A Strategy for Heroes
What's wrong with the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review.
by Frederick W. Kagan
02/20/2006, Volume 011, Issue 22
THE PENTAGON RELEASED ITS QUADRENNIAL Defense Review on February 6. The latest installment of the congressionally mandated report on the state of the military declares, "manifestly, this document is not a 'new beginning.'" Indeed it is not. The new QDR reflects a concerted effort by the Pentagon to return to its pre-9/11 course, focusing on long-term dangers as though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had never happened, as if America's ground forces were not badly overstretched, as if the nation were not really at war.
Wise commanders design plans that can be executed by ordinary soldiers. They know that if they expect every soldier to be a hero and every commander a genius, they will inevitably be disappointed. Wars are never neat. The unexpected happens. The enemy gets a vote in determining how things go. Sound planning therefore builds in a margin of error: attacking with more force than necessary; maintaining larger reserves; expecting greater friction; and preparing for stronger enemy resistance. This approach has been the American way of war for decades. It is so no longer. Although the Pentagon officially promises to "overmatch" any potential adversary, a military policy of "just barely enough" has been the reality since the beginning of the Bush administration. The 2006 QDR continues in this mold. It propounds a strategy that only heroes could make succeed.
By refusing to propose radical growth in the defense budget even in this time of war, the administration has forced choices about whether to prioritize the present or the future. And as this QDR shows, the Pentagon remains firm in its determination to organize for tomorrow's potential problems rather than today's actual crises.
President Bush placed military transformation at the center of his defense agenda from the time of his first address on national security issues as a candidate, the 1999 Citadel speech. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made transformation the hallmark of his tenure within a few months of taking office. Transforming the military to prepare for the challenges of the future was the theme of the 2001 QDR, as it is of the just-released 2006 QDR. The administration at least has been steadfast.
Such steadfastness is remarkable considering the dramatically changed national security circumstances of the past five years. Military transformation was all the rage in the post-Cold War 1990s, when most analysts believed we would enjoy a "strategic pause," a period in which there were few visible threats. Most transformation discussions in the 1990s assumed that the military should therefore prepare for enemies in the 2020-2025 time frame. Transformation enthusiasts were regularly frustrated that so many resources were being devoted to current operations they felt were less important than the challenge of preparing for massive change decades away.
Bush and Rumsfeld embraced this focus on the distant horizon. Throughout 2001, rumors flew that the Army would lose as much as 40 percent of its active-duty combat forces to pay for transformative airpower and missile programs. These rumors ended with the September 11 attacks, but the transformationists continued to argue that ground forces were outmoded, expensive, risky, and likely to generate far more casualties than the American public would tolerate in a conflict.
Recent history has not been kind to the transformation worldview. September 11, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom have shown that the strategic pause, if it ever existed, is over. Recent conflicts have also shown that ground forces remain central to accomplishing meaningful political goals in war. A nearly pure airpower campaign in Afghanistan did not obviate the need to keep an Army division there for the next four years (and likely into the indefinite future). A land-air campaign in Iraq relying heavily on the air component merely created the preconditions for the long-term maintenance of 140,000 American soldiers there. Astonishingly, the 2006 QDR shows that these facts have not swayed the Pentagon from its commitment to focusing on airpower solutions to long-term threats.
Because a Quadrennial Defense Review occurs every four years, it would seem natural for such a review to focus not just on long-term goals and strategies but also on important national security events likely to shape the subsequent four years. The QDR is meant, after all, to be an input into the defense budget process, and that process is generally much more concerned with the next five years than with the next 25. One might have expected this QDR to begin with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to consider scenarios for the development of those conflicts, and to evaluate the ability of the military to handle the likeliest of those scenarios. If, as seems clear, the administration believes that U.S. force levels in Iraq will be dramatically reduced by the end of 2006, then the QDR might well have addressed the problem of recapitalizing the worn-out equipment and transitioning, in general, to a largely peacetime force engaged in normal training. This issue is nowhere addressed in the QDR, though, which is unfortunate, because this complex, confusing, and costly transition will probably be the defining activity of the next four years within the military--always assuming it happens on schedule.
