Think Again: The Pentagon

The military's Chicken Littles want you to think the sky is falling. Don't believe them: America has never been safer.


“The Pentagon Is Always Fighting the Last War.”

Just the opposite. The Pentagon, as former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates derisively pointed out, has a bad case of “next-war-itis.” With Iraq now ancient history and Afghanistan winding down, all four of the major U.S. military services today prefer to imagine distant, future, high-tech shoot-’em-ups against China (er, well-equipped adversaries) over dealing with the world as we find it, which is still full of those nasty little wars. As Marine Corps general and outgoing Central Command boss James Mattis once told me, “I find it intellectually embarrassing that people want to hug the Chinese [and exclaim], ‘Oh, thank God we have another peer competitor at last! Now we can go back to building the weapons that we always wanted to build.'”

Some of these efforts can verge on the ridiculous. I recently sat through an Air Force briefing during which super-empowered individuals were portrayed as thiiiiiis close to being able to wipe out humanity with a genetic weapon or to kill off — get this — more than half the U.S. population through electromagnetic-pulse attacks that send us collectively back to subsistence farming (think of the TV drama Revolution). Another scenario posited a “one-machine” future when, naturally, the “beast” starts thinking for itself and can turn on humanity (here, take your pick of Terminator‘s Skynet or the Matrix trilogy). That’s the beautiful thing about Armageddon-like future wars: They could happen tomorrow, or they could never happen. The only thing we know for sure is that we’re totally unprepared!

If you thought all these plotlines portray a Pentagon in search of the right justifying villain, then you’d be right. But remember, amid all this institutional angst, what’s really being fought over are slices of a $530 billion budgetary pie that many experts think should be shrunk by one-fifth over the rest of this decade.

The first services to be infected were “Big War Blue” — the Navy and Air Force — as both felt slighted in the post-9/11 long war against radical terrorist networks, seeing in its unfolding an existential threat: a long-term emphasis on “Small Wars Green” involving mainly the Army, the Marine Corps, and special operators like SEAL Team 6. Now, however, even the Army and the Marine Corps are beginning to catch the fever. So while the Navy and Air Force have been fighting harder for longer because they’ve gotten the short end of the stick for the last decade, the Army and Marine Corps are now running hard from the long war too, looking to make sure they don’t get discarded like Iraq and Afghanistan.

After years of acting like it was on top of everything, the U.S. military is back in Chicken Little mode and, man, is that sky ever fallin’. According to Andrew Krepinevich, a longtime advisor to the Pentagon, America either stands up militarily to the Chinese now or risks a “latter-day Chinese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of Influence.” How does the Pentagon find those dollars? Krepinevich is blunt: “The big bill payer here is the ground forces.”

All those gripes aside, next-war-itis is a good thing. After all, no American interests are served by having the U.S. military be the last to wake up to a genuine national security threat. And because these crystal-ball exercises are far more art than science, a certain number of bad bets will be placed. But those cost a great deal less than wars the military is ill-prepared to fight — which is why the Pentagon is always fighting the wars yet to come, and the wars that will never be.

Alex Nabaum for FP

“The U.S. Military Still Needs to Be Able to Wage
Two Wars at Once.”

Not anymore. Or at least not for the foreseeable future. The two-wars concept, on some level, echoes World War II’s European and Pacific theaters. During the Cold War, it became a matter of keeping the Soviets boxed in on both ends, lest the dominoes fall (as the United States feared in Southeast Asia). When the Reds went away, the Pentagon started calling them “major regional contingencies,” but everyone soon realized that was just a bureaucratic euphemism for North Korea and Iraq (then later Iran) — not exactly your daddy’s world war.

So why has this Cold War artifact lasted so long inside the Pentagon? It created a force-sizing principle — America needs X many troops/ships/aircraft/etc. — that could be presented to Congress to justify a defense budget “floor” once the all-mighty Soviets were no more. Until the 9/11 attacks, it was just a theory. Now, after the United States just spent the better part of a decade waging two modest-sized wars and saw how they burned out the force, neither Congress nor the American people is in the mood to entertain the fantasy of simultaneously toppling Iran’s mullahs in the Persian Gulf and duking it out with the Chinese in East Asia. So consider this one dead and buried until the United States reaches some semblance of fiscal order.

