In light of recent US defense planning, there is a military force and political objective disconnect caused by recycled assessments leading to flawed military concepts founded on unrealistic assumptions. Examination of this disconnect provides an opportunity to then present some reassessments and refined assumptions. A military force-political objective disconnect often begins with ideal conceptions of war. For instance, US military forces in the next century must be agile, lethal, and require a minimum of logistical support. We must be able to project our power over long distances and identify targets by a variety of means—then be able to destroy those targets, with an array of weapons. On land, our heavy forces must be lighter and organized in smaller formations that are easier to deploy. On the seas, we need to pursue promising ideas like ships packed with long-range missiles to destroy targets from great distances. In the air, we must be able to strike from across the world with long-range aircraft and with unmanned systems where military force is projected on the long arc of precision guided weapons. In space, we must be able to protect our network of satellites, essential to the flow of our commerce and the defense of our country. The best way to keep the peace is to redefine war on our terms.
An alert reader of Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century Defense and recent US military concepts might recognize the abovementioned words and ideas. However, it was paraphrased from “A Period of Consequences” speech delivered by Presidential Candidate Bush at The Citadel in 1999.[i] Ironically, the idea of using networked precision-fires to rapidly defeat adversaries and to redefine war on our terms led, in part, to a decade of prolonged war. In Cobra II, Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor critically noted that such ideas were “supposed to be nothing less than a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that would reduce the requirement for ground forces.”[ii] Considering the similar rhetoric between past and present revolutionary ideas, strategists should ask: are we matching military force to complex political objectives and the security environment we have, or with the quick, decisive battle some foresee, once again?
First, there is a military force-political objective disconnect caused by recycled assessments. Security and prosperity are enduring US political objectives. They are defined in the latest defense strategic guidance as security in Asia-Pacific for our nation, allies, and partners where prosperity flows from an open economic system. In the Middle East and North Africa, the US seeks political and economic reform as well as partnership fostering to ensure regional security. Meanwhile, the US military is pulling back by investing in over-the-horizon technology while enduring political objectives lean forward in an increasingly connected global economy that demands forward postured expeditionary forces. Three notable assessments highlight this disconnect. That is until an unforeseen event, miscalculation, or a timely reassessment forces an ends-means readjustment, with the latter being preferable.
The first assessment is that the US is embarking upon a new era where once again everything important has changed about American behavior with the rest of the world. Here, the Asia-Pacific “pivot” comes to mind with China suddenly labeled a rising power despite having been a regional and global power for some 25 centuries less its ‘century of humiliation.’ While assessments of China’s military rise are valid, our shift, as Robert S. Ross noted in Foreign Affairs, is based primarily on a “misreading of China’s leadership where Beijing’s tough diplomacy stems not from confidence in its [military] might but from its insecurity caused by internal issues.”[iii] History shows that China’s internal insecurity will only be exacerbated when combined with external threats. This was the case when China struck out against the US (1950), India (1962), Russia (1969), and Vietnam (1979).
A second assessment is that the permissive threat environment is slipping away as peer threats emerge with advancing technologies. As such, the US military should invest in ‘crown-jewel’ weapons to deter peer competitors through denial and kinetic punishment. In part, this recycled narrative dates back to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) 2003 release of Meeting Anti-Access Area-Denial (A2AD) Challenges report. This report was based upon a 2002 Department of Defense assessment that “vulnerable US military forces create incentives for adversaries to develop “access denial” capabilities to keep us out of their neighborhoods, and we must exploit long-range aircraft and stealthy platforms, while reducing ground forces.”[iv] Such assessments arguably did not serve the US well, neither with early precision-strikes in Afghanistan, nor with “Shock and Awe” in Iraq.