From an evaluation of the end of current large-scale deployments and the move back to a garrison military, the QDR should then have considered other likely threats and challenges in the near-and mid-term. Only then would it make sense to think about the challenges of transformation to meet distant threats and to consider the right balance among the tasks of handling the present, dealing with likely imminent problems, and preparing for dangerous possibilities in the distant future. Such an approach is anathema to the Pentagon, however, because the military establishment is still fundamentally in a "strategic pause" mindset.
THE NATIONAL DEFENSE STRATEGY, a document released in mid-2005 that serves as the strategic basis for the QDR, declared: "Uncertainty is the defining characteristic of today's strategic environment. We can identify trends but cannot predict specific events with precision." In the preface to the QDR, we similarly find references to an era characterized by the "unexpected," the "unpredictable," "uncertainty," and "surprise." The document lays much emphasis on the need to develop agile thinking, agile management methods, and rapid deployment capabilities to respond to these many uncertainties.
The United States, the document declares, is in the fifth year of a "long war" against "violent extremists who use terrorism as their weapon of choice." This conflict presents "a challenge that is different in kind, but similar in scale, to the Cold War." The QDR repeatedly states that this war will not be won by military means alone, and regularly implies that kinetic operations--the use of military forces on a large scale in combat--will play little or no role in determining the outcome. It proposes a fundamental reorientation of military capabilities away from large-scale conventional war and toward irregular war (which seems to be largely code for insurgency and counterinsurgency) and counterterrorism.
These sorts of operations, it emerges, fit nicely into the pattern of ideas prevalent in Rumsfeld's Pentagon well before the September 11 attacks. Speed of action, agility, special forces, and long-range precision-strike capabilities are all important. The QDR presents counterterrorism operations as primarily missions to identify, target, and kill individual terrorists. Irregular warfare means mainly sending increased numbers of special forces soldiers to hundreds of countries around the world to train their own militaries and police in the tasks of governance and counterinsurgency. The QDR notes that even the increased number of special forces soldiers it proposes will not be adequate for this mission, and so proposes that the regular forces of the Army and the Marines also be prepared to perform the basic functions of training indigenous soldiers that are normally the province of the special forces.
The heavy emphasis on training local police and military forces to win their own wars bears closer examination. The assumption that this is the right way to focus our resources is clearly drawn from administration strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet it seems premature to conclude that we should shift the focus of the ground forces establishment based on the outcome of those experiments to date. There is a deeper problem with this approach, however.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, we began to train indigenous military and police forces after U.S. forces smashed brutal dictatorships and set those countries on a path to democracy. The QDR makes it clear (and the national security strategy documents from which the QDR draws its strategic rationale make it clearer) that the Bush administration believes that winning the "long war" requires loosening the bonds of authoritarian control that now constrict so many states in the Muslim world. The U.S. military can train Pakistani, Egyptian, or Saudi armies and police to do their jobs better--indeed, it has been doing so for a long time. But it is not at all clear that training these agents of repression to be more effective is compatible with convincing the ruling regimes in those states to democratize. The idea of subcontracting the fighting of the "long war" to native militaries and police is really only useful if it is not that important to spread freedom in the Muslim world. If democratization is an important part of national strategy, as the president has repeatedly declared, then simply turning the job of "irregular warfare" over to the locals is not an approach that is likely to succeed.
But the emphases on the length of this war, its novel nature, its unpredictability, and the surprises it holds in store for us are all really ways of salvaging the "strategic pause" mindset. In fact, the current epoch really is not all that unpredictable, and we do not need to go out to 2020 to find meaningful challenges or meaningful threats.
