2014-12-16 By Robbin Laird
As the US shapes its next phase of 21st century military and security policy, it is crucial to assess the capability of the national security system to set goals and objectives appropriate the tools available.
In a world of high demand, and scarce resources, this means that there are always limits, and options, but choice is not without its constraints.
There has been a growing literature based in part on the land wars of the past decade, which focus on the role of the military as part of a process whereby hard power transmutes into soft power and then into something called stability operations.
The notion here is that military engagement is about filling power vacuums, and then rebuilding capabilities in regions or nations to fill those vacuums, and the role of the military in the first is somewhat clear but in the second is not.
In this second area, so-called soft power is seen as the key element as the hard power of deploying force to fill the power vacuum is transformed into the creation of the “new” political, economic, cultural and military force to fill the vacuum.
A hard look at the past decade needs to be made, to determine what makes sense and what does not going forward.
What are the limits of the possible revealed by the past decade?
How effectively can an outside power remake power vacuums within foreign cultures?
What are the limits to foreign intervention, not simply military intervention, but intervention per se of outside powers?
It is not so much about hard to soft power, it is a question about the inherent limits of what a foreign power can do when invading, occupying and “remaking” a power substitute in a situation where there is a dangerous power vacuum for that outside power.
Looking back at the lessons learned of the past decade, should not simply or even primarily be about the US and allied militaries; it is about the capabilities of national security systems to deploy force and to define objectives for the use of force appropriate to the tasks and then withdrawing force effectively.
There is much literature on the problem of the military fighting the “last war,” but the military has innovated far more than the civilian systems whose main role with regard to the military is not simply deciding to send them, but to set realistic and evolving objectives towards their withdrawal.
It is not about simply sending the military to a crisis area and then hoping the situation resolves itself intuitively; it is about constantly shaping realistic policies which force can be used for, and then withdrawing those forces to preserve their warfighting capabilities, and not dissipating them in policy wind downs with no real strategic or tactical objectives in mind.
In other words, it is about using hard power for insertion to achieve objectives up to a certain point and then withdrawing those forces to preserve their combat capability.
It is about defining objectives, deploying force (and not micro managing the force when deployed) and withdrawing those forces when (almost by definition) those limited objectives are achieved.
It is about determining what are the success criteria short of totally remaking the crisis area to which force is deployed.
One problem has been that the dominance of the US Army and occupation thinking has migrated to what supporters call stability operations and nation building.
Despite the decidedly mixed (at best)results and the impossibility of squandering the national treasure as has been done in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a strong Army-led predisposition to try to transform the last decade into a next decade version of filling power vacuums with so-called ground forces.
I say so-called ground forces, because the U.S .has air-enabled ground forces, not ground forces.
And one clear force for change in the decade ahead is that the USAF will have more important tasks in the decade ahead than being the Fed Ex and United Airlines for the US Army.
A recent RAND report published for the US Army addresses some of these questions.
And as such provides a useful launch point to discuss ways to think about the decade ahead.
The report is entitled Improving Strategic Competence: Lessons from 13 Years of War and was done by the RAND Arroyo Center, the Army equivalent to CNA for the US Navy.
Not surprisingly, the report is pitched to looking at the future of the US Army but from the perspective of what the report considers to be a key failing, namely strategic competence gaps, so to speak.
According to the report’s abstract, the report is described as follows:
This report contributes to the ongoing debate about the lessons from the past 13 years of war and the requirements for addressing future conflicts.
It addresses a particular disconnect in the current debate on the future of national security strategy and the role of landpower caused by an inadequate examination of the national level of strategy made by the U.S. government.
The disconnect exists because there has been no systematic effort to collect and analyze insights from those who have been actively engaged in making policy and strategy from 2001 to 2014.
A RAND Arroyo Center workshop provided a mechanism for eliciting insights from policymakers and academic experts involved in the formation of national-level strategy and its implementation over the past 13 years.
This study analyzes and develops those insights in the context of the debate on future national security strategy.
It applies those insights to the future operating environment, which will include irregular and hybrid threats, and identifies critical requirements for land forces and special operations forces to operate successfully in conjunction with other joint, interagency, and multinational partners
This is a classic statement in Think Tank speak.
But a clearer statement was provided in an article published by Sandra Erwin in National Defense.
The United States does not have a credible strategy to combat enemies like Islamic extremist groups and needs to rethink its entire national security decision-making process, a new military-funded study suggests.
“I don’t think we understand completely the fight we are in,” said Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, commanding general of U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
Despite 13 years of grueling wars, he noted, the national security apparatus has not adapted to changing threats and has not learned to cope with complex challenges.
