Rebalancing the US Military for 21st Century Threats

An Interview with Janine Davidson

Motto: Demographic trends such as urbanization, the youth bulge, resource scarcity, and radicalization ensure that future conflicts requiring ground forces will occur in cities and slums and among populations, where differentiating friend from foe, and victim from "combatant," much less just trying to navigate through the crowded urban "battle space" will continue to plague traditionally-minded and conventionally trained ground forces.

Having in mind all the emphasis on pivoting towards Asia, does the January 2012 DOD Strategic Guidance indicate a strategic disconnection between US and Europe? There are a lot of critics in Europe that fear that the real message is one of slow motion abandoning/disengagement. 

First of all the DOD never uses the word pivot. There is a reason for that. If the critics are talking about the rhetoric, they are reading something into it that it is not. We talked about rebalancing to Asia because there was a perception in Asia that we were turning away from Asia. And there were 2 main reasons why people in Asia thought that.

Number one was that in the Rumsfeld-Bush era their vision was that we shouldn’t be engaged abroad very much. That was applied to Europe as well. They wanted to retrench from Europe and they wanted to retrench from Asia. They were doing it. When we came in 2009 we said let’s take a look at this. This doesn’t make sense. The Koreans were as upset about this as the Europeans. Our partners and Allies in Asia were asking what is going on here?  We put the breaks on and reversed it in many ways.

The second reason was that for the last 10 years we were massively bogged down in the Middle East. When we say rebalancing to Asia we are not talking necessarily about moving assets and forces from Europe to Asia, but we are sending this message: listen, we’ve been really focused in the Middle East, we’ve been bogged down in two wars that are coming to an end and to be responsible national security professionals, responsible shepherds of our defense, responsible managers of the tax payers money, we need to be thinking what comes next in 5,10, 20 years out. And that is what we said: we need to restructure, like you do after every war, we will downsize, back to about the size we were before 9/11. That is what we do in America: when we have a war, we build the military out and then bring it back down. It will be absolutely irresponsible to sustain the level of spending and the size of the military that we have had for the last 8 to 10 years. It just doesn’t make sense. What makes sense is to say the following: the world has changed, the threats of the 21st century are different, they require sophisticated multilateral approaches, new technologies, new ways of fighting, new ways of operating with our Allies. Geopolitically, we need to recognize that Asia is as important as Europe. EU is our biggest trading partners and second is Asia. When you think how the trade flows through the Indian Ocean, through the straits of Malacca, we need to secure these global commons. It will be absolutely irresponsible for us as a Pacific Power not to be thinking how our resources should be allocated and reallocated. Secretary Panetta said that the goal is that 60% of our maritime forces will be focused in the Pacific and 40% in Atlantic. Of course we need to keep an eye on what is happening in the Middle East especially on the actions and activities of Iran that continues to be a spoiler in the region. 

The vision for Europe is also very clear. NATO is our number one security Alliance, primer security Alliance on the face of Earth and in the history of the world. America has provided leadership for 60 years there. We are going to continue that. But we are going to do that with the focus on the threats of the 21st century not with the focus on the Cold War mindset. Rumsfeld said the same thing, but his attitude was that the Cold War was over so let’s come home. Our attitude is that the Cold War is over, the world is a dangerous place but in a very different way. When you think what we did in Libya, America led a pretty broad coalition with NATO, a high-tech military operation, that requires a lot of sophisticated interoperability. That is the kind of example of the things we want to focus on - more intelligence interoperability, more missile defense architecture. These are big investments that indicate our resolve and commitment and it is the exact opposite of abandoning Europe.

