The Pentagon at a Crossroads

By Sandra I. Erwin
The U.S. military today has no grand strategy. But that’s no reason to panic. The world is too volatile to distill into Pentagon-friendly Venn diagrams and clever acronyms. “It’s hard to concentrate on a grand strategy when your house is on fire,” said Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Joint Forces Command.

Even as they cope with the frantic demands of two major wars, military leaders say they have a clearer sense of the future than they did in the 1990s, after the Cold War ended and nobody knew what was coming next. “It is now becoming more and more obvious what we face,” Mattis said. “Clarity is forming for us.”

Clarity in this case means that the military now envisions a future of “hybrid” wars. Pigeonholing contingency planning into neat categories of “conventional” or “irregular” conflicts sets the military up for failure, the current thinking goes. Once an enemy identifies U.S. strengths, it will find the Achilles’ heel and will exploit that vulnerability, as insurgents did in Iraq with roadside bombs. If the assumption is that wars will be hybrid — a combination of conventional warfare and Iraq-like counterinsurgency — the U.S. military will have to be ready to counter both asymmetric threats, such as buried bombs, and conventional weapons, such as cruise and ballistic missiles.

“Looking at irregular warfare as being one kind of conflict and conventional warfare as a discreet kind of warfare is an outdated concept,” said Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “Conflict in the future will slide up and down a scale, both in scope and in lethality.”

The nation’s military strategy and how the Defense Department will organize and equip for the future are the topics of a sweeping review that is now under way at the Pentagon. This year’s Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, is expected to once and for all banish the Cold War belief system and acknowledge that the U.S. military must be geared up to contend with morphing threats — transnational terrorist groups, failing states, or well-armed militias that espouse extremist ideologies.

“We know we have to adapt,” said Mattis. “If we don’t, we’re going to be dominant but irrelevant.”

QDRs typically have been exercises in distributing resources within the Pentagon so that there would be enough forces to be able to fight two major combat operations. “That is not a realistic view of the world,” Gates said. “We are already in two major conflicts. So what if we have a third one or a fourth one or a fifth one? Past reviews failed to acknowledge the role of non-state groups as legitimate military threats, he noted. “How do you characterize a Hezbollah that has more missiles and rockets than most countries or a violent extremist group that may acquire a weapon of mass destruction?”

Gates also will seek to institutionalize the concept of “smart power,” which says that winning conflicts requires the strengths of not just the military services, but of other government agencies as well. Both Defense and State Department leaders have called for a multifaceted approach involving military, political, economic and diplomatic fronts.

Iraq turned into a nightmare for the United States because of what Mattis described as “wrongheaded thinking” about the extent and reach of U.S. military power. “The fundamental nature of war is not going to change to suit us. We embraced wishful thinking, untested concepts; we didn’t do our homework.”

The U.S. military has to be able to cope with surprises, Mattis said. “War cannot be precisely orchestrated. … There’s no room for ‘my way, or the highway.’” Military planning for many years has been encapsulated in a four-quadrant chart — representing disruptive, catastrophic, traditional and non-traditional wars — that is not reflective of reality, he said. Such planning was based more on what the Pentagon wanted to do instead of what it was realistically going to have to do. That is a recipe for trouble and ultimately failure, said Mattis. “We have to prevent doing silly things like grabbing concepts that are defined in three letters and then wonder why the enemy dances nimbly around you.”

In Washington, the biggest source of anxiety about the QDR is how it will affect defense spending, the size of the force, or the weapons the United States should buy in the future. That’s yet to be determined. But regardless of how the review turns out, a consensus about future warfare already is shaping up. Following are some bits of new conventional wisdom that have emerged:

Traditional Tools of Deterrence No Longer Work
What does deterrence look like in the 21st century? The United States has not yet figured that out, said Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “You need something that deters a conflict, and you need more choices than just nuclear.”

There is no assurance that dispatching bombers, aircraft carriers or Marine expeditionary units to a hotspot dissuades anyone from starting a war or an insurgency. “It’s more art than science,” said Cartwright. “You have to convince your enemy that you will not tolerate any mischief.”

