Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | August 2, 2009

“Two Wars” No More – Part III

This is the third, final—and most extensively argued – post in a three-part series on the DOD decision to shift away from the “two-war” planning scenario that has been used as the predicate for the size and composition of the US armed forces since the end of the Cold War.  The first two parts addressed this shift in the context of alliances and standing force commitments, and from the standpoint of America’s grand strategy.


The whole discussion so far, in Parts I and II, has ended up begging the question of the other major category of assumption about American policy that has infused the two-war construct:  that is, what our warfighting style is.  In the broadest sense, how do we foresee handling conflicts?  This is a particularly apposite question not merely because we have a QDR due next year, but because two other factors are converging at the same time.  One is the ongoing tension among military analysts and planners over the relative merits of heavy-force “conventional” war (e.g., how we invaded Iraq in 2003), and combinations of other, less-traditional force packages, from infantry-intensive counterinsurgency packaging to the pick-up force cobbled together from across the services – and agencies – to invade Afghanistan.  This question has many dimensions in the armed forces, governing not only operational planning, and manpower and weapons procurement decisions, but how servicemembers are trained, and what kinds of skills and experiences make them promotable.

The other factor is the arrival of the Obama administration, with its emphasis on transitioning to increased use of “smart power,” along with other signals its members have sent in the first six months.  By law, Obama owes America a new “National Security Strategy” this term (nominally in his first 150 days, but presidents never meet that deadline), like the ones George W. Bush promulgated in 2001 and 2006.  In it, we can expect him to lay out not merely a set of objectives, but his concept of “smart power,” and his view of the role of armed force.

But actions and comments from his cabinet so far have begun to suggest an outline of the Obama concept that may well substantially transform the questions of warfighting style and conflict policy, at least as they have been understood since the end of the Cold War.  One possibility we will have to consider is that Obama’s concepts will be at odds – even if unintentionally – with fulfillment of treaty obligations, execution of existing OPLANs, and continuation of our historical grand strategy.

Three Paradigms

Our style of using force to handle conflict breaks down into three major paradigms that have governed our thinking since the end of WWII.  In the simplest terms we can call them deterrence, decisive force, and attenuated force.  Decisive force is what has routinely been called the “American way of war,” and indeed, is outlined by Victor Davis Hanson as “the Western way of war.”  It envisions concrete objectives obtained decisively and – a defining feature – quickly:  by overwhelming force.  “Quickly” here does not mean that a fight cannot take years, but it does mean that timelines are not lengthened, in a militarily unnecessary sense, by political considerations.  The objectives are met as rapidly as they can be, within the constraints of means and capability.

Decisive Force

WWII is of course the supreme example of the use of decisive force.  Other examples on a smaller scale are the regime-changes of Grenada in 1982 and Panama in 1989, and removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, and of Saddam in Iraq in 2003.  It should be obvious from this list that “decisive force” does not necessarily imply the use of particular military equipment or formations, such as large tank divisions or extended periods of interdiction bombing prior to ground force engagement.  Its defining characteristics are, rather, that it envisions summary and specific objectives that produce decisive political change, and that it incorporates sufficient force to achieve them with relative rapidity, as discussed above.  Operations that do not meet both of these criteria, and that therefore only partially qualify as “decisive force,” are the Korean War, the removal of Saddam’s forces from Kuwait in 1991, and the bombing campaign against Serbia that forced Slobodan Milosevic out of power in 1999.

The Korean War, while it decisively produced an armistice at the original line of demarcation, remains unresolved 56 years later.   The objective here was not summary in a political sense.  The continued requirement for tens of thousands of US troops to guarantee the stand-off, and the development by North Korea of nuclear weapons in the interim, argue against putting this use of force in the category of “decisive,” from a strategic standpoint.

In an operational planning sense, DESERT STORM achieved the concrete objectives set by George H. W. Bush – and in fact was studied by military officers for the next decade as a supreme example of tightly integrated objectives, strategy, and planning.  Its objectives were not decisive at the political-strategic level, however:  ejecting Saddam’s forces from Kuwait, and inflicting heavy damage on his military and weapons programs, did not eliminate him as a source of threat and regional instability.  The operationally decisive DESERT STORM campaign produced the result of years in which Saddam reconsolidated his national power through the brutal murder of Kurds and Iraqi Shi’as, while building his career as a state sponsor of terrorism; and more than a decade of UN sanctions administered mainly at increasing expense to the United States in regional force deployments.

The air campaign against Serbia in 1999, during the conflict over Kosovo, resulted in abdication by Slobodan Milosevic:  an outcome that could certainly be considered decisive.  The regime-change ensuing on Milosevic’s departure was not, however, the original or specific intent of the campaign, which was first undertaken to discourage Belgrade’s military effort to subdue Kosovar insurgents.  As the bombing campaign progressed, the US transitioned to indicating that if Milosevic, who was under indictment by the International Court of Justice for war crimes, would relinquish his office, the air attacks would cease.  Milosevic did leave, and the air campaign was suspended.  The situation of Kosovo remained unresolved, however, and the follow-on government in Serbia deployed force in Kosovo again before an independent Kosovo was eventually recognized in 2008.