THE WORLD of 2006 is no more or less unpredictable than the world has always been--even during the Cold War. From 1945 to 1990, we knew that we had one overpoweringly dangerous enemy and we oriented all of our military forces to facing that enemy. For all the supposed predictability of that situation, U.S. forces never engaged Soviet troops at all (with the limited exception of CIA officers in Afghanistan in the 1980s). Instead, they fought North Korea and China (after a shocking surprise attack that no one had expected), intervened in the Dominican Republic, fought the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, and then waged a string of smaller-scale operations in the 1970s and 1980s against a series of "unexpected" foes, including pirates in East Asia (the Mayaguez incident), Muslim revolutionaries in Iran, terrorists in Libya, local militias in Lebanon, and Marxist revolutionaries in Grenada, culminating in the removal of a strongman drug lord in Panama. The halcyon days when the Soviet threat made everything simple are a myth.
The unpredictability of the 1990s is also a myth. A sober evaluation of the world in 1992 would have suggested that the collapse of Yugoslavia would be a major issue for Europe and the United States; that the U.N. sanctions on Iraq would occupy a great deal of America's time and energy; and that the North Korean nuclear program would be a significant concern. It would also have been clear that Afghanistan's fate after the Soviet withdrawal would be complicated and contentious, although the significance of that fact was harder to predict. After the first World Trade Center bombing of 1993, it should have been possible to imagine that radical Muslim terrorism might be an increasing problem as well. America's leaders were not, on the whole, surprised by these developments--but the national security community continued to write incessantly about the unpredictability of current and future problems.
The same situation holds today. It is virtually certain that Iran and the problem of the Iranian nuclear program will be a central strategic issue for years to come. There are many possible scenarios ranging from peaceful resolution to major war, but any prudent defense policy should be able to respond at the highest level of force to a collapse of the quasi-peaceful relationship between Tehran and the West.
It is also certain that both Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to be dominating national security issues at least for the remainder of the Bush years. Even if the extremely optimistic estimates of troop reductions in Iraq prove justified, the problem of helping the fledgling Iraqi democracy fend off both internal and external challenges will loom large. The situation in Afghanistan is in some respects at least as worthy of concern. Rising Taliban attacks, coupled with Pakistan's continued unwillingness or inability to clear out the tribal areas along Afghanistan's southeastern border, place the Kabul regime in danger and have already been providing a relatively safe haven for al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups. Instability in that region will not dissipate quickly, and it will continue to be a matter of vital import for U.S. national security.
The recent electoral victory of Hamas in Palestine raises the strong possibility that conflict in that war-torn region will once again take center stage in the Middle East. A prudent national security review should consider carefully what actions might be required of the U.S. military should the so-called peace process there collapse.
North Korea is also likely to remain in the front ranks of American national security concerns for the foreseeable future. A country starved for hard currency is unlikely to resist the temptation to sell nuclear weapons or materials and knowledge for making them to high bidders, who may include international terrorists. The prospect of the collapse of the North Korean regime conjures another series of scenarios. Sound defense policy is not based on the assumption that all will be rosy.
It is also nearly certain that the growth of Chinese military power will be a matter of concern for the foreseeable future. The Chinese probably will not attack Taiwan, but the expansion of the Chinese economy and Beijing's drive to expand its influence in the world may have the effect of creating new danger areas where conflict might emerge. Once again, wise national security planners must operate on the assumption that all will not necessarily be well in East Asia.
One could identify many other plausible trouble spots: Venezuela, Colombia, and many other places in Latin America; Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and other African states. The point is not to predict whether crises will actually emerge from any of these hotspots but to recognize the near-certainty that specific parts of the world will pose certain kinds of questions and challenges to the United States over the next five or ten years. Any review of U.S. national security policy should evaluate possible responses to these obvious potential problems before it goes on to speculate about the need to prepare to meet challenges x, y, and z that might crop up a generation from now.
The QDR does not proceed in this manner. The emphasis on a vague and ill-defined "long war," on the need for agility that can come only through certain kinds of transformation to meet an uncertain and unpredictable world, destroys the possibility of serious strategic thought. It gives free rein to those who wish to indulge particular ideas of what warfare could or should be, but it does not tie the development of American strategy to the real world. The result: a strategy that only heroes could execute.
