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.