The bombing campaign in 1999 was, in context, one in a series of US operations in the Balkans that started in 1992 and continue today, with outstanding issues from the break-up of the former Yugoslavia still unresolved.  That campaign groped its way to a relatively decisive outcome; the DESERT STORM campaign of eight years earlier had one in mind from the start.  But both operations became examples of briefly decisive episodes in much longer national efforts that have reached differing, still incomplete, stages of strategic decision as of 2009.


The mind strays immediately from these quasi-decisive uses of force to the more attenuated ones, of which Vietnam is the major example.  But let us turn first to the category of deterrence, for brief consideration.  Since the late 1940s, “deterrence” in American thinking has usually signified nuclear deterrence.  A key and recurring aspect of deterrence thought has been that a nuclear deterrent can – and in fact should – take the place of expensive conventional forces and messy conventional interventions.  Although Truman, when confronted with the Korean invasion, opted for a conventional response, Eisenhower explicitly chose to emphasize nuclear deterrence over conventional armament and expeditionary doctrine with the “New Look” policy adopted in his first term.  The balance between conventional force responsiveness and nuclear deterrence thinking was uneasy for the next 30 years, by 1979 producing a force situation in which the United States literally did not have the assets to mount a conventional response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, even if we had wanted to.

I will not rehash here my argument from “Deterrence and the Superpower” that Cold War deterrence was not wielded very effectively by the US when the question was “extended deterrence”:  that is, deterrence against Soviet depredations on third parties.  Readers can review the argument for themselves.  But we might all do well to brush up on deterrence arguments, with recent signals from the Obama administration suggesting that it is prepared to resume that putative Cold War footing with a nuclear-armed Iran.

As Emanuele Ottolenghi noted at Commentary’s “contentions” blog, Hillary Clinton’s comments on 22 July about extending “a defensive umbrella over the [Middle East] region” constitute “the clearest statement to date…from a senior administration official, that if engagement fails, America will not switch to other preventative measures but will instead resort to establishing a credible deterrence posture.”  Max Boot reminded readers that Clinton had spoken in similar terms during the presidential campaign, in April 2008, when she famously proclaimed that if Iran attacked Israel, “We would be able to totally obliterate them.”

Clinton is one official in the Obama administration, but in terms of the execution of foreign policy, an important one.  Editorial speculation that she is being “sidelined” tends to ignore the facts that, first, she is still in charge of the foreign service and the administration of America’s diplomatic initiatives, and second, Obama himself is not conducting foreign policy according to a coherent agenda – and so Clinton is left with a substantial portfolio by default.  Obama is operating without any apparent overarching concept for foreign policy or national security, so when Clinton issues de facto policy statements, hers is the voice being heard.  Hillary discloses national policy, Obama makes national apologies:  not an inaccurate formulation.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Gates has already sent two related signals, indicating with his 2010 budget proposal that he intends to spend less on procurement overall – and less on advanced weapons procurement in particular.  Examples of this emphasis include upping the buy of the F-35 and ending production of the F-22; extending the build period for aircraft carriers and reducing the projected force from 12 to 10; increasing the buy of the Littoral Combat Ship and delaying the new-generation naval cruiser; and scrapping the vehicle component of the Army’s Future Combat System program altogether, in favor of a review that will inevitably delay the promulgation of a “coherent force modernization strategy,” to use the words of defense analyst Anthony Cordesman.

Gates’ defense concept, viewed through the prism of procurement, emphasizes capabilities for operating in specific geographic areas – more than projecting power over regions – and for less-decisive and more-symmetrical uses of force, as a general posture.  I don’t mean by this that Gates proposes foregoing regional power projection or more-decisive force capabilities in an absolute sense, but that his procurement emphasis is on an opposite form of force, and increasing the latter relative to the former.  It is, however, the former capability that produces “decisive force,” or the paradigm of warfare Americans normally have in mind when they think of their military, and what it is for.  Announcing, through procurement patterns and QDR guidance, that our priority is not the tools of advanced conventional warfare, is announcing that our priority is not decisive force.

We will return later to this aspect of “decisive force.”  The point of this deterrence-focused discussion is that between them, Clinton and Gates seem to be opening a gap between conventional force, on the one hand, and nuclear deterrence, on the other, that is reminiscent of the uneasy – and recurrently self-constraining – dichotomy of the Cold War.  Advocates of this posture would argue that in today’s geopolitical and technological conditions, the idea of “decisive force” is itself increasingly outdated:  that we can no longer hope to sort out distant bad guys by defeating them in battle or invading and regime-changing them, but instead must basically embed ourselves in their disputes and dysfunctions, and hope to exert influence over them.  As we close the deterrence discussion, it is enough to point out that this argument is exactly the one that was used during the Cold War; there is nothing new or freshly insightful about it.

