Obama’s New Defense Strategy: Prescient or Problematic?
posted at 10:01 am on January 6, 2012 by Bruce McQuain
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.