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Obama’s new defense strategy: Prescient or problematic?

Over the years I have seen more “new” defense strategies than one can shake a stick at.  And I’ve noticed one thing about all of them: for the most part they’ve been uniformly wrong.  We have mostly had an abysmal record in divining what sort of a military we need in the future, and I doubt this particular version will be any better.  Here’s POLITOCO’s Morning Defenses’ summary:

THERE WERE NO BIG SURPRISES IN THURSDAY’S ANNOUNCEMENT, mainly because the most important real-world effects of the new strategy won’t be known until the president’s budget proposal is released. Reaction was mainly predictable as well – Republicans were concerned about weakening U.S. power in a dangerous world, progressives blasted it as too timid and a lost opportunity for Pentagon reform, and veterans groups are concerned about future benefit cuts.

THE REAL TEST WILL BE whether the strategy will result in a military force capable of handling the unintended consequences of world events. The president is sitting comfortably right now – he’s ended U.S. involvement in Iraq, set a path for withdrawal in Afghanistan and seriously weakened Al Qaeda. Libya looks like a success story for the multilateral cooperation the strategy emphasizes for the future, and there are signs the sanctions on Iran are starting to bite. But any or all of these situations could turn for the worse in a heartbeat, and wake up U.S. voters who right now aren’t really paying attention. Nothing is settled.

IT’S ALL ABOUT RISK - Military leaders acknowledge and accept that the new strategy brings new risks, which they consider acceptable in the current environment. The United States can get away with a smaller army because its leaders don’t expect to be fighting any large ground wars in the future …

I’d actually argue that some of the assessments made in the middle paragraph are debatable.  Libya, for instance, seems anything but a success with Islamist militias poised to take over.  It certainly may be seen as a “military” success, but military success should tied to a strategy of overall success, not just whether it was able to defeat a rag-tag enemy.  After all the the military is but the blunt force of foreign policy, used when all less violent means have been exhausted.  There should be an acceptable outcome tied to its use.  Libya’s descent into Islamic extremism seems to argue against “success” on the whole.  Couple that with the fact that al Qaeda has set up shop there, and you could argue that even if al Qaeda has been “seriously weakened”, it has just been given a new lease on life in Libya.

That said, let’s talk about the defense cuts.  The last paragraph is obviously the key to the strategy.  It is about assessing risk and accepting that risk based on that assessment.  The problem is the phrase “acceptable in the current environment”.  The obvious point is that what is “acceptable in the current environment” may be problematic in any future environment.  

So what is happening here is a political position/decision is being dressed up as a military assessment in order to justify the political position.  We’ll cut land forces and concentrate on air and sea forces.

But where are we fighting right now?  Certainly not in the air or at sea.

The Army is already is slated to drop to a force of 520,000 from 570,000, but Mr. Panetta views even that reduction as too expensive and unnecessary and has endorsed an Army of 490,000 troops as sufficient, officials said.

The defense secretary has made clear that the reduction should be carried out carefully, and over several years, so that combat veterans are not flooding into a tough employment market and military families do not feel that the government is breaking trust after a decade of sacrifice, officials said.

A smaller Army would be a clear sign that the Pentagon does not anticipate conducting another expensive, troop-intensive counterinsurgency campaign, like those waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor would the military be able to carry out two sustained ground wars at one time, as was required under past national military strategies.

The last sentence is pure bull squat.  National strategy goes by the boards when national necessity demands we fight “two sustained ground wars at one time” whether we like it or not.  The strategy would simply mean we’d end up fighting those two ground wars with a less capable force than we have now.  The other unsaid thing here is if you think we used the heck out of the Army National Guard in the last decade, just watch if something unforeseen happens after these cuts are made.

Also wrapped up in this new “national strategy” is some naive nonsense:

"As Libya showed, you don’t necessarily have to have boots on the ground all the time," an official said, explaining the White House view.

"We are refining our strategy to something that is more realistic," the official added.

Sorry to break it to the White House, but that’s not a “realistic strategy”.  It’s a wish.  I can’t tell you how many times, since the advent of the airplane in combat, I’ve heard it said that the necessity of maintaining ground troops is coming to an end.

Yet here we are, with troops in Afghanistan and 10 years of troops in Iraq.  Libya was a one-of that still hasn’t come to a conclusion and as I note above, what we’re seeing now doesn’t appear to improve the situation for the US – and that should be the goal of any sort of intervention.   I certainly appreciate the desire not to nation build, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need less ground troops available in a very dangerous and volatile world.  Air and sea are combat multipliers, but as always, the only sort of units that can take and hold ground are ground combat units.  That hasn’t changed in a thousand years.  If you want to talk about contingencies, there are more of them that require those sorts of forces than don’t.

Finally, with all that said, what about the pivot toward China as our new, what’s the term, ah, “adversary”?   Is there some clever guy who has managed to come up with a strategy that will require no ground troops in any sort of a confrontational scenario with our new “adversary”?

