Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The problem is the power to use them, not the drones themselves

I haven't thought much about drones since I had to worry about scheduling and clearing airspace for them when I was still in the Army deployed to Iraq. My deepest thoughts regarding them was to always remind myself not to put a tactical UAV over a target house before the raid hits.  As a strategic tool of national security, they struck me as just that: a tool. It is an alternative to a manned aircraft, but with lesser capabilities. No big deal and not something to waste grey cells on.

But then this was published in the NY Times yesterday. I am shocked at the authority the President has to determine who and what is a viable and legal target for precision strikes. I don't blame the President for this extreme power - it's the Congress' job to check his power and they're not doing that. They passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force against terrorists in 2001 and have not updated it since, leaving the President with extraordinary power.  Our strikes (manned or unmanned) in Pakistan, Yemen, and Horn of Africa seem to be against appropriate targets and are conducted in places where we have the authority to do so. It's the ability of the President to decide which individuals should be killed is astounding.

What concerns me about unmanned strike assets is the potential they have, in an environment where a small coterie have wide-ranging discretion to use them, to enable the United States to make a significant moral or strategic blunder. Even though I generally agree with Dan Trombly that many concerns about drones are not relevant today, that does not predict that the concerns he dispenses with will not be valid in the future. At the moment, UAV technology is not so advanced as to make it our primary strike platform across the globe (technology more limited by budgets and policy than capability). And we currently use UAVs in conflicts with the authority of the state where they are deployed. But what happens when we have a president not as scrupulous as President Obama?

My concern about about drones is not the drones themselves. The article linked about has little to nothing to do with drones themselves. My concern is about unchecked power. My concern is that people who can potentially rise to power high enough to direct the use of drones will use them foolishly because of the drones' inherent characteristics. The fact that the United States can now execute a (limited) bombing campaign without putting a single U.S. citizen into harms way is quite alluring - and that capability will on increase with time. With such extensive power, how long until will it be until we have a President who will use this mere tool to conduct attacks that were unfounded, unchecked, or fall short of jus ad bellum criteria. How long will it be until we have a President who orders an attack somewhere but does not understand the nth order effects that might trigger a sizable or regional war? Drones make these types of attacks easier and more palatable because the initial consequences (no loss of American lives) are negligible. We can invest so little and yet realize significant returns, surely, and that makes it so easy to use. But plans don't work out, intel is bad, collateral damage is not acceptable, thinking is muddled - things often assumed as irrelevant before an op but become quite relevant in the aftermath. Especially when it's so easy to execute the strike.

The United States should continue to use drones and develop drone technology for use against its enemies. It is only a tool and it does save (or has the potential to save) American lives while allowing the United States to protect its interests, making it a very valuable tool of American military power.  What we need to do, as a nation, is re-look what powers we vest with the President and ensure it isn't too easy for him or her to use force contrary to our ideals or interests. As drones advance, their use will become alluring to those with interventionist bents who believe that political capital comes cheaply if you don't have any skin in the game. You can't lose what you don't wager and I don't trust that everyone who might have power in the future will understand that using drones is still a wager, even if it's not American lives. Congress should start laying the groundwork now passing new laws to ensure when that person does come to power it's not too late.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Involuntary soldier separations are a far cry from stop loss

My last 16 months in the Army were involuntarily served. My unit deployed to Iraq the same month I was to begin my final leave before becoming a civilian and I was stop-lossed and deployed with them. After a 13-month tour of duty I returned home, did the required transition classes and briefings, and left the Army for the civilian world. I was not happy about this extra year of service at the time - I had major life plans that were completely upended. In spite of this, I was a supporter of the stop-loss system. Service is about something more than yourself - losing people on the eve of a deployment would have been destructive to the unit since the Army personnel manning program couldn't figure out how to manage its people so that stop-loss was not necessary. That doesn't mean that being stop-lossed didn't suck. Because it did. It became a political issue, inaccurately referred to as a "back-door draft" by its opponents (usually those subjected to the policy), and President Obama ordered the end of the policy last year.

