Green Room

Obama’s New Defense Strategy: Prescient or Problematic?

posted at 10:01 am on January 6, 2012 by

Over the years I have seen more “new” defense strategies than one can shake a stick at. And I’ve noticed one thing about all of them: for the most part they’ve been uniformly wrong. We have mostly had an abysmal record in divining what sort of a military we need in the future, and I doubt this particular version will be any better. Here’s POLITOCO’s Morning Defenses’ summary:

THERE WERE NO BIG SURPRISES IN THURSDAY’S ANNOUNCEMENT, mainly because the most important real-world effects of the new strategy won’t be known until the president’s budget proposal is released. Reaction was mainly predictable as well – Republicans were concerned about weakening U.S. power in a dangerous world, progressives blasted it as too timid and a lost opportunity for Pentagon reform, and veterans groups are concerned about future benefit cuts.

THE REAL TEST WILL BE whether the strategy will result in a military force capable of handling the unintended consequences of world events. The president is sitting comfortably right now – he’s ended U.S. involvement in Iraq, set a path for withdrawal in Afghanistan and seriously weakened Al Qaeda. Libya looks like a success story for the multilateral cooperation the strategy emphasizes for the future, and there are signs the sanctions on Iran are starting to bite. But any or all of these situations could turn for the worse in a heartbeat, and wake up U.S. voters who right now aren’t really paying attention. Nothing is settled.

IT’S ALL ABOUT RISK - Military leaders acknowledge and accept that the new strategy brings new risks, which they consider acceptable in the current environment. The United States can get away with a smaller army because its leaders don’t expect to be fighting any large ground wars in the future …

I’d actually argue that some of the assessments made in the middle paragraph are debatable. Libya, for instance, seems anything but a success with Islamist militias poised to take over. It certainly may be seen as a “military” success, but military success should tied to a strategy of overall success, not just whether it was able to defeat a rag-tag enemy. After all the the military is but the blunt force of foreign policy, used when all less violent means have been exhausted. There should be an acceptable outcome tied to its use. Libya’s descent into Islamic extremism seems to argue against “success” on the whole. Couple that with the fact that al Qaeda has set up shop there, and you could argue that even if al Qaeda has been “seriously weakened”, it has just been given a new lease on life in Libya.

That said, let’s talk about the defense cuts. The last paragraph is obviously the key to the strategy. It is about assessing risk and accepting that risk based on that assessment. The problem is the phrase “acceptable in the current environment”. The obvious point is that what is “acceptable in the current environment” may be problematic in any future environment.

So what is happening here is a political position/decision is being dressed up as a military assessment in order to justify the political position. We’ll cut land forces and concentrate on air and sea forces.

But where are we fighting right now? Certainly not in the air or at sea.

The Army is already is slated to drop to a force of 520,000 from 570,000, but Mr. Panetta views even that reduction as too expensive and unnecessary and has endorsed an Army of 490,000 troops as sufficient, officials said.

The defense secretary has made clear that the reduction should be carried out carefully, and over several years, so that combat veterans are not flooding into a tough employment market and military families do not feel that the government is breaking trust after a decade of sacrifice, officials said.

A smaller Army would be a clear sign that the Pentagon does not anticipate conducting another expensive, troop-intensive counterinsurgency campaign, like those waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor would the military be able to carry out two sustained ground wars at one time, as was required under past national military strategies.

The last sentence is pure bull squat. National strategy goes by the boards when national necessity demands we fight “two sustained ground wars at one time” whether we like it or not. The strategy would simply mean we’d end up fighting those two ground wars with a less capable force than we have now. The other unsaid thing here is if you think we used the heck out of the Army National Guard in the last decade, just watch if something unforeseen happens after these cuts are made.

Also wrapped up in this new “national strategy” is some naive nonsense:

“As Libya showed, you don’t necessarily have to have boots on the ground all the time,” an official said, explaining the White House view.

“We are refining our strategy to something that is more realistic,” the official added.

Sorry to break it to the White House, but that’s not a “realistic strategy”. It’s a wish. I can’t tell you how many times, since the advent of the airplane in combat, I’ve heard it said that the necessity of maintaining ground troops is coming to an end.

