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.


  1. Jason,

    Ok, now look at Anna Simons' book. The policy debate may become Slaughter's R2P against Simons' Self-Containment. It's fascinating that we have two Harvard females defining our way ahead. Also, you're spot on with you historical analogy. Take it a step forward. Can Obama rise to become the Hands On Teddy Roosevelt and produce tomorrow's Panama Canal and Great White Fleet?

  2. Gotta redefine it, since it's off the menu.

    The misnomer-ed Slaughter - unless she adopts the moniker Anne of the Unintentional is risible in her certain predictions of future war. She's actually just projecting the parts she likes from war now. Or thinks she likes.

    While she's cleaning up and sorting out this mess, which is why of course we spend so much on academia could she eliminate the blood, dirt, grease, sweat and shit as well? It's like so..Todd Palin work. Ewww...gross.

  3. I can't speak highly of her intent in that piece - she was attempting to promote the use of military force towards operations she supports. But the foundation underneath all of that was (unintentionally?) useful. And of course, based on the 1990s, we're actually going to see a return of late-20th Century warfare, not the end of it. There were some real nuggets hidden in there.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.