Contradictions Abound in Obama's New Military Plan
January 9, 2012
Spencer Ackerman / Danger Room, Wired Magazine & Walter Pincus / The Washington Post<
Analysis: "Many of the key points in President Obama's new blueprint for the next decade of US defense strategy are straightforward. More spy gear; more special forces; fewer land wars; Asia, Asia, Asia. Whatever you think of the merits of those points, at least they're internally consistent. Others... not so much."
Obama's New Defense Plan:
Drones, Spec Ops and Cyber War
Spencer Ackerman / Danger Room, Wired
WASHINGTON, DC (January 5, 2012) -- The President announced his vision for the future of the US military today. Kiss big counterinsurgencies goodbye. Get ready for more shadow wars, drone attacks and online combat, with the military's eyes on the Pacific, rather than Afghanistan.
In a rare visit to the Pentagon, President Obama declared that the US will be "strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific," while "turning the page on a decade of war." In practice, that means cutting the Army and Marine Corps and unspecified "outdated Cold War systems," part of a broad effort to cut what the Pentagon now calculates as $487 billion over 10 years from its budget.
But it also means that the US is going to lean hard on other military specialties between now and 2020. Obama identified those as "intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, counterterrorism, countering weapons of mass destruction, and the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access."
Translated from the defense wonk: lots of spy tools including drones; lethal special operations forces; offensive cyber weapons; jammers; and a presence to deter and confront Iran -- and maybe China, which seeks to keep the Navy and Air Force off its shores.
If this sounds like an updated version of a Pentagon vision from 10 years ago, maybe it should. The military will become "smaller and leaner, but will be agile, flexible, ready and technologically advanced," according to the brand-new Pentagon document delineating the strategy shift, retaining "cutting-edge capabilities, exploiting our technological, joint and networked advantage." Somewhere, Donald Rumsfeld is smiling.
But the document doesn't spell out what that actually means -- as in what guns, ships, trucks, planes, and troops are on the chopping block. That's a task for next year's defense budget, which the Pentagon is still finalizing and will release in early February. But, as Danger Room reported Wednesday, the Air Force will lose 200 planes and the Army will lose nearly 100,000 soldiers as the Pentagon trims $450 billion from its budget over 10 years. And the document released by the Pentagon vaguely alludes to cuts in the US nuclear arsenal, too.
The attack lines on Obama's defense strategy were clear before the ink on it dried. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called it a "retreat from the world," marked by "massive cuts to our military." And while the strategy is predicated on a defense budget slimmer by $487 billion over a decade, as currently scheduled, the Pentagon will lose an additional $600 billion-plus over that time starting next year unless Congress agrees on an omnibus deal to shrink the deficit.
There's a lot of time for the military to overturn that deal. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that those further cuts would "force us to shed missions, commitments, and capabilities necessary to protect core national security interests."
For the past year, the Pentagon has questioned how to revamp the US defense posture -- not necessarily because it wanted to, but because the likelihood of budget cuts forced it to rethink how to defend the country for cheaper. Critics deride that process as backwards, with cash driving strategy, rather than strategy guiding Pentagon cash. After all, the last time the Pentagon asked itself what its priorities should be over the next several years, the first answer it provided was to "prevail in today's wars." That was February 2010.
No longer. The new strategy "transitions our Defense enterprise from an emphasis on today's wars to preparing for future challenges," the document pledges. Those challenges are "inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia."
But the Pentagon isn't ending the Shadow Wars -- the undeclared attacks on terrorist targets, led by drones and commandos, in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond. Subtly, however, it shifts their purpose. "For the foreseeable future," the document says, the US will hunt terrorists -- "by monitoring the activities of non-state threats worldwide, working with allies and partners to establish control over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary."
If that means anything substantive, it puts global spying ahead of missions to capture and kill terrorists. Those missions always required intelligence, but it sounds like far-reaching surveillance programs like the Air Force's wide-area surveillance clusters like Gorgon Stare and the military's massive spy blimps are about to grow in importance.
Nor is it the US saying it's getting out of the Middle East. It will "emphasize Gulf security" -- which is to say the military's new priority in the Mideast is to contain Iran. Doing that requires a "premium" on the "presence" of US and allied forces "in and around the region." Translation: the Air Force will keep its huge airbase at Qatar's al-Udeid and the Navy's Fifth Fleet will keep patrolling the Gulf.
But counterinsurgency, the focus of the US Army for the last decade, is all but abolished. Officially, it's ninth on a list of defense priorities. And even then, the strategy document envisions, at most, "limited counterinsurgency," whatever that means, since "US forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations."