America’s “pivot” from Southwest Asia (so long, Iraq and Afghanistan!) to East Asia (hello, China!) represents more than just Barack Obama’s strategic rationale for tying off his predecessor’s military adventures. In concluding two land wars that enlarged his two armies — the Army and the Marine Corps — the president can reduce their superexpensive manpower (keeping just one soldier in Afghanistan costs roughly $1 million a year) even as he shifts U.S. military and diplomatic efforts toward the Pacific.

All that “supplemental” spending on the Army and the far smaller Marine Corps to fund Iraq and Afghanistan depressed the Navy and Air Force shares of the procurement budget throughout the 2000s. For example, the Air Force’s share of the defense budget across the 1990s averaged 31 to 32 percent. Now it stands just above 27 percent. Meanwhile, the Army picked up almost 2 percentage points that it’s now sure to lose. For the services, the “pivot” has a wholly different meaning.

Plus, slotting in still-reddish Beijing for the old Red Menace is a stone that kills two birds: A Democratic administration avoids the “weak-on-defense” charge (see, we’re standing up to those dastardly Chinese!) while sidestepping any serious military responsibility for what remains of, or is still to come from, the so-called Arab Spring (Syria, anyone?).

Obama’s new secretaries of state and defense — both Vietnam War veterans turned anti-war senators — could not send a clearer signal in this regard: America doesn’t do land wars (read: quagmires) anymore. Instead, the country returns to what scholars call “offshore balancing” and occasionally striking from a safe distance. “And how many troops/ships/aircraft/etc. does that take?” asks Congress. “Ah,” says the Pentagon, “have we briefed you recently on Chinese military developments?”

Of course, the Pentagon will never admit exactly what is going on. No, that would be perceived as giving a green light to Antagonist B if America ever tussled with Antagonist A. Check out the recent tap dance by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, over the White House’s 2013 budget submission:

There’s been much made — and I’m sure will be made — about whether this strategy moves away from a force structure explicitly designed to fight and win two wars simultaneously. Fundamentally, our strategy has always been about our ability to respond to global contingencies wherever and whenever they occur. This won’t change.… We can and will always be able to do more than one thing at a time. More importantly, wherever we are confronted and in whatever sequence, we will win.

Got that Beijing/Tehran/Pyongyang?


“The U.S. Navy Is Too Small.”

Not necessarily. Yes, the U.S. Navy has dwindled greatly from the Reagan-era dream of a “600-ship navy,” but its slow slide to today’s approximately 290 “battle-force ships” is no cause for alarm — even with all that talk about the future of American power being in the South China Sea. To paraphrase Obama’s election-debate comeback, “This ain’t your grandfather’s 1917 navy.” The combined agility, firepower, and operational reach of today’s seaborne force dwarf anything America enjoyed in the last century. Military expert John Pike notes that current U.S. aircraft carriers are 10 times more powerful than they were just two decades ago, thanks to precision munitions.

So, yeah, when you can deliver that much force that accurately — and from such incredible distances — the notion of steaming into some rogue regime’s inner harbor to teach it some manners is excruciatingly quaint. And if Beijing wants to stockpile budget-draining capital ships — even aircraft carriers — then Mao bless ’em, because the U.S. Navy is already evolving past last century’s paradigm toward this century’s version of the many, the cheap(er), and the unmanned.

The Navy’s latest vision of war, concocted with the help of D.C. think tanks and the Air Force, is the Air-Sea Battle concept. It says, in so many words, that the Navy won’t let China’s military prevent it from accessing some future East Asian crisis or war. So when China starts fielding its first aircraft carrier (a Soviet retread built in the 1980s) and its superscary carrier-killing missiles, the U.S. Navy starts testing its first carrier-capable unmanned combat aircraft (what else to call it when it sports an F-16’s engine?). And if China forces the Navy into a standoff posture, then guess what? America comes up with a technological breakthrough that turns every carrier-launched strike force into another Doolittle raid — as in, No pilots? No return? No problem. We’ll become the kamikazes, only there won’t be any “we” inside our “suicide” drones.

