on this subject in the future (oh boy!), but for now I just want to reproduce a few excerpts that I think might interest you on the day the Secretary of Defense previews the new defense budget.

First, Schoenbaum prompts a wry smile:
If America now [in 1982], like Britain then, has a stake in Middle Eastern stability, it also enoys some non-military options unknown to British governments in the 1930s—a political solution of the Palestinian problem, for instance, or a genuinely conservative national energy policy. (225)
Plus ça change, etc. Divestment from Arab oil through national conservation or alternative fuels suggested 30 years ago!

Next, on the pitfalls of prognostication—good strategists aren't necessarily good grand strategists:
The problem of the British Army in the 1930s was not so much that British governments failed to build forces appropriate to their view of the world, but that their view was wildly askew. (226)
Influenced by Basil Liddell Hart and other proponents of the maritime strategy, British governments spent most of the interwar period building forces appropriate to naval supremacy and homeland defense, wishfully thinking that France could stand up to Germany and prevent continental hegemony.

Schoenbaum faulted his contemporaries for quite a different failing: they debated the best means to produce military power without considering the uses of that power.
Attrition vs. maneuver, the draft vs. the volunteer force or tanks vs. precision-guided missiles can also be debated on their abstract merits. In fact, they generally are. But these are not really abstract issues. On the contrary, they presuppose and only make sense with respect to real adversaries in real places and circumstances. What is regrettably missing in far too much of the current debate is the fundamental question of force, and forces, as means, rather than as ends in themselves. (226)

Mearsheimer's historical analysis doesn't differ dramatically from Schoenbaum's.
The first lesson is than an insular power with worldwide defense commitments must involve itself in European politics to insure [sic] that no state becomes master of that continent. (227)
Of course, there are different ways to involve oneself in European politics: alliances and forward posturing of forces are not the only solution. And Mearsheimer would no doubt admit as much – he has argued that NATO is obsolete in the modern day – while confidently asserting that those were the appropriate answers in the 1980s.

Britain had failed to draw the proper conclusions about its necessary involvement on the continent until quite late in the 1930s, but the government did eventually revise its view and change course. Even then, military preparations were limited by other factors; as Mearsheimer notes, "military strength is largely dependent on economic strength."
Now that the British archives for that period have been opened, a clear-cut consensus is emerging that the ultimate failure of British policy in the 1930s had much less to do with political will and more to do with the large gap between her resources and her commitments. (228)
That sounds familiar, eh?
The implication [by those bemoaning insufficient political will] is that the solution to America's problems is largely of a political nature. In other words, there is a desperate need for vigorous and forceful leaders who will not be afraid to deal with threats to U.S. interests. Although it is hard to disagree with the need for determined leadership, this line of argument misses the more important point, which is that America's future as a great power will be determined largely by economic and not political factors. The ability of the United States to meet its worldwide commitments in the 1980s will be more a function of the economy's capability to generate the necessary military power than of any infusion of political will at the upper levels of government. (228, emphasis mine)
Let me go even a step further and say that the misguided "infusion of political will" in the form of expensive, strategically nonsensical military actions and ill-advised, cripplingly high defense spending is in fact a brake on our capacity to meet real our very real commitments.
Despite this military rationale for a powerful economy, large-scale increases in military spending are often detrimental to a healthy economy. (229)
And to close with yet another moment of déjà vu:
Recently [remember, this is 1982], Wassiliy Leontief, the Nobel Laureate in economics, warned that using scarce capital to support massive increases in defense spending "will starve the rest of the economy of the investment it desperately requires to remain competitive in the tightening worldwide market." (229)
Kill 'em all, and let the Keynsians sort 'em out.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Up is down, left is right, and COIN is FID

This is a new one: foreign internal defense is the real counterinsurgency.

