Small Wars

This Week at War: Arms Race on the Gulf

Will it take Saudi nukes to deter Iranian nukes?

Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Images
Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Images

A coming Mideast arms race?

Last week, Prince Turki al-Faisal, formerly Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, raised blood pressure levels when he suggested that his country would consider becoming a nuclear weapons state if it found itself between a nuclear-armed Iran and Israel. Such an outcome would be a severe setback to the Obama administration’s vision of working toward a world without nuclear weapons. With Iran’s nuclear program proceeding apace, will more nuclear weapons, owned by either the United States or Saudi Arabia, be required to deter a future Iranian nuclear capability?

The annex of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran discussed the program’s military dimensions and was the agency’s most alarming yet. International sanctions and suspected covert action (such as the Stuxnet computer worm, the assassination of a few Iranian nuclear scientists, and mysterious explosions at Iranian military sites) have slowed but not stopped Iran’s progress. Absent the arrival of some heretofore missing and persuasive sanction, the United States and its partners in the region face the prospect of eventually having to deter and contain a nuclear-capable Iran.

A recent report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) discussed the price of deterring Iran, which the authors asserted would be more costly than many have appreciated and would require much more preparation than the United States and its partners have made thus far.

Among the difficulties is the inherently subjective nature of deterrence — which requires persuading adversaries to not do certain things, by threatening measures that U.S. planners estimate these adversaries would not tolerate. But these calculations depend on imprecise cross-cultural estimates of costs and benefits, where there is much room for misperception and miscalculation. In addition, Iran has created a diffuse structure of governing authority. This opaque arrangement, combined with Iran’s expertise with irregular warfare and covert action, gives Tehran a method for taking hostile action while avoiding the responsibility for doing so.

Prince Turki seemed to suggest that Saudi Arabia requires its own nuclear force to, at a minimum, deter a classic and existential Cold War-style nuclear ballistic missile threat to the kingdom. The acquisition of a Saudi nuclear deterrent would be highly destabilizing. Very short missile flight times within the region, combined with fragile early-warning and command-and-control systems, would create an extremely dangerous hair-trigger posture on all sides. The Saudi acquisition of a nuclear deterrent would also be a crushing blow to the prestige of the United States as a military ally and to the diminishing role President Barack Obama has sought for nuclear weapons.

If, in the interests of stability, prestige, and nonproliferation, the United States wishes to dissuade Saudi Arabia from becoming a nuclear power, a U.S. security guarantee and adequate U.S. military forces in the region may be necessary. The AEI report noted that there has been little consideration of what military posture the United States might be required to maintain in the region to enforce deterrence and containment of a nuclear-capable Iran.

It would be a blow to the vision expressed in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) if the United States eventually found itself stationing nuclear weapons around the Persian Gulf, as it had to in Europe and the Western Pacific during the Cold War. The NPR discussed "a devastating conventional military response" as an alternative form of deterrence. But looming cuts to U.S. conventional forces and the cultural friction created when U.S. forces were previously stationed in Saudi Arabia greatly reduce the credibility of this alternative.

Prince Turki and perhaps others in the Saudi royal family apparently believe that nuclear weapons will be required to deter a future Iranian nuclear arsenal. U.S. officials have good reasons to prefer that such a nuclear deterrent not be owned and operated by Saudi Arabia. But that likely means the United States will have to substitute its own deterrent instead. That’s exactly the outcome the White House hoped to avoid.


Transitions in Iraq and Afghanistan will shake up U.S. ground forces.

On Thursday, Dec. 15, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta presided over a brief, low-key ceremony at Baghdad’s airport that officially ended the Iraq war. Panetta held the surprise event two weeks before the Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline in order to thwart insurgent plotters and allow the few remaining U.S. soldiers in Iraq to get home before Christmas. Earlier in the week, Panetta met with Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Allen announced that next year U.S. forces will step back from direct combat against the Taliban and shift instead to training and advising Afghan forces. The transitions in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with looming cuts to the Pentagon’s budget, will bring substantial changes to the organization of U.S. ground forces and even to the definition of who is a soldier.

Allen’s proposed mission change in Afghanistan will require reconfiguring U.S. forces from a structure designed for combat to a structure more suited for partnering with Afghan units. Training and advising partner military forces is typically a job for older and more experienced officers and sergeants such as those found in the Army’s Special Forces. By contrast, the general-purpose Army and Marine Corps combat forces now engaging the Taliban in southern and eastern Afghanistan are more heavily staffed with first-enlistment troops, who are gaining experience while filling out the ranks of their squads.

After a decade of war, the Army and Marines Corps are well aware of the mismatch between their standard organizations and the staffing requirements of the advisory mission. Several years ago, the Army experimented with an "advise and assist" brigade, units that underwent specialized training and reorganization to conduct training and advising in Iraq and Afghanistan. And earlier this year, two Marine officers published a paper at Small Wars Journal summarizing their recommendations for how U.S. ground forces should organize advisory and assistance groups for Afghanistan.

With the U.S. advisory effort likely to last past 2014 in Afghanistan and with similar projects likely arising elsewhere this decade, the Army and Marine Corps may find it necessary to permanently establish brigade- and regiment-sized advisory commands. Should this occur, it would have significant implications for how these services recruit, train, organize, and equip their forces in the future.

In Iraq, the failure of the U.S. and Iraqi governments to negotiate a follow-on status of forces agreement means that aside from a handful of U.S. military officers at the U.S. Embassy, all U.S. military forces will leave the country. But the military-training relationship between the United State and Iraq is likely to carry on, with civilian contractors (most formerly soldiers) doing the work previously done by actual soldiers. Assistance to Iraq’s continuing campaign against al Qaeda will similarly get an assist from contractors, civilian intelligence officers, and other paramilitary forces. This "civilianization" of military activity will continue to be a convenient workaround when the use of actual military forces is politically unrealistic.

In the recent rebellion in Libya, we saw another "outsourcing" of military activity. While U.S. and NATO air forces provided close air support to Libya’s rebels, Obama promised that no U.S. military boots would be found inside Libya. No worries: Qatar, an Arab ally of the United States, provided to the rebels the hundreds of special operations advisors whom Obama felt constrained from providing himself, and in doing so, acted as a U.S. auxiliary.

Steep cuts in defense spending are likely to hit U.S. ground forces especially hard. But the Army and Marine Corps can adapt by reconfiguring their forces to perform in the ways just described and to prepare for future remobilization and reconstitution, should a future large crisis demand it. In an essay for Armed Forces Journal, Robert Killebrew, a retired Army officer, argues for an army composed of fewer junior trigger-pullers, more experienced officers and sergeants suited for advisory duty, a robust military-school system to keep soldiers and allied officers on the cutting edge, and readiness to quickly reconstitute full combat units with new recruits in a crisis.

We can thus see the concept of the soldier stretching to include not just a rifleman, but also a trainer, advisor, contractor, paramilitary, auxiliary, and commander in waiting. This is nothing new in either world or U.S. history. But there are implications for how Pentagon planners ponder reshaping the Army and Marine Corps.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola