A Strategic Blending: When RMA Meets the Revolution in IW
Interview with Jim Thomas
Interview by Octavian Manea
SWJ: What are the lessons that NATO’s competitive adversaries have taken from Ogarkov’s military technical revolution?
Jim Thomas: It is interesting in 2015 to look back almost 31 years ago. 1984 is a good place to start telling the story. Nikolai Ogarkov outlined the basic thesis of the military technical revolution involving long-range precision weaponry coupled with advanced sensors to create a reconnaissance-strike complex. If you then look ahead to the 1991 Gulf War there were two basic interpretations of what the war meant. At the risk of over-simplifying, I would call one approach the American military’s interpretation and the other the Chinese interpretation. Many American military observers viewed a lopsided victory in Desert Storm as validating many of the ideas that Ogarkov had despite the fact that the fact that the vast majority of the munitions that were used during the First Gulf War were not PGMs. Nevertheless, many Americans believed they had just glimpsed of the future: the potential for the satellite communications, GPS, launching a single weapon against a target. In the American interpretation, an RMA was seen as something that would allow to US to extend its domination and preponderance in the military sphere, in particular to be able to conduct power projection operations in the distant regions of the world and maintain control of various domains – the seas, skies, land, space and cyberspace.
But I think that the Chinese military took away a very different lesson. Desert Storm was a brutal vicarious defeat for China given the fact it had many of the same sorts of systems that the Iraqis had. They came away with a greater appreciation of the types of threats that countries such as the US could pose and how unprepared the PLA was for that sort of high-tech warfare. They did not dismiss the Ogarkov doctrine, however. Like their American counterparts they also embraced it, but applied it to their particular circumstances, in particular how to conduct local war under informationized conditions. Whereas the Americans were thinking about how they could use PGMs and the reconnaissance strike complex to further their ability to conduct air-control, sea-control or land-control, the Chinese were thinking in a more minimalist fashion in terms of how they could use precision strike systems and other capabilities to contest others’ control of various domains through robust integrated air defenses to deny the skies, coastal defenses to deny the seas, and long-range missile strike forces to hold theater airbases and aircraft carriers – the centerpieces of American power projection – at risk.
Few grasped twenty years ago that the competing interpretations of the Ogarkov’s vision were stoking a long-term contest between the forces of denial and the forces of control. But what really ensued from 1991 to the present has really been such a clash between denial vs. control. At the point where we are now, I think we can start to draw some preliminary conclusions. One is that is going to be far cheaper and easier to deny any domain than it is to control. That is, reconnaissance-strike complexes tend to favor denial over control. That has to inform our thinking moving ahead in terms of the kinds of the preparations that we might undertake. It is probably most difficult for the U.S. military to shift its paradigm from control to denial. Overall, the trends that favor domain denial will affect U.S. capabilities, plans and doctrine the most, since historically it is the U.S. military that has been most optimized to conduct domain control operations: air superiority, naval mastery, land control, space control and information dominance.
But there is a second debate that started with the Lawrence Freedman’s Adelphi Paper on a Revolution in Strategic Affairs as a rebuttal to the first debate over the RMA. He argued that the real revolution in less about technology and more about super-empowered sub-state actors that would challenge the nation-state system. The 2001 Al Qaida’s attacks tended to confirm Freedman’s thesis and catalyzed a new debate about irregular warfare.
As with the American interpretation of the RMA, American conception of irregular warfare is very narrowly defined and myopically focused on its defensive dimensions, in the sense that it was focused on counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism. American policymakers and military leaders thought less about the potential offensive applications of the irregular warfare in terms of unconventional warfare or using proxies and surrogates to undermine an opponent. Again, the American interpretation was at odds with the interpretations of other great powers. China, Russia and Iran have thought about irregular warfare in a very different way whether they use grey zone conflict, proxy forces or lawfare. Ambiguous paramilitary forms and instruments of power to further their political ends, as Clausewitz would say. They are willing to employ irregular warfare as a surrogate for or complement to traditional military power projection.