That's what retired colonel and CNAS non-resident fellow Bob Killebrew writes, via Tom Ricks.
As U.S. combat forces have withdrawn from Iraq and are scheduled to leave Afghanistan in 2014 -- just twenty-four months from now -- various defense thinkers and publications have declared the U.S. involvement in counterinsurgency (COIN) over. Actually, nothing could be further from reality. The real story is that COIN is still very much alive, in Iraq, the Philippines, Colombia and a dozen other places where the U.S. still has interests and that, in Afghanistan at particular, the United States is moving, finally, into true counterinsurgency.
It's ironic that Ricks smilingly identifies Killebrew as a representative of "Best Defense department of doctrinal affairs" when this interpretation is antithetical to the one codified in U.S. doctrine. Yes, counterinsurgency is still alive. (Indeed, it will never die, or at least not for as long as insurgency exists, because it encompasses all actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency.) And yes, it's true that the U.S. is supporting partner nations' counterinsurgency efforts around the globe – including in the countries COL Killebrew has cited – through a suite of activities and operations that can be grouped under the rubric of foreign internal defense. But it's goofy to call this "true counterinsurgency"—it may be the truly effective reorientation of our security policy toward historically-proven best practices for third-party support to partner-nation counterinsurgency (though that's a bit wordy and something of a tautology, I suppose), but you can't call it "true counterinsurgency." To do so is the doctrinal equivalent of declaring that black is white.

Current American counterinsurgency doctrine is built around a construct of significant U.S. troop presence and extended stability operations. This makes sense, of course, because it's U.S. military doctrine: that is, a codification of best practices for the conduct of operations by U.S. forces. The preface to FM 3-24 (pdf) recognizes this fact:
A counterinsurgency campaign is, as described in this manual, a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations conducted along multiple lines of operations. It requires Soldiers and Marines to employ a mix of familiar combat tasks and skills more often associated with nonmilitary agencies.
COL Killebrew's comments aren't about U.S. military doctrine, but U.S. foreign policy: he's arguing that the most effective way for the U.S. to aid the counterinsurgency efforts of a partner nation is to indirectly augment the offensive, defensive, and stability operations of the host government rather than to undertake those operations independently.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the destruction of both governments made it necessary for us to take on major combat roles while we rebuilt the security forces. While the performance of our troops was superb, our initial effort to re-form both the Iraqi and Afghan armies was grudging, too limited and far too slow. In our we'll-do-it culture, we forgot that so long as U.S. forces are carrying the bulk of the fighting in somebody else's insurgency, we are delaying the time when the host government starts fighting the "real" COIN campaign and we provide assistance and support, which is the Americans' real role in COIN.
While this sentiment is extremely palatable to a lot of people in the wake of our bloody and expensive involvement in two manpower-intensive operations, we should acknowledge that it's an attempt to move the goalposts (COIN hasn't really failed, we've just been doing it wrong). Who cares, though, right? Well, it's also a way to whitewash the very real limitations of a more indirect, FID-centric approach and to avoid addressing the really important question: whether involvement in these conflicts, either directly or indirectly, is actually delivering any real security to Americans.

FID is better policy because it's cheaper, less risky in terms of human life and possible escalation, and potentially more effective (by limiting the additional inflammatory complications of visible U.S. troop presence). And if you're a 50-year old guy trying to help the Cowboys win football games, it's probably a better idea for you to become a defensive coordinator than to try strapping on the pads yourself. But FID isn't "true counterinsurgency" any more than standing on the sidelines with a headset and a clipboard is "true football."

I agree with Killebrew that counterinsurgency isn't going anywhere, as I've written before. And I agree that American security policy will likely shift in the direction of indirect approaches and smaller-footprint operations. But it's confusing and obfuscatory to suggest that these trends are one and the same, or that the latter shift does not constitute a rejection (or at least re-thinking) of counterinsurgency as it's been sold to the public. We haven't just been doing it wrong—we've been wrong to do it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The world we live in: if you couldn't laugh, you'd have to cry

This morning the president will announce his intent to streamline the federal government by merging a number of trade- and commerce-related agencies. In order to do so, he is requesting that Congress grant him so-called fast-track consolidation authority; this would allow the president to propose consolidations to the legislative branch and get a clean up-or-down vote within 90 days. No president since Reagan has held this power.