Attenuated Force

It makes an ideal entry point for discussion of the third warfighting paradigm, however:  attenuated force.  The conceptual starting point for attenuated force is almost invariably a rejection at the outset – explicit or implicit – of decisive force.  There are always urgent and compelling reasons for this; no one ever takes this path without advancing them, or with the intention of pulling his punches, or getting himself mired in a conflict.  In deploying Marines to Lebanon, for example, it was obvious to everyone that Reagan and the United States could not have the intention of decisively pacifying Lebanon – of achieving real and lasting political change.  We did have the requisite force to invade, conquer, and administer Lebanon, and turn it over to a new government of our choosing, allied with and protected by us; but the list of reasons why we wouldn’t have that intention ran down two flights of stairs and out the back door.

The reasons were excellent.  Of course we should not have invaded, regime-changed, and rebuilt Lebanon in 1981-82.  But deploying force with intentions short of that necessarily implied deploying it under two critical conditions.  First, it meant not having an end-state that marked a natural “ending” of anything, political or military.  And second, it meant embedding ourselves as a participant in a conflict whose orchestration and initiative we were explicitly leaving to the direction of someone else (in Lebanon, Hizballah – and Iran).  In the bluntest terms, we were offering to be jerked around – or, as I put it, sending our troops in to act as bullet sponges.

The siren call of deploying force on these terms is always dangerously compelling.  This fact will never change.  Deploying a little force, with a small objective, will recur as a false promise to the minds of policymakers until the end of time.  It will never, ever cease to have a hold on our thinking.  There will always be situations that make it seem like the obvious and appropriate thing to do.  And there are even times when it is the least bad of our options, and can be used as a means of buying time.  However, as with virtually all UN or other multinational peacekeeping missions that have ever been mounted, buying time becomes marking time, and the peacekeeping mission itself becomes one of the key reasons why there is no resolution – no summary political change – but only the open-ended continuation of an increasingly embedded presence of foreign troops, in a situation whose outlines become increasingly ossified.

Even in Vietnam, where ossification was interrupted by periods of hard fighting and hard bargaining, the end result of over a decade of attenuated US force was a decision point, for us, between continuing a “peace enforcement” role (supporting the South militarily) – and allowing North Vietnam to achieve her objective:  basically, as if we had never deployed force there at all.  Vietnam is an excellent example of attenuated force, because it demonstrates the core truth that attenuated force need not have a small footprint.  There were 500,000 US troops in the Vietnam theater at one point, thousands of air sorties flown by the Air Force and Navy, a major maritime component at every stage of the war, extensive involvement by special forces, Navy riverine forces, and the CIA – and yet with all this force committed, we never at any point intended to use it to obtain a summary political objective.  Therefore, we did not obtain such an objective.

Nixon did remarkably well with the situation he inherited, which included a Congress hostile to all new initiatives in the war.  It is not a denigration of what he did achieve – getting Hanoi to the bargaining table, prepared to negotiate – to recognize that at every point during the conflict, leaving North Vietnam intact, and with recourse to her Soviet patron, meant leaving North Vietnam to fight another day.  This was as true of the aftermath of the Paris Accords as it was of the “Rolling Thunder” period.  Unless we were willing to defeat and overrun North Vietnam, or make a permanent military commitment to guard an armistice line, as we did in Korea, Soviet-sponsored Hanoi was always going to eventually overrun Saigon.  The role of attenuated US force ended up being merely to make that outcome take longer, and cost all parties more.

Of course, our reasons for trying attenuated force in Vietnam instead of decisive force were superb.  Decisive force – i.e., defeating North Vietnam militarily in 1965, which we were well able to do – was held to be too alarming a prospect for both China and the USSR.  China’s crossing of the Yalu River in the Korean War was invoked repeatedly,  with the implication that if we invaded and defeated North Vietnam, and promoted unification under a Western-friendly government in Saigon, Beijing would be provoked to intervene.  The ever-present specter of the Soviet menace to West Berlin was also invoked, just as it had been during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  West Berlin was indefensible if the Soviets/East Germans really wanted to just grab it, as retaliation for too decisive an approach on our part in Vietnam; and losing it to them would jeopardize our standing with our NATO allies (already reeling, with France’s emerging decision to pull out of the NATO military chain of command, and use her strategic forces independently).

We were thus self-constrained to attenuate our use of force, even as that force grew within a few years to 100 times its original size.  We adopted a fundamentally defensive posture in Vietnam, tacitly agreeing to fight the North only where her troops offered battle – mostly through V.C. and NVA in the villages, fields, and US-held redoubts of the South – and punctuating this career with a few essays in “graduated” (and delinquent) uses of airpower.  Nixon managed to extricate us from this situation by convincing the North Vietnamese, with summary and effective tactical force, that their best option was to salvage what they could, and wait for a better opportunity.  But the limited, non-decisive political objective of getting them to agree to that was insufficient to save the South from her ultimate fate.

One more point about attenuated force is key.  Force that is not wielded for a decisive political purpose can nevertheless not only mushroom, but get a lot of troops and civilians killed.  The attenuation of force mitigates its effectiveness, not its lethality.  The decision to deploy force is inherently a decision to “go to guns,” whether we intend it so or not; and a determined enemy will take the opportunity to go to guns on us, regardless of our intentions or rules of engagement.  This truth was demonstrated in all three of the post-WWII operations most decried by military analysts:  Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia.  Vietnam highlighted a particular aspect of this inherent truth:  that if lethality against us does not convince us quickly to cut and run, it will continue to decimate us, and inflict terrible destruction on the civilian population as well.  All without achieving a politically-decisive objective.

