Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: Playing Risk

My Foreign Policy column discusses some risky assumptions inside the Pentagon's new strategic guidance. I also discuss why Gulf Cooperation Council members are still failing to cooperate on Iran.


The Pentagon's risky new assumptions

Last week, I discussed the release of the Pentagon's new strategic guidance, the document that attempts to explain how the U.S. military services and field commanders plan to cope with a $487 billion cut from their previous 10-year budget plan. Defense analysts now await the White House's detailed defense budget request, a document that is bound to contain a lot of unhappy news for Congress members and defense contractors. I noted last week that the strategic guidance implied substantial cuts to the Army and Marine Corps, implicitly accepting that the United States will no longer be able to send major deployments to two simultaneous crises. But that is just one of many risks the new guidance will force Pentagon planners to cope with.

The cuts to U.S. ground forces will necessarily increase the responsibilities borne by U.S. allies. The strategic guidance discusses the Pentagon's "plan to operate whenever possible with allied and coalition forces." In addition, the document emphasizes the importance of providing security force assistance to build the capacity of partner forces. The authors of the new strategy are counting on this assistance to help fill in for reduced U.S. forces in the future. In reality, however, traditional allies in Europe and elsewhere continue to cut rather than increase their military capacities. Recent U.S. "coalitions of the willing" did produce contributions from many countries, but the majority of these contributions were militarily insignificant. Future U.S. security crises might matter even less to U.S. allies, which will be reluctant to provide significant troop contributions. Planning for allies to do the work previously done by now-furloughed U.S. soldiers is a risk.

In his rollout of the new strategy, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called for U.S. forces to be "more agile, flexible, [and] innovative" as a way of compensating for reduced numbers. But what does it mean precisely to be more agile, flexible, and innovative? Can Panetta and his staff point to specific indicators of agility or flexibility that his forces cannot achieve now but could under different conditions? What training, leadership, or equipment is required to achieve these undefined higher levels of agility and flexibility? Without a more detailed description, it sounds more like sloganeering than a strategy. Panetta and others may express a desire to more rapidly shift forces around the globe in response to crises, but U.S. forces face an increasing challenge of denied access from adversary missiles, a fundamental threat the new strategy is supposed to address. Until the Pentagon resolves the anti-access challenge, improved strategic mobility is itself another problem, rather than a solution to a problem of reduced troop numbers.

The strategic guidance discusses the idea of "reversibility," or retaining the military's ability to reconstitute forces in response to crises. The report describes plans to retain larger numbers of field-grade officers and sergeants in the Army and Marine Corps to accommodate rapid reconstitution of previously shuttered formations. The strategy also discusses an updated role for reserve forces to reconstitute needed combat units. Although these are sensible preparations, in the past it has usually taken two years or more for the U.S. military to fully adapt to major strategic shocks. This is the typical amount of time a large bureaucracy like the Pentagon needs to comprehend a new adversary and its tactics, accept that the new challenge differs significantly from those forecast in prewar plans, and then overcome the bureaucratic hurdles needed to design and implement effective responses. The new strategic guidance may hope to speed up this timeline, but simply assuming it will go faster next time is a risk.

The impending defense cuts increase stress for Pentagon planners because they reduce the margin of error they will have to work with. Possessing redundancy and safety margins of troops, equipment, and bases seems wasteful, even more so during a budget crisis. Getting the new strategic guidance to work during a future crisis will mean hoping that the new planning assumptions come true and that Murphy's Law doesn't strike too often. U.S. military history shows that "planning for perfection" rarely turns out well.


When it comes to Iran, the United States could use a little more help from its Arab friends.

In a Jan. 8 interview, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, admitted that Iran did have the military capacity to block the Strait of Hormuz "for a period of time." Dempsey went on to reassure his questioner that U.S. military forces around the Persian Gulf region could eventually reopen the strait to maritime traffic. After just completing one round of naval maneuvers, Iran promised an even bigger naval exercise in February. Over at least the medium term, the United States will have to bear the primary responsibility for guaranteeing access to this critical portion of the global commons. Over the long run, the United States would like its Arab allies to pick up a bigger share of the burden. Unfortunately, a recent conference sponsored by U.S. Central Command and the Rand Corp. seemed to throw a barrel of cold water on this prospect.

A new publication from Rand discusses the results of this July 2011 conference, which was keynoted by Marine Gen. James Mattis, the head of Centcom, as well as Puneet Talwar, senior director for the Persian Gulf region for the National Security Council. Around 100 regional experts participated in various panel discussions under Chatham House rules, meaning their remarks were recorded but not attributed by name.

The United States has an interest in promoting a NATO-like political and military alliance among its Sunni Arab allies in the region as a balancing force to Iran. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), composed of Saudi Arabia and the other smaller Sunni countries on the western side of the Persian Gulf, would ideally be the basis of this balancing force. Regrettably, the conference participants concluded that the GCC remains bogged down by mistrust and a lack of coordination. Even worse, just when rising tensions with Iran should be increasing cooperation with the United States, Washington's relations with most GCC countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, are worsening.