Of course not.  Korean peninsula?  Taiwan?  Here we pivot toward what could be a massive threat which itself has a huge land army and we do what?  Cut ours.  Because we “think” that it won’t be necessary to have such a capability should our “adversary” become our “enemy”?  

I’m not saying they will, I’m just pointing out that the strategy – cut Army and Marines and pivot toward China which has one of the largest land armies in the world – doesn’t seem particularly well thought out.  But I’m not surprised by that.  Again, when you tailor a strategy to support a political position/decision, such “strategies” rarely are.

Oh, and don’t forget:

The military could be forced to cut another $600 billion in defense spending over 10 years unless Congress takes action to stop a second round of cuts mandated in the August accord.

Lovely.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

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25 Responses to Obama’s new defense strategy: Prescient or problematic?

  • “I’d actually argue that some of the assessments made in the middle paragraph are debatable.” I think you’re being too generous.

    Take this: “The president is sitting comfortably right now – he’s ended U.S. involvement in Iraq, set a path for withdrawal in Afghanistan and seriously weakened Al Qaeda.”
    The three statements in there are false. Obama didn’t want to end US involvement in Iraq. He just failed to negotiate troops remaining in the country. The path for withdraw in Afghanistan is looking murkier by the day because Al Qaeda is not as weak as believed.

    Then there are the possibilities for large ground wars. I see three.
    1) Iran nukes someone. The chances of the US not being involved in a ground war there should that happen are remote.
    2) Europe. I would not be surprised if their economic troubles result in a war. Again, the chances of the US not getting involved would be remote.
    3) China. They perpetually sabre rattle. One day they might actually pull the trigger.

    Regardless of all this the US will be ill equipped due to that other lost war. The war on poverty. The failure of the welfare state is hammering the US economy.

    • @tkc882 Frankly, I think that there needs to be a “Gort” strategy (i.e. “Gort” was the robot in the movie ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’) for nukes. There needs to be an understanding that anybody who starts a nuclear exchange will be pummeled with so make nukes that it will set them back to before the Stone Age.

      • @Neo_ This is pretty much my preferred way of dealing with Iran. If they get their nuke then explain to them that should a nuclear attack happen somewhere then we are going to shoot them first and ask questions later. The idea is for them to not be able to give the nuke to a proxy like Hezbollah and then claim deniability.

        And one more comment about Europe. I’m more partial to seeing violence in Europe be of the civil unrest kind. That sort of thing the US won’t get involved in. What is see as plausible is that this civil unrest leads to a Gavilo Princip moment and we know how that turned out.

      • @Neo_ This is pretty much my preferred way of dealing with Iran. If they get their nuke then explain to them that should a nuclear attack happen somewhere then we are going to shoot them first and ask questions later. The idea is for them to not be able to give the nuke to a proxy like Hezbollah and then claim deniability.

        And one more comment about Europe. I’m more partial to seeing violence in Europe be of the civil unrest kind. That sort of thing the US won’t get involved in. What is see as plausible is that this civil unrest leads to a Gavilo Princip moment and we know how that turned out.

    • @tkc882 See, I can’t see war in Europe – who’s going to fight who? Short of the Bear coming out of the east, the rest of them aren’t likely to start a shooting war.

      • @looker See my second comment. Civil unrest leads to some sort of international incident.
        Oddly enough, Sarkozy today said, “End of Euro would mean end of Europe, end of peace.”
        It is probably him being a drama queen but if the EU collapses then the chances of a shooting war over economic disagreements rises. It is not a sure thing, just plausible.
        Imagine the EU collapses, Greece is thrown into 3rd world poverty, and some Greek ‘anarchist’ takes a pot shot at Merkel or Sarkozy?

        • @tkc882 If the air support of Libya’s ‘spring’ is any indication of their logistic capacities they’ll be back to throwing spears at each other before a month has passed (which will be short lived, until spear production is brought up to speed).

        • @looker @tkc882 They have 10k x missiles, if memory serves…or the money from their sale…which buys LOTS of rounds of AK ammo. Plus, there is always the machete, which has killed millions in the recent past.

        • @tkc882 @looker 60 years of occupation has tempered any territorial disputes between the big boys, but you could see an occupation of Greece turn nasty, and then Russia might want to “protect” their Orthodox brothers. how happy are Alsace Lorraine? Let’s say Germany leaves Euro, France stays and it hurts? But I would guess those regions are fully Frenchified now.

    • @tkc882 I dont want to sound to adversarial but I find none of your three war scenarios to be very likely. Despite their rheotric, if Iran gets a bomb they will protect them as the valuble strategic assets they are and will not use them, because although those old men like to send young men to their deaths for Allah, I haven’t yet seen any of THEM risking anything.