Oh my, have we come a long way from that. On Friday, the Department of Defense issued a release titled, "Changes Coming as the Army Expands Use of Early Discharge Authority of Regular Army Enlisted Members" (and you thought Ink Spots' titles were long...). Details are to follow, but the crux of the message was to say that enlisted soldiers between 3 and 6 years of active service who did not deploy with their units can be involuntarily separated 3 to 12 months before the contractual separation date. In a few years the Army has gone from involuntary extension of contracts because of deployments to don't deploy these soldiers because they don't have enough time to complete the deployment to all you guys who didn't have enough time are getting pushed off the books.

This shouldn't be a surprise. The Army is going to have to cull its force significantly as it shrinks and the operational tempo is slowing down. These soldiers are perfect candidates for separation as I can't imagine they're all gainfully employed on their unit rear detachments. I find the shift in policy, so significant and so quick, quite amazing. The Army personnel system is going to get much more interesting before it gets boring - here's hoping it's moving in the right direction. This is a good indicator that it is.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The grand strategy pipe dream

Grand strategy in this era and political climate in the United States is a pipe dream. The idea of a unifying, coherent set of statements that declare what the U.S. believes is its overarching role in the world sounds great and could then drive our actions across the globe. So we're all on the same page, I'm going to borrow a definition of grand strategy from Peter Feaver:
the collection of plans and policies that comprise the state's deliberate effort to harness political, military, diplomatic, and economic tools together to advance that state's national interest. 
Does the United States have a grand strategy? Well, not as such. We have a National Security Strategy which broadly defines American interests:

  • The security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners;
  • A strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity;
  • Respect for universal values at home and around the world; and
  • An international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges. 
It's not much, but it's all we have. It's a far cry from the Churchill description of Great Britain's grand strategy for 400 years. The problem is that, barring a grand enemy to drive a more specific grand strategy (more on that in a bit), the political class of the U.S. has no interest in defining a grand strategy to any greater depth. Much like the all-volunteer force is convenient to wage wars of interest without involving the people, a vague grand strategy allows the U.S. to define its interests as it wishes. Security of the United States, etc., could be interpreted in any almost any way no matter how tenuously connected to actual existential security of the nation. We are still in Afghanistan ostensibly because doing so protects the security of the United States, but is that really true? Some say yes, others say no. What matters is that the politicians in power say yes and use the cover story of security to maintain forces there. Is Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons a threat to the United States? A lot of people think so, but the current administration does not seem to think so enough to use military force at this point. China falls into this category as well.  Vague grand strategic statements provide the political class the flexibility to determine interests ad hoc which suits their domestic political needs. Occasionally it suits the security of the United States, but our actual physical security as a nation has rarely been challenged. 

While I had posited some time ago that a grand enemy was required for a grand strategy (see link to Churchill above), I now do not believe that a grand enemy* is any more useful to drive a coherent global policy than the vague statements above. In theory the United States had a grand strategy to prevent the spread of communism. And yet it did not prevent us from the folly of the Vietnam War and other activities across the globe for which we are still feeling the effects today (such as arming the mujaheddin in Afghanistan).  So maybe grand strategy isn't the panacea we hope it to be. 

The final reason I can identify that makes grand strategy unlikely is that political discourse is so dichotomous to prevent a grand strategy from ever being realized. Iran, China, Libya, Syria are all good indicators that the United States cannot self-formulate its role in the world without the opposition party tearing that grand strategy to shreds, negating its impact and utility. A grand enemy may help overcome this last reason, but we do not have one at the moment (in spite of attempts of giving China that role). The current version of our grand strategy is watered down because (except for maybe the last one) everyone can agree on them. 

