Krepinevich's essay implies disruptive change

I applaud the editors of Foreign Affairs for featuring Andrew Krepinevich's essay ("The Pentagon's Wasting Assets") in its latest issue. Better late than never. The issues raised by Krepinevich may seem new to the staff at Foreign Affairs, but they are not; Pentagon planners discussed these topics in the 2006 QDR and in annual editions of its reports on Chinese military power. Most notably, the latest issue of Proceedings contains an essay written by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and Shawn Brimley, one of Flournoy's main strategists, that discusses almost point-for-point Krepinevich's issues.

Flournoy is in charge of the latest QDR; we can be sure that the report will once again discuss Krepinevich's issues. But will Secretary Gates and his staff actually recommend any effective policies in response to these threats? It is one thing to discuss the issues. It is another to implement policies that will be highly disruptive and controversial.

Krepinevich and Flournoy remind their readers of threats that many have missed while attention has focused on the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. What are these threats?

1) Disruption of U.S. satellite systems,

2) Cyber-attacks on U.S. telecommunication systems and computers,

3) Adversary anti-access/area denial capabilities in the Persian Gulf and western Pacific,

4) Ballistic missile threats against fixed U.S. bases overseas,

5) Precision indirect fire capability by non-state groups,

6) Growing vulnerability of surface naval forces,

7) Declining utility of short-range tactical aircraft.

The crushing U.S. victory in the Kuwait war in 1991 continues to reverberate. Actual and potential adversaries are challenging the U.S. at both the lowest and highest ends of the conflict spectrum while ignoring U.S. preponderance in the middle of the spectrum. The U.S. response to these challenges will thus emphasize efforts at the low and high end, leaving the middle to fend for itself.

At the low end, Krepinevich is surely right when he recommends an enduring U.S. commitment to security force assistance and foreign internal defense using an indirect approach. U.S. ground forces tasked to this mission (Special Forces and USMC SC MAGTFs among others) will grow in numbers, skills, and sophistication.

At the high end, Krepinevich sees an urgent need to acquire technology that is not yet mature. Anti-access/area denial capabilities, combined with ballistic missile barrages against forward bases, will push short-range tactical aircraft such as the F-35 out of range. The answer is unmanned vehicles of all types, launched from aircraft carriers, bases inside the United States, and underwater. Regarding threats in space, Krepinevich sees the need for a dispersed network of many small satellites, rather than a few highly capable units, along with a capability to quickly regenerate damaged satellite networks.

The Krepinevich and Flournoy essays imply changes that will be controversial. For example, one response to the cyber warfare challenge may be deterrence enforced with a demonstrated U.S. offensive cyber warfare capability. The U.S. had to adopt such a doctrine with nuclear weapons in the 1950s and may need to do so again with respect to cyber threats. Such a policy may be necessary to compel the Chinese and Russian governments to assume responsibility for cyber attacks directed against the U.S. that run through their territories.

Preparing for the low and high ends of conflict implies placing the middle of the spectrum on the back burner. This will be controversial and disruptive to the Pentagon bureaucracy and its defense contractor community. For example, under Krepinevich's vision the F-35, the Pentagon's single largest weapon program, has almost no utility due to its short range. The Pentagon should have leaped over the F-35 to the X-47 and successor UAVs. That is probably not possible now, although there is still time to accelerate UAV research and terminate early the F-35 production run. Developing an armed hunter-killer version of the Global Hawk could bridge the gap to an unmanned long-range long-endurance bomber.

The Navy's surface warship plan (another example from the middle of the warfare spectrum) has been in disarray for years and Krepinevich's reminder of the anti-access threat only adds to the stress, both to the Navy and to its shipbuilder contractors.

Finally, Secretary Gates has already terminated the vehicle portion of the Army's renamed Future Combat Systems program. The Army has yet to reconcile the conflicting goals of rapid strategic deployability with combat protection. Like other "middle spectrum" issues, this one will go to the back burner with relatively little risk; as surprising as it might sound today, within less than five years the vast majority of U.S. general purpose ground forces will very likely be back in their barracks.

Krepinevich's essay calls for action against some exotic threats that have received limited attention but that are ripening quickly. The Pentagon's planners are well aware of the problems. What remains to be seen is whether they have the courage to finally act on solutions that will be disruptive for both the global community and for the Pentagon's domestic constituents.

