“War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means.” This simple statement’s implications are unquestionably profound. Its common sense conclusion found in hindsight does nothing to diminish the importance of the statement. Typically the Fog of War and War’s friction machine dominates discussions of Clausewitz’s defining contributions to military thought. With any hope however, inevitably, the former statement must overshadow any discussion of national military strategy. Even the definition of strategy itself defies simple explanation. My military-issue American Heritage Dictionary defines it as both “The science or art of military command as applied to the overall planning and conduct of large-scale combat operations” and “The art or skill of using stratagems in endeavors such as politics and business.” The vague understanding of even the definition results in a complex problem, where political infighting and the resulting lack of a coherently consistent national strategy in the US create the requirement for a massive and unsustainable military.
Suffice for this discussion, strategy is the means by which ultimate political goals are achieved. The Department of Defense does not limit itself to military mechanisms when discussing and planning strategy. The acronym “DIME” is a model to incorporate the diplomatic, informational, military and economic power of a nation working together to achieve its objectives. But DIME is limited to discussions only around the military planners’ table, as the other three remain effectively out of the grasp of the military. Theoretically, the US Government firmly controls both the diplomatic and military arms, but even these two are more often seen grappling with each other rather than our nominative antagonist. The economic might of the nation, outside of foreign aid and assistance, can only be manipulated with difficulty to our objectives. The government’s most decisive effect on the economy is the power to destroy it. Finally, the informational battle is one against the medium more often than the foe. Thus leaving the military grasping to provide a singular solution to what should be a nationally coordinated hydra.
These issues, as daunting as they certainly are, pale against the most challenging aspect of American Strategy: effectively we have none. The bi-polar nature of American politics leaves our two political parties (and their often exchanged chief executives) in a fight against one another for national political power. That is their ultimate political objective: retaining or regaining power. In the contest for the Presidency especially, differentiation between candidates on national security grounds is a key discriminator. A candidate has the luxury of running a political campaign on the foreign policy wrongheadedness of his opponent. The political tack of stating “Everything my predecessor did was wrong” comes with a significant practical cost for a military procuring on multi-decade timelines. In the absence of an existential threat previously in the formidable form of the Soviet Union, our would-be Commanders in Chief have the freedom to completely change, manipulate, reverse and undermine their political opponent’s currently standing strategy. Clausewitz certainly never assumed in developing his theories that the Prussian nation would completely change its foreign policy objectives twice per decade. And he certainly didn’t envision a 30-year time line for the procurement of key weapon systems to achieve those same oft-changing objectives. Had he done so, Clausewitz may never have put pen to paper and rightfully retreated into insanity.
When you only control 25% of the mechanisms of national strategy, and that strategy itself is subject to rapid and radical change, this leads the military to develop operational concepts that must cover every conceivable enemy, in every conceivable circumstance, in any terrain or theater. It is said that money makes one stupid. The horrific elegance of the 9/11 attacks was the direct result of any enemy with a fixed strategy executed with limited means. Until quite recently the United States suffered the opposite, a fluid strategy with unlimited means. As ugly as that combination was, it was manageable. But, as our unlimited means inherited from our Cold War armories melt away in our fiscal troubles, our fluid (or, less charitably, confused, ineffective and ultimately of questionable existence) strategy now looms imposing for military planners who are running out of options.
AirSea Battle is the schizophrenic result of this conundrum. While nominally a response to our shifting Pacific focus, it is easily seen uncharitably as a necessary procurement justification exercise with the façade of strategic planning. The US does need ships and planes. But one cannot call counting targets and dividing by ships and planes a strategy. In this absence of a coherent strategy, the US Military cannot take intelligent, mitigated risks. Moreover, the US can’t procure what it requires on 24 and 48-month political timelines. As money makes us stupid, it is a logical corollary that stupidity is expensive. As long our civilian masters who unquestionably and rightly wield the military arm cannot agree to coherent national strategies, it is the military’s duty to ensure their military is in the best possible position to do whatever is asked of them. That tragically requires the threadbare justifications by the two most technology dependent branches of service, and concurrent bill-paying by the other two.
The growth of Special Operations Forces (SOF) as a stand-alone element is another symptom of the situation. Much like insurgency is a method of warfare for combatants poor in physical capital but rich in political capital, political leaders have flocked to the promise of rapier-like SOF capability with comparatively little political risk but with significant practical cost.
Like all Combatant Commanders, the creation of Joint commands was partially an attempt to merge the elements of national power, which in actuality turned the concept of “DIME” into the reality of “diMe.” In the specific case of USSOCOM, our leaders have become quite enamored with benefiting from operations with little or no political visibility. They have been thus even further distanced from the personal political risk to which Presidents have been exposed since the ratification of the Constitution.
