Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The "New" Defense Strategy

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has published an article which appears in the Jan/Feb edition of Foreign Affairs. The article is worth reading for what it says and what it does not. Here is my analysis. Note: All quotes are from the article. Let's start with the first paragraph:

The defining principle of the Pentagon's new National Defense Strategy is balance. The United States cannot expect to eliminate national security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything. The Department of Defense must set priorities and consider inescapable tradeoffs and opportunity costs.

This bold beginning actually says next to nothing. "Balance," which Gates defines here as the ability to fight conflicts of various shapes and sizes, has been part of our military strategy for years. (The most recent term for this was, "Full Spectrum Operations.") The Defense Department has never deluded itself that it should, or even could, "do everything and buy everything": They have always set priorities. The real question is what those priorities should be. Remember that Rumsfeld was not infamous for playing Santa Claus, but for canceling prized weapons systems programs and re-prioritizing the entire acquisition programme to match his view of warfare. Finally of course, if you only demand consideration of those "tradeoffs and opportunity costs" that were "inescapable" anyway, you haven't done anything.
The United States' ability to deal with future threats will depend on its performance in current conflicts. To be blunt, to fail -- or to be seen to fail -- in either Iraq or Afghanistan would be a disastrous blow to U.S. credibility, both among friends and allies and among potential adversaries.

Gosh, well we sure had better hope Gates is wrong about this, because although the Republican establishment continues to live in denial, the truth is we have already failed -- or already have been seen to have failed -- in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather than focusing myopically on these regions, or even on this current sort of conflict, we should be re-focusing our efforts on the rest of the globe. It is supposed to be a global war on terror, right?
[W]e must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future conventional and strategic conflicts that we neglect to provide all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as those the United States is in today. Support for conventional modernization programs is deeply embedded in the Defense Department's budget, in its bureaucracy, in the defense industry, and in Congress. My fundamental concern is that there is not commensurate institutional support -- including in the Pentagon -- for the capabilities needed to win today's wars and some of their likely successors.

This is where Gates has it backward. He is making the same mistake as his predecessors: desperately trying to overhaul the entire bureaucracy to fight "today's wars." What has been sorely lacking is an honest, global assessment of unconventional threats that are unlike today's wars, or yesterday's wars. Had such an assessment been done under Bush I, or Clinton, then Gates we would not have been ill-prepared under Bush II. Gates thinks he is being forward-thinking by trying to prepare for a "prolonged, worldwide irregular campaign," but that is just his catch-all term for future unconventional conflicts, all of which he seems to suppose will be similar to those of today.
[E]ven with a better-funded State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, future military commanders will not be able to rid themselves of the tasks of maintaining security and stability. To truly achieve victory as Clausewitz defined it -- to attain a political objective -- the United States needs a military whose ability to kick down the door is matched by its ability to clean up the mess and even rebuild the house afterward.

Again, I disagree. To use language conservatives may grasp, cleaning up and rebuilding are not "core competencies" of the military. The military should focus on providing military security, not political or economic stability. The notion that soldiers can do everything better than civilians is dangerous and wrong, as we have seen over nearly six long years in Iraq.
Why was it necessary to go outside the normal bureaucratic process to develop technologies to counter improvised explosive devices, to build MRAPs, and to quickly expand the United States' ISR capability? In short, why was it necessary to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities needed to protect U.S. troops and fight ongoing wars?

At last we are getting somewhere. Gates is mostly right here... But hopefully he understands that the solution is to improve the bureaucracy, not to eliminate it. Making the Defense Department dance to the whims of the current Secretary of Defense was Rumsfeld's cardinal sin. Gates should not institutionalize that dictatorial prerogative just because he -- like all Secretaries before him -- truly believes his particular priorities make a special case. That's a sure way to lose all sense of "balance."
We should look askance at idealistic, triumphalist, or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to transcend the immutable principles and ugly realities of war, that imagine it is possible to cow, shock, or awe an enemy into submission, instead of tracking enemies down hilltop by hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block.

I applaud the initial idea that we must never forget that real war is "ugly." But when you pick apart what Gates is really saying, you find the same tired agenda: Gates thinks we should disregard all other military experts' views of future warfare concepts in favor of the counterinsurgency strategies now currently in vogue (thanks to Petraeus). Again, Gates claims to favor "balance" while in truth skewing our polices toward fighting conflicts like those in Iraq.

