Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: The General's Dystopia

In my Foreign Policy column, I explain why the Pentagon's plans fall short of the harsh future recently described by Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey.


On April 12, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed what he called the "security paradox" at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The good news in the world today, according to Dempsey, is that interstate conflict is currently minimal, human violence is at an all-time low, and the United States faces "no obvious existential threat." Yet Dempsey insisted that "I'm chairman at a time that seems less dangerous but it's actually more dangerous." Why?

Although geopolitical trends are ushering in greater levels of peace and stability worldwide, destructive technologies are available to a wider and more disparate pool of adversaries.... What truly concerns me as chairman is that these lethal and destructive technologies are proliferating in two directions. They're proliferating horizontally across advanced militaries in the world, and they're proliferating vertically, down to non-state actors, especially insurgents, terrorist groups and even transnational organized crime. As a result, more people have the ability to harm us or deny us the ability to act than at any point in my life. And that's the security paradox.

As examples, Dempsey noted that dozens of "middleweight militaries" now possess the kind of precision-guided missiles and bombs that were the monopoly of the United States and a few of its allies a decade or so ago. Adversaries now have easy access to the components needed to assemble electronic warfare systems that can confuse U.S. sensors and weapons. Cyberattacks, mounted by both states and lone actors, routinely penetrate supposedly secure networks and could potentially cripple government and private sector command and control systems. "As a result," Dempsey concluded, "anyone with the motivation and the money can design, assemble and field highly advanced, sophisticated weapon systems."

With this ominous report, Dempsey defended the Obama administration's new defense strategy, which, he explained, will create a military force "that can deter and defeat threats at every point along the spectrum of conflict, from lone individuals or terrorist groups to middleweight militaries packing a new punch, and all the way up to near-peer competitors." While Dempsey's diagnosis of the current threat environment feels both accurate and insightful, the strategy he's touting seems deficient in both vision and scale in the face of the threats he described.

Dempsey is certainly correct when he implies that military power has never been more disconnected from population size or available manpower. In the industrial and pre-industrial eras, military power was highly correlated with the ability to mobilize large armies and the resources necessary to sustain them. Nation-states -- the larger, the better -- had a monopoly on this capability.

In a post-industrial era, the correlation between population and military power is sharply reduced. Examples of this transformation abound. Very small countries like Israel and Singapore field military forces far more powerful than their populations would suggest and provide security for themselves in regions with far larger neighbors. Last summer, Special Forces soldiers from the tiny nation of Qatar led the boots-on-the-ground unconventional warfare campaign inside comparatively massive Libya that brought down Muammar al-Qaddafi. Among non-state actors, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon has the military organization and enough sophisticated weapons to rival many states in the region. Mexico's Sinaloa and Los Zetas drug cartels have the resources and structure to merit consideration as small but troublesome quasi-military organizations.

The falling costs and increased dispersion of militarily useful technology has lowered the barriers for organizations, be they nation-states or non-state actors, to become dangerous military threats. For such potential military powers, acquiring warehouses of small arms, munitions, and equipment is merely an afterthought. Anti-aircraft and anti-ship guided missiles, once only for major military powers, are now available for sale or fabrication from commercial components. The dispersion and cheap access to technology applies not only to munitions but also to supporting components such as optics, night vision sensors, communications and navigation devices, and electronic warfare equipment -- areas where the Pentagon has invested enormous sums over past decades. The advantages U.S. forces formerly gained from those investments are now fleeting, a consequence of the falling costs and increased dispersion of such technology.

But it is hard to square Dempsey's description of a world with sharply lower barriers to military power with his defense of the administration's strategic guidance and budget. Even as he describes a world that he believes is "more dangerous" and one where "more people have the ability to harm us or deny us the ability to act than at any point in my life," he also defends a defense budget that cuts the budget by at least $487 billion over the next ten years and cuts not just ground troops but also schedules an early retirement for a long list of Navy ships and Air Force squadrons.

Dempsey and other military leaders will note that U.S. forces have benefited greatly from the Pentagon's investment in research that has allowed U.S. forces to substitute technology for manpower. For example, a few U.S. Army artillery cannons, firing a small number of precise satellite-guided shells, can produce battlefield effects formerly requiring an entire artillery battalion. A single jet fighter with laser-guided bombs now does what a squadron was assigned to do 25 years ago. And the Undersecretary of the Navy, Robert Work, has asserted that the 300-ship Navy he plans for later this decade will be more powerful and as present in as many places as the 600-ship navy of the 1980s. This is the administration's reasoning for why it can shrink the military while still fulfilling all of the required missions.