Grand strategy is an aspirational chimera that we are unlikely to see. While policy-makers seem to want to do best for the nation, you cannot ignore the impact of domestic politics. Just as Francis Urquhart wanted his Falklands, politicians have always been more than willing to flex America's military muscle for domestic audiences (see: R2P and why we do it in some places but not others). Grand strategy in its current form allows them to do just that while maintaining a modicum (veneer?) of coherence with the national interests, broadly defined as anything they have a pet issue with that is at least palatable to some Americans. While we should continue to study grand strategy, let's not hold our breaths that it is achievable or desirable to those that would form it.

*The original version of this post had "it" as an ambiguous pronoun instead of "grand enemy" - the change was made for clarification. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

NATO was not in Iraq! WaPo edition (Updated-2)

Annie Gowen reporting in the Washington Post today on the clash between protesters and police at the NATO summit in Chicago:
Mark Stach, 40, a veteran from Dixon, Ill., filled his canteen as he readied for the march to return the NATO war-on-terror medal he received while serving in Iraq in the Army National Guard in 2004 and 2005.
I talked about this last week. NATO did not have any operational role in the war in Iraq. NATO did not issue a single medal for Iraq (again, maybe except outside of the very small role they had in the military academy at Camp Rustamiyah). As far I as I can tell, NATO has no war on terror. Ergo, an Army National Guard vet who served in Iraq could not possibly have a "NATO war-on-terror medal" to return. It's one thing for an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune to make such nonsensical statements. It's another thing entirely for the Washington Post to report such a thing as fact in a news story.

These veterans are using their status as such to influence policy. It's a shame they apparently know squat about the conflicts they are protesting that they don't know where the medals they are making such a big deal about are from or who even awarded them. It's a bigger shame that news agencies are eating this crap hook, line, and sinker without doing due diligence to even superficially analyze if these veterans have an inkling about anything, other than war really, really sucks.

Washington Post: if even you can't figure out that NATO had no significant role in Iraq, that NATO does not have a war on terror campaign, and that NATO could not possibly issue medals for a war it isn't waging for combat duty in a country it isn't operational, then we're all screwed. Do your job. Report the news, check the facts. And if people are doing or saying something stupid, then call them out for it. Otherwise, it seems you know FA more about this than these numbskulls playing you for the attention you're giving them.

UPDATE: I have seen comments elsewhere about the NATO Training Mission - Iraq and that maybe this guy and the other were part of that. First, it was a tiny mission. I can't pull the exact numbers right now because NATO's website is down, but it was a very small mission and if there were any Americans as part of it, it wasn't more than a handful. ]

Second, and pay attention here, Army Regulation 600-8-22, the Army's awards Bible, does not authorize the NATO Medal for service in Iraq. Because the award is for having served under direct command or operational control of in direct service of the listed NATO operations. Iraq isn't one of those. No U.S. servicemember should have a NATO Medal for service in Iraq, even if they worked for NTM-I at Camp Rustamiyah.

UPDATE 2: If you click the link to the article you can see that the line quoted above has changed and now says that Stach is going to return a U.S. medal for his service. It's a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. Thank you Ms. Gowen and editors for making the correction. And you're welcome America for the victory of truth I have won for you today.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Center for National Policy recommends changes to NATO's Afghanistan strategy

Scott Bates and Ryan Evans from the Center for National Policy (CNP) have authored a recommendation for a change in strategy for Afghanistan that is more than worth a read. The paper's  (titled NATO Strategy in Afghanistan: A New Way Forward) main recommendations are:
  • Continue transition plans to place Afghan Government and Security Forces in the lead across the country by April 2013, but ensure that transition takes on more substance than it has so far.
  • Dissolve ISAF and place CFSOCC-A in charge of the military mission by April 2013 and reduce the force in country to approximately 30,000 troops (6-8K of which would be from partner nations).
  • Full transition of governance and development efforts in Afghanistan to the United Nations by April 2013.
  • Enduring material and political support from the United States and NATO allies to the Afghan state in order to ensure sufficient stability around Kabul, the north, and the west and prevent transnational terrorist networks from operating from Afghanistan.
The details behind the hows and whys of these recommendations are in the paper and you should read them. There are a number of things I really like about this strategy. First that it looks at Afghanistan through a strategic lens. Bates and Evans aren't bogged down in the operational arguments that are usually discussed (check out the third paragraph of page 5). They use ends-ways-means to analyze how NATO and the United States should move forward: align policy ends with strategic ends, then align ways and means. Second, I think their troop-to-task is about spot on for what we need to keep in Afghanistan in 2013. Any more would be a waste of precious U.S. assets. Any less would be a wasted mission doomed to failure. 