As you might imagine, this proposal is expected to be politically contentious. Republicans in Congress are unlikely to accede to the president's demands in an election year, notwithstanding the fact that this sort of consolidation and streamlining is generally consistent with their political platform.

Now consider this: the president can go to war without even asking Congress. When he does deign to request approval, it is reflexively and near-unanimously granted. The executive branch has consistently interpreted the Constitution as granting unitary executive authority to the president in matters of war and foreign policy. What's more, every White House since Truman's has asserted the unilateral right to use nuclear weapons as the president sees fit.

The president must go to Congress with hat in hand in order to merge the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Small Business Administration, but he can embroil this country in expensive, bloody, and strategically dubious foreign wars with scarcely a phone call to the Hill.

He needs an up-or-down vote from the legislature in order to roll up a few sub-cabinet offices, but can invoke the "housekeeping privilege" to bar the release of executive-branch records to the judicial branch—including in cases where the very question of executive privilege and presidential power is at issue.

I vaguely remember a literary quotation I read as a kid (and which I am of course completely unable to track down or even attribute in my adulthood, even with the powers of Google) that said something to the effect of man's inattention to the most important things and attention to insignificant things are the mark of a strange disorder. Quite.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The COIN wars: B.H. Liddell Hart and T.E. Lawrence edition

In 1928, T. E. Lawrence wrote to his friend Basil Liddell Hart on the subject of the latter man's advocacy for what he called the Indirect Approach, a concept that emphasized dislocation of the enemy through rapid, unexpected strategic and operational maneuver and held out the hope of bloodless, battle-free victory.
A surfeit of the "hit" school brings on an attack of the "run" method; and then the pendulum swings back. You, at present, are trying (with very little help from those whose business it is to think upon their profession) to put the balance straight after the orgy of the late war. When you succeed (about 1945) your sheep will pass your bounds of discretion, and have to be chivied back by some later strategist. Back and forward we go.
Lawrence was highlighting the cyclical tendencies of the never-ending debate about strategy. First come the proponents of maneuever and wars of position – Frederick, Vauban, Bulow, and even Jomini, to a certain extent – then the purported advocates of mass, destruction of the main force, decisive battle – Napoleon, Clausewitz, Moltke, Mahan, Foch – before returning to indirect approaches in reaction – Douhet, Liddell Hart, De Gaulle, Guderian, etc.

Little could Lawrence have understood the irony of positing 1945 as his friend's moment of intellectual triumph; that year would bear witness to a victory for the indirect approach, but not as Liddell Hart had hoped—instead of maneuver that would obviate the wasteful and unnecessary folly of battle, the atomic bomb achieved decision through the mass killing of civilians.

Here in 2012, the sheep of yet another set of prophets of the indirect approach – Galula, Trinquier, Sorley, Nagl, Petraeus – have perhaps passed the bounds of discretion, only to be "chivied back" by the Old Clausewitzians. (We can only hope. We still need concern ourselves with the outsized influence of the Owneses, the Cebroskis, the Rumsfelds, the Deptulas, and yes, the McRavens.)

"Back and forward we go." All that was old is new again. There is no new thing under the sun, etc.

[The exerpt above is quoted on page 36 of Alex Danchev's 1999 article in the Review of International Studies, "Liddell Hart's Big Idea" (pdf for those with JSTOR access).]

Zorching is the new surging

At yesterday's Pentagon press briefing, a great deal of time was dedicated to the subject of U.S. naval posture in the USCENTCOM AOR, specifically the Arabian Gulf. A number of journalists pressed Capt. Kirby and Mr. Little about whether the current two-carrier presence (STENNIS and VINSON) is an anomaly, a response to rising tensions in the region, or just coincidental business-as-usual. The spokesmen were slippery. Here's Kirby:
And that presence changes all the time.  It fluctuates based on needs and requirements set by the combatant commander and approved by the Joint Staff and the secretary of defense.  
And as you all know, I mean, to get an aircraft carrier strike group anywhere in the world takes time.  It takes a lot of planning and training.  Months of advance work is done.  It's not – I don't want to leave anybody with the impression that, you know, we're somehow zorching two carriers over there because we're concerned about what happened, you know, today in Iran.  It's just not the case. This is – this is just prudent force posture requirements set by the combatant commander.
I'm going to be frank with you here: I have no idea whether this is true or not. I don't know whether ships' movements in this case are responsive to political developments in the region; if anyone else does, I'd be very interested to see your comments.