“Smart Power”

Letting the perceived risks associated with acting more decisively govern our decisions is the key to backing into an attenuated force situation.  But the indispensable handmaiden of the process in Vietnam was Robert McNamara’s concept of using force as “communication,” and eschewing conventionally-decisive force concepts – which were advanced repeatedly by his Joint Chiefs between 1964 and 1968 – as unimaginative, outdated, and brutishly blunt.

It is important to make the distinction here between “conventional force” and “conventionally decisive force.”  By the latter I do not mean that force can only be decisive if it is conventional, as in tanks, bombers, and naval guns; but I do mean that what we conventionally think of as a decisive outcome is, in fact, the only form of outcome that is decisive.  Ultimately, you have to defeat a political opponent, force him to give up his purpose (removing him if that’s what it takes) – not induce him to give it up – to have a decisive outcome.  Over the enemy’s objections is how conflicts are won.  If you are conceding him anything he wants – and that will invariably include the conditions to fight again – you are not achieving decision, but only postponing it.  You will have to fight again – or decide not to, and let the enemy achieve his objectives.

This whole line of argument is essential to keep straight in the mind, because the glimmers of McNamara-like experimentation with non-decisive uses of force are twinkling in the Obama administration.  The argument about “smart power” is always made as it was made during the McNamara period:  as a negative one.  It posits that force has been poorly integrated up to now with “soft power” measures; that force, wielded conventionally, “doesn’t work” or “won’t work” in the situations at hand; that conventional force is unpopular with various constituencies at home and abroad; that conventional force is blunt and uncalibrated; and that any reversions of thought to the conceptual outlines of conventional force, including their measures of effectiveness, are evidence of an intransigent, unteachable mindset.

Even leaving aside the logical carelessness of these points, we can note this:  that the case that is never made is what, specifically, “smart power” will do for us, and how smart power will do it.  We are only promised that smart power will avoid the pitfalls of conventionally-decisive military power (usually alluded to in non-specific but evocative terms), that it will be more popular with “world opinion,” and that it will “enhance our security.”  We are rarely if ever given a concrete idea of the improved outcomes to be expected with smart power – a circumstance that helps it enjoy a useful condition of non-accountability.

An excellent example of this non-accountability is comparison of a conventional-force and a “smart power” approach (as implied by the Obama administration) to Iran’s nuclear program.  The conventional-force approach, whether executed through militarily-enforced sanctions, air strikes, or a combination of the two, clearly implies that the expected result will be at least a real and tangible delay of Iran’s nuclear program, for some period of time.  If that result is not achieved, we can fault the approach for its ineffectiveness.

“Smart power,” on the other hand, does not promise this tangible outcome.  It waits for our conventional ideas of plan, action, and effect to create a concept in our minds of the outcome we seek, and then tells us that the conventional thinking about achieving that outcome is [insert standard list of derogatory adjectives here].  Without making any specific promises about the outcome itself, the “smart power” approach seeks mainly to be “smart.”  It quietly deals away the core questions about what our priorities are and what risks we are prepared to take, and assumes without specifying that our priority is being “smart,” and that the risks, which we could define and seek to mitigate by putting the issue in terms of conventional-force power, are – no matter what their names or character – too great to court.

This analysis does not by any means imply that elements of national power other than military cannot be effective.  Diplomacy, suasion, and economic power have tremendous possibilities, as presidents like Truman, Nixon, and Reagan demonstrated. The conscious determination to systematically eschew the decisive use of military force, however, is the hallmark of arguments about “smart power.”  Such arguments invariably define “smart” in terms that make clear that that will mean “non-forceful” or “non-decisive.”

The point frequently made, that smart power envisions using both non-military and military means, is specious:  it is always the case that we use both non-military and military means, whether we proclaim ourselves to be engaged on smart power or not.  “Smart power” has no distinctive meaning, outside of an emphasis on non-decisive use of military force.  Otherwise it is just the exercise of power, and can describe George W. Bush’s global political campaign before the Iraq invasion of 2003 as well as it describes any other combination of diplomacy and military force.  It may indeed, in many cases, be smarter to employ more economic or informational measures in seeking to wield influence and achieve outcomes; the criticism of Bush’s policies in the GWOT, that they did not incorporate enough initiatives in these categories, is in some ways a just one.  But using military force less decisively, and for outcomes harder to define and quantify, is not inherently “smarter” than using it decisively, for specific and clearly definable purposes.