Gates makes the classic mistake of planning to fight the last war. This may be because Gates fails to grasp that, all ideology aside, with our new President taking office soon, the misadventure in Iraq is now essentially over. (May meaningful troop withdrawals begin soon!) Worse still, Gates fails to understand that Afghanistan cannot be fought with the same counterinsurgency strategies employed recently in Iraq. Finally, we need to start thinking again about other places where dangers mayarise, like South America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and even Russia. We missed Al-Qaeda because we were looking after old threats, not looking for new ones. We cannot afford to be caught off guard again.


The Law Talking Guy said...

Oh boy, does Gates have Clausewitz wrong! Clausewitz never would have advocated nation-building, and most certainly not by military forces. Victory in war means achieving a political objective. This means persuading the enemy to accept a new political reality. In the case of conquest (and make no mistake, we conquered Iraq, we didn't "liberate" it), you may either occupy (or annex), or try to install a new regime. While military force gives you the opportunity, it isn't the tool to establish a new regime. That requires creating new political institutions with sufficient legitimacy to rule, which will support the leaders you want. Giving that task to the military is asking the demolition crew to be the new architects.

Spotted Handfish said...

Nice summary, Dr S! I disagree with you on one point though: depending on the situation cleaning up and rebuilding may be core competencies of the military. A peace keeping role in Rwanda would have involved exactly this. Hopefully in future such mopping up operations shouldn't be proceeded by the kicking-the-door-down phase.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Spotted Handfish: I was just thinking specifically of construction work and political organization. I think contractors and civilian labor should do that, while the military provides security.

USWest said...

Dr. S, did you read all 8 pages of this article? It seems you leave so much out in your analysis. I don't fully agree with you on this one. I think Gates said a lot more than you give him credit for.

I don't see why it is a problem for the Secretary of Defense to have some priorities in his sights so long as we works closely with the military and doesn't get so stuck on one agenda that he fails to listen to the military's views or fails to let the military set some priorities of its own. Rumsfeld's problem is that he had one single agenda, which was to transform the military into "light brigades" with all the pricey technology that just shrunk conventional capabilities into smaller packages while failing to provide for practical things like say, body amour. That was a response to what kind of war again?

Gates says that preparing for future conflicts is important, but that the dominate notion of future conflicts in the Pentagon is that of conventional war. He thinks that planning on conventional wars is done at the cost of non-conventional conflicts. The future, he says, is non-conventional warfare and there seems to be a broad aknowledgement of that in the Pentagon. Gates is in lock step with that trend.

"It would be irresponsible not to think about and prepare for the future, and the overwhelming majority of people in the Pentagon, the services, and the defense industry do just that. But we must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future conventional and strategic conflicts that we neglect to provide all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as those the United States is in today.

He criticizes the over-emphasis on conventional weapons systems and seems to have distaste for some of the bloated costs. He doesn't say we shouldn't have them, but that their importance is established, and that we should not ignore the rest of the package . . . that we should not put all our eggs into one basket.

"When it comes to procurement, for the better part of five decades, the trend has gone toward lower numbers as technology gains have made each system more capable. In recent years, these platforms have grown ever more baroque, have become ever more costly, are taking longer to build, and are being fielded in ever-dwindling quantities. Given that resources are not unlimited, the dynamic of exchanging numbers for capability is perhaps reaching a point of diminishing returns."

He goes on to say that perhaps specialized, low tech, cheaper equipment is more useful against counter insurgencies. He gets that technology has its limits. Technology for technology sake isn't useful. It's a solution sometimes looking for a problem.

He also seems to hint . . . if I am reading between lines properly, that there is a certain amount of comfortable corruption or at least too cozy a relationship between provate industry and the military in the procurement process. Shock!

"I have repeatedly made the argument in favor of institutionalizing counterinsurgency skills and the ability to conduct stability and support operations. I have done so not because I fail to appreciate the importance of maintaining the United States' current advantage in conventional war fighting but rather because conventional and strategic force modernization programs are already strongly supported in the services, in Congress, and by the defense industry. The base budget for fiscal year 2009, for example, contains more than $180 billion for procurement, research, and development, the overwhelming preponderance of which is for conventional systems."

And the part I find the most interesting is that he points in particular to the problem in the military of rewarding soldiers who command combat troops with promotions while undervaluing those to are effective at training and preparing foreign troops to carry out the types of security operations Dr. S says is the job of a military.