Please go read this paper, especially those of you who work in the defense and strategy worlds. While some may disagree with their assumptions, this is an excellent way to propose and think through strategy. Having done so initially and repeatedly throughout our mission in Afghanistan, maybe we would know what we want out of the war and how to get there. Alas. I also happen to endorse Bates' and Evans' recommendations as they are and think that this is the path to meeting our goals in Afghanistan.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

A rant on the substitution of "veteran" for expertise

"I would love to give my medals directly to a NATO official," said Broseus, 28. "I don't feel like I earned them in a just manner. I felt I was more of an occupier In Iraq than anything else, and I want them to know how that feels."
So was Iraq veteran Greg Broseus quoted by Dawn Turner Trice in the Chicago Tribune. Yes, you read that correctly. An Iraq veteran who is opposed to military interventions wishes to protest against the war in Afghanistan by returning his medals earned in Iraq to a NATO official.

This post is not about returning medals as a form of anti-war protest or protesters, veterans even, against the war. I may not chose the same courses of action, but have at it. As a veteran, I served ostensibly to defend the rights of our citizens to generally do as they please. This post is about veterans and the media.

Broseus, the focal point of the Trice's column, was a HMMWV gunner in 2005 from the Ohio National Guard. I think it's safe to assume that Broseus was a Specialist or Sergeant in such a position, give or take a rank. It's not that I expect every Spec-4 in the Army to know the theater campaign plan and all of the key players of that plan, but how does a soldier not know who he works for? How does he not know that NATO was entirely uninvolved with warfighting in Iraq?* These are things you might want to double-check before doing an interview on your protest.

Mr. Broseus, you can't return medals to someone who didn't give them to you in the first place. I get that you're upset at being activated (let's not touch the subject of duty today...) and that you oppose war.  But for heaven's sake, make your protest meaningful. Because most vets who read that piece are going to think you're an idiot for "returning" your medals to NATO when it was the U.S. Army that awarded them to you in the first place and that NATO was never in a position to award you medals for Iraq. If you want to return them in protest, do it smartly or the quality of your protest is cheapened. Because as things stand right now, I thank you for your service but I don't think you have the knowledge base to comment on national security policy in a way that should be influential based on your status as a veteran.

I understand this is a lengthy rant on a minor incident, but it was a minor incident that was indicative of something that's been bothering me for a while.  I am tired of veterans using their veteran status to give validity to their pet causes when this status does not in actuality provide that validity. This is true for both anti- and pro-war types or any number of other issues surround the military. Your opinions are your opinions and they may be shaped by your experience as a veteran. How could serving not shape your opinions on the world?

But we have to understand that there is no uniform veteran experience or thought process. A former HMMWV gunner has every right to comment on whether we go to or remain at war.  However, unless s/he adequately frames his pro/anti-war argument in a way that shows how his HMMWV gunning enlightened his thinking, then I put his opinion in the same category as the general public's and measure it by the quality of the reasoning. This problem is not limited to lower-enlisted veterans and is in fact more egregiously perpetrated by former officers. Generals who specialize in logistics have lots of standing to opine on logistics. But I really don't want to hear you talk about strategy or operations. Stay in your lane. Wearing a uniform once does not give you the standing to talk about all topics military. Nor does your rank.