The overall idea is that we are not focused any more on the Soviet Union coming crossing the Fulda Gap and the massive amounts of troops that you would need for that. It is not clear to me related to the European based critics to what threats they are looking at. We still have 8 brigades in Europe. We still have more that we have in Korea. We have a lot of airpower and we are enhancing our Special Ops capabilities. Iran is a definitely a threat and that is what the missile defense is all about. One of the biggest threats to Europe is terrorism. It is less military and mostly a law enforcement issue. It is certainly not something for the heavy brigades. Cyber-threats are important so the technological relationships we have with the Europeans partners are huge. The Navy presence is also enhanced because of the missile defense. The overall numbers actually are not going down so much in Europe. It is very much a rebalance to a posture that is much more adequate for meeting what we see as being the 21st century threats.

What does the Obama's shifting away from the Cold War posture of US forces mean for Europe? How could the credibility of the Article 5 commitment of the NATO Treaty be preserved in this context?

I think NATO (and correspondingly, the US’s military posture in Europe) has been “shifting away” from the Cold War focus for the last 20 years, and rightly so.  NATO has been adapting to the changing geopolitical landscape, starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The changes the Obama Administration is making to its NATO posture today are designed specifically with article 5 in mind and with a sense of the changing nature of conflict and the most likely threats facing the alliance in the coming decades.  It is future-focused.  Gone are the days when massive numbers of ground forces on point for a fight in the Fulda Gap meant “security.”  NATO needed a qualitative shift in capabilities in order to meet the most likely challenges of the 21st century.  

Because the media has focused on the downsizing of two of our four Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), people have falsely inferred that our presence in Europe is being slashed.  On the contrary, while two Brigade Combat Teams, (around 7000 troops) will be part of the U.S. Army’s overall downsizing (that is, they will be inactivating entirely, not coming home to the continental US), other more relevant capabilities are being added and the remaining BCTs are being enhanced.  Thus, the net changes in numbers to the US presence in Europe are not great.  

Remaining in Europe are two modernized BCT’s – a Stryker brigade and an airborne brigade, plus seven other enabling brigades. The remaining BCTs will actually grow a bit in size as they are modernized as part of the Army’s modularity plan.  The Army’s new modular structure adds capabilities in intelligence, medical, engineering, etc to each brigade in order to make them more agile and responsive to new sorts of threats.  So, to sum it up, the old heavy units will go away and the remaining ones will be larger and optimized for modern war.

But our presence in Europe is not just about numbers of ground troops.  Our missile defense infrastructure, air power and airlift projection as well as special forces capabilities are more relevant to current and future threats than large traditional Army maneuver units.  Accordingly, the Obama Administration has preserved and enhanced these capabilities in its European posture. 

Which are the strategic virtues/roles of the US forward defense and posture in the current strategic landscape? What message would send a radical US retrenchment to the world, its allies and regional opportunistic powers? Which are the dangers of US retrenchment?

 A “radical US retrenchment” would be a very bad idea.  This is why the Obama Administration is focused on smart forward engagement and partnership.  The challenges the world faces in the coming decades require savvy, multilateral responses.  From a military perspective, multilateral operations require training and engagement in advance of a crisis.  We must train the way we will fight – and that means training as an alliance.   This is why our posture in Europe recognizes NATO as the indispensible military alliance and is optimized to enhance the capability of the alliance through forward presence and multilateral training and exercises.

How can the US remain in the business of providing credible strategic reassurance in a time of scarce military resources, rebalanced geographical focus away from the Cold War and the maturation of regional anti-access/area denial capabilities?

The shift in US posture happening today is necessary as we come down from Iraq and Afghanistan. 10 years of war in these regions was costly in terms of blood and treasure.  Over 2 million US troops have rotated in and out of these wars. Thus, as the wars wind down, we are faced with have the opportunity to re-orient our military posture and focus on areas of the world that have had less attention, such as Asia.

