The Department of Defense has issued a new Defense Strategic Guidance statement, coincidentally just a few days after I sent the White House my suggestions for cutting the budget. I’ve read the document and, rather to my surprise, it makes a great deal of sense. It appears–and much depends on how it is actually implemented–to return the US to the sort of strategic planning that prevailed through most of the 20th century.
First, a bit of background. Throughout the 20th century, it was a strategic goal of the United States to have a continental ally in any major military involvement, and let them do most of the dying. Whether it was France in WWI, the Soviet Union in the European theater in WWII (and China in the Pacific), or South Korea and South Vietnam, the goal was the same; let someone else provide the mass of infantry that was going to take most of the casualties, while the US provided air, naval, and armored support. Even when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, a major goal of US policy was to involve troops from local allies. Syria and Egypt, as well as other local powers, contributed significant forces. This was not merely a political gesture, to show that the United States was not acting alone, but a continuation of sound US strategic policy. Even in Afghanistan in 2001, the US initially provided leadership and firepower (and large amounts of cash), while local allies did most of the fighting.
The lack of a local ally for the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a major failure of US diplomacy and planning. (Turkey was the obvious candidate, but could not be induced to even cooperate, much less participate in the invasion.) As a result, US forces had to provide most of the manpower (and relatively significant casualties) for most of the war. Perhaps the fallback plan was to use a reconstituted Iraqi army in the allied role, but if so that too was bungled and only in 2008, five years after the start of the war, was the new Iraqi army ready to take over significant operations.
The new Strategic Guidance statement talks a very great deal about allies. I think the DoD has learned a valuable lesson about the costs of going it alone. (I mean no disrespect to the British and other allies who contributed troops, and suffered losses, in Iraq and Afghanistan, but their roles were comparatively minor.) There are numerous sentences like “U.S. forces will plan to operate whenever possible with allied and coalition forces.” This is good strategic sense. In particular, India is emphasized as a key ally. I have been saying for at least twelve years that securing India as an ally should be a key goal of US strategy and diplomacy, so it is pleasing to see this finally recognized at the highest levels.
The new strategy, boiled down to its essentials, is this:
‘We can’t afford to keep doing what we’ve been doing, so we’re going to concentrate on the areas that really need our attention, and make sure we have local allies to help us out.’
This is a perfectly reasonable plan. Naturally, many people object to it, ostensibly because it means abandoning certain features of recent strategic doctrine, but more realistically because lower military spending means some corporations will make less money.
For example, a stated goal of recent US strategic planning was the ability to fight and win two wars at the same time. The new goal is, if it is necessary to fight two wars at the same time, to fight one as a delaying action while winning the other, then concentrate resources on the other to win that as well. This seems like a significant change, but it really is not. The ‘win two wars at once’ capacity, you see, never actually existed. The doctrine fell apart when it was put to the test. To fight the war in Iraq, it was necessary to put the war in Afghanistan on hold, and it could only be resumed in a serious way as US forces were withdrawn from the Iraq war. The new doctrine is not a change; it simply recognizes circumstances as they actually exist.
A couple of other points are worth mentioning. The new statement includes this statement:
“Likewise, DoD will manage the force in ways that protect its ability to regenerate capabilities that might be needed to meet future, unforeseen demands, maintaining intellectual capital and rank structure that could be called upon to expand key elements of the force.”
This is interesting on two levels. First, it recognizes that the DoD would need to expand to fight a major war and intends to keep the capacity to do so. This is nothing new; WWI and WWII were both fought mostly with men who had been civilians a few years before. It also means that as manpower is reduced a greater proportion of officers will be retained. Officers, in other words, are less likely to lose their jobs than enlisted men and women. That is important not only for its implications on future mobilizations, but on current careers and politics within the DoD.
“We will resist the temptation to sacrifice readiness in order to retain force structure, and will in fact rebuild readiness in areas that, by necessity, were deemphasized over the past decade.”
This means that the DoD will not try to maintain troop levels if it doesn’t have the funds to arm, equip, and train them properly. Quality is more important than quantity and the most important feature of a military organization is its firepower and combat capacity, not sheer manpower. The number of people in uniform is a convenient benchmark for politicians to pick up and try to score points with, but it matters relatively little if the troops have to be used.
Overall, I am pleased with the new strategic doctrine and matching cuts in DoD spending. The strategy is solid and the cuts, while they don’t go nearly as far as they could (and, I believe, should), are a good start. It recognizes both the strategic realities of the world as well as the necessity of a strong economy to maintain a strong military. Well done.