2012: Swans Take Flight


01/08/2012 by Robbin Laird

As the country prepares for the Presidential and Congressional elections, the world will move on oblivious to the logic of the debate inside the Beltway and the country.  The national debt has become a more important focus than national security.  In fact, for many the two have become synonymous.    The conventional wisdom is looking at significant defense drawdowns, and “staying the course in Afghanistan until 2014” with virtually no focus on defense transformation and re-shaping forces, capabilities and decision making systems to deal with fluidity of the world in flux.

Which Swans will fly in 2012 and challenge US strategy? (Credit Image: Bigstock)
Which Swans will fly in 2012 and challenge US strategy? (Credit Image: Bigstock)

At the heart of what needs to take place is a significant restructuring of US power projection forces, which can be paid for and modernized with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and a ruthless retirement of the old in favor of the new.  The need to reduce budgets in the context of a significant drawdown can be met in significant part by removing the two billion dollar a week cost to operate in Afghanistan.  The logistics costs in Afghanistan alone have diverted money from investment accounts and have frozen US forces into a force in being to manage territory.  Cost savings from withdrawal need to be conjoined with a significant re-configuration of forces as withdrawal unfolds.  Indeed, one could argue that the withdrawal and the re-configuration of Big Army are closely connected.  Indeed if Secretary Panetta can manage it, the withdrawal, downsizing and reconfiguration of Big Army is really at the heart of structural redesign of US forces.

U.S. forces need to become more agile, flexible, and global in order to work with allies and partners to deal with evolving global realities.  Protecting access points, the global conveyer of goods and services, ensuring an ability to work with global partners in having access to commodities, shaping insertion forces which can pursue terrorist elements wherever necessary, and partnering support with global players all require a re-enforced maritime and air capability.  This means a priority for the USCG, USN, USMC and the US Air Force in the re-configuring effort.  Balanced force structure reduction makes no sense because the force structure was re-designed for land wars that the US will not engage in the decade ahead.  The US Army can be recast by the overall effort to shape new power projection capabilities and competencies in the decade ahead.

Retiring older USN, USMC, and USAF systems, which are logistical money hogs and high maintenance, can shape affordability.  Core new systems can be leveraged to shape a pull rather than a push transition strategy. Fortunately, the country is already building these new systems and is in a position to shape an effective transition to a more affordable power projection capability.

The strategic urgency of engaging in the re-shaping of US power projection forces is rooted in the worlds of the gray and black swans.  In the past two years, US forces have deployed to earthquakes, tsunamis, pick up wars, counter-piracy ops and a variety of impact points which could not have been planned in advance.  At the center of every response were agile commands, agile forces and agile capabilities.

The difficulty is that every response to a cluster of Gray Swans or Black Swan events  further degrades the remaining capabilities.  Operations drain the remaining capability of deployed assets.  Leaders love to use the tools, but not to pay for their replacements.

Responding to Black Swan events require agility and resiliency.  Leveraging several of the new platforms being built now provide a solid foundation for building agile forces. (Credit Image: Bigstock)
Responding to Black Swan events require agility and resiliency. Leveraging several of the new platforms being built now provide a solid foundation for building agile forces. (Credit Image: Bigstock)

It is more likely that Gray Swan or Black Swan events will continue to dominate our future, not 5-year Gosplans and insights from Commissions.  To be ready for Gray and Black Swans you need agility.  Agile commands such as have built around the Tanker Airlift Control Center (TACC), or the Marine Expeditionary Unite (MEU) structure are essential.  More flexible command and control as used by the French or the USMC in the recent Libyan engagement. Agile forces such as the Agile Response Group built around the newly enabled Amphibious Ready Group.  This is the building block for the future, not simply maintaining a legacy fleet with “geriatric” capabilities.  The new force structure built around leveraging new platforms can provide the needed agility.

The author of the Black Swan underscored that key impediment to learning is that we focus excessively on what we do know and that we tend to focus on the precise. We are not ready for the unexpected.   For the author, the rare event equals uncertainty. He argued that the extreme event as the starting point in knowledge not the reverse.

The author in the concluding parts of his second edition advocated redundancy as a core capability necessary for the kind of agile response one needs in a Black Swan or Gray Swan Events.

To clarify, a black swan is a large impact and rare event beyond the realm of normal expectations. A Gray Swan is a large impact event but is somewhat predictable but overlooked as major stakeholders in society and globally simply wish to not contemplate the consequences of such events.

The Black Swan: The Second Edition by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Random House).

The key conclusion here is rather simple: we need to rebuilt our forces to be MORE agile, and more flexible expectations of what engagements we are about to engage in.  And shaping plug and play capability with allies and partners becomes SIGNIFICANTLY more important in the period ahead.

And having significantly SCALEABILITY with regard to one’s forces would be a core advantage in responding to Black and Gray Swans.  As an event emerges, the NationalCommand Authority responds with what make sense to them.  But then the situation evolves and the forces sent appear to be inadequate or the wrong ones.  The deployed force can reach up and out to scale a response.  And those forces can depart as new ones come.

One could easily argue that this will not happen the legacy systems which the US fights with have way to many stovepipes for agility, connectivity and coalition operations.

