February 1, 2009  

Transition strategy: Daunting times

Defense challenges for the Obama administration

If he needed a memory jogger, the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting is sure to remind President Barack Obama that he is inheriting myriad national security problems. While dealing with complex international realities, the new defense team led by Secretary Robert Gates will have to fight two wars, dampen other international conflicts, rebuild part of the armed forces and modernize the force for full-spectrum warfare.

These feats must be accomplished with a shrinking economy and in competition with a long list of domestic priorities. The national security tasks facing the Obama defense team will be among the most complex and daunting ever faced by any new administration. Gates and company will have to work harder and smarter to provide for the common defense.

As usual, the greatest challenges for the next Pentagon team will come from the international environment. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue and, completely apart from these wars, the worldwide activities of al-Qaida and its associates will remain a source of major concern. In Iraq, the new president will have to decide how to exploit success without inviting re-escalation or possible disaster. Already, the advice of field commanders and the exhortations of some of the president’s loyal advisers are pulling him in opposite directions on the pace of combat unit withdrawals.

The outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan are still in doubt and will be a major test for the Obama administration. As Gates noted in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs: “… to fail — or to be seen to fail — in either Iraq or Afghanistan would be a disastrous blow to U.S. credibility, both among friends and allies, and among potential adversaries.” As we learned in Vietnam, defeat has international consequences and affects the fabric of our nation.

While the two wars are likely to dominate the initial months of the new administration, the major defense story of the coming years may not be about the war on terrorism or the campaigns in Iraq or Afghanistan. Brazil, China and India daily grow in power and prominence. They may not represent threats, but they will provide challenges and opportunities for the new team. Taiwan will remain a sore point with China, and Russia has shown in Georgia and the Ukraine that it has not exorcised the hideous ghost of the Soviet Union. Major issues about NATO expansion and missile defense in Central Europe are already on the desk of the president and selected cabinet officers.

The specter of failed, failing and troubled states will also create demands on the new administration. While this issue spans every continent and is particularly problematic in sub-Saharan Africa, recent developments in Mexico are especially troubling for the U.S. The war against Mexican drug cartels has spilled over into the U.S. Narcotics trafficking, human smuggling and border control issues approach crisis proportions. Elsewhere in Latin America, multinational gangs, narco-terrorism and leftist-populist demagogues complicate conditions on our once quiet southern flank. Addressing these problems will take not only a whole of government, but a whole of society approach.

Farther out on the dark side, the “thugocracies” — North Korea, Sudan, Venezuela, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Syria, Iran — will create more trouble than their neighbors can handle. Many of these ugly states will remain a major part of both the terrorism and the weapons of mass destruction problems. Cuba, North Korea and Zimbabwe are also likely to have significant regime changes during the Obama administration, and turbulence will follow in the wake of such changes.

There are also many domestic issues — narcotics traffic and immigration control, to name just two — that touch on national defense. The greatest factor, however, is the health of the economy. Economic power is the basis for military power and problems with the economy will quickly be reflected in the health of the armed forces.

It is certainly not news that the U.S. economy is in trouble, but a number of major problems have risen to dramatic new heights, including an epidemic of home foreclosures and near double-digit unemployment. These problems will hit hardest among the 40 million Americans who already live below the poverty line.

The Obama administration will place a greater emphasis on domestic programs and spending than the previous administration. More federal dollars for the health sector, civil infrastructure, green energy projects, education and various economic stimuli packages are likely. Clearly, past 2010, Obama and his team will not be able to maintain Bush-level defense expenditures in light of these competing priorities. Deficit hawks from both political parties will emerge to insist that Obama rebalance federal accounts and re-establish the dividing line between public and private sector investments. Defense from 2010 onward is likely to be a major bill payer for domestic priorities and the restoration of fiscal balance. The next defense team will have to find ways to get the job done at much lower costs.

A final defense challenge will come from the condition of our armed forces at the start of the eighth year of the war on terrorism. Today, we have the smallest Navy in recent history, and the oldest aircraft in the history of the Air Force. Our Marines and soldiers are worn down by repetitive combat tours and the 37,000 casualties suffered by their comrades. Repair and replenishment of the force will be a major competitor to its modernization. The expense associated with more than 90,000 new personnel for the Army and Marines will compete with repair and modernization of all of the services. Ironically, as we need to recapitalize defense, our ability to do so will be shrinking rapidly.