What this brief interlude does remind us, though, is that it's still much simpler to go zorching carrier strike groups around the globe than land forces. Or something. So, uh, don't forget that.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Defense politics: a lot of the time, what ought to matter most doesn't matter at all

First read this from a Politico story (mentioned by Charles Hoskinson today in Morning Defense) about Mitt Romney making calls to voters on Monday in advance of the New Hampshire primary:
[Romney] also secured the support of the second voter he reached, who was apparently a defense industry worker.

"I was a little disappointed to see the president pull back on the F-35 program," Romney said, talking on a cellphone and with a list of printed out list of [sic] names and numbers in front of him.
Now read the entirety of this article by Chuck Spinney, Thomas Christie, Pierre Sprey, and Winslow Wheeler. Here's the most important bit on the subject of the F-35:
Moreover, if the F-35 lived up to 100% of its depressingly modest design specifications, it would still be a complete failure in combat utility: a bomber of shorter range, lower payload and far higher vulnerability than the Vietnam War’s appallingly flammable, underperforming F-105 Lead Sled; an air-to-air fighter so unmaneuverable and sluggish in acceleration that any ancient MiG-21 will tear it to shreds; and a close support fighter that is a menace to our troops on any battlefield, unable to hit camouflaged tactical targets and incapable of distinguishing friendly soldiers from enemies. Individually and collectively, we often fretted with Boyd on the irresponsibility of equipping our people with such foolishly complex weapons designs, so bereft of practical combat effectiveness—and on the deep corruption of acquisition programs, such as the F-35’s, that deliberately plan to buy a thousand or more units long before user testing has fully probed combat utility.
The authors of this piece are experts in defense acquisition, weapon system design and testing, and the politics of national security. Mitt Romney seems to have a fair grasp of the latter, though he is not an expert in the other areas (and presumably neither is the voter that he spoke to).

The F-35 is a failed program. Mitt Romney doesn't care. Neither do any of the other candidates, which is primarily a reflection of the fact that most Americans – most voters – don't care, and the ones that do care are much less interested in the program's combat effectiveness than its function as a source of jobs and economic stimulus.

American taxpayers are pouring outrageous amounts of money into weapon systems that don't work as advertised, aren't delivered on schedule, and cost more than expected—but the costs are diffuse, spread over many years and several budget lines, and are unlikely to have a negative impact on the welfare of individual voters that is even remotely comparable to the effects of program termination. In short, to the people who matter to the political process – candidates and voters – all weapon spending is essentially good spending.

But what about our business? What about the so-called "defense intellectuals," the military analysts and journalists and budget wonks and policy writers and bloggers? Don't we have a bigger responsibility? That's where Spinney, Christie, Sprey, and Wheeler come in again—and they're at their excoriating best:
Here [citing uncritical advocacy for F-22 and F-35 by one think-tanker] is a paradigm of the moral decay so visible among contemporary Washington defense “intellectuals.” These dabblers in defense pretend to serve seriously the real needs of our national defense and our people in uniform—when, in fact, they are serving the needs of foundations, universities, non-profits or politicians funded by defense mega-corporations seeking to expand their sources of government largesse. And, even in a shrinking economy, these dabblers easily find comfortable home bases and plenty of venues to publish or broadcast their paeans to big ticket programs and budgets.
Here are the facts:

1) The F-35 has already cost a fortune and seems unlikely to perform adequately in the range of missions for which it is meant to be suited (though this is still uncertain, as the aircraft was rushed into large-scale production before sufficient operational testing could be completed).

2) Notwithstanding the above, Mitt Romney and Jim Carafano still are "a little disappointed to see the president pull back on the F-35 program." (I get the feeling Carafano's phrasing would be less delicate; again, those are the candidate's words.)

