Friday, March 11, 2005

A Tale of Two Worlds

Two articles paint radically different impressions of changes to United States strategic thinking. The first, by Mark Mazzetti of the Los Angeles Times, depicts a military establishment that has been hijacked by Operation Iraqi Freedom and the 'blunders' of Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

With Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pushing for a "lighter, more lethal and highly mobile fighting force," the Pentagon scrapped as outdated the requirement that the U.S. military be large enough to simultaneously fight two large-scale wars against massed enemy armies. And it spent little time worrying about how to keep the peace after the shooting stopped. Something happened on the way to the wars of the future: The Pentagon became bogged down in an old-fashioned, costly and drawn-out war of occupation. ...

Mazzetti's article goes on to emphasize that while the smaller forces favored by Donald Rumsfeld were sufficient to defeat a Third World conventional army like Iraq's, the burdens of occupation have made the United States increasingly dependent on allied help for pacification and nation building.

"There are smarter, more efficient ways to do regime change and occupation," said one senior civilian official at the Pentagon. "One of those ways is to rely much more on our friends and allies to do the back-end work."

The other article, by the Wall Street Journal (subscription only) describes a Donald Rumsfeld who not only does not regret giving up the large forces of the Cold War but wants to accelerate the process. It's most radical -- and possibly most controversial aspect -- is the idea that the US military should increasingly be used to prevent (here critics may see the word 'pre-empt') war from breaking out.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld outlines in a new, classified planning document a vision for remaking the military to be far more engaged in heading off threats prior to hostilities and serve a larger purpose of enhancing U.S. influence around the world. ... In the document, Mr. Rumsfeld tells the military to focus on four "core problems," none of them involving traditional military confrontations. The services are told to develop forces that can: build partnerships with failing states to defeat internal terrorist threats; defend the homeland, including offensive strikes against terrorist groups planning attacks; influence the choices of countries at a strategic crossroads, such as China and Russia; and prevent the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by hostile states and terrorist groups.

The WSJ article goes on to say that Secretary Rumsfeld's 'big push' is likely to meet opposition from certain quarters in the armed services because these changes will come at the expense of weapons systems like the F-22 and because they are a radical departure from many current missions.

... the classified guidance urges the military to come up with less doctrinaire solutions that include sending in smaller teams of culturally savvy soldiers to train and mentor indigenous forces. ... the Marines Corps right now is moving fastest to fill this gap and is looking at shifting some resources away from traditional amphibious-assault missions to new units designed specifically to work with foreign forces . To support these troops, military officials are looking at everything from acquiring cheap aerial surveillance systems to flying gunships that can be used in messy urban fights to come to the aid of ground troops. 

Since the obvious danger to completely adopting this approach  is the risk of reducing the US military to 'British Empire' troops, well suited for fighting 'natives' but unable to match a first rate enemy, there is a second track as well.

Although weapons systems designed to fight guerrillas tend to be fairly cheap and low-tech, the review makes clear that to dissuade those countries from trying to compete, the U.S. military must retain its dominance in key high-tech areas, such as stealth technology, precision weaponry and manned and unmanned surveillance systems.

If the outlines of the DOD planning document reported by the WSJ are accurate, they are an explicit acknowledgement of the strategic dilemma faced by the US in a post-Cold War world. During the Cold War, America only had to plan on meeting the military challenges of Great States. The oceans provided a barrier to threats from the Third World. For the first time in its history, the United States (and Europe too, had they the honesty to realize it) faces a two-front war, not spatially but dimensionally. At the one end, the DOD must face continuous challenges from asymmetrical opponents harboring in the hulks of failed, post-Colonial states. At the other, it must face conventional threats from rising Great Powers like China. America's enemies on these separate fronts will be naturally tempted to lend each other mutual aid. Terrorists can continue to expect new weapons from States whose foreign policy goals call for weakening America; and these rival States can expect those terrorist groups to tie down America while they pursue their geopolitical ambitions. Just as America was the Arsenal of Democracy in the Second World War, rival States have the potential to become the Foundries of Terrorism in the 21st Century.

Rumsfeld's response appears to be shaped by this reality. It is a search for systems, organizations and strategies which possess utility both against terrorism and rival states. In some cases a match will be easy to find. In others, most notably in the case of heavy divisions, manned aircraft and naval systems, there must be a trade-off between them. But implied within Rumsfeld's reported plan is the startling aspect of time: it is above all a preemptive approach aimed at shaping the political and cultural battlefield in advance of actual hostilities involving American troops. Although the concept is described by the WSJ in the traditional terms of "helping allies battle internal threats" it is impossible to separate it from the notion of creating a more functional world, which is related to the ideas of reducing disconnectedness and spreading democracy. How and whether this concept evolves into doctrine will be a fascinating process to watch. One suspects that the ultimate price of the Western European vacation from history will have been the transformation of the United States into the foremost revolutionary force of the age.