“We are in a competition where it looks like football to us, but it’s really a game of soccer with elements of rugby and lacrosse,” he said Dec. 12 during a gathering of think tank experts and military officials hosted by RAND Corp. senior analyst Linda Robinson. She is one of the authors of a new study sponsored by Army Special Operations Command, titled, “Improving Strategic Competence: Lessons from 13 Years of War.”
RAND analysts wade into the debate about the lessons from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and whether the United States is applying those lessons to address future conflicts.
Cleveland said the study exposes uncomfortable truths that not everyone in official Washington will want to hear, but need to be recognized. One of those realities is that the military continues to fight the last war even though enemies such as the Islamic State present entirely new challenges. “We have to be honest about how much legacy we are bringing into a fight that is not suited for the legacy we bring forward,” he said. “This is unlike anything we’ve confronted, I think, in our past.”
The counterterrorism machine the United States stood up after the 9/11 attacks has become a bureaucratic juggernaut that struggles to adapt, Cleveland said. “We built a great apparatus for terrorism. It has huge advocacy. If someone questions it, you run the risk of taking on an entrenched infrastructure.”
The United States needs fresh ideas on how to make the nation safe, he said, and they can’t just involve military actions. “We keep adapting the existing tools the best we can but at some point we have to develop new tools, new ways to look at this problem.”
In the case of the Islamic State, the Obama administration was caught unprepared to deal with a terrorist group that turned into a “no-kidding insurgency” that conducts maneuver warfare, information campaigns and is taking on the characteristics of a nation state. It is still not clear how to respond,
This all sounds promising, so with the Erwin piece in mind, I dove into the study.
But what I found was less fulfilling than I hoped to find for what quickly became evident was that the report more or less updated the last decade for the next.
And we learned such insights as the importance of “whole of government” approaches rather than relying on the traditional military.
At the heart of the problem is the failure of political authorities and crisis managers to define clear objectives within the limits of the possible and withdrawing force when those limits are reached.
It is about defining success; not decisive victory.
Interestingly, the report is built around a core contradiction on this point.
On the one hand, the report argues for victory as the definer for intervention; and on the other, for a more nuanced success indicator.
Military campaigns take place in the social, cultural, and political contexts of the states in which they are fought, and any successful operation will be cognizant of those contexts and have a plan for how to operate within, exploit, influence, and achieve victory in them.
The lack of a political strategy, the failure to recognize its centrality, and its inadequate integration and sustained application may be the most important insights to arise from this inquiry. (pp.52-53).
Yet later the report comes closer to the reality of political use of combat forces, namely the need to declare what is success rather than a final notion of victory.
The theory is based on a broader conception of war to include the political dimension.
That broader conception in turn necessitates a theory of success that addresses the full dimensions of war.
The ways of achieving success encompass a much wider range of actions.
The desired political outcome may be obtained via containment or mitigation, formally negotiated settlements, informal power sharing, or elections and constitutional charters that establish the basis for a new political order.
These outcomes may be sought, of course, without waging war; but the point is that the goals of war must also encompass some such outcomes.
Otherwise the United States runs the risk of winning battles but failing to achieve strategic (or even operational) success.
This broader view does not make attaining success necessarily more difficult, but rather opens up a broader definition of what success may look like and a wider range of ways to attain it (p.99).
The report focuses on shortfalls of the military and its thinking about success; and the need for a broader concept of achieving objectives than simply using force.
The report makes a clear argument that the skill sets developed over the past decade need to be maintained going forward as the “political” context of military engagement requires them.
This study suggests that recognizing the likely continuities between the recent past and the possible future will provide a hedge against unwise abandonment of hard-won innovations in practice and thought.
While budget decisions necessarily force reductions in capacity, many of the capabilities developed over the past 13 years merit retention at smaller scale.
Some of those capabilities warrant further investment of time or resources to ensure they are refined to perform better in the future.
And some ongoing gaps, if not addressed, represent a risk to future mission success. (p.123).
Even if one accepts that some skill sets of the sort advocated by the report are important, and I certainly would agree with that, the question is within which budgetary and force structure context?
Having visited the Pacific earlier this year, while the Army was making their bid for a Pacific Pathways strategy, whereby the USAF would essentially take the Army around the region, the reality is that the other services plus the allies valued the US Army contribution in missile defense more than human terrain mapping.
Yet in the report, the only mention of missile defense is scarce references to the Manpads threat!
The most fundamental problem facing the US Army as an occupation force can be put simply:
When an outside power intervenes and stays as an occupying power it is always a “them to the us” of the local culture or state.