Paradoxically, the ‘permissive’ environment is not slipping away. State and non-state actors are increasingly employing unconventional approaches to counter US strategy. They methodically attack US strategic plans by presenting time-space, psychological, and political problems that net-centric and ballistic weapons simply cannot respond to. Essentially, they are one strategic move ahead of future US air-sea battle solutions that are predisposed to see a military access problem against a pacing military threat. Conversely, competitors and adversaries see a political problem where they seek to avoid set piece military decisions, to prolong war if it begins, and resolve to outlast the US or its allies. The Taliban attacking the US-Afghanistan exit strategy, China attacking US military concepts with coercive diplomacy and maritime bullying, Egypt and Iran using proxies, and quasi-state actors exploiting failed states are all examples of asymmetric counters to US conventional superiority.
Third, American military solutions are based upon an assessment that we must improve our power projection primarily with over-the-horizon weapons rather than with forward presence and human interaction. It is believed that superior weapons will deliver effects in denied areas allowing rapid exploitation of technology thereby making future war less dirty and dangerous. Additionally, long-range capabilities will create a window of time by halting enemy strikes, which is reminiscent of the Halt Phase strategy promoted in 1997. The problem is that niche weapons are often devoid of political purpose and can be ahistorical. As Eliot Cohen’s 1980 examination of system analysis revealed: it discovers what is sufficient for a given concept and weapon system and then finds the funds for procuring it [at the expense of general military readiness]. History, therefore, is of “no use other than to remind us of the importance of understanding technological change, thereby reducing strategic challenges to a set of passive targets upon which our weapons will deliver effects.”[v]
Next, a military force-political disconnect exists due to flawed military concepts. Recycled assessments lead to concepts that seek to redefine war on our terms. Alcibiades, an Athenian General and proponent of the failed 415 B.C. Sicilian Expedition, promoted decisive battle and low risk to ground forces. After the US bombings of Japan in 1945, Major General Lemay offered that “ground forces are not necessary for the further prosecution of the war in the Pacific and the future of land armies has been decidedly curtailed.”[vi] The 1992 to 2000s RMA asserted that networked-effects based operations would change war by requiring fewer ground troops and by ensuring rapid execution. Today, as in the past, the ‘maturing’ revolution of counter-A2AD weapons offers appealing—networked, integrated to attack-in-depth to disrupt, defeat, and destroy (NIA-D3)—solutions to US strategic challenges.
A case in point is the air-sea battle (ASB) concept. In 2010, ASB was an operational concept offered to counter a rising China. It is qualified now as a limited-operational concept for weapons procurement, and a distinct concept that must precede littoral and land maneuver operations. ASB certainly has a role to play in war. At its best, however, ASB is an operational phase focused primarily on weapon kill-chain effects. Unfortunately, it is this phase (with its own public affairs engagement agenda) that is attempting to drive how all US military forces organize, train, and equip. Ironically, the more we prepare for the air-sea battle that some envision, the less we are unprepared for dirty and dangerous war.
Finally, there is a military force-political objective disconnect because of unrealistic assumptions. ASB assumes that adversaries, primarily China, will initiate military actions with little or no indications and warning with an all-out attack on US aircraft, ships, homeland, and allies with ballistic and cruise missiles. Prudence dictates that a strategist should never rule out an all-out-attack by a regional power. However, selective inattention to the most-likely quarrels in far off places is an unacceptable risk that can lead to war—World War I and Afghanistan come to mind. Additionally, why would peer competitors risk political and economic survival in war when they can counter US strategy with protracted approaches featuring relatively cheap civil-military weapons and proxy forces? This is exactly the type of campaigns that US strategy seeks to avoid due to political and economic considerations and this is precisely why adversaries may pursue it.
The remaining ASB assumptions note that US forces will be within the A2AD environment during hostilities, that all domains will be contested, and that no domain can be completely ceded to the adversary. First, it is a fact, rather than an assumption, that US forces will be within the A2AD environment considering US joint forces have been globally postured since World War II, based upon treaty alliances and enduring national interests. Second, all domains being contested and not completely ceded is what history has recorded as combined arms, joint integration, or simply warfare. Moreover, it is not clear what strategy these assumptions support, and thus what political purpose they serve. If the answer is to project power despite A2AD challenges as one of the ten military missions in the latest strategic guidance, then how do assumptions of all-out-war reassure allies and promote economic stability as outlined in the same strategic guidance?
