This Week at War: Doing More With Less

In my Foreign Policy column, I discuss Gen. Dempsey's plan for refocusing U.S. military forces. I also discuss why nothing seems to be working against Iran's nuclear program.

 

Adaptability will have to fill in for money and manpower

In a speech this week to senior leaders of the National Guard, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey revealed his outline of U.S. military strategy for the remainder of the decade. Dempsey's task is to reshape the military to accomplish anticipated missions, respond and adapt to surprises, and do all this with much less funding than previously expected. Fewer soldiers with fewer new weapons will be expected to do a wider variety of tasks. Whether the Pentagon can organize itself for such flexibility and whether soldiers can learn to be "jacks of all trades" remains to be seen.

In a recent essayfor Foreign Policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that the Asia-Pacific region will be the new center of U.S. policy. Dempsey's military strategy will support Clinton's diplomatic plan -- he announced that the Pacific will be his top military priority. It is comforting to know that the diplomats and soldiers might finally be cooperating on grand strategy.

But Dempsey reminded his audience that in spite of the emphasis on the Pacific, the United States remains a global power with worldwide responsibilities. Risk will likely rise in those areas where resources are thinned. Dempsey discussed three strategies to get more out of his remaining forces.

First, he called for a reformulated relationship between active-duty and National Guard and reserve forces. Implied in this proposal is a transfer of many active-duty Army forces, especially heavy tank and mechanized units, into the National Guard and reserve. With demand for such forces expected to drop following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, defense budget planners no doubt see this move as a way to save money on active duty personnel and training costs. The Air Force and Marine Corps will also likely be asked to similarly contribute. But a remaining concern is how quickly the Pentagon will be able to reconstitute reserve forces into effective combat units during a crisis.

Next, Dempsey called for a transformed relationship between special operations and general purpose forces. He noted that the capabilities of these forces have already been merging over the past decade. On a per soldier basis, special operations forces are expensive to train, equip, and maintain. Relative to its total budget, the Pentagon could achieve modest savings by having lower-cost general-purpose soldiers perform some designated special operations missions, such as foreign internal defense training. Such occasional substitution would free up special operations capabilities for missions requiring highly technical or covert skills. Dempsey was also likely referring to enabling support for special operations, which in the future may be provided in more cases by general purpose forces.

Dempsey's broadest and most-challenging strategy is to build a force that is capable of quickly executing military operations along the entire spectrum of conflict, from peacekeeping and training partner forces through high-intensity ground combat, including exotic capabilities such as cyberwarfare, defending space assets, and long-range strikes against heavily defended targets.

The Pentagon will have some amount of military capacity at all of these points on the spectrum of conflict. The challenge for Dempsey and his planners is whether the department will have on hand the needed quantities of particular capabilities when a crisis demands them. That is a forecasting problem, made more difficult by looming fiscal austerity, the full extent of which is still unknown.

Complicating the task are thinking adversaries, who attempt to exploit weaknesses. Inevitable forecasting errors and thinking adversaries create the need for rapid adaptation. Dempsey experienced this personally; he arrived in Baghdad in June 2003 to command a high-tech armored division designed for open country warfare, only to find himself in the middle of a growing urban insurgency. The Army and Marine Corps eventually adapted in Iraq, but it arguably took years to complete at a painfully high cost.

Dempsey and his colleagues are planning for less money, fewer troops, but no significant rollback in the Pentagon's global responsibilities. They will look to places like the National Guard and the past decade's operational experiences for savings and efficiencies. But this decade will throw up its own surprises. The Pentagon used to solve surprises by throwing money and manpower at the problem. Now, adaptation will have to do the job instead.

 

Struggling for leverage against Iran

This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its latest report on the Iranian nuclear program. Some of the report's more sensational details had already leaked out last week, provoking vague saber-rattling from Israel and ensuring that the report would make it to this week's front pages. As expected, the report's annex presented new evidence showing that Iran is working on an implosion-type nuclear bomb design and is attempting to miniaturize this design in order to fit it to its medium-range ballistic missiles. What hasn't changed is the international response to Iran, which has, since the beginning of this episode in 2002, been divided, muddled, and ultimately ineffective at persuading Tehran to reconsider its nuclear policy.

In spite of the IAEA's heightened concerns, the Russian government quickly made clear that it would not support a new round of economic sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. Thanks to Russia's preemptive veto, China was free to quietly walk away from the issue.

This may account for the strangely quiet response by President Barack Obama's administration to the provocative IAEA report. It would be pointless and embarrassing for the White House to call for new international action against Iran only to have its call rebuffed. The administration is likely to find unilateral action against Iran's central bank or oil industry similarly unappealing, as they could risk disrupting the global financial payment system, which is currently in no position to take on more risk.