I think we are at a point where if you take the old debate about the technical military technical revolution and you overlay it on the debate that we are having about irregular warfare the synthesis is really hybrid warfare involving the interplay of twin competitions: the competition between control and denial and the competition between conventional forces and paramilitary or sub-conventional forces. Now we talk not only about classic insurgencies, that historically are relatively low-tech, but what if in fact you create these hybrid forces where you have partisans armed with very high-tech weapons. The difficulty is that an insurgency is good at hitting and running but it falls down on traditional military tasks. Now, we are going to a direction where small groups of partisans can achieve effects that rival those of large militaries and that is truly revolutionary.
SWJ: So do we have a linkage, a blending of these trends?
Jim Thomas: It is all coming together. We see this confluence of the RMA debate, the irregular warfare debate and maybe even of our fiscal debate as we think to all of these factors flowing in in the same pot in terms of how we think about threats, but also how we think about new opportunities for our own militaries and our allied militaries.
SWJ: You’ve talked about proxies and surrogates and how great powers might use insurgent forces in order to advance their political goals. Was the 2001 Rumsfeldian campaign to remove the Taliban regime some sort of a sample of this tendency-project power through irregular forces?
Jim Thomas: There was nothing subtle or ambiguous about the unconventional warfare campaign that the United States conducted in 2001 in Afghanistan. There we were very clearly working with the Northern Alliance on the ground to change conditions, but we also integrated special operations forces with them. In particular this allowed air-ground integration where the U.S. really became the Northern Alliance’s air-force and made the force far more effective than it would otherwise be. What we see today in the case of Russian forces in Ukraine is a more insidious form of power projection. One of the things that is really lacking is that the separatist forces within Ukraine do not benefit from the Russian air cover.
SWJ: Having in mind this so-called Rumsfeld-ian way of war is this also the Obama approach against ISIL? It seems to have some of the same features-the use of irregulars (tribes, Peshmerga forces, training Syrian opposition forces) under a sporadic air-force umbrella?
Jim Thomas: It appears to have similarities with the 2001 campaign, but I would say that today it really lacks the coherence. The lack of special operations forces, including joint terminal air controllers, on the ground is a large deficiency. It has also been incremental and piece-meal whereas one of the things that really was noticeable and apparent in 2001 was the deliberate nature and the great speed of the campaign. It was an unconventional, irregular blitzkrieg. Today we have been hampered because we don’t have the same level of special operations forces on the ground and have not achieved that air-ground integration and the campaign is sub-optimized. We have seen a clear track and tendency over three administrations (from president Clinton announcement at the start of Kosovo where he talked about no boots on the ground, to the 2001 campaign in Afghanistan with a minimal presence that was special operation forces intensive, to president Obama’s emphasis on not having boots on the ground or conventional combat forces) to avoid committing large conventional ground forces. This is really a big question for the strategic analysts around the world-does this trend continue in the future? Or it will be some discontinuity?
SWJ: How would you expect the U.S. forward presence to evolve in this rapidly changing operational environment, one that favors increasingly the denial forces?
Jim Thomas: When we talk about forward-presence we tend to become intellectually lazy. If you think what the word presence means it means visible. That is the message that we wanted to send historically. I am not sure that this is going to be the same in the future. U.S. has certainly has an interest in staying forward because there are real limitations to things like offshore balancing. We want to maintain strong commitments to our forward frontline allies in Asia, in the Middle East and Europe. But how we do that may really differ in the future.
Overall we need to be able to do two things simultaneously: having a more continuous deployment or stationing pattern in the frontline states maybe with more ground based capabilities and in particular air-ground integration capabilities; plus air and naval forces that can fight from range. We are unlikely to have the luxury of the relatively permissive operating environments we’ve experienced in recent decades.
SWJ: What are the implications for the frontline states located in the proximity of regional A2/AD powers that also have a revisionist agenda?
Jim Thomas: First of all we have to have much greater expectations for what our allies will do to optimize their own local defenses. Here they can follow the Chinese model by developing their own anti-access/area denial capabilities both for air-denial which would deny an adversary the ability to gain air cover for its ground forces, or it can conduct land-denial in terms of precision anti-armor systems or sea-denial in terms of anti-ship cruise missiles, mines and submarines.