Collectively, such assumptions do not consider whether a strategic striking force that seeks to deny sanctuaries and hold an enemy’s heartland at risk can also deter limited aggression, much less respond to politically complex events. Still, it is assumed that long-range capabilities will ensure access. Then, land and carrier-based strike assets will neutralize threats to ground forces, enabling them to conduct “mopping-up” operations. Mission Accomplished? In the process, we purchase deterrence at a very high risk. We stake enduring political interests on long-range weapons that national leaders may be reluctant to employ short of all-out war with China or Iran. Eventually, US strategy will be forced to reconcile such assumptions with the reality of being forward postured for the most-likely including proxy disputes and politically complex events against assorted actors.
Examination of this military force-political objective disconnect provides an opportunity to consider some necessary reassessments and refined assumptions. As Clausewitz noted in On War’s final book, “when we contemplate all this [military-political objective disconnect], we are overcome by the fear that we shall be irresistibly dragged down to a state of dreary pedantry, and grub around in the underworld of ponderous concepts where no great commander, with his effortless coup d’oeil, was ever seen.”[vii] Fortunately, strategy is iterative and demands more than a static concept of kill-chain effects misaligned with complex policy objectives. As such, reassessments can serve to address the means-end disconnect and reduce the expanding precision battle—real war gap (Figure 1.)
An overarching assessment, as strategist Colin S. Gray highlights, is that our next century will be “another bloody century and that human political behavior as revealed by Thucydides will be driven and shaped by three master motivations: fear, honor, and interest.”[viii] This assessment, along with the ones below, is also recycled. The difference here, however, is a foundation in strategic history rather than in mirror-imaging and wishful thinking.
China’s long-term internal problems and the rise of collective Indo-Pacific powers suggest that the biggest geopolitical payoff is global commons presence—not contested commons [air-sea battle] confrontation. A future China under internal duress and provoked by long-range weapons may be forced to do what it has historically done—stoke nationalism for regime survival and strike out to show its resolve. Moreover, to strike [mainland China] and alienate [allies and partners] would undermine the objective to unify collective political-economic interests; it also undercuts an opportunity to paralyze China’s disruptive approach of one-on-one maritime bullying of US allies with cooperative forward presence.[ix] If war does occur, then forward presence and engagement will have set the preconditions for favorable strategic and operational adaptation.
Transitions—past and potential—from post-colonial autocrats to extremist theocracies in Iran, Egypt, Libya, and Syria combined with failed states in Mali, Somalia, Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen makes for a volatile security environment. It is, therefore, critical that we plan for a persistent presence to deter dirty and dangerous quarrels around the globe. Ironically, it was turmoil and insecurity in Afghanistan that led in part to a decade of war.
Where there is turmoil and insecurity, there is proliferation of militant groups and their effective use of extremist ideologies and crude weapons that erode Western staying power. As noted by the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), since January 2011, there have been more than 10,000 global IED events in 112 countries executed by more than 40 regional and transnational networks.[x] Clearly, a problem that it is not going away despite investments in advanced weapons. We view politically complex conflicts and crude weapons as an aberration to avoid; our adversaries view it as a strategic opportunity to exploit.
Figure 1: Precision Battle—Real War Gap. Current assessments and assumptions ignore the realities of war (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous)
Refined assumptions can also correct the military force-political objectives mismatch and reduce the precision battle—real war gap. It is critical to balance existing military-centric assumptions in operational concepts with some cultural predispositions, situational realities, and political and economic considerations.
US and China avoidance of war is of mutual political and economic benefit. Therefore, each would be reluctant to engage in adventures that may involve the risks associated with general war. Rising competitors will seek weapons parity to influence events short of war rather than first-strike capability to start a war. Fear, honor, and interest put this mutual goal at risk. With this, a security dilemma emerges where there is a failure to understand motives, and ambiguity of offensive or defensive intentions.[xi] If we only assume an all-out attack by a rising peer competitor as ASB does, then we only intensify our security dilemma with the potential net effects of general military unpreparedness, arms races, and aggressive alliance disruption.
