by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)
The United States military lays out a strategic plan every four years in the Quadrennial Defense Review. The latest QDR was shaped by the administration’s 2012 strategic guidance that calls for a pivot, or rebalance, to Asia-Pacific and a gradual disengagement from the still-volatile Middle East and South Asia.
China has argued that the pivot is intended to counter its influence. The United States disagrees. However, China’s muscle flexing — and push for turf in disputed islands and economic zones — has sparked calls for increased U.S. engagement as a stabilizing influence.
How quickly things can change.
Events in Africa — Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Mali, Chad, Nigeria — and the Middle East — Iraq and Syria — have undercut many of the U.S. strategic assumptions. The reality on the ground has trumped the validity of declarations such as, “al-Qaida has been decimated,” and “al-Qaida is on the run.”
The fact is that radical offshoots of al-Qaida, whatever one elects to call them, are on the rise. Governments are finding themselves unable to cope or, at best, can cope only marginally. Only recently, U.S. officials declared Iraq to be a stable, democratic entity and a partner. Months later, the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant — also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — has captured Tikrit (the hometown of Saddam Hussein) and Mosul (the second largest city in Iraq), and is now marching to Baghdad.
No one knows how this will play out, but this surprising turn must certainly pose anew the questions and assumptions we have about an Afghan National Security force assuming responsibility to defend that troubled nation after U.S. forces leave in December. It also must cause the United States to reexamine its postulated force level of less than 10,000 troops to be left behind — primarily trainers — post 2014, and the zero number (like Iraq) post 2015.
The assumptions of relative stability in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Middle East in general that underlie the pivot-to-the-Pacific strategy are at this point questionable, if not invalid. And if the Pacific rebalance remains a priority, who specifically is the primary threat in the region and how does the U.S. military posture to counter or deal with that threat?
The U.S. search for a strategic focus after the end of the Cold War has still not been resolved.
The Cold War was certainly challenging, but developing a strategic framework and force posture was straightforward. We knew clearly who the enemy was, what the enemy capabilities were, and the likely avenues of approach and places of conflict. We understood the enemy’s capabilities and the likely indicators of imminent war. It was a potential conflict that was endlessly war-gamed. We knew much about it and how it might unfold.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, we began a search for a strategic framework to replace the familiar paradigm, one that would allow the military to posture forces and maintain the relevancy of key alliances, especially with NATO, Japan and South Korea.
One framework we adopted was a shift from threat-based to capability-based planning as a method to size forces and competencies. This search was interrupted by conflict in the Middle East (the first Gulf War), the Balkans (Bosnia and Kosovo), the attacks of 9/11 and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The wars of choice of the past 13 years have now been “wished away” by declarations of victory as we shift our focus to the Pacific. The instability in Africa and the Middle East plus the recent Taliban surge in Pakistan — witness the Karachi airport attacks — remind us that while we may get a vote on starting something, ours is not the only vote in ending it.
Against this backdrop, the question is what strategic focus the United States should adopt and how the military should posture for it. Recent events have put everything in play. We have in effect a “jump ball.”
Domestic politics here are complicating matters. Recall last year’s government shutdown and endless squabbling over government spending and taxes that led to the Budget Control Act and sequestration. The Defense Department base budget was $496.5 billion in fiscal year 2013, $496 billion in 2014 and the president requested $495.6 billion for fiscal year 2015. The House Appropriations Committee approved $491 billion in Defense Department discretionary funding for 2015. The committee also added $79 billion for overseas contingency operations.
Recall that the budgets for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 benefitted from a partial relaxation of the sequestration caps, but 2016 holds no such promise. With the upcoming retirements of Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who lost in the recent primaries, the House will have two fewer defense advocates. And the outlay effects of reduced budget authorities are now beginning to bite harder, and will bite harder still in the coming years.
All this comes at a time of needed reset and modernization for U.S. forces. We have an Army that is downsizing from 570,000 to 450,000 troops, an Air Force postured to reduce force structure, unresolved force structure adjustments among active, reserve and National Guard forces and postponed modernization programs in the Army (Ground Combat Vehicle) and the Marine Corps (replacement for the Amphibious Assault Vehicle). One bright spot is House Appropriations Committee support for 11 carrier battle groups (funding to support refueling of the USS George Washington). Still unresolved is the requisite funding to support both procurement and training.
We may have thought that we had a strategic framework nailed. But the recent turn of events has, at the very least, caused us to reconsider previous assumptions. And we always knew that budget and outlay resources were insufficient for previous strategic assumptions. These resources must seem even more inadequate in light of what is happening in the world.
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