One possible means of deterring enemies is by securing a “global strike” capability for the U.S. military to reach targets around the world in less than an hour.
During the past two years, the Pentagon and Congress have debated possible ways to achieve global strike. One proposal was to place conventional warheads on nuclear submarine-launched Trident missiles. That option was discredited because of concerns that other countries would not be able to tell whether a launched missile had a nuclear warhead. Both the Air Force and the Navy were asked to develop global strike concepts. The choice of relying on tactical aircraft, cruise missiles and bombers for shorter-range strikes was deemed unrealistic because of basing constraints.

“The adversary may not choose to act near U.S. bases or patrol areas,” Cartwright told lawmakers two years ago.

Another scenario is the development of a superfast hypersonic weapon that could be launched from Guam or from the island of Diego Garcia.

None of these approaches is perfect, Cartwright said in a recent speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Bombers no longer are credible for global strike. They are too slow, too intrusive, require too many ‘mother may I’s?’ to get from point A to point B.”

A hypersonic missile may satisfy the “low end” of global strike, which is to reach any place on the face of the earth in an hour. But the high end — any place in about 300 milliseconds — only is achievable with cyber-attacks, said Cartwright.

Another reason why deterrence is difficult is that the United States may not be able to identify the origin of an attack, whether it’s in the form of a nuclear bomb or a cyber-offensive.

“Attribution is not what it used to be,” said Cartwright. “Everything doesn’t come with a return address.” That’s an ongoing debate in the QDR, he said.

Discussions about deterrence also will influence how U.S. military forces will be positioned around the world. Military bases were created to fight Native Americans, Germans and Japanese, Cartwright noted. It is not clear anymore how useful it is to have thousands of troops stationed in Europe, for example. The emphasis now is not on defending territory but on helping friendly militaries train their own forces to cope with their security problems. “How do we need to position globally to handle things like Central Africa?” he asks. “What is the right lay-down to project force?”

Decisions on how the United States should go about deterring future enemies will have major implications for all the military services. For the Marine Corps and the Navy, deterrence considerations could determine whether they get to acquire billions of dollars worth of new “prepositioning” ships and other large vessels that would serve as floating bases. The Marine Corps regards itself as the nation’s “forcible entry” specialists who are capable of gaining access to a crisis area from the air, land or sea. But the Corps has faced skepticism from Gates, who questions the relevance of forcible entry operations such as amphibious landings. Gates noted that the United States has not done a forcible entry operation in 60 years, and wondered whether there are other ways of doing business.

“Secretary Gates has challenged the Marine Corps to rethink its emphasis on forcible entry,” said Frank G. Hoffman, research fellow at the Marine Corps’ Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities in Quantico, Va. “It’s the most critical question for the Marine Corps in the QDR.” In many ways, the forcible entry philosophy espoused by the Marine Corps runs counter to the view held by Gates and by top U.S. military leaders that the United States should not be entirely dependent on military force to prevail in unconventional wars.

What We Buy Is Not That Important
A senior U.S. military official recently stunned reporters at an off-the-record meeting in Washington when he said, “In this town, there is a lot of focus on what we’re buying. But what we’re buying is not that important.” What really matters is people.

These comments, though revealing, are not surprising. For several years, the Defense Department has had to wrestle with the harsh reality that its superior and expensive technology does not guarantee military victory.

“We have to moderate our natural American penchant, diminished perhaps, to believe that technology is going to solve this problem called war,” Joint Forces Command’s Gen. Mattis said.

“It’s not going to happen. It’s never happened in the history of war. War takes human solutions … I’m no Luddite, but be careful what you think technology provides you. Be a little moderate in thinking technology is going to provide victory.”

U.S. technological superiority is “overrated,” Mattis said. “Everybody can get technology these days.” The United States will have an edge in some niche areas, but the Defense Department should not build a strategy that puts too much emphasis on the role of high-tech weapons, he said. “The idea that we can cut people and make up with technology will not fly,” Mattis said.

Critics have questioned this worldview. They contend that the United States should not assume that Iraq or Afghanistan are models for how all wars will be in the future.  