Events in 2011 afforded several GCC countries a chance to flex their military muscles and to do so in cooperation with other GCC members and the United States. For example, GCC member Qatar was a major player in the Libyan rebellion, supplying both fighter aircraft and a large contingent of special-forces advisors to the rebels, an action that was supported by other GCC members. Yet the conference concluded that GCC support for the Libyan rebels was motivated by animus toward Muammar al-Qaddafi and was therefore not a precursor for better military cooperation among members in the future. Similarly, the Saudi-led GCC intervention to prop up Bahrain's royal family is expected to do little to improve GCC military coordination against the Iranian threat. In fact, the conference suggested that the internal crackdown in Bahrain may have damaged the Bahrain royal family's credibility and may eventually place U.S. military bases in the country in jeopardy.

According to the conference participants, the Arab Spring has created collateral damage to U.S. relations with key Gulf countries. Leaders in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere were not pleased with the Obama administration's abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. U.S. policymakers seem to make a clear distinction between external threats to the Sunni Arab countries, to which the United States has pledged to respond, and internal threats, which the United States sees as each country's responsibility. The Sunni monarchies, fearing Iran's covert and irregular-warfare capabilities, do not so neatly see the distinction between Iranian-sponsored external and internal threats. The conference reported that some GCC leaders, having lost some confidence in U.S. reliability, are now looking east to India and China to diversify their security relationships.

U.S. diplomats and regional commanders such as Mattis are caught in several dilemmas. Over the long run, U.S. officials want to encourage more self-reliance and cooperation among GCC states. Yet they also want these countries to have enough confidence in U.S. guarantees that they won't wander off to establish alliances with the likes of China. Similarly, the Arab Spring seemed to bring about the possibility of greater self-government in the Arab world. But U.S. officials have also discovered that pushing this fundamental value might put at risk U.S. security relationships in the region and thus increase the burden on U.S. forces responsible for global commons like the Strait of Hormuz. Mattis's conference showed that solutions to these dilemmas are as far away as ever.



I agree that reliance on security force assistance and the assumption that allies and partners will enable us to mitigate the risks associated with reduced defense funding is based more on hope than fact. Most of the foreign contributions to both Iraq and Afghanistan were/are militarily insignificant, but then on the other hand when it comes to dealing with globally networked threats such as terrorism, WMD proliferation, transnational criminal organizations, etc. relatively minor investments in security force assistance and procedures for sharing information and collaboration on areas that are common concerns is much more effective than trying to go solo.

When it comes to being “more agile, flexible, [and] innovative,” why should Secretary Panetta point to specific indicators? It is a task to the JS and services to develop these innovative solutions, and I think there are several innovative approaches that can be developed to address a wide range of security challenges. If the SECDEF gave examples they would be interpreted as guidance and limit the creativity of the staff.

Maybe I’m the last holdout, but it seems we’re making too much of the anti-access problem. Any State on State conflict has and will involve offense and defense. Defense has always included anti-access technologies and tactics, and if we were on the offense we had to develop the means to overcome them whether it was hitting the beaches in Normandy or storming Japanese islands, or the landing at Inchon, or the deep bombing raids into North Vietnam, and so forth. No doubt as our adversaries technologies evolve and tactics change, our technology and tactics must change also. Maybe excessive focus on irregular warfare over the last 10 years has created a deficit in that co-evolution, but it seems that could be addressed rather quickly.

I don’t think reversibility is a greater risk than it has been historically, and actually it may reduce risk in some ways. If we have a standing force that is trained and equipped for the wrong fight, and its leaders are indoctrinated with inappropriate doctrine, forming a new force from scratch may be more effective. I realize this is a reach, but perhaps worth considering.

You made some interesting comments about the political dynamics in CENTCOM due to the Arab Spring I wasn’t aware of that support your arguments about over reliance on coalitions and SFA. However, since the new strategic guidance talks about the strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region it would seem appropriate to address that also. I also think we may not be putting enough emphasis on our backyard in SOUTHCOM.

Mark Pyruz

Sat, 01/14/2012 - 1:12am

Let's face it, Robert, the Saudis have been ticked off ever since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, "delivering" Iraq into the hands of the Iranians. Ever since, one could even make the case for the Saudi's perceiving U.S. moves in the region as being incompetent. As it is, the Saudis are contending with Shia unrest in their own country and neighboring Bahrain. A war with Iran would likely be like pouring gasoline onto the flames of this unrest.

As for the GCC and a potential regional war, they actually live in the neighborhood and would be physically and materially impacted; where we Americans would likely only see a relative pinch to our pocketbooks in the form of $6 to $8 a gallon fuel, and associated price increases at the supermarket.