Another element is related to what the allied frontline states can do to provide to U.S. greater sanctuary within their countries. We need bases, facilities to operate from and in a crisis or conflict we need to be able to flow forces in to what is going to be probably a denied or at least a contested operating area.
The third element is the ability to hold-out the prospect of a protracted conflict to any adversary. This may take the form of an irregular resistance, a high-tech people’s army that could sustain a resistance and counter an occupation armed with PGMs that could really bloody an invasion force.
SWJ: Fighting from long-range might be a necessity in the current security environment. But the U.S. has traditionally invested massively in shorter-range capabilities. The historical assumption was that U.S. will act from short-distance. Does this imply a major shifting in the acquisition patterns for the U.S. military?
Jim Thomas: There has to be a rebalance that occurs in the U.S. military from short-range to long range. Employment of our tactical air forces is predicated on operating from close-in bases. Manned fighters all have to operate at short theater ranges and they are heavily dependent on aerial refueling. But the same could be said of our naval combatants in terms of their effectiveness-carriers need to operate very close to the shore given the ranges of today’s carrier-based manned aircraft. So how can we change that dynamic over time so we can conduct conventional deterrence at range?
SWJ: Twice during the Cold War, U.S. and NATO had to restore their deterrence capital by investing in a very specific offset strategy. In an operational environment where the traditional power-projection is no longer possible what should a third offset strategy emphasize?
Jim Thomas: I am attracted to the idea of a new offset strategy - one that has to be focused on a specific military problem. The big problem that we have is the anti-access area denial problem. How can we continue to stay in the business of power-projection despite the challenges that are emerging? At the same time we need to leverage some of our key advantages: the area of robotics, the ability to use robotics both for manufacturing as well as conducting operations with UAVs or Unmanned Underwater Vehicles and overcome some of the physiological limitations that we’ve had in the past and may help us to maximize weapons and sensor density at ranges in these denied areas. It is a way of penetrating and operating inside the adversary’s bubble in ways that impose costs on them. Just like the offset strategy that Harold Brown and Bill Perry developed in the 1970s overcame the Soviet strategic nuclear parity and the numerical conventional superiority of the Warsaw Pact, today we have the potential to do something similar in terms of offsetting the build-up of large-theater missile forces on the part of some potential adversaries or their ability to conduct air and sea denial close to their shores. The seeds of the Reagan Revolution were planted in the Carter Administration in the form of the offset strategy and Carter doctrine that marked the end of detente. We are still living on the fruits of the previous offset strategy. So we need to think ahead on what kind of offset strategy and what sorts of capabilities would be viable as we look 30 years in the future.
SWJ: The outcome of the last year’s NATO summit in Wales was very much focused on power projection. To reassure its Eastern Flank, the Alliance promised a very fast reinforcement force that will be able to deploy in 48 hours in case of an Article 5 emergency. But this particular outcome should be combined with the crisis of the traditional power projection model. The problem is that NATO assumes a highly permissive environment. It doesn’t seem to be bothered by what increasingly seems to be a Russian A2/AD reach in the Baltic and Black Seas that affects NATO’s Eastern Flank. How appropriate do you see this traditionalist power projection model compared with what Russia is fielding?
Jim Thomas: This debate matters a lot for the U.S. Since WW2 the US military has really seen itself as the world premiere expeditionary force. When there is a crisis we react and flow-in forces across oceans to the theaters were we conduct operations. All the trends we’ve been talking about suggest that there are real limitations with that expeditionary model in the future not only for the U.S. but also for its allies. Regional actors are pursuing anti-access and area denial capabilities to prevent U.S. expeditionary forces from being able to defend America’s regional allies and partners effectively. Everyone who has been in the power projection business now faces the same problem, which is that in a crisis dispatching expeditionary forces may be highly destabilizing and in a conflict it may be simply impossible because those forces would not have protected ports and airfields they could flow into. For these reasons, I am skeptical of the whole idea of a super-rapid reaction force because it fails to understand the changing military competition and the security environment. To meet these challenges there is no substitute for forward-based forces. The force will either be there before the crisis and conflict or I have doubts if it will ever get there.