"One of the enduring issues the military struggles with is whether personnel and promotions systems designed to reward the command of American troops will be able to reflect the importance of advising, training, and equipping foreign troops -- something still not considered a career-enhancing path for the best and brightest officers. . . . In the end, the military capabilities needed cannot be separated from the cultural traits and the reward structure of the institutions the United States has: the signals sent by what gets funded, who gets promoted, what is taught in the academies and staff colleges, and how personnel are trained."

He is calling for more appreciation of intelligence and skill in this professional military. Some of the brightest people I have ever met are miltiary. I don't want to leave the impression that I think military guys are dumb. That is far from the truth. But the really smart ones do not always get the recognition they deserve. Gates understands that there are standards and norms that the military has that must be respected. He isn't advocating throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I have no problem with a recognition on the part of military of the importance of such roles.

I think Gates gets the lessons learned in these conflicts and in Vietnam as well. You conventional arms are only useful to you to a point. Then you have to do the security thing. And security comes from softer power. He acknowledges that a certain amount of nation building has to be done by the military to get security. But until you get to that point, the military is the only group that ready the field for soft power experts . . . the NGOs, NPOs, and UN.

I don NOT think cooperate contractors and contract security forces have a place in the theater of war. They have no legitimacy and are accountable to no one. That is a huge lesson we need to take away from Iraq. The Pentagon has come to rely too heavily on them rather than sending in the appropriate number of troops to begin with. Gates recognizes that you can't shoot your way out of these conflicts.

"Direct military force will continue to play a role in the long-term effort against terrorists and other extremists. But over the long term, the United States cannot kill or capture its way to victory. "

Gates understands that failed states are the new danger. And he acknowledges the need for the military and the State Department to work together. And he seems to say that because the military can't depend on the state department, it has to take up that task. I think he is really hinting that Obama would do well to beef up State in order to make the military's job a easier. And he gets that America's image has been deeply tarnished with the mishandling of the current conflicts. I think that his why he puts so much emphasis on them. He sites examples, from Chinese cyber warfare to insurgent actors using conventional weapons, as the realities of future conflict.

And he criticizes previous administrations, with particular aim, I think at Clinton, for "letting U.S. power abroad were reduced or allowed to wither on the bureaucratic vine" and he sites cutbacks at the State Department first, rather than in the military!

I could go on. But I will stop here. I think Gates is on track. I think he will work well with Obama and I think the military respect him and to an extent, like him a hell of a lot better than Rummy.

Dr. Strangelove said...

USWest: Yup, I did read the article. Generally speaking, I was quite disappointed with it. But there are some points you raised worth acknowledging where I mostly agree with you.

1. I am glad you pointed out Gates' call to realign career paths for American officers. I wish he had highlighted the need to improve career paths for (a) intel and analysis officers, and (b) quasi-combat specialties like "flying" a UAV, rather than on training and advising foreign troops--but nevertheless it is very good Gates recognizes the interrelationship between cultural traits and career paths.

2. I completely agree that cooperate contractors and contract security forces have no place in a theater of war. (I hope you realize when I wrote "contractors" in my brief comment above, I was referring to carpenters and plumbers.) But I did not see Gates say this here.

3. Gates gives respect to the State Department and brings some much-needed humility to the role. After Rumsfeld, almost anyone would look more better--but it is good to know that Gates now sees what everyone else now sees: that the global war on terror requires more than direct military action. I did not highlight this because Rumsfeld was an aberration. In my opinion, Gates has returned to the more traditional relationship between the State and Defense Departments: important, yes, but not exactly visionary.

4. Gates understands that military procurement/acquisition programs have real problems. That's great, but then again for years every SecDef (and every Congressman!) has complained about long production times and spiraling costs. Citing these very same problems, Rumsfeld made the first major overhaul to the system in twenty years. Now Rumsfeld's changes probably caused as many problems as they fixed, but my point is Gates is hardly going out on a limb here.

Now for where I continue to disagree...

5. It is certainly not a problem for the SecDef to have priorities: Priorities are a good thing. I just don't like Gates's priorities--and as I read him, he is getting stuck on one agenda. Gates is enamored with "counterinsurgency skills and the ability to conduct stability and support operations." He wants to realign procurement and career paths to emphasize those areas at the expense of all others. I believe this is the classic mistake of planning to fight the last war.

6. Sure, Gates pays lip service to potential future non-conventional conflicts that are now in vogue. But frankly, I find his examples of cyber warfare etc. to be trite. They've been discussed for years, perhaps most of all by the (rightfully) maligned Rumsfeld. I say this is "lip service" because, as I read between the lines, Gates is not going to give these areas any extra funding or priority beyond what they already have.