Obama’s Pentagon may well have a different set of challenges than the Bush administration had, but it will have similar defense objectives. The most important of these is to defend the homeland at home and by operations abroad. It is in many ways the most complex of missions, one that is at once intergovernmental, joint, combined, interagency and international. We have made great strides in this area, and the Obama national security team cannot afford to fail on this mission.

Second, the armed forces will have to be prepared to fight and win the nation’s wars abroad. If history teaches us anything, it is prudence and humility about predictions of any sort. Many of our wars since 1950 have been come-as-you-are affairs. The Korean War, Just Cause in Panama, Desert Shield/Storm, and the initial phase of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan were surprises or short-notice contingencies. Other conflicts, like the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, had surprising twists and turns for which we were not prepared. If history is a guide, the time, place and the shape of future conflicts are likely to pose a significant degree of surprise, thus increasing the value of a balanced force, ready for combat across the spectrum of conflict. Readiness for war also means being ready for the inevitable post-conflict stability operations.

Third, the entire DoD must be vital, supporting partners in conflict prevention and the reassurance of friends and allies. The Obama administration clearly needs to make a major effort to work on peace in the Middle East, as well as in Kashmir on the subcontinent. Presence, showing the flag, training and advising, and providing material support are routine but incredibly important ways that the armed forces can serve the national interest and support our diplomats. In a similar vein, American statecraft — combining aid, diplomacy and security assistance — can enhance deterrence of conflict and cooperative security activities. All of this is much more feasible and affordable if supported by robust alliances or coalitions of the willing. Re-energizing our alliances and getting our major allies to improve their anemic level of military effort abroad — especially in Afghanistan — will be a major task for the new defense team.

Finally, the new defense team must not forget one of the least talked about objectives of the armed forces: securing the global commons. The U.S. today is an unrivaled global military power, not because it has large armed forces, but because it can deploy, sustain and protect powerful expeditionary forces anywhere in the world. Moreover, our economy depends on trade and access to stable markets worldwide. The ability, when necessary, to control or safeguard the sea, air, space and cyberspace is the DNA of global power. We have to maintain the assets to continue to make these conditions a reality. The global commons will not secure themselves.

A stronger State Department would help our national security policy and take some of the weight off of the armed forces. Right now, DoD spends $20 billion for every $1 billion spent by State and its partner, the U.S. Agency for International Development.

State needs a massive infusion of money and personnel to enhance its capabilities for effective diplomacy, security assistance and development assistance. Particularly important is the development of the corps of active, standby and reserve interagency specialists for reconstruction and stabilization tasks that otherwise would have to be accomplished by military forces. Another important task will be to streamline and rationalize our security assistance laws which today prevent us from using this tool flexibly and effectively.

Both to save money and to improve our performance in irregular warfare, the armed forces should improve their ability to train and advise foreign troops. Indigenous troops and police officers will win today’s irregular wars, not American forces.

The new team in the Pentagon will also have to protect and sustain other capabilities that tend to be secondary priorities inside the services. Much has already been said by Gates and others about the importance of nurturing and developing capabilities for irregular warfare. That should remain a top priority, but unmanned aerial reconnaissance and attack vehicles, tanker and transport aircraft, cyber-security assets, and missile defenses also need protection. Missile defense against small nuclear powers has never been more “doable” or more necessary. Unfortunately, many Democrats — perhaps harkening back to the days of Reagan’s Star Wars — are skeptical of the still-expensive missile defense programs. Rather than being protected, vital missile defense programs may well be put under pressure by the incoming administration.

To sort the wheat from the chaff, Gates might assemble an expert’s panel to evaluate service modernization programs. The objective of this group would be to assess the future utility, effectiveness, and efficiency of major development and acquisitions efforts. To ensure objectivity, none of its members should be from the defense industry, recently retired officers or currently serving on corporate boards in the defense industry. The secretary could use this effort as additional information when considering service inputs to the next Quadrennial Defense Review. At the same time, to prepare for significant cuts to come, Gates should ask the services to prepare classified decrement packages to help them cope with 5 percent, 10 percent or 20 percent cuts to programs and force structure over the next few years. These too should be also reviewed in the run-up to the QDR, but not shared with the expert’s panel, which should have independent recommendations.

In the end, Gates and the new team in the Pentagon will have their work cut out for them. They face daunting economic challenges and a complex and dangerous international environment. In the face of economic difficulties, the new Pentagon team will have to prepare the forces to fight and win the nation’s wars, the next of which are difficult to foresee today, but all but certain to be in the wings.

JOSEPH J. COLLINS, a retired Army colonel, teaches strategy at the National War College. From 2001 to 2004 he was the first deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army, Defense Department or U.S. government.