As numerous analysts have noted since December 2008, when Obama announced his foreign policy and national security appointments, Secretary Gates is a “smart power” advocate, along with Hillary Clinton and General (Ret.) James Jones, the National Security Advisor.  When Gates outlines cuts in military procurement spending, emphasizes cutting back on advanced weapon systems, and drops the “two-war” force-sizing basis from QDR analysis, there is a trend emerging:  of an embrace of less-decisive uses of military force.  The two-war scenario was intended to underpin decisive uses of force, which in America’s very Western concept of warfighting has meant bringing overwhelming force to a problem, and achieving a politically decisive outcome:  not just deterring or influencing an opponent but breaking him.  We must understand that with the trend of his actions, Gates is deciding for us that we will not man, train, and equip ourselves to use force on that basis – at least not in more than one scenario at a time.

This would be one thing if the implication were only that we will be constrained, in the future, in how big a set of dangers we can address with decisive force.  Many of those reading this will think of the issue in terms of us not being able to defend Eastern Europe if we are defending South Korea, for example, or not being able to intervene against a Central American invasion pulled off by a Venezuela-led coalition, if we are engaged in confronting Iran at multiple pressure points in the Middle East, on land and sea.

But the “smart power” concept advanced by the Obama team envisions not so much dispensing with military force, in situations other than the “one” in which we apply it decisively, as using military force in less-decisive roles in those other situations.  Deploying US forces as part of a multinational mission to sort out Israel and the Palestinians is one example of a popular proposal.  It is not difficult to think of other situations in which smart power advocates might consider it a good idea to deploy US troops in support of diplomatically brokered agreements – and in even more ambiguous conditions in which our association is with internal factions whose power needs bolstering.

Of course, there is nothing new about any of this.  Large, powerful nations, including the United States, have done such things for centuries.  The difference with today’s “smart power” advocates is that they propose tailoring the way we build our military forces to serve this concept, which is ultimately one of occupation, counterinsurgency, nation-building, peace enforcement, and police work.  There is no getting away from it:  this is a concept for embedding our forces in foreign conflicts, rather than approaching the conflicts from the outside, and applying force to defeat cohesively-defined opponents on our terms, or to overwhelm or flank the momentum of indigenous factions.  It is a concept, not for settling foreign conflicts, but for joining them.

The Traditional American Perspective

That is not the way Americans have traditionally thought of fighting wars, and certainly not the basis on which the public has agreed to fight them.  This dichotomy, of the American mindset about war with the methods proposed by smart power proponents, has been through a peculiar filter in the last six years, with the real and pressing need for a counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, to consolidate the original gains from eliminating Saddam.  There is no question that the skills and force packaging suitable for counterinsurgency have been supremely significant there, and that the emphasis on infantry, light weapons footprint, civil affairs, unconventional tactical intelligence, and unconventional air-ground force pairing, translate well to the force concepts of “smart power.”

But there is a real danger in misinterpreting the overall import of the Iraq campaign by taking only one slice from it.  The larger truth is that there would be no stage of nation-building and counterinsurgency if there had not first been a use of decisive force.  Counterinsurgency could not ever remove Saddam from power:  we have only engaged in counterinsurgency because decisive force was already used.

A basic truth is that we used “smart power” against Saddam for 12 years, and it did not achieve any decision in relation to him.  He remained in power throughout those 12 years; he demonstrably sponsored terrorists during those 12 years; he defied the no-fly zones imposed on him; he continued to maintain some actual WMD (battlefield chemical weapons), as well as maintaining – partly through bribes brokered in the UN-administered Oil-for-Food program – WMD programs that included scientists, UN-prohibited rocket projects, the purchase of proscribed dual-use materials, and attempts to purchase them; and he murdered tens of thousands of his own people in the effort to maintain himself in power.  Throughout this post-DESERT STORM career we wielded intensive diplomacy, economic measures – both punishments and incentives – “informational” measures (political suasion), and non-decisive military force.

The only thing that worked to remove the problem of Saddam Hussein was actually removing Saddam Hussein – and that could only be achieved with decisive force.  This is a very basic lesson, but one we may tend to forget.  Non-decisive force cannot do what decisive force can.

We can also note that decisive force need not invariably be wielded in the more conventional terms of the Iraq invasion in 2003.  The invasion of Afghanistan and removal of the Taliban were accomplished in a much less “conventional” manner – but still decisively.  Even though the outcome in Afghanistan remains uncertain, the situation today is that the Taliban are having to fight to take the country back – not the other way around.  If we had gone in with a less-decisive purpose, it would be our forces that were in that position.  Conventional or not, decisive force is envisioned, planned for, and executed differently from counterinsurgency, and the latter cannot accomplish something like removing the Taliban from political power, whereas the former can.

There will obviously be dispute over this next proposition, but my sense is that the American people are not inclined to approve the true implication of “smart power” here:  that, as the basis for how we train and equip our forces, we would rather be prepared to embed ourselves in conflicts than to enter them disruptively – peremptorily – and achieve decisions that advance our interests.

The use of “smart power” would almost certainly not have actually included invading and regime-changing either Afghanistan or Iraq.  To the extent that it would nevertheless have embedded US forces in gradualist escalations – e.g., a bombing campaign against Kabul like the one against Serbia in 1999; the imposition of harsher sanctions against Saddam after 9/11, because of his association with Al Qaeda (which did not inherently imply any connection of Saddam with the 9/11 attack itself) – smart power would have entailed gradually increasing cost and extended timelines, most probably without achieving political decision.