However, policymakers have also committed the U.S. military to obligations spanning the globe. The United States has taken on responsibility for patrolling the "global commons," such as international waterways and airspace vital to global commerce. These duties require the Pentagon to invest in expensive expeditionary capabilities, and in sufficient quantities to maintain a meaningful presence at important places in the global commons such as the South China Sea. The dispersion of military technology that Dempsey described will allow a greater number of potential adversaries adjacent to the global commons (most of whom will not have to spend money on globe-spanning expeditionary capabilities) to narrow the technological gap versus the U.S. forces, negating what Pentagon planners assumed was an enduring U.S. advantage. American quality might no longer be an efficient substitute for quantity.

More worrisome is the disparity between the rapidly evolving nature of the security environment described by Dempsey and the plodding, status quo nature of the Pentagon's Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP). The imminent end of the war in Afghanistan has provided the Defense Department with the opportunity to make a bolder adjustment for the future world Dempsey described. The FYDP, by contrast, continues long-established weapons programs (albeit at reduced funding), makes few notable changes to the structure or organization of U.S. forces, and largely ignores the question of whether the legacy organization and procurement priorities it maintains are well-suited to the distributed military threats that Dempsey described.

The inevitable result will be U.S. military forces tasked to do much more with less. Dempsey boasted of a force capable of defeating "threats at every point along the spectrum of conflict." But under his assumptions, there will very likely be many more of these threats at several points along the spectrum as the cost of acquiring entry and mid-level military power continues to decline.

There is a gap between the world Dempsey has described and the forces and doctrines that will be available to future U.S. military commanders. His remarks envisage an expanding set of threats. Many of these will not end up being serious enough to merit attention from the Pentagon. Policymakers should define which security problems merit the Pentagon's notice and those that allies and other agencies should monitor. Such clear guidance will help the Pentagon focus on the threats that can alter the global strategic balance as opposed to those that are non-strategic nuisances.

For those that remain on the Pentagon's plate, planners should ponder whether the FYDP's forces, organizations, and weapons are really a good match for the world Dempsey has described. Aside from spending cuts, the administration's new plans are not that new. The next team to arrive at the building will have some leftover work to catch up on.




Sun, 04/22/2012 - 4:33pm

In reply to by DavidPB4

More of a question than a comment, while the Parcel Islands are close to the Chinese mainland and recognized as their territory, the Spratly Islands which are far from China and close to the Philippines and Vietnam are most certainly not. These island areas are believed to hold significant reserves of oil. I am rather familiar with their location as unknown to most during the Vietnam Conflict we occasionally landed small forces on these islands to make certain the North Vietnamese were not using them as staging areas for sending arms into the South.

Given that China appears to be making threats against the Philippines and threatening military moves into that area, do we support the Philippines and stop de facto Chinese imperialistic moves into that area, or simply ignore it? In this instance, is not China acting in the manner of the European expansionists of a previous century? I suppose if one takes a historical view, the Chinese can be asked why are they occupying Tibet and will they ever make moves against Taiwan? Of course, what do we owe the Philippines given their forcing us to leave our bases in that country and maybe we would be better off if the Chinese had a source of oil of their own and therefore would not affect the world price by increasing demand for that commodity?


Sun, 04/22/2012 - 2:41pm

Madhu - Thank you for your measured and thoughtful response.

Nuclear weapons do potentially promise to deter war in Asia. Although nuclear deterrence is also a western idea, the context of its implementation is not. I believe that India is the only nuclear power to state its willingness to renounce nuclear weapons if its neighbors follow suit. China has stated that it has no military ambitions except to defend interests close to its shores. There is therefore no necessary reason for anything like the Anglo-German rivalry of a century ago to arise between China and America or between China and a neighboring state. All of these differences set Asia apart.

There are, however, two problems that motivated my comment. One is that the great powers of Asia, China and India, are building up their conventional military capabilities. Modernization of conventional forces of fixed size is a part of modern defenses, but expansion (particularly of blue water naval forces beyond the requirements of anti-piracy) implies to me the kind of strategic thinking that could produce a more stressful future, even with nuclear weapons to induce greater caution in the use of force.

The other problem is that disputes in Asia, while different, are not completely different from those in pre-1914 Europe. For example, it is possible to imagine a terrorist attack against India originating from Pakistan that would place enormous pressure on India to respond with force. It is hard to imagine India allowing terror attacks originating in Pakistan to continue with impunity simply because Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Nuclear deterrence vastly reduces the likelihood of war but does not rule it out absolutely.

It is certainly true that Asia has endured traumas of its own in the last hundred years and I apologize for my wording here. The question is what Asia and Europe have concluded from their respective traumas about the requirements for regional peace. I would agree that one should be skeptical about applying European analogies everywhere, and in suggesting a system of shared military power for Asia I did not mean to discount regional capacities for peace without western ideas. If Asia can find its way to peaceful coexistence on some other basis, no one will be more pleased than me to consign European analogies to a past that we can finally close.