Gates bristles at these observations. “The truth is that the vast preponderance of the Defense Department’s procurement budget” will still be for big-ticket weapon systems that are designed to fight near peers and that will continue to give the Pentagon a technological edge for the next 20 to 25 years, he said. “This notion that I’m tilting the scale dramatically against conventional capabilities, in order to fight irregular or whatever, asymmetric wars or whatever you want to call it, is just not accurate.” A trillion dollars for the Joint Strike Fighter and billions for a new nuclear-missile submarine are not trivial investments in the future, he said. “We have to procure the kinds of equipment and weapons that give us the maximum flexibility, across the widest range of that spectrum of conflict.”

Combat Experience Is the Most Valuable Asset
It’s impossible not to notice that top Defense Department officials have kept up a steady drumbeat of “people, people, people” at congressional hearings and other venues. They worry that if they lose the experienced troops who are versed in counterinsurgency from repeated deployments, the United States will not achieve military success in current or future conflicts.

Irregular warfare by no means is a passing fad, said the senior official at the meeting with reporters. “If we can hang on to the people who’ve been in combat, we’ll be in great shape regardless of what [weapon systems] we buy.”

The spotlight on people means that, for the near term, the Defense Department will be shifting billions of dollars — possibly at the expense of weapons systems — into manpower accounts to pay not only for salaries and benefits of a larger force, but also for additional morale-boosting and family programs that are targeted at service members’ spouses.

Junior and mid-level officers, as well as non-commissioned officers, in the Army and Marine Corps, particularly, are to be retained by all possible means. Those are the future leaders who have acquired a “cultural understanding” of the conflicts the United States faces, said Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey. “Our leaders are more and more at home in these other cultures.”

Years ago, Casey was part of the old school of thinking that an army that prepared for all-out conventional war could easily scale down to low-intensity or stability operations. “After spending 32 months in Iraq, I don’t believe that anymore,” Casey said in a speech at CSIS. “An awful lot of folks in the Army don’t believe that.”

The notion that the Army should have to prepare to fight either conventional or irregular conflicts is illogical, said Casey. “It’s not a helpful distinction. War is war. It’s likely to be hybrid.”

As to what would happen if the United States were to face a conventional enemy, officials say they are not worried. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen said the Navy and the Air Force would be entirely capable of taking on any conventional foe. Casey says the Army would be able to confront a peer competitor, even if many of its younger leaders have not trained much in tank formations or artillery. That doesn’t bother them, Casey said. “They know that they haven’t maneuvered their tank company; they haven’t fired their artillery battery. And they’re nervous, because they haven’t done the things they know they need to do. But those skills are very, very recoverable, quickly. And so we’re moving away from trying to talk in either/or.”

Even though the Army has expanded its ranks in the past two years to 547,000 (1.1 million including Guard and Reserves), Casey believes that there is still a valid argument to be made in favor of growing even larger. “I ought to be able to design a rotational force that can meet the needs of the nation within that 1.1 million Army. But it doesn’t quite meet the demand today,” he said. That is one of the questions that Casey hopes will be raised in the QDR. He recognizes that any expansion will be costly. “If we’re going to have a larger Army, it has to be trained and equipped and we must give them quality of life. That’s a major debate.”

The message may be resonating on Capitol Hill. Last month, a group of senators called for a 30,000 increase in active-duty end strength for the Army in 2011 and 2012. They didn’t elaborate on how the U.S. government would pay for the expansion.

Retired Navy Adm. John Nathman says the Defense Department typically ends up in a budgetary bind when Congress mandates force size increases and then it falls on the Pentagon to figure out how to finance them. He worries that the administration will end up trading off important equipment recapitalization projects in order to fund personnel accounts. “Manpower costs typically escalate faster than you can appropriate,” he said. The administration wants to support veterans, benefits, health care, education. The entitlement side will continue to climb. “That means less procurement,” said Nathman.

Another issue to consider is whether a larger Army is consistent with where the country wants to go in national security policy. What will the Army and Marine Corps do when they leave Iraq and Afghanistan?

