Small Wars

This Week at War: Star Wars in the Age of Obama

This Week at War: Star Wars in the Age of Obama

The Pentagon sends mixed messages into space

April 23 was a busy day for the Pentagon’s space program. First was a launch from Florida of the experimental X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, a smaller robotic version of the soon-to-be retired NASA Space Shuttle. The Air Force hopes to develop a reusable robotic spacecraft that can carry satellites and cargo into space, stay in orbit for many months, maneuver to different orbital planes, and land on a runway for reuse. Second that day was the launch from California of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2 (HTV-2). The HTV-2 is an experiment to test whether the Pentagon can develop an extremely fast maneuvering glider-bomb that could promptly strike fleeting targets anywhere on the planet. Engineers lost contact with the missile 9 minutes after launch.

The Obama administration will soon attempt to explain two contrasting messages regarding the military use of space. On the one hand, it will call for international cooperation on a variety of space issues. On the other hand, as shown by the April 23 launches, it is hedging its bets by expanding the Pentagon’s space power.

In its forthcoming Space Posture Review (SPR), the Defense Department will describe how important space and its space programs are to military success. The SPR will very likely explain how dependent U.S. military operations are on the military’s reconnaissance, communication, weather, and navigation satellites. The report will also discuss how these systems are increasingly vulnerable to disruption by U.S. adversaries.

In a preview of the SPR’s likely content, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn recently discussed the need for international cooperation in space. Lynn called for "norms of behavior in space" that would include cooperation on space communication spectra, cooperation on navigation and missile warning, and protection of space assets from attack.

Having established the greatest range of space capabilities and with the most to lose from attacks on space assets, it is understandable that the United States government would now call for cooperation in space and the institution of a taboo on attacks on space assets.

In his speech, Lynn recognized that space has become a competitive military environment. Potential adversaries are likely to see a great advantage in offensive space capabilities that threaten the Pentagon’s space assets. 

As a hedge, the Obama administration has found itself supporting programs like those launched on April 23. In the future, the Air Force could use a spacecraft like the X-37B to rapidly replace military satellites destroyed by earlier enemy attacks. The X-37B could also have an offensive mission, to maneuver and linger near adversary satellites after a war has started, either to destroy them or to threaten them to deter escalation. The administration will hope that the HVT-2 eventually becomes an "Osama bomb," a weapon capable of rapidly destroying a fleeting target but without appearing on Russian or Chinese radars to be the start of a nuclear war.

The Obama team will attempt to sell a message of cooperation and harmony in space while simultaneously pursuing weapons programs that further expand the United States’ dominant military space capabilities. No one should be surprised if America’s adversaries hear the wrong message.

Does defending a village mean undermining Karzai?

An April 27 Washington Post article discussed a small victory for an Afghan village defending itself against Taliban intimidation. Two dozen Afghan men, trained by a small detachment of U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers, organized their own neighborhood watch and now patrol their village near Kandahar. Taliban fighters, who recently swaggered through the village and who seeded the village’s dirt road with bombs, haven’t been active there in months.

Although many top U.S. military officials in Afghanistan are eager to expand such local defense efforts, President Hamid Karzai has rejected any initiatives not under the authority of his Interior Ministry. Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, supports Karzai’s decision and has blocked U.S. funding for the military’s plans. According to the article, the establishment in Kabul fears that the organization of local militias will bring about the return of warlords, whose marauding led to the Taliban takeover in the 1990s.

On March 24-25, the Small Wars Foundation (the parent organization of Small Wars Journal) co-sponsored a workshop featuring a wide range of experts to study "tribal engagement" in Afghanistan (the workshop produced a summary report and background research materials). The purpose of the workshop was to assess the wisdom of a U.S. government-sponsored "bottom-up" security and development strategy that would essentially bypass the Afghan central government. The workshop also examined what U.S. planners and operators would have to consider in order to implement such an approach.

The workshop participants were well aware that a local community engagement strategy might undermine the Afghan government’s authority and risk political fragmentation. But with time running short and the Taliban very effectively implementing their own version of "bottom-up" community engagement, workshop participants concluded that it was unwise to wait for Afghanistan’s central government, using a purely "top down" strategy, to provide security and economic development across the country.

So how would a "bottom up" community engagement strategy avoid political fragmentation? Most workshop participants agreed that a community-engagement strategy should focus on the district level, a level of government that is close to the population but also has connections to the provincial governments and to Kabul. Workshop participants also agreed that Afghanistan’s government won’t improve its legitimacy until district governors are elected rather than appointed by Karzai.

The logic behind a bottom-up strategy in Afghanistan is difficult to refute. Afghanistan is too large, too rugged, and its villages too dispersed from the main roads for Afghanistan’s national security forces to effectively patrol. That is why Afghanistan has a long tradition of locally provided security. The conditions that have supported that tradition will not change any time soon.

U.S. military forces in Afghanistan are positioned to expand the kind of community-based "foreign internal defense" mission described in the Washington Post article. Such an effort would likely bring about a faster security increase compared with waiting for the arrival of Afghanistan’s still-expanding army and police forces.

One would think that President Obama’s staff would be especially interested in rapid gains in local security. The recent NATO conference in Estonia, no doubt informed by Obama’s July 2011 Afghan pullout deadline, agreed to an aggressive timetable to turn over security to Afghan forces. This timetable has no chance without improved security, which, in turn, would seem to require more village watch militias like the kind organized by the Special Forces soldiers outside Kandahar. U.S. commanders want to expand this approach. Karzai and Eikenberry have said "no." If the Obama team is serious about its timetable, it will have to resolve this impasse.