When the Next 9/11 Happens, U.S. Military Likely To Be Caught Off Guard, Again
The U.S. military was unprepared for 9/11 a decade ago. Up until the day of the attacks, its focus was on training for conventional wars against enemies such as North Korea or Iraq's Republican Guard.
Nobody knows if or when the next 9/11 might happen, but most likely the U.S. military once again will be caught flat-footed, military analysts predict.
Surprise attacks are inevitable, and cannot be avoided regardless of how careful and foreboding military plans might be. But the U.S. military consistently tends to prepare to fight the last war because that is what is familiar, said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C.
“We’re prepared for a future that looks very much like today,” he said at a Sept. 8 news conference.
The biggest lesson of 9/11 for the Defense Department was that it cannot choose what wars to fight. Before the attacks, “We were imagining the wars that we preferred. We were looking at repeats of Desert Storm,” said CSBA Vice President Jim Thomas.
Ten years later, the Pentagon once again risks falling into old habits. The military adapted quickly to counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, and over the past decade has revamped doctrine, training and equipment spending in response to the demands of COIN operations.
These grinding wars have proved the military’s extraordinary resilience, Thomas said, but have left the United States potentially weaker and its power diminished. As a result, “adversaries have seized the opportunities,” he said. In recent years, North Korea has fired off ballistic missiles, China has been flexing its muscles, Iran has been actively meddling in Iraq and pursuing nuclear weapons, and several countries are seeing a window of opportunity for developing weapons of mass destruction to constrain U.S. action, Thomas said.
The world, as a result, is becoming far less “permissive” for U.S. military operations, he noted. The Pentagon may have trouble coping with that new reality because its war planning and weapons investments assume that U.S. forces will have access to forward bases and control of the airspace, as has been the case during the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Just like 9/11 caused the Pentagon to rethink its priorities, it might take another major attack to get the military to stop preparing to fight the last war. The massive attacks by al-Qaida called into question the military’s theories of victory, and “exposed the false assumptions that were made about the facility of occupying a hostile country and imposing our will,” Thomas said.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, defense strategists will have to start thinking about what might come next. Most likely, analysts said, it will not be a conflict where U.S. forces will have easy freedom of movement, nearby sources of supplies, and the ability to fly drones and fighter jets unchallenged.
“Our ability to project power over long distances is just going to get harder as we look ahead,” said Thomas. “We’re going to face more ‘area denial, anti access’ challenges from China, Iran and non-state actors like Hezbollah,” he said. “It will be much tougher to get into a theater and operate from local bases. … We’re facing a future for the entire joint force that is going to be far less permissive.”
Krepinevich noted that the world is “undergoing major geopolitical shifts” to which the U.S. military has yet to adapt, such as the emergence of new, wealthy, powers, and the decline of traditional allies such as Western Europeans. “Our European allies are in dire economic straits” and the economic growth is now seen in countries such as China and Brazil. That will lead to a realignment of global influence that could affect U.S. military strategy, he said. Planning for the rise of China as a military power doesn’t necessarily imply that they will be the enemy, Krepinevich said. It only means that the U.S. military eventually will have to take China’s military as the “baseline” against which to measure its own capabilities, he said. “You just have to know how you’d do against the best, just like we used to baseline ourselves against the U.K. Royal Navy.”
Being ready for tomorrow’s wars also will require shifts in how money is spent by the Department of Defense.
Most of the equipment procurements over the past decade have focused on weapons for use in permissive environments, said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at CSBA. Large expenditures on armored trucks and drones have helped U.S. forces fight successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it may now be time to rebalance the portfolio, Harrison said. “We may be over invested in some areas.” With the Pentagon facing at least $500 billion in budget cuts over the coming decade, the pressure to make wise spending decisions only will intensify. “Choices have to be made about where we plan to compete in the future,” said Harrison. “Cuts should not be fair or balanced. Responsible cuts should be targeted at low priority missions.”