U.S. policymakers have long hoped to persuade Iranian leaders that their nuclear program is making Iran less -- rather than more -- secure. This is becoming an increasingly tough case to make in Tehran. Sanctions have hurt Iran economically but they have also likely reached their limit. Russian and Chinese vetos at the Security Council, plus Iran's oil exports, ensure that the United States and Europe won't push sanctions much farther. The IAEA hasn't restricted Iran's steady progress on uranium enrichment or bomb design. Iran's nuclear-industrial complex has adapted to recent alleged Western covert actions, such as the Stuxnet computer attack and the assassination of nuclear scientists. The overall program rolls on. Finally, while one might think that Iran's nuclear ambitions would spark a balancing response from Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arab states in the region, coordinated defense planning among these countries remains feeble.

With nothing else working, the United States will most likely turn to deterrence and containment in an attempt to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran from achieving regional hegemony. Modeled after the early years of Cold War, such an approach would entail continued political and economic isolation of Iran, an explicit threat of devastating military retaliation in response to overt aggression, and waiting patiently for political change inside Iran.

This policy would be a stretch to implement. In addition to preventing the most obvious acts, such as overt Iranian military aggression, this policy will also be asked to dissuade a nuclear Iran from engaging in subversion-by-proxy and other forms of hybrid warfare. The policy will also be tasked with dissuading the Iranian government from profiting from weapons proliferation, as North Korea and Pakistan did when they sold components to Iran. During the Cold War, deterrence and containment prevented the Big War but had little effect on many other modes of conflict. When employed against Iran, proponents of deterrence and containment should have similarly low expectations.

Obama administration officials are no doubt well aware of the arguments against a preventive attack on Iran's nuclear complex. Such an attack would have only a temporary effect on the Iranian program, it would unify Iran -- possibly even including the now-marginalized political opposition-- against the United States, and it would make the United States an international pariah. For these reasons and others, Washington will be very reluctant to strike first.

But in a conventional shooting war against Iran, the United States, with its vast air and naval power, would enjoy "escalation dominance" -- the more a conventional conflict intensified, the more it would be able to bring its military superiority to bear. U.S. policymakers don't want to start shooting. But they might not mind if shooting starts. Any number of local sparks -- not least a fatalistic calculation by Israeli decision-makers -- could start a fire that could later draw in U.S. Central Command's firepower. If Iranian leaders believed this, it might make a containment policy, with all of its limitations, more effective.

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"First, he called for a reformulated relationship between active-duty and National Guard and reserve forces. Implied in this proposal is a transfer of many active-duty Army forces, especially heavy tank and mechanized units, into the National Guard and reserve."

My, it seems like reorganization is being used in place of an actual concept. They took almost all combat capability out of the Reserves, this ought to be interesting... Look at the eBDEs, now the BCTs... But what follows is far more significant...

" With demand for such forces expected to drop following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, defense budget planners no doubt see this move as a way to save money on active duty personnel and training costs."

Dear Lord, explain to me how adequate funding for training and equipment will happen for reserve (NG and reserve) components over time? We are now trying ARFORGEN, and I'm not seeing a groundswell of unit readiness because of it.

"Next, Dempsey called for a transformed relationship between special operations and general purpose forces. He noted that the capabilities of these forces have already been merging over the past decade. On a per soldier basis, special operations forces are expensive to train, equip, and maintain. Relative to its total budget, the Pentagon could achieve modest savings by having lower-cost general-purpose soldiers perform some designated special operations missions, such as foreign internal defense training"

While I have thought that any special force draws on the really good folks that could help raise the overall force capabilities (selection-destruction comes to mind), quantity has a quality all it's own.
Yes, the Army has used "lower-cost general purpose soldiers" like me to do mentoring.

"Dempsey and his colleagues are planning for less money, fewer troops, but no significant rollback in the Pentagon's global responsibilities. They will look to places like the National Guard and the past decade's operational experiences for savings and efficiencies. But this decade will throw up its own surprises. The Pentagon used to solve surprises by throwing money and manpower at the problem. Now, adaptation will have to do the job instead."

This is what really bothers me. Yes, I expect things to get tight. But what I see is inability of upper levels to ruthlessly set priorities... akin to the old "battle focused training" and METL. With all this digitization, how much have staffs been reduced? Is this "smart power"?

Lots of combat power could be generated from the staff at the Pentagon (could be wrong, but lets try it anyways). I only expect less funding, reduced troop levels, but don't expect the Pentagon to shed ANY staffing. Please prove me wrong, Gen Dempsey!

As the comments above alluded to in regard to reducing manpower in SOF and GPF, along with proper mission sets, there's a lot in the coming decisions that will be unpopular. And, much of what's being thrown around leads me to scratch my head and wonder what's going on.