Yet here we are, with troops in Afghanistan and 10 years of troops in Iraq. Libya was a one-of that still hasn’t come to a conclusion and as I note above, what we’re seeing now doesn’t appear to improve the situation for the US – and that should be the goal of any sort of intervention. I certainly appreciate the desire not to nation build, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need less ground troops available in a very dangerous and volatile world. Air and sea are combat multipliers, but as always, the only sort of units that can take and hold ground are ground combat units. That hasn’t changed in a thousand years. If you want to talk about contingencies, there are more of them that require those sorts of forces than don’t.

Finally, with all that said, what about the pivot toward China as our new, what’s the term, ah, “adversary”? Is there some clever guy who has managed to come up with a strategy that will require no ground troops in any sort of a confrontational scenario with our new “adversary”?

Of course not. Korean peninsula? Taiwan? Here we pivot toward what could be a massive threat which itself has a huge land army and we do what? Cut ours. Because we “think” that it won’t be necessary to have such a capability should our “adversary” become our “enemy”?

I’m not saying they will, I’m just pointing out that the strategy – cut Army and Marines and pivot toward China which has one of the largest land armies in the world – doesn’t seem particularly well thought out. But I’m not surprised by that. Again, when you tailor a strategy to support a political position/decision, such “strategies” rarely are.

Oh, and don’t forget:

The military could be forced to cut another $600 billion in defense spending over 10 years unless Congress takes action to stop a second round of cuts mandated in the August accord.

Lovely.

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Air Force – check. Don’t care what the Chinese call their stealth fighter. It meets a Raptor, it’s toast.
Navy – check. That old ex-Soviet rust bucket that is passing for a carrier is just a Navy Cross waiting to happen.
Army/Marines – problematic. If you can put more boots on the ground, be mobile and be able to hold a large area of turf, then great! The issues arise when your potential enemies can put more boots in the same general area… and create the greater potential for allies in lost real estate. Does this mean the nuclear theatre cold war option is on the table again?

Turtle317 on January 6, 2012 at 11:04 AM

I have many objections to this new “strategy”, but one of the most obvious in my mind is that Obummer said we would use more aircraft and drones. While that might be a great way to go, the Dems have been cutting the budget for aircraft production – most notably the F-22 and F-35. You can’t say we’re going to use more aircraft and less ground troops and then proceed to decimate your aircraft fleet. Of course logic has never been a part of any Dem “strategy”.

dentarthurdent on January 6, 2012 at 11:06 AM

Turtle317 on January 6, 2012 at 11:04 AM

Yes – BUT – if we only have 167 F-22 airframes available, and they are spread across multiple theaters, including the US (remember 9/11 – Operation Noble Eagle), we would have a serious problem with air-to-air combat ratios. While the F-22 could take out any Chinese fighter 1 on 1, if they outnumber us 4 to 1 or worse, we’re in trouble. An F-22 can only carry so many missiles.

dentarthurdent on January 6, 2012 at 11:11 AM

Old “Hope and Change” is at it again. He will not rest until we are emasculated and defenseless. Our strong military posture has served us well and is the primary reason America was able to become so prosperous. Bullies will pick on defenseless kids but not someone a lot bigger than they are. A welcome byproduct of a strong military is that it puts people to work – in uniform, in research and development, and in production facilities. That is a stimulus plan I can get behind.

Elric on January 6, 2012 at 11:12 AM

And we’re quickly decommissioning our F-15s and F-16s because they’re too old (20 to 30 years each).

dentarthurdent on January 6, 2012 at 11:12 AM

Elric on January 6, 2012 at 11:12 AM

What he said!!
And as a defense contractor I will admit I am absolutely biased in that direction.

dentarthurdent on January 6, 2012 at 11:14 AM

“As Libya showed, you don’t necessarily have to have boots on the ground all the time,” an official said, explaining the White House view.