Black Swans are completely unexpected events, but Gray Swans are single events or clusters of events, which shape a dynamic situation in which collapse, resiliency and agility are required.  Shaping forces and decision-making systems, which are rooted in crafting capabilities for the Gray Swan norm, are crucial.  By shaping agility, then shocks for Black Swan events can be coped with. (http://www.sldforum.com/2011/12/preparing-for-crises-crafting-a-resilient-organization/)

For example, in a recent conversation with senior Japanese officials involved in dealing with the recent Tsunami and reactor meltdown crisis, the officials discussed the significant challenge of recovery in the midst of a crisis.  “We were prepared for single instances of crisis, flood relieve, Tsunami recovery, nuclear reactor problems; we were not prepared for simultaneous incidents which created a collapse.  In shaping a response and recovery strategy, a key problem was an attempt to apply single incident plans to the crisis.  We focused initially on defining the crisis as a nuclear meltdown and tried to approach the crisis this way, but that only worsened the situation as the entire population in the core area hit by floods, etc. were panicked by the meltdown, but unable to move and to focus on their ability to have proper help to provide for tactical and strategic mobility.”

According to these officials, it was crucial to be able to apply tools, which would buy the Japanese leadership with time to peel back the elements of the Onion in order to start the recovery process.  “We did not have the proper tools in place to allow us to move people and to restore confidence.”

The US offered various types of aide in the situation, but the initial platform whereby aide came was in the form of carriers and amphibs to provide supplies for relief.  “At first we focused on direct relief, but soon came to realize that the sea bases provided significant alternative hubs to manage the movement of persons and to provide a sense of mobility and support to a population which hitherto felt trapped.  In other words, the sea bases became instruments not simply of relief, but facilitated recovery and reconstruction.  They became much more than supply depots to help the endangered population; they became part of the infrastructure for recovery and reconstruction. Obviously, the aircraft aboard these ships, notably the helicopters, became part of the mobility team able to not supply but move people strained in the situation.  The sea base became a visible reality to the Japanese people of how to overcome the limits of an island nation facing such catastrophe.”

The norm in this fluid part of the century is Gray Swans; and expecting shocks from Black Swans.  Agility is king; MRAPS are not.  To get agility after a period of operating on terrain with no contested air or sea space will be a challenge.  This is one reason why the USN and USMC team are planning the biggest amphibious exercise since the mid-1990s.  Re-gaining agility after shaping a large land operation is a challenge.

Although the list would be long, some Gray Swans hovering in the not too distant future can easily be identified.  What can not is how countries and stakeholders in various crises will react, how they will perceive their interests and how the dynamics of change will unfold in a compressed period of time.

Some of the candidate Gray Swans for 2012-2013 is the following:

  • A nuclear Iran with its attendant consequence on the Middle East and beyond;
  • The Islamic Republic of Libya finds its place in the world;
  • The Euro implosion leads to a significant power vaccum in Europe filled by the Russians and their energy wealth;
  • The Syrian implosion leads to outside intervention in shaping the future of Syria looking like the new Lebanon;
  • With the acquisition of new defense systems from Russia and Europe allows Vietnam to position itself to assert its interests against the PRC and this will mean even significant armed intervention;
  • Pakistan attacks a US UAV operating from Afghanistan;
  • A terrorist mine sinks an oil tanker in the Gulf;
  • A loose Libyan MANPADS is used to shoot down an A380;
  • A presumed nacrco mini sub is seized by the USCG and it is discovered that it is a terrorist armed mini sub;
  • Iranian border incursions into Iraq lead to pressures for dismemberment of the Iraq and pressure to build autonomous regions with significant outside pressure rewriting the Iraqi map.

Such events would challenge the U.S. and its allies to provide for security and defense of their interests.  But with the U.S. engaged in internal debates about budgets rather than strategic re-positioning and Europe enmeshed in reversing the last 20 years of its history, Gray Swans will have even greater consequences.  And with the West enmeshed in its own reflections, the actors shaping the period ahead will be largely non-Western.

In wake of an inability to re-shape US and allied agility and shaping effective forces and decision-making systems, the dominance of the 1990s by the West will be a distant memory in a few years, not decades.

Writing from the perspective of 2021, we might expect a strategic analyst to write:

As we go forward in 2021, it is good to look back on the last ten years to identify key trends that have reshaped our defense futures in Europe.  The last ten years have seen significant change, and with that change a re-configuration of the defense challenges facing Europe.

One significant change has been the continued decline of US power projection capabilities throughout the decade.  The cancellation of the F-22 was the harbinger of US preoccupation with its land wars.  Significant reductions in military space, a slowdown in the bomber program, termination of hypersonics programs, and a 40% reduction of the USAF and of the blue water naval assets accompanied the cancellation of the F-22.  The retirement of the F-16s, F-15s and A10s were accompanied by a slow roll-out of the F-35 program.  And allied defections from the F-35 program accompanied by a 40% cut in US numbers have slowed the program significantly with significant cost increases.

Although there has been much talk of strengthening European integration, European efforts remain tepid.  The joint forces, which would replace US diminished capabilities, have not materialized.  Indeed, in response to the great recession of 2009, Europe cut its defense budgets, invested heavily in the inconsequential Afghan campaign, and the result has seen a 30% reduction in European air and naval forces.

As a result, the West’s overall ability to influence global events through air, space and naval forces has significantly declined.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on AOL Defense