SWJ: The expeditionary component that NATO embraced at the last summit seems to be a reflection of an outdated defense mindset. It is still a defense in depth oriented posture, one that assumes enough time to react. That is no longer enough in an operational environment that favors domain denial. NATO should find new ways of “doing business” and reassuring its Eastern Flank.
Jim Thomas: In Europe and NATO circles, Ukraine should have been a wake-up call for everyone but some people are still hitting the snooze button. Even after Ukraine, it is hard for me to understand how people are still talking about 2% of GDP as being adequate for defense. It is hard for me to understand how some people are still talking about smart defense or rapid reaction forces and the consolidation of headquarters. The mindset is still stuck in a 1990s Brussels discotheque. We now have to not only re-conceptualize our doctrine and operational concepts as we did with the follow-on forces attack (a complement to the American Air Land battle) during the Carter Administration. As e tU,S, is seeking new joint operational concepts we should ask what are the allied equivalent to them. I think we need to emphasize deterrence at three levels:
- We have to maintain a robust nuclear deterrent because we still face many uncertainties in the future granted that are many scenarios where is hard to see the relevance of nuclear deterrence. But there were also many people that didn’t see the relevance of the NATO Alliance a few years ago. My fears is that if we remove the nuclear weapons from Europe we will never put them back again so it is better to maintain that level of deterrence.
- The second is the conventional level and here we need to do two things for the US and the most Western allies like the UK and France. We need to think how we can project power into the denied areas to come to the rescue of the frontline allies. We need to think about how we can conduct conventional strikes but also how we are going to have a greater forward basing posture than what we had in the past. For this reason we need to rethink the three No’s. It was this deal that we struck with Mephistopheles which makes no sense in the current era. The last part of the conventional equation is that we need to think what our frontline states need to do. They need to develop their own A2/AD networks.
- The third is that we need to think more about sub-conventional deterrence. As we face ambiguous hybrid threats we need to think how we can counter them with border control and internal defences, but we also need to think how we can pose similar challenges to others. How can we develop national resistance movements and guerilla forces of our own armed with PGMs that can pose a very messy threat to potential belligerents? Precision weapons have the potential to revolutionize the irregular warfare.
The major vulnerability that NATO faces today is one of sub-conventional ambiguous aggression. This implies thinking about how NATO will build up its sub-conventional deterrent, but arming them with a couple of things: on one side, we need precision-guided artillery, mortars and missiles in the frontline areas; second is the sensor net that such forces need to have with aerial, space, terrestrial layers. So the question becomes how can we create that sensor grid across borders that can provide early warning and targeting information for highly distributed, highly irregular ground guerilla forces?
SWJ: The seizure of Crimea is transforming the Black Sea region. There are already signs that the Black Sea is entering the age of a keep-out zone. Crimea is rapidly becoming an A2/AD vanguard. Russia is deploying some of its most long-range area denial weapons. Access is at risk. How should NATO and the NATO littoral states think about this emerging threat to the regional commons?
Jim Thomas: Geographically you can almost think to Crimea as being analogous to Taiwan, the salient peninsula that allows the Russians to extend the range of their systems. This is an area that traditionally has been subjected to Russian naval dominance. But I take the point that we are going to see a redetermination on the part of Russia to master the Black Sea. One point for all of the frontline allies in Europe is to think about reducing their reliance on energy resources that either flow from Russia or that Russia can cut. With respect to the sea denial capabilities I think that these should be land-based. It doesn’t make sense to contest Russian naval dominance in a Mahanian way so it has to be approached asymmetrically by investing in land based sea denial capabilities (anti-ship cruise missiles, mines) and maybe in some smaller submarines.
Jim Thomas is Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He served for thirteen years in a variety of policy, planning and resource analysis posts in the Department of Defense, culminating in his dual appointment as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Resources and Plans and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy. In these capacities, he was responsible for the development of defense strategy, conventional force planning, resource assessment, and the oversight of war plans. He spearheaded the 2005-2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), and was the principal author of the QDR report to Congress.