Forward presence and “armed suasion,”[xii] will asymmetrically counter advancing A2AD threats. ‘Supporting fires’ such as this will allow diplomatic, political, and economic instruments of national power to exert the decisive influence, and to ensure access. As such, forward presence helps to underwrite the security of the global economy; it invests in collective security to deter conflict; and it lends credibility to US security commitments. Spanning the vertical levels of war, it facilitates strategic interaction with competitors and allies while providing a vehicle for operational adaptation in events short of war and tactical transitions in war, and it buys time for strategic reassessments in times of crisis.
Still, rising competitors and adversaries will “strike” [happening now] with a series of long-term methodical moves to subtly absorb their peripheries or to build their caliphate to delay US political and military response and achieve their goals “without fighting.” Transnational actors will selectively attack US interests and exploit failed states to promote their ideology and inflict the greatest possible political-economic damage on the US.
Despite decades of what are touted as revolutionary’ military concepts and ever-advancing weapons, we cannot redefine war on our terms now or in the future. Nor, can we transform the security environment of today or tomorrow into a new era of military surveillance and strike solutions as we transition away from the so-called dirty and dangerous wars. History records such pitfalls as mirror-imaging and wishful thinking. As a result, military force assessments and assumptions become increasingly detached from complex political objectives, which only exacerbate the myth that future war can be a short and a relatively bloodless affair. While we should not prepare to fight the last decade of war, we should certainly stop preparing to fight the last tactical engagements where drones, Special Forces, and precision strikes have all appeared to make war more bearable. As we contemplate strategic hard choices and continue to reassess strategy, perhaps we should remember that air, sea, and space technology exists to support the one critical military tool we will need in war – ground and expeditionary forces made up of well-trained Americans on-the-scene.
[i] President George W. Bush, A Period of Consequences speech delivered at The Citadel on September 23, 1999.
[ii] Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, Cobra II, The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, (New York: Pantheon Books), 2006, p.5-6.
[iii] Robert S. Ross, “The Problem with the Pivot,” Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2012, p.70-72. Also see Henry Kissinger, “The Future of US-Chinese Relations: Conflict is a Choice not a Necessity,” Foreign Affairs, Mar 2012.
[iv] Andrew F. Krepinevich, Barry Watts, and Robert Work, CSBA, Meeting the Anti-Access and Area-Denial Challenge, 2003, p.6, quoting Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld in 2002. Also, see Mark Gunzinger, Sustaining America’s Strategic Advantage in Long Range Strike, 2010, and Andrew F. Krepinevich, “Strategy in a Time of Austerity,” Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2012.
[v] Eliot Cohen, The American Spectator, “System Paralysis, Social Scientists Make Bad Generals,” November 1980.
[vi] Lemay quote in Earl H. Tilford, Halt Phase Strategy: New Wine in Old Skins, Strategic Studies Institute, 1998 p.10
[vii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton University Press), 1976, p.698 where he insists that we strip away the vague notions commonly attached to ideal military battles and deal with war as a whole.
[viii] Colin S. Gray, “Another Bloody Century”, Infinity Journal, Issue 4, Fall 2011, p. 4-7.
[ix] In a lecture titled “Grand Strategy of Imperial Germany” delivered to the Naval War College, 2010, Historian Paul Kennedy noted that Bismarck’s strategic lesson of knowing one’s limits and having a middle strategy to unify and paralyze, rather than strike and alienate.
[x] LTG Michael D. Barbero, JIEDDO Director, cites Worldwide IED Database, Institute for Defense Analysis (June 2012) in September 2012 Congressional testimony.
[xi] See security dilemma concepts first introduced by John H. Herz and Herbert Butterfield 1950-1951. Also, see Robert Jervis’ offense-defense theory in “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma” in World Politics Vol. 30 No 2, 1978, and Ken Booth and Nicolas J. Wheeler, Rethinking the Security Dilemma Chapter 10, (New York, 2008).
[xii] See Edward D. Luttwak’s, armed naval suasion typology in the The Political Uses of Sea Power (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).