I would argue that Americans tolerated the 12 years of sanctions enforcement on Saddam, rather than viewing the use of power involved – the very essence of smart power – as a model for our baseline concept of military force.  Fundamentally, the people assume that our armed forces are intended to be capable, militarily, of what we did in October 2001 and March 2003, and that the smart power campaign against Saddam from 1991 to 2003 is the sort of lesser use of force we can undertake – without breaking much of a sweat – because we are capable of more.  This does not mean the people uniformly approve of the specific political purposes for invading Afghanistan or Iraq (manifestly they are divided on this), but rather that the decisive character of those purposes is what they primarily imagine using force for.

Dimensions of Capabilities vs. “The Threat”

Nothing in this argument means that any particular weapon system, or conventional form of fighting, is essential to decisive force.  The need for specific weapon systems, and the doctrines for their use, change with time and technology.  I agreed with cancelling the Crusader, for example, and in my view, the earlier decision to cancel the A-12 Navy attack aircraft has turned out to be fine, at least having no tie-breakingly injurious consequences.  We can most probably achieve our national objectives with less armor than Army tankers want; and the infantryman of 2009 is a quantum improvement over the infantryman of 1991:  packaging ground force for both decisive conflict and counterinsurgency need not entail keeping the doctrinal outlines of a WWII-era brigade.  Sunset for the aircraft carrier is a discernible speck on the horizon now, as it was not 20 years ago; and although it will be a real operational constraint for our total force to decline to 10 of them for the foreseeable future, it would not be a security “killer” if all other factors remained equal.

On the other hand, of course, they don’t.  There remains a need for decisive blue-water (open-ocean) naval capability that requires a robust force of capital escort ships – cruisers and destroyers – if our maritime posture is to be maintained with no more than 10 carriers.  Attack submarines figure into this mix as well.  The forces that are best suited for this role are less suited to antipiracy operations; but the converse is true too.  Building fewer large escort ships and keeping fewer in service, in order to deploy more of the smaller ships better suited for coastal and low-lethality missions, means being increasingly out of position to deal with a growing blue-water threat.  A threat of this kind, involving Russia resuming regular warship deployments to key regions – including the Western hemisphere – or China beginning them (e.g., operating warships from Burma, or from Sri Lanka), may be nearer today than anyone imagines.  And we can take it as given that no nation deploys a navy for regular patrols outside its own area, if it does not seek maritime influence as a counterweight to the naval power that obtains in the distant region.  Throughout the globe for the last 60 years, that power has been, by default – but also due to our conscious policy – ours.

This last point highlights a feature of decisive force that merits consideration, one hinted at in earlier portions of the discussion.  Decisive force can apply to force over large areas, or force brought to bear on a localized basis – and its optimal design is tailored not only to the capabilities of potential opponents but to geography, terrain, and national purposes.  If you build a naval force intended more to perform non-traditional, low-lethality roles in the littoral waters of chokepoints, and less for blue-water power projection, you will not end up with a force that can project power throughout the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, or maintain a presence sufficient to hold at risk the capital warships of two major Asian powers simultaneously, in three or four oceans.  A decision to design your force for the former purpose is a decision not to optimize it for the latter.

Similar choices are made when we decide that the baseline warfighting profile of the US Air Force will be more to support counterinsurgency, peacekeeping, or sanctions enforcement – “smart power” – than to establish air superiority in any airspace we wish to defend, or in a combat theater against a moderately to highly capable enemy.  For the former we would want multi-use fighter-bombers, tactical intelligence aircraft (regardless of vulnerability), and lots of less-capable airlift platforms; for the latter, more air-superiority fighters, survivable and more synoptic intelligence aircraft (and more satellites), more-capable airlift, and comprehensive ordnance load-outs for broad-scale interdiction bombing.  In either this case or the naval one, the unspoken assumption of the family-of-wars concept is not that we can dispense with power projection or battlespace superiority, but that in all but the “one” major, silver-bullet scenario, we will have that superiority without having to establish it, at least not at much of a cost.

Given that there are, in fact, militaries that are fielding weapon systems that can defeat ours, and make us pay a high price for any gains through combat, the core assumption here is that nothing will change politically to put these weapon systems at odds with us, in geographic areas or for purposes that we are not currently anticipating.

There are multiple possible counterexamples to suggest here, but one of the most obvious ones is the potential for Iran to acquire the Russian S-300P-series air defense system.  While Iran would not get the most advanced system Russia has developed, even the S-300PMU of the 1990s would transform the air superiority problem over Iran dramatically for American forces.  Today it is entirely conceivable, with sufficient forces, to establish air superiority very quickly – in as little as 48 hours – and with few or no losses; but with the S-300PMU, well-operated, Iran would have good prospects of shooting down a higher number of aircraft and aircrew than Americans have had to contemplate losing since Vietnam.

