100% Right 0% of the Time
Why the U.S. military can't predict the next war.
Two weeks ago, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered the Landon Lecture to hundreds of U.S. servicemembers and students at Kansas State University. During the question and answer session, a cadet in the Air Force ROTC asked, "What [do] you see being the focus of our nation in 5 to 10 years, where I’ll be serving?"
Paraphrasing a quote by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, Dempsey replied: "Somebody said to him once, you’re not really a physically imposing guy, how come you’re such a great hockey player? He said, ‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it’s been.’ That’s what we’re trying to do."
In May, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta echoed this sentiment with even greater conviction when he described Pentagon priorities in an era of slightly reduced defense spending and a leaner military: "We’ve got to focus on where the main threats are. That means we continue a major focus on the Pacific region and we continue a major focus on the Middle East, because that’s where the potential problems are for the future."
This forward-looking approach from the Pentagon’s senior leadership is admirable, in that it attempts to counter the old adage that "generals fight the last war." There is just one glaring problem with this degree of certainty: The U.S. military has a terrible record of predicting where conflicts will emerge and where they will be deployed to fight. The next time you hear lists of emerging threats and future conflicts, bear in mind the following observations from senior military officials over past few years:
1. In October 2010, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen acknowledged: "We’re pretty lousy at predicting where we’ll go. We’re pretty lousy at predicting the kind of warfare we’ll be in, if the last 20 years, or so, serve as an example."
2. In February 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told West Point cadets: "When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more — we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged."
3. In March 2011, General James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee: "I think, as we look toward the future, I have been a horrible prophet. I have never fought anywhere I expected to in all my years."
4. In May 2012, Major General H.R. McMaster admitted: "We have a perfect record in predicting future wars — right? … And that record is 0 percent."
Given the acknowledged certainty of uncertainty from these officials, it is safe to say that the Pentagon does not possess an armed conflict crystal ball. This is especially the case if you believe that the world is becoming "a more unpredictable and dangerous security environment." Given this inherent unpredictability, how does the Pentagon plan for the future?
To think about the problem facing military planners of predicting future U.S. military engagements, I spoke to Colonel Kevin Benson (ret.), whose distinguished 30-year career in the U.S. Army culminated with his appointment as the director of the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Graduates of SAMS are referred to as "Jedi Knights" for their rigorous education in preparation for becoming the elite planners of U.S. military operations wherever they are deployed. (Colonel Benson subsequently earned a PhD from the University of Kansas for his outstanding dissertation chronicling the history of SAMS from 1983 to 1994.)
Benson, who is still involved in concept development exercises for the Army, told me that "it is important to study the force you might actually fight against, rather than do generic planning for nonspecific scenarios, like against ‘Orange Land’ or the ‘Krasnovians,’" which is how U.S. military referred to the Soviets during the Cold War. Benson said that modeling future adversaries helps planners ask important questions, such as: "Are there forward staging bases nearby? If not, what would it take to get there? What type of forces would be required?" Despite the necessity of using specific scenarios for the concept development and operational planning process, Benson noted, "I have deep doubts about the ability to predict where the U.S. military would fight."
Over the past two decades, rather than guessing the geographic location of a fight, the military developed and maintained the two-war construct for defense planning. In 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin initially proposed a "win-hold-win" construct, but eventually shifted to the goal of "maintain[ing] sufficient military power to be able to win two major regional conflicts that occur nearly simultaneously." In 1997, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) sought a military that was "able to deter and defeat large-scale, cross-border aggression in two distant theaters in overlapping time frames." In 2001, it became "capable of swiftly defeating attacks against U.S. allies and friends in any two theaters of operation in overlapping timeframes." In the 2006 QDR, "wage two nearly simultaneous conventional campaigns (or one conventional campaign if already engaged in a large-scale, long-duration irregular campaign)." Finally, in 2010, the Pentagon drove a stake through the two-war construct, and instead embraced "the importance of fielding forces that are versatile and that, in aggregate, can undertake missions across the full range of plausible challenges."
Governor Mitt Romney criticized this shift in Pentagon planning last month, when he told a seemingly puzzled and subdued crowd: "This president has done something I find very hard to understand. Ever since FDR, we’ve had the capacity to be engaged in two conflicts at once. He’s saying, no — we’re going to cut that back to only one conflict." Romney did not make any predictions about what two wars the military should be prepared to fight, nor has he repeated this line of attack against President Obama. Apparently, prospective voters do not want to consider if the United States should be prepared to fight one or two wars, when two-thirds of Americans opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What politicians and generals rarely say (on the record) is that the primary rationale for having an oversized military is not because of a balanced and carefully deliberated grand strategy, but to overcome the Pentagon’s dismal record at forecasting conflict. In 1979, Lieutenant Colonel Robert McFarlane, who would become President Ronald Reagan’s national security advisor, summarized this approach with refreshing honesty: "Having superior strategic military might has provided an enormous hedge for flabby thinking. We could afford less than optimal strategic planning because push was never going to come to shove. We have had the luxury of being able to be foolish."
The surest way to manage the uncertainty of flabby thinking is to organize, maintain, train, and equip an armed force that can undertake a range of potential requirements regardless of the international security environment or location. Even after it has withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 — under the Pentagon’s current projections — the United States will retain an Army of 490,000 active-duty soldiers, 18 divisions, 65 brigade combat teams, and 21 combat aviation brigades; a Navy of 285 ships, featuring 11 carrier battle groups that includes 10 air wings, 82 guided missile cruisers and destroyers, and 48 nuclear-powered attack submarines; an Air Force consisting of 54 combat-coded fighter squadrons, 453 air-refuelers, 150 bombers; a Marine Corps of 182,000 active-duty Marines; and a nuclear triad with 1,550 operationally deployed nuclear weapons and perhaps an additional 4,000 in reserve.
In short, that is plenty of military capability, especially in an era when the United States faces no plausible significant security challenges, and the world enjoys fewer violent conflicts, increased political freedom, and greater economic opportunity than at virtually any other point in human history. The U.S. military has what General Mattis described as "a built-in shock absorber, basically can go anywhere and do anything." However, there are tremendous economic and human costs to sustaining such an enormous, latent warfighting capacity. By having a defense budget ($525 billion, not including Afghanistan costs) that is more than 11 times that of the State Department budget, USAID budget, and all foreign assistance combined ($47 billion), you arrive at the "militarization of foreign policy" that senior military officials constantly lament.
Days after Dempsey told the Air Force ROTC cadet that the U.S. military would "skate to where the puck is going to be," he was asked a similar question by a submariner at the Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Maine. This time, Dempsey replied: "Here’s my promise, you’re not going to be bored. We’ll find you something to do." Whether the something that the submariner is doing is strategically wise, it is a near certainty that the U.S. military will not know what it is — or where it will take place — beforehand.
Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.