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The most disturbing thing about Krepenevich's Foreign Affairs article is that it purports to be about power projection, but in fact fails to address the hard problems of projecting power even into the Eurasia littoral, much less the Eurasian depth. He identifies problems, then shrugs them off with policy choices that amount to at least a partial strategic withdrawal out of our admittedly extended positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But how far backwards is too far back ? This tradeoff is not even discussed, much less fairly considered.

I made this point to Mearsheimer at APSA a few years ago - and he didn't get it, either. If you reduce or eliminate your ground force presence in these places, you end up back in 1978 debating the mission and structure of the Rapid Deployment Force. Now we have these Stryker brigades and at least the current C-17 inventory, but deferring the FCS ground vehicles and killing the C-17 production line is hardly the way to improve the strategic mobility of US ground forces. Krepinevich does not even bother to argue the point in his article - he ignores the issue altogether.

And Krepinevich applies the same Alice-in-Wonderland logic to EFV and F-35 as well. These programs, which are based on clearly defined and well understood roles and missions, are attacked as developing "wasting assets". Now, if you pull enough ground forces out of forward bases in Eurasia, you may in fact have to conduct an early entry operation, and you may need to see if the Air Expeditionary Force concept works. And while we certainly do need to concern ourselves with the survivability of our aircraft carrier force - the very backbone our our sea dominance as well as our capability to project forces along the Eurasian littoral - Krepinevich's recommendations do not match his problem statement. If he thinks the F-18 can handle the strike mission job, he needs to come out and say so. You don't get more capability by buying less...I'm reminded of Loren Thompson's brilliant quip, "Smart power begins with hard cash". Boy, I wish I had made that one up.

There is a very dangerous "go-it-alone, we can handle this job" attitude growing up within the special operations and intelligence communities. While resorting to special operations as a leading element of national power can be a decent economy of force strategy in times when the USA needs to conserve its strength and prepare to fight another day, the record of Eisenhower's "New Look" as well as the Reagan Doctrine reveals that the "small war" LIC strategy builds up negative externalities that have to be redeemed in blood and treasure later on. Thus, Eisenhower's abandonment of limited wars made it necessary to fight one in Vietnam a decade later. Reagan's willingness to support insurgencies and unwillingness to engage in counterinsurgency led to the rise of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Clinton tried and failed to destabilize Iraq using the CIA alone, leaving Bush 43 with the task of regime change using a combination of conventional and unconventional means.

Obviously, with very stringent budgetary constraints and declining political support, the Pentagon must use the resources it is given as wisely as possible. But overpromising and overreaching leads to serious structural inequities and programmatic chaos. A more modest and practical long-term vision would be a welcome change on K Street and throughout Washington. We know how this ends when the chickens come home to roost.

Krepinevich is one of the smarter force planners out there and does a lot to advance strategic thinking. Frankly we need more of it.

The key challenge is trying to match ends, ways and means based on the challenges you face. Even if we can create the perfect strategy and related plans based on a perfect strategic assessment, we still have to overcome a host of policy making and process related challenges. The Services, Congress, and various other vested interests along with the challenge of dealing with the DOD bureaucracy can easily destroy the perfect plan/strategy.

The QDR may lay out the perfect path forward, but unless there is a plan of attack for the non-force planning and strategy factors it will never come close to being executed.

The drawback to being rather intelligent is that one can believe one has all the answers -- and others do not comprehend the vision...

The late Robert S. McNamara and the early Donald Rumsfeld are classic examples. Andrew Krepinevich and all the Think Tank habitues also tend to exemplify that characteristic to an extent. One of the perils of such a view is shown in this comment:

"But will Secretary Gates and his staff actually recommend any effective policies in response to these threats?"

The probability is that they almost certainly will so that's a wasted question. It was, however, followed by a good comment:

"It is one thing to discuss the issues. It is another to implement policies that will be highly disruptive and controversial."

Thus the issue is not that Krepinevich, Flournoy and Brimley have any great insights, they do not. The real issue is that the policies that they aim for are indeed controversial -- disruptive, not so much and the disruptive aspect is a human thing.

They are controversial because they tend to be predictive and others -- equally smart -- predict different things. All of us non-smart folks wonder about the certitude shown and recall other predictions that have not come true -- and a worrying few that have become self-fulfilling prophecies. Skeptical. I think that may be a good word. The controversies exist because some are skeptical of snake oil.