Somebody ought to say something, huh?

But really: how does this ever change? How can the incentive structures of American politics be altered to ensure that parochial concerns entirely peripheral to military effectiveness aren't permitted to dominate entirely the weapon system development and acquisition process?

I wish I knew the answer to this. But after several years of raging against the machine, I'm disappointed to tell you that I don't. Spinney et al. have some ideas, but one can't help but think that their collective decades of experience in the game and relative failure to enact meaningful change suggests that a sense of hopelessness is not only justified, but entirely appropriate.

UPDATE: In case you're not feeling melancholy enough, I should also have mentioned this excellent and topical piece by David Axe on the failures of another acquisition program, the Joint Tactical Radio System—headlined "Army seeks 'perfect' radio, creates boondoggle."

Monday, January 9, 2012

Redefining victory doesn't mean not winning

It appears that I may have made a bit of a bloomer with my last post on how DoD's coming age of austerity will redefine how we think about "victory". The catalyst of that post was an article by Anne-Marie Slaughter from this fall - and this is where I went off the rails a bit - that I complimented. I was and am aware that her piece was actually an argument for more military interventions for R2P or other such operations and that warfare as we've known it is dead based on the lessons observed since 2001. I could not disagree more and we'll talk about that in a just a minute. I approved of the piece because of the idea that we'll be looking to influence others with our military force, not decisively defeat and occupy other nations - I thought the idea of influence vice victory interesting and that we should expect to use limited means towards limited ends in the near future, but not for her reasons and not the interventions she suggests. Anyone who has read my writing here for the past two plus years should know I never buy into the "War and warfare have fundamentally changed!" bunk. The reality is that Dr. Slaughter's piece suggests just that, so I admit I oversold it. There are some good ideas in it though, that I don't think Dr. Slaughter necessarily intended, that lay the foundation for what I see as a flawed thesis. But we shouldn't throw out the good ideas because of the rest.

So what did I mean in my post? Sometimes others say what you mean better than yourself, so please go read Adam Elkus on There is No Substitute for Victory and Part II to that post as well as Dan Trombly at Slouching Towards Columbia. These are excellent posts on what victory actually means and contribute significantly towards this conversation. When I talked about redefining victory, I didn't intend to suggest that we will no longer look to decisively win whatever engagements we embark upon. That would be stupid - as Adam asks correctly, why use force if you don't intend to win? I intended this redefinition, in the next 10 to 15 years marked by limited resources, to show that we will most likely strive towards more limited military goals than we have in the past 10 years. That we'll have to move away from "winning" as a goal in itself and instead need to define what winning means very specifically in each operation or campaign. The former use of the term, such as a candidate or politician saying "We should give the generals what they need to win in Afghanistan" having no idea what the generals' concept of winning in Afghanistan actually is, is vapid and useless and all too prevalent.

This is what needs to stop - winning is not a political or policy objective in itself nor is it a military objective. Winning is what happens when the military succeeds in its operational objectives such as: destroy or defeat this force, protect these people, defend this place, whatever. Winning or victory is simply the military achieving its ends and we need to stop using these terms in lieu of describing what the hell we actually mean - at both the political, policy, strategic and tactical levels. So yes, our military should look to win whenever it's put on the field, no doubts about that but we should instead say what winning means.