From a global perspective, maintaining our credibility is about sustained engagement.  In fact, as the military gets a bit smaller, it actually makes sense to keep more of our forces abroad.  The point is, there are relatively fixed costs for housing and training U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, no matter where they are.  So posturing forces forward where they can train with allies and partners makes fiscal sense.   As I pointed out in a recent Foreign Affairs article: “The United States should position its forces to provide national security in the most efficient and responsible way possible. In the coming years, the U.S. military will likely be operating in a tight budget environment, but Washington can get more for less by positioning a larger percentage of its forces in key regions. Take, for example, the rotation cycles of U.S. naval ships. For every ship out securing sea lanes or deterring aggression, there are three others in various stages of maintenance or in transit. Porting ships closer to their areas of operation in Europe or Asia would save each vessel three to four weeks in transit time and would require keeping one-third fewer ships in U.S. inventories. That alone would save billions of dollars in acquisition, operations, and maintenance costs. Similarly, the strategic forward stationing of U.S. forces, combined with periodic rotations by U.S. forces to train with allies, makes the best use of American resources, enhances cooperation and burden sharing, and ensures that the military is positioned and ready to respond to emerging threats and crises.”

You have highlighted in your book “Lifting the Fog of Peace: How Americans Learned to Fight Modern War” in what way did the generation exposed to the operations of the 1990s in Panama, Somalia and the Balkans (Bosnia and Kosovo) change the organizational culture of the US military. In what way do you expect that the post 9/11 generation exposed to the COIN battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan will change the US military organizational culture?

The 1990’s generation was a generation that expected adaptation to be a core competency.  This mentality, forged in the post Vietnam era and the rise of the training centers and the lessons learned processes, was what enabled the U.S. military to adapt to the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The 1990’s generation, like the one that has grown up fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, has a keen sense of the human elements of modern conflict.  I think this focus on the complexity of modern conflict will be reflected as the younger generation moves into leadership positions across the military and national security field.

In a time when there is a huge pressure to rebalance away from the post 9/11 battlefields and mindsets is the US military in danger to purge itself again from the COIN/stability operations know-how?

 Of course, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the overall size of the military will shrink a bit, but the DoD’s new strategy clearly directs the US military to sustain its competency in this mission area.  The US military has been doing these types of missions for 250 years.  They have always been messy and frustrating and they have always been controversial.  In each generation there have been those in the military who have falsely assumed that such mission types could be avoided.  The worst mistake for the military to make would be to assume that if they avoid planning and organizing for them then they will be able to avoid them in general. The nature of conflict will continue to be human focused. As I said in recent NIC blog post:

“some national security and military leaders may think that now that we are winding down in Afghanistan and Iraq, we will be able to actively avoid anything resembling those population-centric missions in future.  But it is a simple fact of military planning – especially in a democracy – that the military does not get to chose where it gets sent, what wars it will fight, what enemies it will face and in which environments.  An increasingly urbanized world means the military will find itself in cities, among crowded populations, and fighting savvy enemies who have been paying close attention, learning, and adapting.” 

What kind of skills should have a contemporary soldier in order to be prepared for winning the peace in today’s and tomorrow’s battlefields? What kind of soldier do we need in order to be able to respond to “more Mumbai, Mogadishu and Tivoli Gardens” (David Kilcullen) or be prepared for the fact that “any activity a soldier undertakes can rapidly evolve into a combination of combat, governance, and civil support missions” (General Raymond Odierno)? A hybrid/full spectrum one?

We need troops who understand the cultural and legal landscape in which they will find themselves.  The line between crime and war is increasingly blurred. Tomorrow’s soldiers will need to be fully integrated with law enforcement to meet the complex challenges presented by Mumbai types of events as well as the transnational threats of piracy, trafficking.  These bad actors actively exploit our cultural and bureaucratic predispositions to bifurcate police work from military work and they find ways to operate at the edge of the gap between crime and war for which conventional governmental organizations are not well suited.   

Why did COIN become a dirty word in Washington? In 2009 during the Afghan surge it was a very trendy notion. And to what extent the DOD decision not to size the future force for large-scale Iraq or Afghanistan-like stability operations signals a larger rejection of pop-centric COIN type of operations?