It is not that our forces could not fight their way past the S-300, or establish air superiority:  it’s that doing so would take substantially longer, and come at a much higher cost, than without the S-300.  Our B-2 bombers, and the F-22, would perform the best versus the S-300, but the air defense system would, with sufficient alertment, have good prospects of shooting down at least some of our long-range cruise missiles, our current front-line fighter-bombers (F-15s, F-16s, and F/A-18s), B-52s, and intelligence and electronic warfare aircraft.

The military force we have today, which is sufficient to overwhelm the S-300P-series if it shows up in Iran – even if doing that entails losses – has been built on the two-war scenario.  We have as much force as we have because that has been our basis for force-sizing.  As we shift to a one-war concept, will we retain the amount of available force necessary to overwhelm the S-300P-series, or its S-400 successor, wherever it might show up?  If the most-capable air defense system is installed in one place – as it is (besides Russia, of course) in China, across the strait from Taiwan – can we assume that that is the only place we will have to face it?  If we end up having to face it elsewhere, will we need to shift our own most-capable forces away from the Far East, or from a tether to it on global alert, in order to deal with the same threat in another region?  Will we be constrained to not act, because we deem it impossible to short the “one” scenario on forces?  Will we decide to act, but use a less-capable force mix, and accept higher losses?

Fundamentally Changing our Thinking?

These are the questions raised by the decision to shift our basis for force-sizing from the two-war concept to a “family of wars” (Mama War and Baby wars) concept.  Questioning Gates’ decision here does not mean insisting that nothing has changed in warfare – it means questioning whether the United States has changed our core assumptions about national purposes, interests, and security requirements.  Is it now our contention that our security is best served by cultivating a military that can better embed itself in local conflicts abroad, but cannot necessarily wield decisive force – however the technology for that evolves – in more than one major conflict at a time?

It is, in fact, a concrete and definite decision – not merely an abstraction – to decide not to be able to use force on the politically decisive model in more than one scenario.  It means buying less advanced weaponry, but it also means developing less – since our force employment doctrine will not require as much.  It means buying more troops to spread over territories that may remain in political limbo for decades, and fewer weapon systems, doctrine, and training to summarily change the political reality for such territories.  It means deciding to accept higher casualties and longer combat timelines in the event that a need for decisive force emerges beyond the boundaries of our force-planning parameters.  It means training to and promoting people for different skills:  different kinds of planning, lower-lethality operations, less-decisive models of “combat,” command experience of a different order and scope.

Of course, the possibility that we will have planned inadequately is always with us, regardless of what we use as our set of standards.  But ultimately, there is a greater possibility that a one-war/family-of-wars concept will leave us with less force than we need, or the wrong kind of force, than there has been with the two-war concept.  In the 20-year hiatus since the break-up of the Warsaw Pact, we have been conditioned to suppose that uses of our power will almost all occur in a basically quiescent global security situation:  with us as the superpower, dealing with small and pesky actors.  But a number of actors who are not “peers” in the sense of having the same force numbers or resources we have, are nevertheless considerably more than “small and pesky” if we have to fight them – as we would inevitably have to – on their turf, or on third-party turf that was not advantageous for us.  The fact that there is no nation that could credibly menace our homeland with conventional force does not mean that taking on a less-capable nation in its region would be a minor military task.

Other Aspects of Power, Rethought

We must recognize that the momentum is already gathering for a major rethinking of the basic posture and purpose of our military forces, as they fit into national objectives, interests, and strategy.  This is not at all a “bad” thing, in and of itself.  The trend of the rethinking under Obama raises questions, however.

As discussed here, some key dimensions of this effort are the shift to a one-war/family-of-wars basis for force-sizing, and an incipient, gap-producing polarization of our fundamental force concept, into nuclear deterrence on the one hand, and the transition to less of a capability for decisive conventional force on the other.  These dimensions, both emerging from the Obama administration and compatible with a “smart power” perspective, tend to be complementary and mutually reinforcing.

A third dimension that would also act to reinforce the emphasis on “smart power” is a set of organizational initiatives across the interagency players in national security.  One of these is Hillary Clinton’s inauguration of a quadrennial review of the State Department’s posture and resources (the “Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review”) that is to occur simultaneously with, and to complement, the Defense Department’s.  A key facet of this effort, and a recurring theme in commentary on “smart power,” is “better coordination” between State and DOD – and better coordination across the agencies whose portfolios include slices of the elements of national power, such as Treasury and Commerce.

A less-obviously-focused initiative, but one with implications for transforming national security and foreign policy planning, is the creation of a new “Global Engagement Directorate” at the National Security Council.  This organizational change was announced in May, concurrently with the announcement that the Homeland Security Council, created by the Homeland Security Act after 9/11, is being integrated into the National Security Council, “to better coordinate efforts and combat new threats.”

(For any civil libertarian this latter organizational move carries particularly questionable implications, as does the stated overall purpose of both changes to “drive comprehensive engagement policies that leverage diplomacy, communications, international development and assistance, and domestic engagement and outreach in pursuit of a host of national security objectives.”  Better definition of “domestic engagement and outreach,” and why this portfolio belongs with the National Security Council, is in order; but that is a topic for another post.)