      There is no possibility of a war in Europe in the near future, Revolutions maybe, but not war. That does not count Eurasia, a war between Russia and Georgia is a possibility.

      China has spent a enormous amount of time and energy becoming a “civilized” trading nation. Why would they want to screw that up? Yes I know they are a one party state with no civil rights, but unlike the United States they have not invaded, bombed, or toppled the government of any other nation in thirty years.

    • @tkc882
      There are several hot spots where conflict could rise almost immediately:
      1) Israel. Any questions?
      2) China/Taiwan. Could this be one of your “China Saber rattling” areas?
      3) Pakistan/india. This area has been on a cold simmer for years now but the massacre at Mumbai has warmed the region considerably.
      4) Afrika. Any number of areas could jump up and bite you when you least expect it. Tribalism trumps logic here.
      5) Turkey/Kurdistan. Now that the US is out of Iraq, don’t think Turkey will pause the next time the Kurdish Nationalists start raising a ruckus along the border.
      Russia/Eastern Europe. Now that the US has decided to pacify its military forces under Emperor Obama, watch while the USSR, er I mean Russia, tries to implemet that old Warsaw Pact thingee.

  • The one reality that is in this plan is that large armored invasions are probably a thing of the past. What government in their right mind is ever again going to play fair and let a large massing of a potential invasion force form on their border.

  • I wonder how much of the DOD’s budget is actually spent by politicians. I’m not referring to wars or “military police actions” but political pet projects that come out of the DOD’s budget. Maybe that would be a good place to start cutting.

    • @SeanMcCormick I have a recollection of a breast cancer study put on the DOD’s budget

  • Consistent with Obama’s “America delenda est” motivation, he is at once weakening the U.S. and priming for a war this summer if he needs the nation’s support to get re-elected. On the latter, he can claim that his defense plans obviously precluded any plan to have a war to help him get re-elected. Libya was the warm-up to see if the community organizer could organize the usual suspects in the GOP to support him in the “get Qaddaffi” theme. Most unfortunate that they did, which is not to say he wouldn’t have gone ahead anyway. He would have. But his skill at bringing the Republican hawks along for the ride was fairly diabolical.

    Contra what someone said in comments below, Obama didn’t want to stay in Iraq, merely failing to negotiate the agreement. He wanted to keep his promise to lose that war, and it was a pretty bold move to proceed on losing it three years after it was won. This will only be meaningful to his hardcore anti-American base, since he initially despaired of losing it (after George Bush did a good job of maneuvering it into a win) and so took credit for what a masterful accomplishment it was for him (that he didn’t lose it).

    You know what I’ve always said about 9/11, from the afternoon of that day until this afternoon, that we got off easy. Mr. Obama’s plan is to correct that. “America delenda est.”

    • The above comment is, of course, rooted in my long-held belief that Obama’s is a bad faith presidency. That he does not and never intended to govern in the better interests of America and its people. Quite the opposite in fact, and this was obvious very early on. We’re in the fourth year of a depression that could have and should have ended in the middle of 2009 if one wet blanket after another had not been thrown onto an economy ready to recover. Similar patterns have been followed in foreign policy. Alienate or even betray friends. Bestow advantages on enemies for nothing in return. So we have the Muslim Brotherhood in the driver’s seat in Egypt, and building toward a broader regional power play. At home we have a shrinking labor force, with millions dropping out. Underemployment is up near 20%, and is probably underestimated. We have two massive entitlement programs sinking toward bankruptcy, are closing in on $16 trillion of actual debt, have $75 trillion of unfunded liabilities, and a president whose signature plan was to add a third massive entitlement program while commandeering for federal bureaucratic control one-sixth of the economy.

  • We didn’t need troops on the ground in Libya becase we used the rebel forces. If Ghaddafi had only be more ruthless and eliminated his enemies with the slightest justification without reservation, like Saddam, he would have been safe it seems.

    • @jpm100 He was within a week or so of crushing the rebels. Then no more rebel ground forces. Let’s say we then wanted to intervene. Even if the local population would welcome us, we would have to land ground troops of our own.

      • @Harun My thoughts were that if he had a 5 or 6 digit annual execution rate like Saddam, there wouldn’t have been rebels.

    • @jpm100 I’ve seen reports that NoKo won’t budge on their nuclear programs because they feel if Ghaddafi had kept his, he would still be there. Any one who thinks there aren’t any “lessons learned” being passed around has their head in the sand.

  • “…its leaders don’t expect to be fighting any large ground wars in the future …”

    Well I certainly don’t expect my house to burn down, my cars to get hit, or someone to slip on my driveway and sue me, but I still pay for several insurance policies to guard against those financial losses. If I knew in advance what to expect in the future, I could allocate my funds better.

  • There should be as no surprise to anyone.

    Allow me to illustrate; What government program has ever been cut by democrats, that did not specifically involve defense? And, yes, you may take that as a challenge.

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