7. My biggest problem is that the military is suffering greatly under the current wars--and Gates does not mention that. We just get the same outdated "we must win" speech. Critical programs all over have been left to wither on the vine. For example, can you believe we are very likely now to have significantly less intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability fifteen to twenty years from now than we currently have? That is appalling! Gates says nothing about any of that.

8. Finally, if my reading is right, Gates will not support the decade-long effort to "transform" the military. For all of Rumsfeld's manifest failings, he championed the effort (begun by Shinseki and others under Clinton!) to "transform" the military to create a lighter, nimbler expeditionary force. As you noted, that effort was not a response to any past war: It was an attempt to plan for future fights. (Rumsfeld's egregious error in this regard was to dismiss completely the need for heavy forces and stability operations.)

By focusing so much on the current methods employed in Iraq Gates is being reactive, not proactive: he is taking the short view. Moreover, he is not focusing hard on healing the military! In 2020, we will regret some of these choices. Nevertheless, USWest is right that Gates should work well with Obama and the military will respect him and like him much more than Rumsfeld. So he is not a bad choice, just a disappointment.

USwest said...

I think the article is only a snap shot. I don't think it is the sum total of his ideas. Besides, he can't do much considering he took over under bad terms and will stay on for probably two years before being replaced. I am not too into wild-eyed visionary at the Pentagon, in part because the part to of that spear we get in my job is often already bloodied and definately poisioned. Some of the "old ways" of doing things are all wrong.

As for intelligence, it would be good if they got more incentive than they do. But I will disucss that off line with you sometime. Let me just say that what no one wants to admit is that we have wharehouses full of intel that no one has analyzed in part because the volumn is so much now and the skill set in its current form so poor. And there a major political games being played to prevent a real honest assessment of our intel analysts. I'll leave it at that for the online audience.

Dr. Strangelove said...

USWest: Well, since you are willing to stick up for Gates, I will take that into consideration and temper my judgment. After all, you are right: this is one article is only a snapshot. Maybe Gates feels he needs to hit people over the head with counterinsurgency / stability stuff just to make folks pay attention. And it is reasonable if Gates feels that, as a short-term appointee, he should be focusing more on the short term.

USWest said...

I am curious, though. How can you be "proactive" in this type of game? I agree that it would be good, but the enemy adjusts as quickly as we do, sometimes faster. And since the enemy is willing to do things that are so henious they don't even cross our minds, it is pretty hard to imagine . . . I mean, we'd have to have some seriously sick people on our side to determine what the enemy would do next.

I look out, with my rather uncreative mind when it comes to warfare, and I see future conflicts exactly as Gates does. It will be long-term gurrellia warfare where the gurrellia's are professionalizing.

Someone call me out if I am wrong, but wasn't is Mao who said that against a professional military, you do gurrellia tactics until your gurrellias are numerous enough to become a professional military? The Taliban are already pretty professional, in large part thanks to US arming of them and years of wawr with the USSR. It seems, looking at Mumbai, that the gurrellias/terrorists are getting better equiped and better trained and are becoming more professional in their tactics.

In this regard the military establishment is correct to want to balance conventional methods with counterinsurgency tactics.

USwest said...

PS: Gates may also be publically reaching out to the new State Department with this article as well as leaving his tracks for the next guy/gal. I do think he is hammering this counterinsurgency harder than maybe he would normally to draw more attention to it.

Dr. Strangelove said...

When it comes to fighting Al-Qaeda or similar organizations, I agree with you USWest: future conflicts will be similar to current ones (although note that Afghanistan and Iraq do require different strategies, so there is quite a range here.)

What worries me are enemies of the type we have not yet seen. (Just as Al-Qaeda / Taliban heralded then-unexpected types of major engagements.) Proactive, to me, means four things: (1) investing in a significant increase in our capability to move a large amount of soldiers or materiel rapidly into (or through) hazardous areas; (2) investing in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) programs and directing them to take a wide view of the world, not just the current trouble spots; (3) building defensive systems to protect against ballistic missiles, to protect GPS system, etc.; and (4) working with our allies to renew military relationships and practice coalition operation.

I do see Gates is interested in #3 and #4.

USwest said...

Those seem reasonable. I will be interested to see if they actually do 1 and 2. I am hearing rumblings. But let's see what gives!