As for the Navy’s pitch in recent years about needing to police the “global commons,” let’s be honest and say that bad-actor behavior on the high seas doesn’t amount to much. Heck, put two former special-ops snipers fore and aft of a cargo ship, and that’s all the security you need to handle your average Somali pirate crew — as in, bang, bang, you’re dead.

So have no fears about the Navy. It’ll remain “big” enough.


“So the Wars of the Future Will Be Unmanned.”

I didn’t say that. Yes, deep inside the Pentagon, some 50-pound brains are dreaming up the Terminator-style wars of tomorrowland (typically waged against the Chinese hoards … of robots and unmanned vehicles). And yes, drones increasingly rule the skies. But seriously, think about that for a minute. What exactly do such forces fight over — decisively — in this rock ’em, sock ’em manner? Other than just blowing up each other’s high-tech toys? If, at the end of the day, there’s something truly valuable to contest, a country’s manned forces still need to occupy and control it; otherwise, nothing is achieved. Wake me up when drones can set up local government elections in Afghanistan or reconfigure Mali’s judicial system.

So, yes, drones are spectacular for finding and targeting bad actors (and other drones, eventually), but if your robot war requires a no man’s land to unfold (say, the tribal regions of Pakistan), then all you can “control” in this manner are no man’s lands — or patches of ocean. If you really want to get your hands on what lies below (hydrocarbons, minerals, arable land), you still have to send in some bodies — eventually. That’s why they call it blood and treasure.

That’s not to say all these new aerial drones don’t strike fear into the hearts of America’s enemies, not to mention the U.S. Air Force. I mean, you couldn’t even squeeze a pilot in many of the newest drones, some of which are so slight they can be launched with a flick of the wrist. And with the Army now proposing a 5-pound bullet of a drone (the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System) to shoot individual enemy soldiers from half a dozen miles away, the youngest of the four services correctly spots an existential threat amid all those toggling joysticks. Indeed, four years ago, the Air Force published a report that suggested the service could eventually get rid of two-thirds (or more) of its 13,250 pilots. No wonder the Air Force is talking so much about its indispensable role combating the hazards of space and cyberwar these days.



“America Doesn’t Need the Marines Anymore.”

Hold on there, soldier! The Marines go into survival mode just about every other decade, all the way back to when they lost their jobs as snipers lodged in the masts of ships after the Civil War. Troop numbers were decimated after World War I, and the Marine Corps was almost swallowed whole by the Army after World War II. Then came the post-Vietnam funk and the relegation to a mere amphibious feint in the Army’s lightning-fast liberation of Kuwait in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm. So no, the Marines’ latest bout of angst is nothing new. Sure, there wasn’t really any difference between how the United States deployed Marine Corps and Army units in Iraq and Afghanistan, the clearest evidence being their frequent relief of one another. And with the special-ops community stealing a good chunk of the Marines’ thunder recently, it’s only natural to wonder whether America’s most iconic service has reached its own Zero Dark Something.

Still, it’s never going to happen.

First of all, no other service can match the Marine Corps’ outsized reputation (hell, mystique) or its connections on Capitol Hill. Americans simply expect that there will always be a Marine Corps. Logic doesn’t enter into it.

Plus, an essential division of labor has settled in since 9/11: While the special operators handle the low end of the spectrum (killing bad guys discretely) and the Army stands ready for the Big One, the Marine Corps, which alone among the services is back up to its Cold War fighting strength (of 200,000), exists to respond to everything in between — at the drop of a helmet. That’s why it was the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit that swooped into Japan after the big 2011 earthquake and tsunami, not the 1st Armored Division. So, no, forget about furloughing America’s global emergency-response force, because — unlike in Armageddon — bad things happen to good people(s) all the time.

If the Marine Corps is reaching for a new combat image, it’s best captured in the emerging Navy concept of the Single Naval Battle — a ship or two, a few good men, and something to fight over on the water, like an oil rig. Yes, that sounds like it’s ripped from today’s headlines (e.g., China and Japan’s ongoing tussle over islets in the East China Sea), but toss in a future ice-free Arctic Ocean, where one-fifth of the world’s known hydrocarbon reserves lie largely unexploited, and who knows? A British firm just announced that it’s launching Britain’s first private navy in two centuries to fight those nasty Somali pirates, so maybe the Marines’ new survival strategy makes sense, even if — again — the overall market likely remains small.