This “them-us” dichotomy is built into occupation.
It is inherent in the use of force itself, for the state is using force for specific punishment purposes, not to set up a new nation or welfare state.
An outside power intervening ALWAYS upsets the local power structure, and locals leverage the presence of the outside power to augment their own power within their society, either by working with or suberverting the occupation power ‘s agenda.
Since the RAND authors want to talk about political context, let us talk about the political context of occupation and its impacts.
This takes the discussion then out of the lingo of think-tankese.
The report spends a great deal of time focusing on the transformation of the military to enable it to do political interventions and, in effect, occupations without grasping the single most important question – where and why?
And who is writing the check for all of this?
A colleague commenting on an earlier version of this article added this insight into the challenges of moving forward to deal with the threats of the next decade and not being trapped by the “stability occupations” argument.
At the heart of the traditional land power argument is a concept that goes something like this:
“In the end, land forces will secure the objective to allow Phase IV follow on operations.
No other force can achieve what a present, persistent land force can do.
All other forces in their respective mediums should support the land force
in their efforts to secure this objective.”
The Petraeus corollary to this idea is that to do so will take 25 years and in the end the locals must own the problem.
I would argue the locals already owned the problem from the start and all a great power can do is set conditions to allow one side of the local power equation to rule.
My models are Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya not Iraq or Afghanistan.
The problem is the lingering notion that a massive, armored land army will be required to deal with a peer competitor.
Problem: if A2/AD is a problem for air and sea forces then it’s a complete bar to land power employment in the same theater at least the current US Army formations of armored BCTs.
In my mind a tank is the 21st century equivalent of a battleship of the 1920s. If your opponent has access to his airspace and possesses late 20th century precision attack (ISR plus sensing weapons), tanks will be defeated like Saddam’s were in 1991.
This is the lesson PRC and DPRK as well as others except the US Army have noted.
My Army friends also acknowledge the value of airpower but only as a prelude to their operations.
I am not personally interested in a strategy that repeats pastglories (note today is the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge).
Our adversaries have seized on nukes as an answer to our way of war.
So precision attack from long range on a very specific set of targets that limit causalities on both sides, allow the power elites of the adversary to live to see their mistake and choose a path to peace is what we should figure out how to do.
The military has over adapted to land occupation and nation-building.
The challenge is not to modernization the approach but to jettison it.
And with it, the core obligation of civilians to manage crises needs to be highlighted.
It is about using the military instrument to intervene to a level where success is attained and then to withdraw.
One reads in vain in the report for a real treatment of the fundamental gap in the national security system, namely civilian crisis managers who can put in place reasonable exit strategies when forces inserted have achieved the limits of success appropriate and possible to a situation.
In effect, the report blurs the lines between what a coherent military operation can accomplish and what the national leadership might wish to accomplish in a particular state, region or crisis.
We learn such things as “technology cannot substitute for expertise in history, culture and languages because of the inherently human and uncertain nature of war” or that “interventions should not be conducted without a plan to conduct stability operations, capacity building, transition and, if necessary counterinsurgency.”
If we look back at Afghanistan we accomplished the most that we really needed to achieve with the initial destruction of the Taliban government in the early Afghan war period.
The insertion was well organized and well designed; and we did not need to go down the path of nation builder and occupier of Afghanistan.
No amount of language training is going to make the US Army Afghani. Full stop.
What we need from RAND and from the Washington think tanks is a serious look at the missing capabilities of the civilian side of the equation – what are the objectives of an intervention and as we intervene how do we plan for withdrawal?
And with that what are the limited but important objectives we can achieve by using the military?
This is what missing; not turning the US military into the Red Cross.
There is no doubt that the US military needs to progress in terms of its ability to work within coalitions, to better understand how to operate in various global settings, but clearly this is ongoing for the US military.
In fact, one could argue that the US military as a whole understands the broader world considerably better than its political masters.
As Dr. Kenneth Maxwell, the noted American and English historian of Brazil has observed: “One problem for the U.S. has clearly been that the US military is engaged globally in way that neither the Congress nor Administration officials have been. This means that foreign leaders often look to the US military for advice in ways that the domestic bound politicians can simply not provide.”
And it is hard to argue that AID or the State Department are stunning performers or the CIA or NSA for that matter with regard to working global foreign policy challenges, problems or anticipating threats.
So it is not clear that pushing the U.S. military further into the swamp of “interagency and intergovernmental coordination” will make for more effective interventions; it could give us endless Iraq’s or Afghanistan’s, something that surely will end with the US military bankrupt and ineffectual.