This Week at War: Doing More With Less

How can the U.S. still field a global military force in an age of austerity?

U.S. Navy via Getty Images
U.S. Navy via Getty Images
U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Adaptability will have to fill in for money and manpower

In a speech this week to senior leaders of the National Guard, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey revealed his outline of U.S. military strategy for the remainder of the decade. Dempsey’s task is to reshape the military to accomplish anticipated missions, respond and adapt to surprises, and do all this with much less funding than previously expected. Fewer soldiers with fewer new weapons will be expected to do a wider variety of tasks. Whether the Pentagon can organize itself for such flexibility and whether soldiers can learn to be "jacks of all trades" remains to be seen.

In a recent essay for Foreign Policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that the Asia-Pacific region will be the new center of U.S. policy. Dempsey’s military strategy will support Clinton’s diplomatic plan — he announced that the Pacific will be his top military priority. It is comforting to know that the diplomats and soldiers might finally be cooperating on grand strategy.

But Dempsey reminded his audience that in spite of the emphasis on the Pacific, the United States remains a global power with worldwide responsibilities. Risk will likely rise in those areas where resources are thinned. Dempsey discussed three strategies to get more out of his remaining forces.

First, he called for a reformulated relationship between active-duty and National Guard and reserve forces. Implied in this proposal is a transfer of many active-duty Army forces, especially heavy tank and mechanized units, into the National Guard and reserve. With demand for such forces expected to drop following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, defense budget planners no doubt see this move as a way to save money on active duty personnel and training costs. The Air Force and Marine Corps will also likely be asked to similarly contribute. But a remaining concern is how quickly the Pentagon will be able to reconstitute reserve forces into effective combat units during a crisis.

Next, Dempsey called for a transformed relationship between special operations and general purpose forces. He noted that the capabilities of these forces have already been merging over the past decade. On a per soldier basis, special operations forces are expensive to train, equip, and maintain. Relative to its total budget, the Pentagon could achieve modest savings by having lower-cost general-purpose soldiers perform some designated special operations missions, such as foreign internal defense training. Such occasional substitution would free up special operations capabilities for missions requiring highly technical or covert skills. Dempsey was also likely referring to enabling support for special operations, which in the future may be provided in more cases by general purpose forces.

Dempsey’s broadest and most-challenging strategy is to build a force that is capable of quickly executing military operations along the entire spectrum of conflict, from peacekeeping and training partner forces through high-intensity ground combat, including exotic capabilities such as cyberwarfare, defending space assets, and long-range strikes against heavily defended targets.

The Pentagon will have some amount of military capacity at all of these points on the spectrum of conflict. The challenge for Dempsey and his planners is whether the department will have on hand the needed quantities of  particular capabilities when a crisis demands them. That is a forecasting problem, made more difficult by looming fiscal austerity, the full extent of which is still unknown.

Complicating the task are thinking adversaries, who attempt to exploit weaknesses. Inevitable forecasting errors and thinking adversaries create the need for rapid adaptation. Dempsey experienced this personally; he arrived in Baghdad in June 2003 to command a high-tech armored division designed for open country warfare, only to find himself in the middle of a growing urban insurgency. The Army and Marine Corps eventually adapted in Iraq, but it arguably took years to complete at a painfully high cost.

Dempsey and his colleagues are planning for less money, fewer troops, but no significant rollback in the Pentagon’s global responsibilities. They will look to places like the National Guard and the past decade’s operational experiences for savings and efficiencies. But this decade will throw up its own surprises. The Pentagon used to solve surprises by throwing money and manpower at the problem. Now, adaptation will have to do the job instead.

Struggling for leverage against Iran

This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its latest report  on the Iranian nuclear program. Some of the report’s more sensational details had already leaked out last week, provoking vague saber-rattling from Israel and ensuring that the report would make it to this week’s front pages. As expected, the report’s annex presented new evidence showing that Iran is working on an implosion-type nuclear bomb design and is attempting to miniaturize this design in order to fit it to its medium-range ballistic missiles. What hasn’t changed is the international response to Iran, which has, since the beginning of this episode in 2002, been divided, muddled, and ultimately ineffective at persuading Tehran to reconsider its nuclear policy.

In spite of the IAEA’s heightened concerns, the Russian government quickly made clear that it would not support a new round of economic sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. Thanks to Russia’s preemptive veto, China was free to quietly walk away from the issue.

This may account for the strangely quiet response by President Barack Obama’s administration to the provocative IAEA report. It would be pointless and embarrassing for the White House to call for new international action against Iran only to have its call rebuffed. The administration is likely to find unilateral action against Iran’s central bank or oil industry similarly unappealing, as they could risk disrupting the global financial payment system, which is currently in no position to take on more risk.

U.S. policymakers have long hoped to persuade Iranian leaders that their nuclear program is making Iran less — rather than more — secure. This is becoming an increasingly tough case to make in Tehran. Sanctions have hurt Iran economically but they have also likely reached their limit. Russian and Chinese vetos at the Security Council, plus Iran’s oil exports, ensure that the United States and Europe won’t push sanctions much farther. The IAEA hasn’t restricted Iran’s steady progress on uranium enrichment or bomb design. Iran’s nuclear-industrial complex has adapted to recent alleged Western covert actions, such as the Stuxnet computer attack and the assassination of nuclear scientists. The overall program rolls on. Finally, while one might think that Iran’s nuclear ambitions would spark a balancing response from Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arab states in the region, coordinated defense planning among these countries remains feeble.

With nothing else working, the United States will most likely turn to deterrence and containment in an attempt to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran from achieving regional hegemony. Modeled after the early years of Cold War, such an approach would entail continued political and economic isolation of Iran, an explicit threat of devastating military retaliation in response to overt aggression, and waiting patiently for political change inside Iran.

This policy would be a stretch to implement. In addition to preventing the most obvious acts, such as overt Iranian military aggression, this policy will also be asked to dissuade a nuclear Iran from engaging in subversion-by-proxy and other forms of hybrid warfare. The policy will also be tasked with dissuading the Iranian government from profiting from weapons proliferation, as North Korea and Pakistan did when they sold components to Iran. During the Cold War, deterrence and containment prevented the Big War but had little effect on many other modes of conflict. When employed against Iran, proponents of deterrence and containment should have similarly low expectations.

Obama administration officials are no doubt well aware of the arguments against a preventive attack on Iran’s nuclear complex. Such an attack would have only a temporary effect on the Iranian program, it would unify Iran — possibly even including the now-marginalized political opposition– against the United States, and it would make the United States an international pariah. For these reasons and others, Washington will be very reluctant to strike first.

But in a conventional shooting war against Iran, the United States, with its vast air and naval power, would enjoy "escalation dominance" — the more a conventional conflict intensified, the more it would be able to bring its military superiority to bear. U.S. policymakers don’t want to start shooting. But they might not mind if shooting starts. Any number of local sparks — not least a fatalistic calculation by Israeli decision-makers — could start a fire that could later draw in U.S. Central Command’s firepower. If Iranian leaders believed this, it might make a containment policy, with all of its limitations, more effective.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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