Sat, 04/21/2012 - 4:31pm

Your points are well taken. But if the long-run trend is for militarily relevant qualitative differences between America and its adversaries to narrow, then I would agree with the other commenters that bold thinking is now required.

The two deeper aims we should have in the long run are to achieve stability in Asia and to encourage a stronger community of nations in the world as a whole. Achieving these will greatly reduce the dangers posed by smaller powers and nonstate groups.

The long-term danger in great-power relations is the development by the middle of this century (or sooner) of a situation in Asia that resembles the one that existed in Europe before 1914. So far, Asian great powers seem willing to pursue arms programs and maintain territorial claims that may bring such a situation about. As a result, (1) we will continue to struggle to sustain a global U.S. military presence that probably has only a decade or two to continue in its present form, while (2) tensions between the great powers of Asia, and the capabilities of medium powers and nonstate actors elsewhere, will continue to grow.

The question in Asia is whether China and its neighbors are capable of strategic compromise. One possibility is a NATO-like regional alliance in Asia in which China agrees to take supreme command in return for placing naval and air forces under Japanese and Indian command respectively, with America standing outside but ready to intervene if needed. The world would then have two supra-national defense communities, in Europe and Asia, that might keep those two key regions at peace.

Asia probably isn't ready to embrace such a shared future right now, but neither was Europe at one time. The question that Asians must answer is whether Asia needs to undergo the traumas that Europe underwent in order to change in this respect or at least hold tensions in check.

In the meantime, we might begin to think about the institutions that unite the democratic world in terms of what sacrifices would be necessary to make them stronger, more inclusive, and more democractically accountable.

Whatever one thinks we should do, the time to debate imaginative ideas is now. If current trends continue, the chance of repeating the 20th century will only grow. This prospect should be as much the focus of strategic thinking as defense priorities with a more immediate timeframe.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 04/21/2012 - 8:32am

What the US needs to focus on to address what GEN Dempsey describes must include a long hard look at two areas we prefer to ignore:

1. A hard look at what aspects of US policy are both provocative and also unnecessary or inappropriate to secure interests that are truly vital to the US.

2. Points of vulnerability inherent in many modern defense systems that we are heavily reliant upon. A navy built around carrier battle groups, an air force overly reliant on space, etc.

We need to redefine how we engage the world and how we secure our interests in the course of that engagement. This is much more than a military mission. Much more. Too many are sniping at the fringes of the problem, or too trapped in their thinking within artificial parameters imposed upon ourselves by ourselves. It is time for bold thinking, unconstrained by party lines or institutional norms. In fact, it has been time for nearly 30 years.

This is a great article, over the past 20 or so years we have focused on state on state threats, then expanded our focus to internal threats (Peace Operations), and then struggled with addressing transnational threats like Al-Qaeda and increasingly powerful transnational criminal organizations. The actors in all three categories (actors include, insurgents, separtists, political extremists {Norway killer}, transnational violent extremists, criminals, and potential adversarial states, etc.)are increasingly capable of acquiring and employed disruptive technologies due to the effects of globalism. Globalism not only includes the growing movement of people, money, and goods across borders, but also knowledge. This in turn facilitates power shifts among actors, to include non-state actors, much faster than the Department of Defense's deliberate planning system can adapt to.

In my opinion, our planning process and much of the associated doctrine is outdated, but it is not simply a matter of changing the doctrine, which is relatively easy if that was the problem. The real challenge is the numerous processes tied to the planning process. These processes are deeply embedded bureaucracies in industry, financing, Congressional oversight processes, acquisition processes and so forth. While the SECDEF can drive some change, ultimately this problem must be addressd by Congress, and we all know how effective Congress is currently.

This challenge is also bigger than the military, it is clear that a whole of government isn't just desirable, but a necessity for National Defense in the 21st Century, where challenges to our interests are increasing a hybred law enforcement, intelligence, diplomatic and military problem set. Stove piped efforts between agencies are not effective. Furthermore, these threats and challenges are often global in scope, and it is impossible to address them with our geographical focused strategies/plans which is the current norm, although there are some exceptions. This also calls for a new types of security arrangements with our allies and partners, because the scale of these challenges are too vast for the U.S. to effectively address. It is more than NATO going global, but the collective "free world" (for lack of a better term at the moment) finding mechanisms to collaborate and cooperate more effectively to address common problems.

The military and other organizations will have to make the case to Congress that the current processes are inadequate, and the many disruptive senior leaders in our ranks will do that, while others, especially outside of DOD, will claim the legacy processes are fine. Again only Congress can compel change, and it often takes a 9/11 type event to move past the chat phase and compel action.

That Pentagon planners assumed that technological superiority "was an enduring U.S. advantage." is the scariest thing said in this article. Did they really think the rest of the world wasn't going to try and overcome that? I am always amazed by their wonderous ways of thinking.