True – not ALL the time. But when the time comes that we DO need boots on the ground, we need to have the boots readily available.

dentarthurdent on January 6, 2012 at 11:16 AM

And, Obummer’s signing statement on the defense bill siad restrictions aimed at protecting top-secret technical data on U.S. Standard Missile-3 velocity burnout parameters might impinge on his constitutional foreign policy authority. He wants to share Top Secret data about our missiles with Russia. And what are the chances they might then share that data with China, Iran, North Korea, etc???

So now in the name of “foreign policy”, it’s ok for Obummer to release highly classified military data.

dentarthurdent on January 6, 2012 at 1:36 PM

Turtle317 on January 6, 2012 at 11:04 AM

Yes – BUT – if we only have 167 F-22 airframes available, and they are spread across multiple theaters, including the US (remember 9/11 – Operation Noble Eagle), we would have a serious problem with air-to-air combat ratios. While the F-22 could take out any Chinese fighter 1 on 1, if they outnumber us 4 to 1 or worse, we’re in trouble. An F-22 can only carry so many missiles.

dentarthurdent on January 6, 2012 at 11:11 AM

I honestly don’t worry too much about air superiority, even though others voice a lot of concern in that area. I DO worry about our ground troops. I worry less about the F-22 only able to carry so many missiles vs. the footsoldier only able to carry so many bullets.

Turtle317 on January 6, 2012 at 1:39 PM

Turtle317 on January 6, 2012 at 1:39 PM

We should be concerned about both. While our aircraft are technologically superior, and I believe our pilots are also better, we could be overwhelmed by larger numbers – which is the fundamental Chinese philosophy. If we lose the air superiority battle, then troops on the ground have no air cover and become susceptible to enemy airstrike. That’s a tactical advantage we’ve always had and it makes a big difference in what the troops on the ground can accomplish. Air superiority is one of the foundations of our joint tactical operations concepts. I’m not discounting the value and need for our ground troops, but just pointing out the complete disconnect in Obama’s strategy.

dentarthurdent on January 6, 2012 at 2:37 PM

Turtle317 on January 6, 2012 at 1:39 PM

We should be concerned about both. While our aircraft are technologically superior, and I believe our pilots are also better, we could be overwhelmed by larger numbers – which is the fundamental Chinese philosophy. If we lose the air superiority battle, then troops on the ground have no air cover and become susceptible to enemy airstrike. That’s a tactical advantage we’ve always had and it makes a big difference in what the troops on the ground can accomplish. Air superiority is one of the foundations of our joint tactical operations concepts. I’m not discounting the value and need for our ground troops, but just pointing out the complete disconnect in Obama’s strategy.

dentarthurdent on January 6, 2012 at 2:37 PM

Valid point, but don’t let the number of aircraft fool you. The Chinese still use many Soviet-type aircraft that are most likely using the same strategy for maintainence the Soviets used. That being said, their flight availability is only something like 66% (there are other folks much better at logistics, so chime in if you have some good stuff.) However, I agree in your assessment of Obama’s disconnect in reality. When a nation is going full-bore in BUILDING its military might, one should always have a smart military strategy in place to counter. Which leads me back to the orignal post I made: Are we looking at another nuclear theatre cold war option?

Turtle317 on January 6, 2012 at 2:58 PM

Libya a success by emphasizing the cooperation between the Allies? It was successful only because the Europeans begged Hillary and Barry to put some muscle into what would have been a pathetic endeavor.
That cooperation can’t always be counted on when we do the bidding, with the exception of the Brits. The rest can sometimes be dragged in kicking and screaming, and only for a short while. Look how quickly the Spanish caved in Iraq after the train bombing.
Obama, and all of the progressives, dream of a UN-dominated world where conflict with evil is managed with manners and diplomacy, while the aggressors slit throats. It’s the same with gun control laws, assuming everyone obeys the law. Sometimes you have to go it alone, without the police, and without the rest of the world. Can we afford to sit and wait as the bullets fly while the French quibble over how much of their social spending they’re willing to forgo to back us up militarily?

tpitman on January 7, 2012 at 12:02 PM

Problematic.

J.E. Dyer on January 8, 2012 at 7:17 PM