In the defense industry, officials also fret about possible cuts to weapons systems. Many already are resigned to the change in priorities. “I was struck by the chief’s comments,” said G. Kim Wincup, senior vice president of Science Applications International Corp., referring to Casey’s remarks. “That is a transformation from what we heard in the past,” Wincup said. “The secretary’s words are obviously starting to show up in the planning process.”

Whatever We Buy Must Have IT

Even if, as predicted, weapon programs take a hit in future budgets, there will be continued focus on information technology as a centerpiece of almost everything that the military does.

The Defense Department operates 15,000 networks, and the number will grow larger as more of the military’s business shifts to cyberspace.

In a major acknowledgment of the importance of IT, the QDR will consider how the Defense Department should organize and train to defend its networks, and whether it should write new doctrine for the protection of the cyberdomain, said William J. Lynn III, deputy defense secretary.

“We want to build a culture that makes cyber a priority,” Lynn said at a CSIS conference. As part of the war-gaming planned for the QDR, a “red team” of fictitious enemies — led by strategist Andy Marshall and Gen. Mattis — will challenge the Pentagon’s abilities to exploit cyberspace and to defend it.

The definition of what constitutes a network also will be debated in the QDR, said Lynn.

Traditionally, networks are regarded as U.S.-based operations inside buildings. Now, networks are everywhere, with troops deployed in two major wars and elsewhere around the world. “Our networks go all the way down to the platoon. We want capabilities up and down the force,” said Lynn.

Cyber operations will dominate future investments, said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead.

But the biggest impediment to the Defense Department’s efforts in cyberspace will be the lack of manpower. The Navy, said Roughead, is aggressively hiring IT experts, but he conceded that those individuals are hard to find. “It’s a rare, competitive environment,” he said at CSIS.

The Pentagon’s long acquisition cycles also will make it difficult to capture the advances of the IT world, said Cartwright. “We’re at a crossroads,” he said. The Defense Department still is trying to figure out how to move from an industrial to an information age. “But the IT is where the leverage is,” he stressed. “The competitive advantage is on the IT side of the equation.”

The current culture gravitates to industrial solutions to problems, Cartwright said. That is only going to benefit U.S. enemies who are able to stay ahead of the Pentagon’s ability to produce new capabilities. The Pentagon is guided by a mindset that says that building a new airplane with better sensors will give the U.S. military an edge. That thinking is from another era, and may not be helpful because it takes years or decades to design and build a new airplane. “I don’t know what the fight will look like in five years,” said Cartwright. It’s not going to be the hardware or the sensor that will provide the winning edge, but rather “using the information to solve problems,” he said. “Making that cultural shift is very difficult.”

The rise of unmanned aircraft as a surveillance and strike weapon is another case in point, said Cartwright. “The UAV is agnostic to what you use it for.” The secret weapon is not the aircraft but the ability to store and process the bundles of data that they acquire. “Storage and processing is where the advantage is.”

Air Power: Best Friend and Worst Enemy
Air strikes and close-air support are essential to pressuring insurgencies, experts say. But when civilians are killed, air power is not so helpful. In Afghanistan, incidents of civilian casualties by U.S. air strikes have become “one of our greatest strategic vulnerabilities,” said Gates.

The U.S. military for decades has been conditioned to believe that air power guarantees victory, that its technical prowess saves money and lives with equal or better results than the use of large armies, noted Air Force Maj. Angelina M. Maguinness, an intelligence officer at U.S. Special Operations Command, in a recent article in Small Wars Journal.

Now the U.S. military is beginning to change its view of air-to-ground firepower, particularly in low-intensity conflicts in urban areas. Air power should be regarded as “one military piece of a complex counterinsurgency puzzle,” Maguinness wrote. In these conflicts, the success of air power is “heavily dependent upon accurate and timely intelligence, and understanding of the cultures, peoples and environment in which counterinsurgents fight.”

Air power advocates contend that civilian deaths are part of the “collateral damage” that is an inevitable byproduct of war. But many U.S. commanders in Afghanistan disagree, as they’ve witnessed how months-long efforts on the ground to gain the trust of the population can easily be neutralized by an air strike gone awry.

