June 1, 2013  

In strategy, 2 out of 3 is bad

Proposed Army cuts go dangerously astray

In recent public remarks at the Brookings Institution and as detailed in their February paper, “National Defense in a Time of Change,” Retired Adm. Gary Roughead, former chief of naval operations, and Kori Schake, a well-known defense analyst at the Hoover Institution, present an often-insightful, but ultimately troubling vision for the future of the American military.

When a writing team of Roughead’s and Schake’s experience speaks, it is important to listen. We have tremendous respect for their contributions to the debate; moreover, many of their recommendations are worthy of full implementation. On the topic of fixing the acquisition system — the holy grail of defense reform — they offer many important suggestions, such as returning authority to the service chiefs. Concerning the more recent but no less difficult quest for a more cost-effective pay and benefits structure, Roughead and Schake again offer solid proposals, particularly removing the Defense Department injunction on personnel-cost reductions.

It is in their proposals to redesign the U.S. armed forces that the authors’ recommendations go dangerously astray. Essentially, they would pay for a status quo Navy and Air Force by reducing the Army to its lowest strength since 1939.

Their key logic, and its fatal flaws, can be found in this paragraph:

“We must redesign our forces and budget to our strategy, and not to equal service share between branches. Given our assessment of the international order, we would recommend rebalancing the force to concentrate less on the fighting of sustained ground wars and more on providing for rapid response time in executing campaigns in Asia (perhaps, even, at the expense of response time in other regions), and to transfer much greater responsibility from our own forces to those of our allies.”

In this paragraph, the authors rely on a vision of the world as they wish it were, not as it is, will be or has ever been. Crucially, they advocate a naval- and air-based approach to a potential campaign whose outcomes they cannot describe, for a problem (militarily dominant China) they believe doesn’t exist. This is a proposal that should raise the hair on the neck of any defense expert with a modicum of historical perspective and an understanding of the emerging 21st-century security environment.

First, the authors describe a security environment in which China is “not a global military challenge” and then state “our margin of error is wide” because of “more precise and timely intelligence attention.” To the former assertion, we also thought our margin of error was wide on Dec. 6, 1941, on June 25, 1950, and, sadly, on Sept. 10, 2001. Given the pace of technological advancement, volatility in the Middle East, tensions with Iran, and events with North Korea, our margin of error is far from wide.

To the latter assertion, seasoned intelligence experts and operators alike gaze slack-jawed at anyone who might make such assertions after our recent decade of war. Even tracking and killing or capturing a single person remains a struggle. Recent statements on what we don’t know in current hot spots expose the thinness of their argument. We cannot confuse tactical situational awareness with the operational and strategic understanding of complex environments derived from long-term presence and human interaction. Given our inability to pierce the opaqueness of the North Korean or Iranian regimes, imagine the ineffectiveness of confronting either relying solely on uninformed or misinformed sea and air power.

Second, no other think tank or policy expert has offered as unbalanced a force structure recommendation as this one: “The active duty Army would be reduced by 200,000 soldiers from the 490,000 planned in the FY 2013 budget.” The Roughead-Schake proposal might gain the United States access to the contested commons of air, sea and space, but it would severely undercut its ability to change underlying causes and compel our adversaries, or prevent or control events, including the inevitable escalation resulting from U.S. assaults onto sovereign lands. Their offer would leave the Army completely unable to meet the demands of even the most optimistic defense force-sizing scenarios, and it ignores the fact that the Army is emerging as the only land force of consequence among our allies and partners. It also ignores the pitfalls of relying on sea and air power alone, including failed deterrence preceding World War II, the failure of “shock and awe” in Iraq, and Hezbollah’s survival in Lebanon in 2006.

Compounding this error, the authors imply that the Army has existed solely to fight sustained ground wars, reflecting an appalling ignorance of Army operations since 1952 (deterrence in Europe and Korea; the Multinational Force and Observers in Egypt; Grenada; Just Cause in Panama; Somalia; hurricanes Andrew, Katrina and Sandy; Macedonia; and the Haiti earthquake, to name just a few). As Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno declared in recent congressional testimony, the Army is first about preventing conflict. The Army’s historical role in reassuring allies, building partners and giving our adversaries pause and preventing their miscalculation is well-known — and completely omitted from the Roughead-Schake presentation. Thus, while the authors acknowledge a strategy based on engagement and deterrence, they overlook the essential role ground forces play in that strategy. This is especially true given the prominence armies play in most nations’ security forces and their attendant influence globally.

Third, the authors blithely refer to military campaigns without explaining the outcomes that would result from a campaign that strikes a sovereign Asian country, somehow without causing escalation or absent substantial ground forces. What kind of “campaigns in Asia” or elsewhere do the authors envision? Their solution calls for highly destructive naval and air attacks on land-based anti-access systems in China. Then what? China acquiesces peacefully? Or is it more likely China responds by attacking American interests, seizing the northern Japanese islands and unleashing North Korea?

Air-Sea Battle is an essential tactical concept; it is an incredibly foolish basis for a strategy or a campaign. An Army sized as they recommend will not have the depth to provide key capabilities such as missile defense or theater support, nor will it be able to deter any regime that only fears regime change. An Army with appropriate depth could take this tactical concept to a strategic concept for deterrence and stability.

Fourth, the U.S. strategy the authors purport to support reiterates the American commitment to global leadership. The United States relies upon its friends and allies. Yet our own history reaffirms that every nation, especially a global leader, must have a force sufficient to secure its vital interests when the interests of its allies diverge. Given the human realities of conflict and war and our hard-won ground force advantage relative to the rest, severe cuts put this unique advantage and strategic hedge at risk. Lord Palmerston’s warning rings true today: “Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

It is unfortunate that a paper by such eminent authors, with so many important ideas on acquisition and personnel system fixes, would founder on the shoals of discredited theories about the strategic decisiveness of sea and air attacks unsupported by land operations. The authors were right on two of their three recommendations, but in this case, two out of three is not only bad, it would be disastrous. AFJ