The other side to my post was that we need to examine limited objectives for the limited use of military force in the next decade and a half (or so) based on scarce resources. We'll need the type of constrained ends exhibited during the Gulf War, not the ones used during the Iraq War. Scarcity should always drive the focused application of resources. We'll have to narrow the scope of our national security interests. We should hedge our expectations on what we can and want to achieve with military force. Where we may have once put lots of troops on the ground to achieve rather nebulous objectives we should look more to strategic raids and precision strikes for very specific results. We shouldn't be looking to fight and win wars, we should be looking to influence our adversaries with more moderated means. That will mean we need to really specify what our objectives are - what it means to win. I should stress that I foresee this being for a limited time only. The three major reasons we'll return to less limited ends:
  1. A better economy means we have more revenue to spend on defense resources;
  2. We become engaged in an existential conflict or limited conflict with a near-peer competitor; or
  3. Some other conflict pops up that we can't possibly fathom at the moment during which we can't achieve or don't want to use limited objectives and need to escalate.
While we should see a change in what winning means (limited objectives), that change will be short-lived in the grand scheme of history. This does not mean a fundamental change to war - this will be a temporary blip in how we do business. This is where Slaughter and I disagree. At some point in the future we'll engage in a large-scale ground war and probably with convoluted and poorly expressed objectives; to think otherwise is pure fantasy. Until then we should think of (decisively!) influencing those we need to and not defeating them in the sense we've been thinking of these past 10 years. If you're reading this and thinking to yourself "no shit we're going to have less resources and will rely on more limited objectives," I urge you to think about the implications of this as we look to extricate ourselves out of Afghanistan and what "winning" is going to look like there in the midst of a U.S. defense drawdown. Winning there in 2014 is going to require some hyper-contortionism to ISAF's mission statement between now and then. So yeah, we're going to have to redefine victory.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Five myths about the Defense Strategic Guidance

Few forms of writing are consistently more satisfying than "five myths" pieces, so I'm going to use that format to respond to some of the mistaken but widely-drawn conclusions about the document released yesterday.

(Just kidding, Daveed. I hate listicles, too. But it was too easy!)

Myths 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5: COIN is dead.

See yesterday in this space.

COIN isn't dead. The administration isn't going to foreclose any policy options through force-structure and budget decisions; it's simply willing to accept greater risk with regard to manpower-intensive, extended land operations than in the area of operational access, strike, and power projection. This is eminently reasonable.

Here's what the announcement about extended stabilization operations and force sizing really tells us: the president does not share his predecessor's view that invasion and subsequent pacification of potentially threatening states is the most cost-effective way to achieve our near-term national security objectives. He does not seem to view such operations as fundamental to the defense of American life, and he does not envision undertaking such an effort in the foreseeable future. Um, duh.

Wait, just because the president foolishly committed to an oversold counterinsurgency construct in Afghanistan – because he failed to show decisive leadership and was instead outmaneuvered by a condominium of disseminators, well-intended ignorants, and crazy-eyed jingoists; because he backed himself into a political corner by campaigning on escalation, then resignedly adopted a policy course he seemed to know was a mistake; because he chose an inappropriate method that jibed with the zeitgeist in order to achieve unrealistic or even unnecessary objectives in a war he desperately wants to end – all of that convinced you that global counterinsurgency had suddenly become a containment-esque pillar of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus?

This is a guy who made a speech almost ten years ago in which he announced "I don't oppose all wars ... What I am opposed to is a dumb war." (The "dumb war" in question was the preventive, purportedly transformative invasion of Iraq, which was still months away.) This guy is the president now. And you think it's news when his Defense Department issues guidance that essentially says "global counterinsurgency is not U.S. foreign policy"?

COIN isn't dead. It's a method. It's an operational concept. It's a tool in your kit. It's all of those cliches about the various things that the military can do when necessary, but it's not the hammer for every nail. The president has known that all along, and you should have too. We all should wish he'd had the balls to admit that he knew it in 2009, but here we are.

God forbid such a thing should happen, but imagine U.S. forces are employed for regime change in an unstable part of the world, one where heavily-armed and politically unpalatable states and factions are competing for influence and prepared to take advantage of a vacuum. Imagine that the regime being changed had pursued nuclear power, perhaps had some fissile material and a rudimentary weapons program. Imagine that the then-president is unwilling to leave the post-war stability of that country up to chance, that he determines it's necessary for American troops to hold ground and secure sensitive facilities, to pacify the country until both the U.S. government and the indigenous population can have a modicum of confidence in political transition, that he lacks the abiding faith of those who advocate capacity-building and the indirect approach.

Do you imagine, in this scenario, that the president will enact his preferences with Air-Sea Battle?

