Monday, April 06, 2009

This Kind of War...

The Department of Defense has released its latest budget, and there is much discussion about it inside and outside the Obama administration. Some military planners are looking at the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war as an example of the type of war we might or might not have to fight in the future. Having focused for so long on counterinsurgency warfare over the past decade, the Israeli Defense Forces appeared inept at fighting a Hezbollah that had suddenly transformed itself into a more conventional force.

This is a long-running argument within the Pentagon, going back at least to the Kennedy administration and his genius of the day, Robert S. McNamara. Kennedy began to see the need for armed forces capable of fighting much smaller, less technologically advanced insurgencies . However, most of our military academies train future leaders of our armed forces in conventional warfare, meaning large engagements ruled by maneuver, non-nuclear weapons, lightning speed, targeted destruction of particular targets, and clearly defined geographic or military objectives.

I think I'm safe in saying that most of the Pentagon brass prefers conventional warfare. Why? For the very reasons that the American public didn't like Vietnam or the Iraq or Afghanistan insurgencies: as William Wallace's father said in Braveheart, "We don't need to defeat them, just fight them." And that's as true now as it was for the Athenians when they invaded Sicily during the Pelopponesian War. A long, drawn-out insurgency by a small force can win against a large, advanced, superior force far from home if:

  1. They can continue to inflict slow, small, but steady casualties that increase uneasiness and weaken the political will of the society or government which sent the occupying force.
  2. They can "blend in" with or enjoy the support of the local populace, making every "local" a potential target. Being on guard can wear down the morale of any force.
  3. They are willing to engage in tactics that are "dirty" according to traditional military doctrines (kidnapping, using civilians as shields, etc.), forcing the occupier to engage in similar behavior--something traditional militaries find extremely distasteful, as the officer corps particularly is driven by a sense of honor that "dirty" tactics tend to sully.

Insurgency warfare is highly localized, situational, and culture-based. Conventional warfare covers more ground, is general and theoretical in its outlook, and is very much rule-based (that's why we have the Geneva Conventions, among other things, to limit the types of damage, targets, or weapons advanced nations use in war).

As a favorite saying of military types goes, "The great thing is not to lose your nerve," and insurgency is a slow drag on the morale of any military force until they learn how to separate the insurgents from their local hideouts and sources of supply, as General David Petraeus was able to do in Iraq.

So how does all this military thinking affect the budget? Well, eventually you have to look into your crystal ball and guess what your biggest and most likely threats are going to be in the next year, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, and beyond. Then you have to train and equip your forces according to who you think you'll have to fight. Expect to fight a lot more insurgency wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, and you have one military. Expect to hold off the Chinese Communists from invading Taiwan or North Korea from invading South Korea, and you'll have a different military. Expect your biggest threats to be technological from a variety of sources (cyberspace, low-Earth orbit, ballistic missiles), and you'll have yet another military. You could, of course, split the money three ways, giving all three types of warfare short shrift, but preparing you for every contingency. Or you throw all your money into one or two things and hope for the best.

Of course everyone bases their estimates of what to do on the wars we've fought in the past--which makes sense, to some degree--we do learn from history, but sometimes too well. (The movie Tora! Tora! Tora! is an excellent case in point.) The split-things-three-ways doctrine--the one we've followed on the cheap since the end of the Cold War--calls for us to be able to fight two regional wars at once, with some surge ability to handle smaller engagements, as needed. But we haven't been fighting regional conflicts. No one will take us on in a straight fight, because those who do get their collective butts kicked. That's a good ability and reputation to have, but if our enemies know they can't kick our butts in an open fight, they'll switch to unconventional tactics. We can go unconventional, too, but then we lose that ability to intimidate through our more conventional tactics.

And even as President Obama calls for the nations of the world to reduce or restrict their inventories of nuclear weapons, other nations continue to build them, like North Korea and Iran. (As one Indian ambassador noted about the lessons of the first Gulf War, "Never fight the United States if you do not have nuclear weapons.") We also still have forces in the field making slow but steady progress in Iraq, and more forces moving into Afghanistan to repeat the Petraeus Doctrine there. And we have China, with its huge, though still technologically lagging conventional forces, looking to control East Asia; the People's Republic also has staged several high-profile cyber-attacks on the Pentagon's computer systems. We have North Korea threatening our allies Japan and South Korea with nuclear weapons plus ballistic missiles. We have an authoritarian Russia blackmailing its neighbors by controlling the flow of oil into Europe. We have a politically unstable Pakistan making deals with al-Qaeda and the Taliban on one border and supporting terrorist attacks on Hindu India on another border. Both Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons. And we have humanitarian crises like Darfur, which seem to call for something we've never had to develop before: anti-genocide forces.

So what sort of military do we need to cope with all these potential crises or battlegrounds? It all depends on how we define our vital interests and how far we're willing to go to protect them. This is why the President's views on foreign affairs matter.

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