FROM 1991 to 2001, American military forces were in theory sized to be able to fight and win two simultaneous major regional conflicts. It is far from clear that the armed forces ever really were large enough to accomplish that mission, but such at least was the stated strategy. In the first Bush QDR in 2001, the force-sizing construct was changed to a program with the unlovely moniker "1-4-2-some." The military was to be able to defend the U.S. homeland; maintain presence in four critical regions; win decisively in two "overlapping" military campaigns; and engage in "a limited number" of "smaller-scale contingencies."
The 2006 QDR changes this formula yet again. The armed forces, it declares, must perform three key missions: "Defend the Homeland"; "Prevail in the War on Terror and Conduct Irregular Operations"; and "Conduct and Win Conventional Campaigns." It breaks each mission down into "steady-state" requirements that the armed forces must perform all the time and "surge" capabilities needed only in a crisis. Thus, the armed forces should be able to "conduct a large-scale, potentially long-duration irregular warfare campaign including counterinsurgency and security, stability, transition and reconstruction operations" (such as the war in Iraq) and "wage two nearly simultaneous conventional campaigns (or one conventional campaign if already engaged in a large-scale, long-duration irregular campaign)." In the case of the conventional war, the armed forces must "[b]e prepared in one of the two campaigns to remove a hostile regime, destroy its military capacity and set conditions for the transition to, or for the restoration of, civil society."
In other words, the military must be able to wage a counterinsurgency campaign in, say, Iraq, and also take down the theocracy in Tehran, replace it with a new stable government, and defeat any insurgency there. Or it must be able to defeat, say, Iran and establish a new government there while also defeating, perhaps, North Korea--but leaving it to the South Koreans, the Chinese, the Japanese, and others to reestablish stability on the peninsula. All the while, the military must continue to defend the homeland and also pursue a handful of lesser engagements, including the continual involvement with local police and military forces around the world that is the hallmark of the QDR's proposed strategy.
It is open to question whether this capability would actually be adequate. The commitment of something like half of the brigade combat teams in the active Army to Iraq has not left the other half free to contemplate a major war. On the contrary--the entire active force, including units normally left undeployed to train other units, has been involved in the Iraq war. Almost all active Army units (and many Guard and Reserve units) are either in Iraq, training to replace units in Iraq, or recovering from a deployment to Iraq. A recent RAND report underlines the magnitude of the problem: "To meet [deployment] requirement levels in the upper range that we have considered--14 to 20 brigades--the Army would experience serious problems in A[ctive] C[omponent] unit readiness and the nation would have few if any ready AC brigades to turn to in a crisis." In January, the Pentagon announced that it would reduce the number of brigade combat teams in Iraq--from the high of 20, kept there to support the Iraqi elections, below the previous normal level of 17--to a new normal level of 15, with several in reserve--still well within the "upper range" of the RAND study.
It seems clear that America's foes are aware of this situation. The North Koreans and the Iranians have both clearly taken advantage of America's preoccupation with Afghanistan and Iraq to advance their nuclear programs and defy the international community. Neither has suffered significant repercussions for that defiance--and their nuclear programs have advanced. Whatever message the Pentagon wishes to send, our enemies are seeing weakness, not strength.
But the authors of the QDR were troubled neither by such signs of overcommitment nor by studies like RAND's. On the contrary, the QDR concluded that "the size of today's forces--both the Active and Reserve Components across the Military Departments--is appropriate to meet current and projected operational demands." The review recommends increasing only the special forces component of the ground forces--and recommends reducing the programmed number of active Army brigade combat teams by one to pay for the growth. The president's budget proposes eliminating the temporary addition of 30,000 soldiers to the Active Army within a few years, to bring the force down to the level of 482,000 troops. By comparison, the Active Army of the 1980s had 780,000 soldiers.