And what of the enemy that dare not speak its name? China is unquestionably in competition with the United States, wielding deftly three of the four mechanisms of national strategy; the three the US military cannot grasp nor at times it appears comprehend. The US will likely dominate every aspect of the Military field for the foreseeable future. But a race car without a steering wheel still cannot win the race. The go-cart equivalent of China is driven effectively and decisively. Even the most paranoid cannot envision China being an existential threat to the US the way the Soviet-led Communist movement was. In the absence of this clarifying threat, we are left with endless contradictions that lay bare the thin veneer of American so called “strategy.” We seek a trillion dollar military solution to a foreign military that is largely funded by the US trade deficit. We seek a military arms race against a nation whose ultimate aims appear identical to our own; namely stability of East Asia and a reunified China. We will procure planes and ships to defend the East Asian status quo, and the US will borrow the money we require, in part, from the very source of that perceived instability, China.
Our most effective weapon we currently have against China is “Most Favored Nation” trading status. As dependent as we are on them, their recent attempts to stimulate internal demand in China are in their infancy and the Chinese export driven economic model remains dependent upon Western markets; most notably the US. Only in continuing the astonishing growth rate will the Chinese Communist Party satiate the legitimate desires of 1.3 billion Chinese citizens who rightfully question the distribution of China’s growing and impressive wealth. This requisite growth rate can only be gained by lop-sided, though nominally “fair”, trade with the United States; itself openly planning to counter a Chinese military threat. China’s willingness to fund this exercise can only serve to underscore its outward foolishness.
Worse still, neither the US nor China has clearly delineated when they will use their formidable military capabilities. Expansive militaries wielded by countries with nebulous casus belli are a recipe for disastrous wars neither side anticipates nor wants. This again shows the conflict between State and Defense. No diplomat wishes to show their cards, which easily leads to bluffing and sudden unwanted showdowns. The American military, amazingly open in both its assumptions and procurements, is wary of their Asian rival as the Chinese hesitancy in clarifying their true military capability creates distrust between the two, which in truth is more cultural than nefarious. Regardless, in the specific case of Taiwan, both countries share the same overt objective of a unified China. Will the US partake in a direct military engagement vis-à-vis China over this island? It would probably depend on a host of domestic circumstances and ultimately on the personality of the occupant of the White House. It is not unforeseeable that China would be willing to sacrifice more men in retaking Taiwan militarily than the US would be willing to kill. As ties between the PRC and Taiwan continue to strengthen, China would most likely be best suited to allow the US to exhaust itself in procuring a military that would, at the moment of truth, be, in all probability, left unused. But as we cannot clearly state what exactly the casus belli specific to Taiwan is, the US military is forced to procure for the worst case. This is but one example of a dozen key points globally that leads to the dismal situation our planners and budgeters find themselves in.
When faced with shifting global order, fiscal weakness, and capable adversaries, the US military is past time to start making fundamental and aggressive reforms to put its strategic house in order working within the fiscal constraints and strategic uncertainties. The historical value and unquestioned legitimacy of the Constitutional order of the US is not in doubt. We do see three lines of effort that would start the momentum for a smaller, more agile military.
The first requirement should be the demand of the closer integration of the diplomatic and military elements of national power. Since the end of the CORDS program in Vietnam, political-military operations have searched for the proper balance in the operational sphere, with examples of both success (Colombia and El Salvador) and failure. Even within those noted successes, there still remained outright hostility in some political circles to the national objectives and the means to execute them, regardless how paltry. The issues in the diplomatic-military relationship are many. The legal status and ultimate authority of the Chief of Mission to control peacetime operations is balanced against the geographic Combatant Commanders prerogatives, power and prestige. Integration and appreciation of the role of DoD and DoS between one another is low. The vital role of USAID and other agencies and programs is limited by the small size of these organizations. DoD outreach to the DoS has run aground in both Congress and Foggy Bottom, as equity-driven decision-making attempts to defend billets and budgets. Even at the most pedestrian, the DoD Combatant Commander Area of Responsibility map isn’t the same as the DoS. Cross-training between various State and Defense Department elements during peacetime exercises is rare. The ultimate result is a lash-up that under optimum conditions might affect at the operational and strategic levels of national engagement, with little potential of even minimal liaison having tangible effects. This creates an incomplete feedback loop, where operations in the tactical, operational and strategic spheres, both diplomatic and military, operate independently and often at cross-purpose. Right now, the US military is perceived to have “excess” manpower due to the post Iraq drawdown. In reality, we have a golden opportunity to put trained and experience officers into offices around the US Government. More than just sending officers, these organizations must be prepared to accept them.