COIN isn't dead. COIN isn't even dying. It has merely ceased to be easily mistaken for the foreign policy of the United States.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Austerity will redefine victory

If you want an excellent analysis on the implications of the new "strategy" rolled out this morning by the President and, seemingly, every GO/FO in the Pentagon, go read Gulliver's post. I endorse his post completely completely. But I want to take a moment to look down the road a bit further and think of the second order implications of the coming "austerity" (which loses the sarcastic quote marks if sequestration is indeed invoked) on strategy development within the military. Specifically with regards to how we will formulate "Ends" in the next 10 years.

I've been thinking this evening about an excellent article written by Anne-Marie Slaughter this past fall portending the end of 20th Century warfare. To a great extent she was spot on what the Administration is now selling. However I think she oversells how revolutionary change will be from the U.S.'s military perspective a bit (she also focuses a bit much on criminality and protection of civilians for my taste). The reality is that the coming decade is more likely to resemble the last decade of the last century rather than a fundamental change in how America projects and uses its military power. While more on that in a minute, her most prescient thought in that piece was what she sees a fundamental change in U.S. expectations with regard to Ends: that wars will be fought for influence in the future, not for victory.

Gulliver is spot on that today's strategy does not mean the end of major land war and that we will be able to raise and deploy the resources we need as fast as time will allow. But I think we will be hard pressed to fight wars requiring such rapid mobilization. Instead we are more likely to return to the application of power seen during the Bush I and Clinton years: limited actions with limited objectives. If we have lots of capability but little capacity, we will have restricted options to do otherwise. Because of the flux in power distribution at the time, recent memory of a true peer competitor that presented an actual existential threat to the United States, and the subsequent prominence of hostile non-state actors, the military did not codify how it did business during those years. The fact that they codified the next 10 years, which should prove to be an anomaly in U.S. history, in doctrine is another discussion.

If we look back on those days we will see that the President(s) insisted on limited actions of influence. George H.W. Bush did not seek victory (in the sense that his son did) against Iraq. Ditto Clinton in Somalia or Iraq again (Operation DESERT FOX). The U.S. had limited objectives to influence and bend our adversaries to our will, not defeat them in the way we've sought against our enemies past and (delusionally) present. There will be no more "win" or "victory". There will be no more mission statements to defeat our enemies. Barring some existential threat to the U.S., I don't see how any military objectives after Afghanistan can have any end states other than very specific policy or political goal that doesn't include the eradication of our adversary. The next 10 years of austerity should be the death knell for victory as we've known it.

And this isn't a bad thing. Limited objectives of influence will give our strategies and campaigns clarity. "Victory" (or it's doctrinal term "defeat) is the obvious and simplistic strategic objective - it provides commanders no tangible or realistic concept of what success looks like at the end of hostilities. Anyone who's served in Iraq and Afghanistan and has read the crap mission statements hung in every headquarters knows that these statements didn't mean anything and weren't worth the paper on which they were printed. Limited objectives will ensure that military commanders and units are focused on accomplished what exactly they're supposed to do, other than "win." At the civilian level above the military, I hope that it means that political guidance to the military will also be clearer, because without unlimited (or at least voluminous) assets that we've had the guidance needs to be clear. Hopefully it also means that we're going to narrow our definition of interests to ensure our (increasingly) scarce resource are only used for what they're really needed.

So yes, Dr. Slaughter, you're right on our objectives in the future - or at least you should be right. The President and SECDEF have laid out today that we're focusing on precision strikes and strategic raiding to influence our adversaries abroad when diplomacy fails. The terms victory and winning will lose their meaning of today and be relegated to merely meaning that we influenced in the way we intended. Good. It's about time we added rigor to how we define success when we deploy our armed forces. Austerity, real and imagined, will help ensure that we limit what we expect from our applications of force so we can apply it more efficiently.

Finding the hidden strategy in yet another non-strategic "strategy"

The Defense Department today issued an eight-page document (pdf) called "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense." If you haven't read it yet, you're not missing much. I'm just going to very briefly run down a couple of things that jumped out at me; to analyze it in any greater depth is a waste of time, as the document is basically a restatement of things we've seen before in the NSS, NMS, and QDR.

[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 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."