The Navy can't 'contain' Iran -- even if we wanted it to.
- By Robert HaddickRobert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, may have shed some light on a corner of America’s grand strategy — the real version that officials don’t usually talk about in public.
During a media roundtable at the U.S. embassy in London on August 30, a reporter asked Dempsey whether he would get advanced warning from the Israeli military, should Israeli leaders decide to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Dempsey said that he did not ask his Israeli counterpart for such warning, explaining, "I don’t want to be accused of trying to influence — nor do I want — nor do I want to be complicit if they choose to do it. Really. So I haven’t asked the question." When asked about Israeli concerns about a "zone of immunity" — the time when Israeli’s leaders conclude their military options against Iran will no longer be effective — Dempsey expressed confidence in economic sanctions and concluded, "I don’t think that the zone of immunity that Israel feels itself bound by, I don’t think it’s as significant." Finally, Dempsey said he had not prepared any military options in response to an Israeli attack on Iran.
Dempsey’s remarks reveal a new approach to security issues in Central Command’s area of responsibility (which stretches from Egypt to Afghanistan). Long gone — and lamented by few — are the days of using offensive action to resolve perceived problems. That approach wasn’t just a Bush-era phenomenon; President Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan in an attempt to seize the initiative, a surge now in rapid reverse. Instead of offense, the new U.S. approach emphasizes defense.
Dempsey’s London remarks show an effort to create as much distance as possible between the United States and a potential Israeli strike. The United States is building a new missile defense radar site in Qatar, it will hold a multinational minesweeping exercise in the Persian Gulf later this month, and it will conduct a scaled-back missile defense exercise with Israel later in the autumn. These steps, while important, are reactive and thus provide a contrast with the U.S. approach over the past decade.
According to the New York Times, some Obama officials believe Israel is pressuring the United States to issue an ultimatum, backed by a public military commitment, in response to the Iranian nuclear program, which the IAEA recently concluded is not slowing down. Dempsey’s remarks clearly pushed back against Israel’s pressure for a commitment to offensive action. But beyond that, they also reveal an attempt by the Obama administration to develop a new strategy in the Central Command region that will require fewer military resources than did the offensive-minded approach of the past.
In contrast with Jerusalem, Washington views Iran as a distant and manageable problem. President Obama has pledged that he will not allow Iran to become a nuclear weapons state and has publicly rejected a policy of Cold-War style containment. However, Iran is not likely to conduct a detectable nuclear weapons test, leaving its nuclear weapons status conveniently ambiguous. And with the memories of the Iraq WMD fiasco still fresh, a U.S. preemptive attack in the face of such ambiguity would seem out of the question.
So, despite what the president has said, in truth, containment will be the long-term strategy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the trick will be to implement the strategy with fewer military resources than are currently employed.
The Pentagon currently supplies Central Command with two aircraft carrier strike groups. In order to sustain this commitment, last week the Navy had to send the USS John C. Stennis carrier strike group back to sea four months early and only five months after returning from its last long cruise to the region. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave an almost-apologetic speech to the Stennis’s crew before their departure from Bremerton, Washington. This ongoing commitment, mostly in preparation for trouble involving Iran, is absorbing at least 60 percent of the Navy’s total carrier fleet and is requiring an operating tempo that is not sustainable for long.
This is not what the Navy has planned for. And although the administration thinks its defensive strategy will reduce Central Command’s demand for military assets, that does not seem to be the case. Robert Work, the undersecretary of the Navy, recently explained that the service’s long-term assumptions call for permanently maintaining one, not two, carrier strike groups in the Central Command area. Navy planners realize that their responsibilities in the Pacific, always high, will certainly increase as the Chinese navy expands. This implies getting back to the one-carrier commitment to Central Command in order to free up ships for the Pacific. Work explained that the Navy has ways to cope, as shown by the Stennis’s early deployment. But such over-scheduling is not an answer to open-ended problems. Covering the near-term risk around the Persian Gulf with two carriers will eventually become untenable as risks in the South China Sea and elsewhere expand.
How is it that the Pentagon, with base spending totaling $530.6 billion this year, finds itself struggling to cover long-known risks such as Iran? Part of the answer lies with the sheer breadth of the Pentagon’s security responsibilities, which span the globe and range from activities such as providing veterinary assistance in East Africa, to fighting insurgencies in Central Asia, to chasing drug-runners in the Caribbean, to deterring nuclear war, and much, much more. With such a list of duties, $530.6 billion might not be unreasonable.
Strategists and policymakers have always debated what duties should properly be on the Pentagon’s list and what priority those duties should rate. Regarding the present and future challenges around the Persian Gulf and the western Pacific, the Pentagon’s forces, despite their size and scope, are mismatched to the challenges at hand — the Pentagon has too many capabilities that are unsuitable for these problems and too few that are. Regarding Iran, although the U.S. Air Force has abundant tactical air power, political sensitivities on the Arabian Peninsula, combined with the vulnerability of forward bases to missile attack, apparently prevent the deployment of much of this tactical air power as a hedge. This has left Central Command excessively dependent on aircraft carriers instead. In the Pacific, China’s expanding anti-ship and land-attack missile capabilities increasingly threaten long-standing U.S. basing plans, operating concepts, and procurement decisions, revealing more emerging mismatches between what U.S. commanders have and what they will need to accomplish their assigned missions in the region.
Top Pentagon officials bear responsibility for allowing these shortfalls and mismatches to accumulate. Shortly after assuming office in November 2006, Defense Secretary Robert Gates railed against "next-war-itis" — what he saw as his staff’s excessive attention to future problems, to the exclusion of current problems such as Iraq and Afghanistan. One would think that the Pentagon staff was large enough so that no such choice was required. In any case, those future problems are now here and are more challenging than they need to be because of earlier inattention, poor forecasting, and resistance to adaptation.
It is the nature of large bureaucracies to resist change. However, the outside world is constantly changing, and the Pentagon must adapt. With auto-pilot the default, vigorous leadership is required to impose adaptation. However, according to a recent Washington Post article, we should not expect such disruptive leadership from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who the staff seems fond of precisely because he is not disruptive (a description that also applied to Gates). If someone doesn’t turn the rudder soon, the Pentagon will find itself complicit — in ensuring its own irrelevance.