The article is dead on with the following, taken from two paragraphs:

"The Army and Marine Corps eventually adapted in Iraq, but it arguably took years to complete at a painfully high cost.

Dempsey and his colleagues are planning for less money, fewer troops, but no significant rollback in the Pentagon's global responsibilities. "

Yes, it took a long, very long time to adapt. Both organizations adapted way too slowly. What may be more important is how far behind the 8-ball both organizations began the Post-911 era. From planning to fighting to logistics to equipment there was a large absence of forethought and a long delay in necessary change. And somehow people think we're going to come out of these wars, slash budgets, cut personnel, and yet hold onto the lessons learned and not enter the next conflict badly prepared, ill-equipped, and filling more body bags than necessary.

The concerns expressed above about cutting SOF for the sake of substituting them with GPF, thinking we're going to save money, but instead will just reduce capability are right on. Those thinking the cuts to GPF in order to preserve as much SOF capability, equating to reduced capability in both are also on the money.

We are at a good force level right now. Surely we need to find ways to curtail the spending but the people-panacea needs to stop. We speak of adaptability and right now we need to adapt to fiscal responsibilities while maintaining force structure and fighting capability.

With all due respect to GEN Dempsey I have to take strong exception to parts of this statement:

Excerpt: "Next, Dempsey called for a transformed relationship between special operations and general purpose forces. He noted that the capabilities of these forces have already been merging over the past decade. On a per soldier basis, special operations forces are expensive to train, equip, and maintain. Relative to its total budget, the Pentagon could achieve modest savings by having lower-cost general-purpose soldiers perform some designated special operations missions, such as foreign internal defense training. Such occasional substitution would free up special operations capabilities for missions requiring highly technical or covert skills. Dempsey was also likely referring to enabling support for special operations, which in the future may be provided in more cases by general purpose forces."

First the "per soldier cost basis" is a read herring. Special Operations Forces are so small relative to the entire force that the savings guesstimated here would be insignificant. I think the size of Army Special Operations Forces is less than 5% of the Army and that includes not only the actual operators but all the supporting (or enabling) forces (e.g., intelligence, communications, logistics, etc). But just replacing SOF with general purpose forces for "some" missions would have to imply that we are going to reduce the size of SOF after we have invested so much in building the capability. And if the second part of his argument is accepted there would be no cost savings because he would have them shift to "missions requiring highly technical or covert skills." But what really pisses me off is the way we just write off or denigrate the FID mission as in just anybody can do it. We must focus on having the right force do the right mission. GPF does need to be able to conduct FID (they were always supposed to by doctrine long before 9-11) – there are important capabilities in the GPF. But there are no lesser important FID missions. If the mission analysis reveals that SOF is the right force to conduct the FID mission then it should conduct it. If it reveals that a GPF unit is the right force then it should conduct it. If it reveals that a combination of SOF and GPF is required then they should task organize. We should not be talking about the GPF doing SOF missions but both GPF and SOF conducting the right missions.

Have to agree that the way he phrased it makes the hair on the back of my neck rise a little, because it seems he is seriously considering reducing SOF on the assumption that GPF can back fill some of our roles. At the same time GPF is being reduced, so less forces will be available to train and prepare to execute critical GPF missions, so why burden them with missions SOF are already uniquely trained and organized to conduct?

The budget cuts are going to drive a lot of hard and unpopular decisions, so we'll all have to sacrifice to some extent, but I think the wrong lessons may have been engrained in our psychic from Iraq and Afghanistan. Both of these operations were poorly planned and based on policies that a reasonable nation shouldn't pursue again. The future will be different, but there are still a lot of relevant lessons from prior to 9/11 on how to conduct FID more effectively than we have in the past decade. Normally smaller is better, and SF is uniquely organized and trained to conduct small and distributed operations when augmented with GPF enablers. It is a cost effective way of conducting business that doesn't challenge the host nation's sovreignty or legitimacy. Individuals from the GPF have always performed roles as advisors and trainers, especially for skill sets that are not unique or resident in SOF such as armor, artillery, logistics, etc. My concern is the Army's desire (hopefully this idea has died) to form BDEs focused on SFA. That to me seems like a waste of potential combat power, and is there really a demand signal for that much SFA capability in the GPF when we don't have the authorities to train and equip foreign forces except in select cases?

I know a lot of smart people are looking at these challenges, and suspect there are no perfect answers, only less worse ones.

This latest report from the IAEA can be characterized by a single change: the difference between an independent head of the IAEA, and his replacement by a firmly pro-US Amano; as much of the material that is now being presented in this latest report was known to the IAEA during the previous head's tenure and considered unreliable.

However there is a constant in all of this: the IAEA continues to report that Iran has not diverted any of its LEU from IAEA oversight, nor has it produced bomb quality HEU.