A second requirement will be the acceptance of the reality of limited means for military operations, going into the future. Along with the requirement of fiscal constraint, the military commander will likely be the individual at the overlap of the DIME design and implementation. First, all the forces must embrace their own existing ‘by-with-through’ military engagement programs, like the 1000 ship Navy, to learn the fundamental requirements for multilateral operations. This is ultimately a diplomatic and military issue. Expansion of bilateral and multilateral engagement, training and personnel exchange is no longer a nicety, but a critical element of leveraging US soft power. The current budget for the US Army National Guard’s State Partnership Program is $8 million USD, and shrinking. A critical relationship and capability building tool, even at nearly an invisible level of overall defense spending, faces the budgeter’s axe. This in spite of the fact of the prominent role Alliances hold in the US National Security Strategy of May 2010. The secondary benefit is the sharing of values unavoidable in long-term partnerships. It is no coincidence that the two Maghreb nations with the strongest military exchanges with the United States had a peaceful overthrow of their longstanding leadership (Egypt and Tunisia). While Libya, the most isolated, required external military support to defeat the local militaries whom retained the traditional role of mere guardians of the ruling power. Now, certainly, one would not wish to advertise that a military exchange with the United States means a loss of control of your own military to merely regime defense. However, the United States would be well served to spread the idea of a military subservient to the people, not merely the dictator who rules over them.
A third requirement would be to identify the capability and requirements of our allies, and aid them in developing capabilities which complement and augment our own. The affluence to which the American military has become addicted to is simply outside the scope of many of the countries we should be working with in the future. And much of the equipment we develop to procure is either denied to our allies (F22) or simply outside of their budgetary capabilities (F35, LCS, Virginia Class amongst countless others). The United States has made furtive attempts at developing export-only military hardware (F20 Tigershark) but for various reasons (some valid, some not) these attempts have almost invariably failed. Additionally, modern US design philosophies often revolve around minimum manning due to the very generous pay and benefits received by our all-volunteer force. For the United States, paying more to hire less is smart. But for many of our would-be friends in our hoped for future alliances, manpower is cheap. We should continue to explore low cost options in shipbuilding with an eye towards providing them at reduced cost in exchange for initial alliances, partnerships, port usage and other mechanisms to expand our influence without expanding our fleet of aircraft carriers and requisite support and escort ships. These export-ships could be simple coastal patrol craft up to missile corvettes and possibly full sized frigates with more traditional manning schemes. The designs would be optimized for low intensity presence patrolling with the explicit promise that American full spectrum capabilities will be there in our allies’ times of need. In this manner we can effectively increase our available ship count, maintain our manpower cap and expand our circle of friends in the pacific and elsewhere without requiring the 2,500 desired but unaffordable F35s.
Likewise in the low-cost aviation arena, the US has ceded all semblance of competition to CASA, Embraer and other overseas countries. Even when the US belatedly sees the benefits of such low cost aircraft, we find our domestic companies incapable of competing and the programs mired by political maneuverings and cancellations that seek to undermine what fragile coalitions we do attempt to build. Our failure to procure and field a light attack armed reconnaissance aircraft for our use or our allies (specifically, Afghanistan) only highlight a trend which goes opposite to our needs and objectives.
The United States’ expeditionary military capability we currently posses and procure is desired by few countries and maintainable by fewer still. The post-Cold War balkanization was a luxury provided by an overwhelming and benevolent sole superpower and economically we can no longer afford to be all things to all nations. Likewise we shouldn’t forfeit the opportunities created by providing military hardware that a greater majority of countries desire and can procure in the current and forecasted economic conditions. These opportunities are not merely economic, for with American procured hardware there also comes American provided assistance and partnership. One must hope that that still maintains quantifiable advantages.
Ultimately, the United States Military can only hope to legitimately maintain global over-match through alliances, partnerships and an expanding circle of friends. We cannot afford to go alone if we hope to truly provide the flexibility and robustness required in the absence of a coherent and focused national strategy that would allow us an affordable focus we currently lack. We do not develop partnerships by procuring very expensive yet “unimposing” ships that can make port calls (one of the more tortured arguments in support of the LCS). Rather, it is only through concrete support and open alliances can we build upon the supremely successful NATO model.
The American officer class has oft boasted of its apolitical nature. We should not then ponder why we lack strategists as we have so studiously avoided the basis of strategy itself. Likewise, our politicos cannot decry our military expenditures when the frivolousness with which they treat their strategic requirements drives their nation’s military inexorably towards that ruinously expensive end state. Until we can rectify these inherent contradictions, the US military may speak of its fidelity to Clausewitz but, in the end, it will continue to seek the warm comfort of the simple operational concepts found in the bed of its Swiss mistress.