Military leaders who read the strategic document that was published in January, which said that we are no longer sized for Iraq and Afghanistan and infer that that means giving up all the lessons we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan are massively if not willfully misread the Guidance. The Guidance from the President and the Secretary of Defense says clear in there, you don’t even need to read between the lines, you could read the actual language, that the military is directed to retain the capabilities and the expertise. And there is a reason for that. The world is going to continue to require, it not may be an insurgency and it might not require an intervention for counterinsurgency but it may, but even if it doesn’t, it will definitely require population-focused boots on the grounds types of operations. It is part of the whole COIN thing. I came to it rather reluctantly, because I felt like it is a narrow subset of a bigger issue. Some thinkers call them small wars, others stability operations, others counterinsurgency operations. I actually felt that COIN is a subset of something that I would call stability operations. It is in the context of a society or of a complex system under stress that is exposed to chronic stresses or to a natural disaster shock like Katrina, when stuff breaks down and spoilers (crime, gang violence or insurgency) take advantage, when law and order breaks down. At the far end of the spectrum those spoilers become insurgents. It is a simplistic model of thinking about conflict and instability along the spectrum. During the Iraq war we had a lot of smart people who looked back in history and at the military doctrines and research associated with counterinsurgency and determined it was a good place to start. Because you have a doctrine of COIN doesn’t mean that you have a policy of invading countries in order to conduct COIN. In America there are a lot people who don’t pay attention to the actual intellectual discourse and the actual doctrinal evolution vis-a-vis policy. To the extent that COIN became a dirty word in Washington it is because of this misperception, because they think it is a policy not just a doctrine. We have doctrine for nuclear war but that doesn’t mean that I am going now to conduct nuclear war.

What kind of features in the current strategic environment highlight the trend that irregular warfare remains a tactic of first resort in the toolbox of the America’s enemies?

I think we have the strongest, most technological advanced military with the largest global reach not only in the world, but in the history of the world. It is still the case that anybody who wants to challenge us would be sort of foolish to do so head on. This is not going to change because of the Republican rhetoric about the hollow force. We are so far advanced and above any other military on the planet that doesn’t make any sense to call it a hollow force. But it also doesn’t make sense to any enemy out there who has been paying attention. Any potential enemy who decides that they don’t like the US for whatever reason will study what has been happening in the last 10 years in the fight against low-tech, high-impact fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. They know that we have trouble with this. Anyone has trouble with this. They would have studied the tactics from IED to suicide bombings to cyber-attacks to leveraging social media, to the way enemies are operating in a densely populated urban environments. These are the things that are challenging for conventional militaries and that present advantages to enemies. That’s why I genuinely believe that we need to continue to keep the eye on the ball on these pieces because it doesn’t make sense that our next engagement is going to be against someone foolish to take us on conventionally. But we need to maintain our conventional edge, otherwise the whole calculus changes as well. We need capabilities and training along the spectrum. It can be done. One of the last things that I did as DASD for Plans was that I went to visit US forces in Europe. They were conducting one of their exercises at the Combined Training Center: a multilateral exercise with a hybrid scenario. It wasn’t only that they were practicing looking at the Afghan experience, but they were leveraging irregular and conventional aspects and they were studying what happened in Lebanon with Hezbollah’s hybrid warfare strategy – and they were sharpening their conventional skills as well.  They know they have to do it all – because the bad guys will.

NATO was not created for pop-centric counterinsurgency missions. Having in mind a security environment where irregular warfare remains a tactic of first resort, should NATO retain this ability of coordinating complex comprehensive counterinsurgency campaigns? Should NATO retain the COIN know-how that acquired over the past decade in Afghanistan?

Absolutely. Europe faces the same array of threats that the US faces. If the European countries are not going to invest in their militaries and train their militaries across the spectrum of operations, they are going to be in trouble. They need to do that. Our relationship with the European countries and our leadership in the NATO Alliance as a whole is focused on that.

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