Close-air support is an essential means of protection for U.S. and allied troops, said Gates. “There should be doubt in no one’s mind that we will do what is necessary to protect our troops,” he said.

“The question is, how do we carry out our operations in a way to minimize the need for the use of close-air support?”

There have been suggestions that close-air support should be curtailed in Afghanistan, said Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen. “It’s got to be used very carefully.”

Air Force officials have become alarmed by what they describe as enemy tactics that are purposely designed to deceive U.S. forces into striking civilians.

“The enemy complicates targeting deliberately,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, in a speech at the Brookings Institution. “Targeting in Afghanistan is more precise than anything we’ve ever undertaken,” he said.

The Air Force’s strike aircraft are now being outfitted with “targeting pods” that contain high-resolution, day-night sensors that can help pilots spot targets from much longer ranges than was previously possible. Before these pods were available, pilots relied on binoculars and the unaided eye, said Lt. Col. Michael Millen, commander of the 354th Fighter Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. His unit recently began flying A-10 close-air support aircraft that are equipped with Sniper targeting pods. An A-10 pilot can stream live video to ground troops so they can help guide him to the correct target.

But in the confusing environment of a counterinsurgency, even these advanced technologies can fall short. It’s still difficult to follow individuals and vehicles with the pod as it is with the naked eye, Millen said in a telephone conference with reporters. “Finding where the friendlies are, where the enemies are” remain big challenges, he said. “It’s not a challenge of using the pod, but of knowing where everybody is, and making sure we can track and follow enemy and friendly forces.”

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway recently defended the use of air strikes as “essential” to prevent U.S. casualties. But he shares Schwartz’ frustration with cunning enemy tactics. Marines have tried to counter them via old-fashioned ground surveillance, which takes a lot of time and patience. “We’ve kept target areas under observation for several days, so we know exactly where the bad guys were and the families,” said Conway. “We have to be more precise.

Air power is the asymmetric advantage we hold over these people. I don’t want to see it go away.”

In response to the problem of civilian casualties, the Marines are seeking to substitute conventional fighter jets with KC-130 tanker gunships. The Corps will unveil the new gunship — equipped with a 30mm cannon — later this year, said Conway.

Adm. Eric Olson, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, is taking similar measures. “The recent level of activity in Afghanistan is causing us to understand again how important precision firepower is in that tactical environment,” he said at a congressional hearing.

Following U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan in early May that resulted in several dozen civilian casualties, U.S. Central Command issued a report asking for changes in the training of close-air support pilots.

The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in the area, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, recently called for restrictions in the use of air strikes in populated areas. In a New York Times story, McChrystal was quoted saying that air power “contains the seeds of our own destruction if we do not use it responsibly.”

Nobody Knows What Victory Means Anymore

That is what so many people detest about irregular warfare — it is not conducive to quick victories, or even victory at all. “In irregular war, there’s a settlement reached, parties are exhausted, political settlement is achieved,” said military analyst Frank Hoffman. “The role of the military is in support of the political process … That is hard for the American military culture to understand. We like to operate independently of politics, we pursue offensive strategies to achieve decisive outcomes.”

So far, the United States has spent untold human and financial resources on a war on terrorism that has not been won, Hoffman argues in an article published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “Bin Laden is alive and apparently well, although al Qaida is a more diffuse organization. The core leadership of al Qaida itself has probably been weakened, but its cause has been amplified and a generation of Muslims has been mobilized if not radicalized,” Hoffman said. Afghanistan remains a key campaign in this war. “Afghanistan remains a troubled land. The Taliban, once vanquished, is resurging.”

In Iraq, there’s hardly cause for celebration. “The early occupation of Iraq went well for six months, but then turned sour as political enemies vied for national and local control. What [military reporter] Tom Ricks has called ‘perhaps the worst war plan in American history’ failed to secure victory as defined by our political leaders.” The cost for what has been accomplished to date, said Hoffman, is “completely disproportionate to the limited gains. How did we get to this point?”

Topics: Advanced Weapons

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