As an aside, it's sort of humorous that the US victory in 1991 is described as a crushing victory. It was not any such thing, far from it in fact; had it been, many of today's problems would be of far less magnitude.

The fact that theoreticians can prescribe leaps in technology as a panacea neglects the fact that people must operate that technology (well, hopefully, anyway...) and while people can be trained to leap they by and large tend to resist leaping. Sometimes, that's not all bad. Didn't Omar Bradley predict in 1949 there would be no more amphibious operations. Then along came Inchon. Today we need EFVs -- or do we? In 2000, the demise of the Tank was resoundingly trumpeted. Of course that was true, tank demise, in 1941 also -- we developed the Tank Destroyer Force to help that idea along. Didn't work out as intended but it seemed a good idea at the time to a smart guy...

Point being, of course, that it take times to organize, shift equipment priorities and retrain forces. Allied point is that forward thinking is good but that many such thinkers don't do their people homework and prepare the battlespace. Telling others they're stupid and living in the past is not conducive to achieving ones goal. Better to enlist them to join your army of one. Virtually everything in the essay, in the Proceedings article and your list has been discussed for the last 30 years or more; before any of the Think Tank-ocracy was contemplating them. Why has more not been done?

The technology needed has been and is being developed but it's not all there yet...

People are reluctant to change the proven for the possibly better without more evidence than 'a smart person says so...'


For those three reasons, the essay and article may imply disruptive change but history shows that it is unlikely. Probably just as well. Rather than shaping for a future that is unclear, Krepinevich and Flournoy are aiming for this goal:

"At the low end, Krepinevich is surely right when he recommends an enduring U.S. commitment to security force assistance and foreign internal defense using an indirect approach. U.S. ground forces tasked to this mission (Special Forces and USMC SC MAGTFs among others) will grow in numbers, skills, and sophistication."

Bad idea. No one can be sure Krepinevich is right and many do not think he should be. Security force assistance, when required and using an indirect approach and SF is a good plan provided it's on an absolutely necessary and understated basis. Growing those forces in skills is worthwhile, sophistication may be worthwhile but growing them in numbers is not worthwhile -- in fact, it's a very bad idea. Create a tool, it will be used. Create more tools, they cry to be used.

If you enhance one capability -- major combat operations against a peer competitor for example -- you tend to neglect the others -- mid spectrum and low intensity, for example. We can see today where that approach got us. If you elect to enhance high and low capabilities and forego the mushy middle, I can pretty well predict when the GPF will again leave their barracks and for what. Our erstwhile opponents are not stupid...

The idea of putting midlevel warfare on the back burner is far from new; we tried that post World War II and several times since; 1956, 1976, 1991. How has that worked out for us?

We keep forgetting that others can see what we're neglecting and aim for that. In spite of all evidence, we appear to be determined to keep doing that. Seems to me it would be much smarter if we aimed for the other guys weak spots, tried to softly deter but smacked the holy living stuffing out of anyone so foolish as to not be deterred.

We have interfered around the world for over 200 years. For the first 100, we did it pretty successfully -- low key and understated but getting the message across with strategic and operational raids plus effective commerce, techniques that suit the US psyche. For the last 100, we have opted for larger and longer incursions and we have not really done so well. For the last 59 years we've in fact generally done really fairly poorly. Those operations do not mesh at all well with the US psyche.

Why do we try to bend down to meet others on their turf and their level? Makes no sense. Why do smart people recommend we do that? Makes no sense. We simply do not do SFA and FID well on a macro level. We can however do it well on a micro level. I think there's a message in that.

Rather then try to get the US involved with flawed states in a heavy handed role for which we as a collective are not temperamentally suited and for which our governmental system is very poorly designed and prepared (the theoreticians ALWAYS forget that big stumbling block), we'd be far better off preparing elements of the force to respond with strategic raids to direct provocations while the SF guys and a revitalized USAID and US Info Agency do their low key thing as needed.

Or we can keep doing what we've been doing and hope for a better result...

This may be a sort of small nit to pick, but Special Forces and Security Cooperation MAGTFs are not the only units tasked to the SFA mission, and will not be in the future. 4/82 is deploying to Afghanistan as the first Modular Brigade Augmented for Security Force Assistance, and this model will be used (from Phase 0 to Phase 5) in all AORs in the future.