Even as the military tilts toward the Pacific -- which means stressing the Navy and the Air Force -- and on spying, jamming, and surgically striking, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned against writing the Army off. "Nowhere in this document does it say we're never going to fight land wars," Dempsey said.
Four Contradictions in Obama's New Defense Plan
Spencer Ackerman / Danger Room, Wired
WASHINGTON, DC (January 6, 2012) -- Many of the key points in President Obama's new blueprint for the next decade of US defense strategy are straightforward. More spy gear; more special forces; fewer land wars; Asia, Asia, Asia. Whatever you think of the merits of those points, at least they're internally consistent.
Others... not so much.
Sometimes the analysis in the strategy suggests a policy choice that the strategy actually disavows. Sometimes it walks back controversial points. Sometimes it makes pledges that sound sensible at first blush -- but don't actually make sense the more you think about them. Here are four of the most glaring contradictions within the strategy.
The Military Should Leave Europe (But Won't). The whole point of the new plan is to build "the joint force of 2020, a force sized and shaped differently than the military of the Cold War," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta boasted Thursday. But the US just can't vacate the Cold War's primary battlefield: Europe. In fact, the plan makes a strong case for the Army to take its brigades home. "Most European countries are now producers of security rather than consumers of it," the strategy says, bolstered by NATO's success in Libya.
But the Pentagon won't take its own advice. The closest it comes is to pledge that the military's force structure in Europe will "evolve." Asked if that means the US will pull out of Europe 20 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Panetta replied, "Not only are we going to continue our commitments there, but we are going to maintain the kind of innovative presence there that we think will make clear to Europe, and those to those who have been our strong allies in the past, that we remain committed."
Translation: maybe there will be another shave and a haircut to the US military's nearly 70-year European expedition, but not much more than that. Even though Europe is united, safe, at peace and the US' real security interests are halfway around the world.
"Limited Counterinsurgency." One thing critics and advocates of counterinsurgency can agree on: it requires a lot of time, cash and, especially, people. So it's baffling for the Pentagon strategy to say that US forces will remain prepared "to conduct limited counterinsurgency operations." What are limited counterinsurgency operations?
To give the Pentagon a generous interpretation, limited counterinsurgency operations might mean training partner militaries to wage their own battles against insurgents. That's more properly called "security force assistance," but whatever. Less generously, the Obama administration is trying to walk away from counterinsurgency without getting bashed by critics for scrapping the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Either way, after Thursday press conference, Pentagon reporters who tried to figure out what the term actually means were unable to reach a consensus. Several of us ended up more confused the longer we debated each other.
The Army Is Getting Cut (Until We Surge It). This one is more sugar-coating than outright contradiction. But one of the major implications of the new plan is "smaller conventional ground forces," in President Obama's words. (Panetta didn't cite a number for how small the Army will get, but we're hearing around 480,000 soldiers, a drop of nearly 100,000 from current levels.) No sooner did the Pentagon announce that, however, than it said: well, for now.
Plans for shrinking the Army (and the Marine Corps) will build in "reversibility," Panetta pledged. Should unforeseen land wars arise -- you know, like the two post-9/11 wars the Army didn't anticipate fighting -- the Army will be able to "surge, regenerate and mobilize... quickly." True, it's a lot easier to start recruiting more soldiers than it is to, say, build more ships or planes. But it also sounds like the Obama team is afraid of taking criticism for downsizing the Army rather than confidently defending a major aspect of its new strategy.
This Is The Pentagon's Blueprint, Until It Isn't. Even the fundamental purpose of the strategy isn't free from contradiction, thanks to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It's supposed to be the cornerstone for crafting the military of 2020, as Panetta put it. But Gen. Martin Dempsey, the military's top officer, walked that back: the strategy is merely "a waypoint" for a "continuous and deliberate process" of building that future force.
Maybe it's Dempsey's Army background talking, but he sounded lukewarm on the document. "It's not perfect," he told reporters, and it's open to criticism for slashing the military too deeply or not reorienting it enough to meet future threats. "That probably makes it about right," Dempsey intoned, "for today."
Should that change, the military would simply "adjust" what the strategy says, and it'll have an opportunity to do so every year when it issues its budget, Dempsey said. Maybe that would be a mere tune-up; maybe it would be something more drastic. After all, the strategy effectively scraps the Pentagon's last four-year plan, after only two years. It's ironic that the Pentagon's blueprint for the future might not be built to last.
Spencer Ackerman is Danger Room's senior reporter, based out of Washington, D.C., covering weapons of doom and the strategies they're used to implement.
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