“The U.S. Army Is Far Too Big.”

Bingo. Today’s Army declares that it exists to win land wars in a decisive fashion. The key word is “decisive”: While Army generals don’t advertise it anymore, that means occupying the defeated power and overseeing its stabilization and reconstruction for a significant period of time. But let’s get real: Does anyone really think the American people will tolerate another Iraq or Afghanistan?

Compared with the past, today’s wars are waged decidedly faster and thus are dramatically shorter. (Yes, by that I mean America should stop calling its subsequent military occupations and counterinsurgency campaigns “wars.”) They’re also far less lethal thanks to smarter bombs and better emergency care. Point being: America doesn’t need today’s Army if the next Iraq war is a Vietnam syndrome away from happening. The U.S. government is simply too broke. 

At roughly 560,000 men and women, the Army is bigger than it has been since 1994, when it was still crashing from its Reagan-era Cold War heights of 780,000. Later in the 1990s, the Army bottomed out at 480,000, and there’s no reason it can’t go back to that level, given that none of the fabulously high-tech wars being dreamed up by Pentagon planners calls for multiyear occupations of distant California-size countries.

The Army’s just-issued “Capstone Concept” — its vision of how it sees the wars of the future and the Army’s role in them — tried its best to be coy on this subject. But come on: When the first serious scenario mentioned is the “implosion” of the North Korean regime, then, buddy, that is one bare cupboard. After the steep cuts of the 1970s and 1990s (and before that the demobilizations following World War I and World War II), the Army should be used to this budgetary sine wave by now. The republic will survive.

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images


“Cyberwar Is the Next Big Thing.”

You bet. That is, at least as far as D.C.’s Beltway bandits are concerned. There is only one great growth area in the U.S. defense budget today — besides health care, which now eats up roughly 10 percent of the Pentagon’s spending each year. Spending on cyberweapons and network defense has been skyrocketing for years. Over the next five years, the Pentagon alone is set to spend $18 billion on cyber (it requested $3.4 billion for fiscal year 2013), and the Obama administration’s 2009 decision to set up U.S. Cyber Command sanctified that emerging “war-fighting domain” and its budgetary standing. Washington’s small army of IT contractors couldn’t be happier.

But is this a good use of taxpayer money? There’s no question that the U.S. government and national security establishment in general are pretty bad at network security, and by that I mean both fall far below the standards of the world’s best corporations and banks. Most Silicon Valley experts will tell you that, but you’ll never hear it from D.C.’s many contractors or the national security cyber offices they serve in parasitic symbiosis. As far as they are concerned, it’s the private sector that’s light-years behind.

As for cyber serving as a stand-alone war-fighting domain, there you’ll find the debates no less theological in their intensity. After serving as senior managing director for half a dozen years at a software firm that specializes in securing supply chains, I’m deeply skeptical. Given the uncontrollable nature of cyberweapons (see: Stuxnet’s many permutations), I view them as the 21st century’s version of chemical weapons — nice to have, but hard to use. Another way to look at it is to simply call a spade a spade: Cyberwarfare is nothing more than espionage and sabotage updated for the digital era. Whatever cyberwar turns out to be in the national security realm, it will always be dwarfed by the industrial variants — think cyberthieves, not cyberwarriors. But you wouldn’t know it from the panicky warnings from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the generals about the imminent threat of a “cyber Pearl Harbor.”

Please remember amid all this frenetic scaremongering that the Pentagon is never more frightened about our collective future than when it’s desperately uncertain about its own. Given the rising health-care costs associated with America’s aging population and the never-ending dysfunction in Washington, we should expect to be bombarded with frightening scenarios of planetary doom for the next decade or two. None of this bureaucratic chattering will bear any resemblance to global trends, which demonstrate that wars have grown increasingly infrequent, shorter in duration, and diminished in lethality. But you won’t hear that from the next-warriors on the Potomac.

AFP/Getty Images

<p> Thomas P.M. Barnett, special assistant for strategic futures in the U.S. Defense Department's Office of Force Transformation from 2001 to 2003, is chief analyst for Wikistrat. </p>

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