The vast preponderance of the blame for this sorry column rests with the columnist. I think Mr. Broseus feels very strongly about his opinion that seems to have been significantly shaped by his experience as a HMMWV gunner. I hope that his protest helps him deal with his experiences. But Trice should know better than to flaunt Broseus' veteran-ness as a reason to give his anti-war stance and ability to classify the war in Afghanistan as "occupation" any validity because he is a veteran. Shame on you and your newspaper for not at least commenting on it.

The bottom line to this is that our news sources should be more responsible in how they use and sell veteran commentary to ensure that when adding the gravitas of "veteran" to said commentary it is appropriately used. I don't have much faith of this occurring. So maybe the answer is that veterans should only comment on things as veterans if their military experience gave them special and expert opinion on the topic. Of course, that's not going to happen either, is it? It's up to you, readers, to understand the font of expertise and the quality of argument and reasoning. Good luck.

*Yes, I am aware that NATO has been funding and manning slots at the Iraq military school at Camp Rustamiyah. But that's not warfighting.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Dear General Dempsey: The Powell Doctrine is not operational doctrine

Along came 9/11.  And as you know, famously we went from sort of the traditional
template, back to the Powell doctrine, and then realized that what – that the – what
confronted us in those two theaters was really a counterinsurgency.  And so we dusted off
counterinsurgency doctrine.  It was – it was updated by the Army and the Marine Corps.
And we embraced the counterinsurgency doctrine.  

So says the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Q&A following a talk at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (linked to by Tom Ricks). General Dempsey, CJCS, former CSA and Commander, TRADOC, conflates counterinsurgency doctrine as an alternative to the Powell Doctrine. Our top military leader seems to believe that a set of operational and tactical principles by which military forces guide their actions in support of national objectives is an alternative to a set of questions designed to help guide strategic decision-making, specifically decision-making to determine whether or not to employ military force. It boggles my mind that a general officer could think that the Powell Doctrine is some sort of operational doctrine. (Or conversely, that counterinsurgency doctrine is involved in strategic decision-making - but he seems to be saying Powell Doctrine = operational doctrine.)

I hope that General Dempsey merely misspoke, wasn't feeling well, or just fumbled his answer to a (softball) question. I hope that's the case as otherwise we might be in trouble as the force resets and reorients.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Disruptive thinking and unnecessary modifying modifiers

I really don't get this disruptive thinking concept floating about the blogosphere recently. I certainly get the complaints of many of the pro-disruptive types, but I'm not sure I understand what's unique about the concept of applying entrepreneurial thinking to military thinking. This has been done in many ways over the past decades in the U.S. military. I get that a lot of disruptive thinking centers around young guys who think they have at least some of the answers to our biggest strategic problems and they want to be heard. Got it. I don't disagree. 

I think my problem with disruptive thinking as a concept is that the modifier "disruptive" isn't necessary. We'd all love for the military to listen to the great ideas of young lieutenants and sergeants if they're good ideas. But it's not disruptive. It's merely thinking. I would go so far as to suggest that adding "disruptive" unnecessarily to what you're suggesting you want to do may cause current leadership to dig their trenches a bit deeper and add overhead cover. 

I don't like the term and I don't think the concept is new. I'll continue to watch it, but I'm just not convinced it has merit as "disruptive." Maybe we should just push for more "thinking" in the military and that might solve a lot of our problems. I'll end this short post with some advice from Combined Arms Center's Doctrine Update (December 2011):
Doctrine authors are encouraged to avoid using the latest catch phrase as an adjective to modify simple nouns. In the past three years, "full spectrum" appeared - incorrectly - to modify almost anything. Modifying nouns with trendy adjectives, such as full spectrum, decisive, full dimension, distributed, agile, and dominant, rarely adds meaning and often shortens the shelf life of otherwise good doctrine. Authors should strive to use concise, direct, and straightforward language. They should call things by their simple names and avoid lengthy or soon-to-be obsolete catch phrases that do not enhance meaning. 
So say we all.