For the purposes of this discussion, the creation of the Global Engagement Directorate is the principal smart-power-related action:  one that will endow the NSC, in its nominally supervisory – or at least coordinating – role in the interagency treatment of national security policy, with a directorate expressly chartered to coordinate policy on “smart power” engagement, as well as defensive security policy.  It remains to be seen where Jones’ new directorate will go, as Clinton and Gates pursue their parallel processes at State and Defense, but three observations can be made at the outset.

One is that this suite of initiatives, especially since it is undertaken by national security actors whom analysts consider to all be advocates of “smart power,” represents a coincident opportunity for major and coordinated policy shifts.  It is in that light that we must look at Gates’ signals on military force design and procurement.  It is not possible to interpret those signals as indicating even the maintenance of the same level of force capability we have now, much less a greater one.  The indicators from all our national security processes are that the Obama administration intends to rely absolutely less on the decisive use of force, and more on the use of economic, diplomatic, and informational power.  It is likely that “better coordination” between State and DOD, in this context, will mean the use of military force for non-decisive purposes in support of “soft power” initiatives.

Second, the chartering of the Global Engagement Directorate has a faintly – and oddly – imperial ring to it.  Engagement across a spectrum of measures – not by any means exclusively military – has been a feature of our national policy for a very long time.  We have not, in fact, had that much trouble distinguishing force from other measures, and taking the latter instead of the former when warranted.  (Indeed, at times we have been too much inclined to hope non-force measures will achieve our objectives when they clearly will not.)

The policies that required such measures, both force and non-force, have been oriented on specific security problems, more than on a comprehensive view of inducing an amenable order in the world across the dimensions of society, economy, and polity.  The assumption that we now need an ongoing, overarching organization dedicated to coordinating a comprehensive effort in this regard – an effort deemed necessary a priori, and independent of specific security problems – evokes the posture and organization of Imperial Rome, or of Spain or Britain in their imperial/colonial periods.  Emphasizing it over the conventional use of force implicitly assumes the sort of force imbalance that obtains under imperial conditions, and that we envision making no effort to maintain.  These things are worth thinking about.

The third observation is that the coincident establishment of the Global Engagement Directorate, and combining the NSC and Homeland Security Council, cannot help implying at least some concept of relationship and even interchangeability, in the aspects of the problems these organizations are meant to address.  It is not clear up front what implications it might have, about military design and force-sizing, that the new administration seems to envision a continuum – or perhaps intersecting sets – of security scenarios and operational features here.  But there does seem to be a clear implication of a conscious break with our traditional distinctions between “domestic” and “foreign.”

The fact is that none of the measures of the Homeland Security Act under Bush posited such a break.  The distinctions were maintained clearly, in a number of dimensions; and public discussion of the implications of the act for civil liberties was vocal and robust.  There has been virtually no discussion at all of the Obama reorganization of the NSC, and its subsuming of the HSC.  How and whether there is an intention to make this national security reorganization matter to the design and force-sizing of the military is an unanswered question; but an esoteric and little-remarked door has been opened to that possibility.

A Final Apparent Disconnect

The last observation here is that while Clinton is talking up nuclear deterrence, and Gates is talking down the decisive use of conventional force, Obama has staked out the position that his preferred global condition would be the complete absence of nuclear weapons, and that he intends to work to that end.  We may all well agree with this hope, in principle.  But articulating it as a basis for policy is not likely to advance the credibility of our nuclear deterrence posture, or avert the sense that in retreating from a decisive-force conventional security stance, we are choosing to be militarily weaker overall.

Perhaps Obama’s April 2009 speech on eliminating nuclear weapons will fade, without further action, into a political limbo, and actions will come to speak louder than words.  But the cumulative signals of his administration, at this point, indicate a trend toward divestiture from the decisive model of conventional force, as a basic security posture, and some level of ambivalence on nuclear force.  Together these policy features spell a shift that, at the very least, is not designed to impress potential opponents with our preparedness to use force decisively.



  2. Very persuasive; but the problem is that our people aren’t listening. Underlying the fact that this shift is possible is the belief held by a very significant minority, if not an actual majority, of our fellow Americans that the decisions and actions necessary to wage decisive war are on their face immoral and are never justifiable, no matter the stakes.

  3. I’m afraid you’re right, Sully, at least in the political climate right now. In all the dimensions I looked at in this series, things seem to be lining up for a perfect storm of hubristic geopolitical blindness.

    We have the most cynically “realistic” international situation in decades — wolves sharpening their claws in every region of the globe — and at the helm in Washington DC: a set of the biggest ideologues we’ve ever had.

  4. For all our conflicts in my lifetime and in all of the history I’ve read, it’s always seemed so obvious to me that anything other than decisive force is more costly both for us and the civilian populations of our adversaries. I find it depressing that each generation seems to have to learn this for themselves. Viet Nam was my example, which is why I found all the Viet Nam / Iraq II comparisons so bizarre.

    And listening to the current administration always reminds me of that joke about the only difference between a conservative and a liberal being that the liberal hasn’t been mugged yet.

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