The Pentagon has long argued that we should not evaluate the strength of the military by the number of soldiers. The QDR asserts that technological advance will make the force more capable with fewer troops. This logic does not hold up in the face of the U.S. experience in Iraq. Technology has proven and will continue to prove enormously helpful in that and similar conflicts. But counterinsurgency is an inherently manpower-intensive undertaking. The aim of the counterinsurgent is not just to kill his enemies, but also to reassure his allies, provide visible security to the population, improve conditions, and help the indigenous government establish its legitimacy. These are not tasks performed by Tomahawk missiles, JDAMs, or any other sort of precision-guided munition. They have to be performed by soldiers, and the number of soldiers really matters.
Commanders in Iraq have repeatedly indicated (usually off the record) that they have been forced to constrain their operations for lack of soldiers. Many have now argued convincingly that the hyper-efficient ground war of March-April 2003, which used the smallest possible number of soldiers, set the stage not for stability but for insurgency. L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. proconsul in Baghdad after the war, recently declared that he had repeatedly asked for more U.S. troops--to no avail. The relative paucity of U.S. soldiers in Iraq has restricted the strategy of "clear, hold, build" to a handful of towns and villages and left significant areas in Baghdad and elsewhere up for grabs. The number of soldiers, it turns out, still matters a great deal to the outcome of a war.
Above all, a strategy that requires the military to fight one Iraq-type counterinsurgency while also waging a major conventional war, will require that all American soldiers be heroes and all the commanders geniuses. It will require the men and women of the U.S. military to be deployed for years at a time, or else to move from one fight to another with little or no rest in between. It will leave no margin of error.
The QDR's treatment of the National Guard and Reserves show the problem in particularly acute form. For decades, these forces have been the nation's strategic reserve. They were to be mobilized in the event of major war, providing a bridge between the active forces and national conscription. The "lesser conflicts" of the 1990s eroded this distinction. Critical logistics and military police units in the Guard and Reserve had to be mobilized to support operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. This trend continued until 2003, when it began to accelerate exponentially. Now Guard units perform critical combat missions in long-term deployments, and Guard and Reserve support units are regularly mobilized and deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The strategic reserve has become a force without which the Active Army cannot function; a pool of soldiers who have a normal deployment pattern. The Pentagon now states that reserves can expect to mobilize and deploy once every six years, while the active forces can expect to deploy once every three.
If the Guard and Reserve have become so intimately involved in day-to-day operations, where now is the strategic reserve, ready should catastrophe befall us either in one of the two wars underway or in another theater? There is none. This strategy requires getting it right and winning quickly every time, without fail. That is not a strategy for ordinary men.
THE QDR SHOULD HAVE PROPOSED a permanent increase in the Active Army of at least 100,000 soldiers; in the Marines of at least one combat division; and it should at least have held the size of the National Guard and the Reserves steady. Funding for this growth in forces would need to come primarily from an increase in the defense budget.
The armed forces of the 1990s were inadequate for their mission, starved of resources for modernization and transformation, and unprepared for the challenges of the future. Then the United States went to war. As urgent crises demand our attention, the task of preparing for future threats does not vanish. The QDR is right to insist that we are engaged in what will probably be a long war. Waiting until that war is over before modernizing the force will probably create danger in the future. But the greater danger is in the near term. And the Pentagon has made the wrong choice in neglecting it.
The hard truth is that the defense budget needs to be set high enough to fund both current requirements and a prudent modernization program. The Defense Department should not have to lade its policy-planning documents with discussions on the need to balance risks during wartime. It should not have to rely on its people to be heroic, or to defer an even greater modernization bill for a future generation. The United States is still spending a historically low proportion of its GDP on defense. The growth in defense spending during the Bush administration, although large in peacetime, is very small compared with defense budget changes in previous protracted conflicts. We can afford to spend more on defense, and we must do so or force impossible choices on an overstretched defense establishment.
America's soldiers and Marines have been heroic in the struggle so far. Excellent performance and high retention rates in the face of repeated deployments, extensions of those deployments, and harrowing conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan are ample testimony to that heroism. This generation of young Americans may turn out to be one of the greatest generations by this toughest of all standards. But we should not count on such heroism, and we should not demand it until we really need it. We should establish a defense program that can succeed with mere mortals.
Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the forthcoming Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military (Encounter).
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