Tag Archives: Strategy

First Principles

Today I attended a fascinating roundtable between former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michéle Flournoy, Lieutenant General David Barno, USA (Ret.) from CNAS, Thomas Donnelly of AEI  and Michael Waltz of the New America Foundation regarding America’s upcoming elections and the defense budget.

The conversation covered a series of issues familiar to Americans interested in national defense: sequestration, perceptions of US decline in the international system, and strategic priorities, among others. What interested me most, though, was what seemed to me an agreement between these distinguished speakers regarding the relationship between civil society and national defense. General Barno perhaps put it best: “The consensus on defense has been lost.”

General Barno meant that while a large part of political society in the United States believes that America should continue to pursue a preeminent military force, that view doesn’t reflect the will of the broader electorate as it once did. Why is this important?

  • Defense retrenchment as an issue transcends party politics. Groups on both the right and the left of American political discourse believe that the United States – for a variety of reasons – should  pursue a less active role in the world. Therefore, electing one party or another into power won’t ensure a robust defense budget.
  • The average American cares much more about other areas of federal spending than they do defense right now.
  • In an age of unprecedented information sharing, the world has ready access to these changing opinions. As a result, foreign governments are already seeking to hedge against a potential retrenchment of US foreign policy.

The uncertainty regarding future defense spending – and the strategy driving said spending – won’t be resolved before the November elections. Much work will likely occur, therefore, between November and the sequestration deadline. Beyond the spending issues, though, defense proponents should consider this question: how do we affect the discourse regarding America’s role in the world and the military’s contribution to that role? Certainly both the civilian government and senior military leaders play an important part in this dialogue, but what about junior officers, senior enlisted leaders, and interested citizens? We all know voters: they are our friends, families, and co-workers. They value our opinions. Why don’t we voice them?

What’s clear to me is that I for one have taken America’s belief in a strong national defense for granted. Perhaps we have forgotten the importance of returning to first principles from time to time. Why do we have a military? What is our military meant to achieve? In what different ways can we achieve those ends? In a democracy, these questions are never – and should never be – fully settled.

We should not view the task of telling the defense story with reluctance or disaffection towards the wellspring of American power, the people. We have a continuing obligation at all levels to communicate a clear message to the American public about the importance of spending their tax dollars towards the application or threat of violence. We cannot assume that Americans are simply fatigued from a decade of war and that they won’t listen. We cannot yield to a widening of the civil-military divide.

There is at least some good news: looking at the world today, there is no shortage of evidence to justify a robust American military. Returning to first principles can work. But to win the narrative of national defense, we need to talk beyond ourselves and reach out to those who have doubts and questions. The people who read this blog and others like it have expertise, passion, and most importantly, a voice. Those voices shouldn’t be silent.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency.

Iran and America: May I Have This Dance?

Someone is about to get served!

When you combine shadow boxing with peacocks and a dance-off you get the Wagah border closing ceremony. Since 1959, this flurry of fists and feet has marked the daily closing of the only road between India and Pakistan. British comedian Michael Palin calls it a “demonstation of how angry you can get without hitting anyone.” This doesn’t merely serve as a symbol of conflict between India and Pakistan. For US defense experts engaged with Iran, this dance of pride and prestige should serve as a model for those who might assume kinetic engagement with Iran is the best option.

Robert McNamara’s first lesson in Fog of War was to empathize with your enemy, “I don’t mean ‘sympathy,’ but rather ‘understanding’—to counter their attacks on us and the Western World.” To understand the Iranian intent for their conflict with the west, one must understand their motives.  In particular, Iran has no motive to get conventionally stomped into the dirt by the American military. They strongly value their strength and prestige as a regional power.  While the small-boat swarms, ASCM threat, and naval posturing outside the Strait of Hormuz might be troubling indeed, that sense of trouble is their primary purpose. Being sent back to the stone-age in exchange for a short but irritating jump on US forces would little serve Iran’s utility, and neither would giving the US an excuse to engage in such an operation. The conflict between Iran and the US is, like the Wagah border dance, one of power in appearance.

The nuclear weapons programme should also be viewed through the objectives of regional power. During the cold war, one of the obsessions of doomsday planners was survivability: would an arsenal be able to survive a first strike and retaliate? In the context of a diplomatic rather than kinetic exchange, a nuclear weapons program is more effective for Iran than an actual nuclear weapon. A physical nuclear weapon can be destroyed and gives justification for a kinetic strike on Iran. The vague idea of a nuclear weapons program spread across the country provides the defiant diplomatic fire-power combined with an opponent’s hope of negotiation without providing a justification for a strike or an actual object to destroy. No nation that has ever meant to use nuclear weapons as a serious strategic deterrent has ever made their program public before it was complete*: US, USSR, PRC, Pakistan, India, etc…  Iran has made its program “public” beforehand for a reason. It is Iran’s interest to keep the charade going as long as possible, never sacrificing the diplomatically useful weapons program for a weapon that could only serve only a limited military purpose.

With the political nature of the Iran conflict in mind, it is not in the US interest to begin kinetic operations against Iran. While the US has much less to lose from a conflict, the economic damage and ensuing regional instability from the loss of a major state and the unleashing of several associated terrorist organizations would be beyond crippling. As the US applies diplomatic/economic pressure and moves the military pieces around the board we are strategically positioning ourselves and shifting the state of play as the dancers weave around the ballroom. With war neither in the interest of or desired by either side, it is conflict by maneuver rather than melee. The purpose is to stay in the lead and drive the dance, not turn the room into a mosh pit where everyone loses.

*North Korea doesn’t count… it never counts.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

Mission First, Capabilities Always

 

My esteemed colleagues Kurt Albaugh and Matt Hipple made some interesting arguments about the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) in the past two days, although I disagree with each in different ways. At the risk of drowning our readers in the LCS debate, I’m going to make some brief remarks of my own and defer my own full analysis until I’m conflict-of-interest free, just so we can get it out of our system.

 

Mr. Albaugh highlighted a lot of good points about LCS. LCS is not meant to be the concept vessel formerly known as streetfighter and does a good job fulfilling a lot of low-intensity missions and niche combat roles. A less-threatening platform makes it easier to operate with partners in places like Africa, where cooperative engagement is more law-enforcement focused. And, as the Chinese and Philippine navies demonstrated by pulling out in favor of civilian vessels in the Scarborough Shoal, low-end ships can help ease tense stand-offs and prevent misunderstandings from escalating into conflicts. Few would like to see the U.S. and China in a dust-up, so there are benefits to be gained from the U.S. demonstrating to its partners a commitment to peacefully resolving maritime incidents.

 

However, I disagree with the argument that forward deploying only weak vessels will prevent China from hostility. As commentor Chuck Hill noted, being inoffensive does not always prevent aggression. In dealing with state actors like China with a “Realist, zero-sum view of the world,” more capability is likely a greater deterrent of aggression than a perception of weakness. While deploying only low capability ships in sensitive areas would limit China’s ability to claim a menacing U.S. naval presence as pretext for action, it would not prevent China from taking that action.

 

In addition to soft power missions like Pacific Partnership and America’s commitment to its value system, the influence the U.S. maintains in the Asia-Pacific region is in large part derived from its partners’ perceptions of defense assistance credibility. In a region with a rising power with uncertain intentions, purposefully choosing weakness lessens the United States’ influence with friends and potential foes alike.

 

Two of a kind of a sort.

 

The good news is I continue to disagree with Mr. Albaugh. LCS can actually be used as an offensive asset, clearing the way for power projection. And I disagree with Mr. Hipple that the ship was designed without a purpose or strategy in mind. The very example of China’s focus on anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities are what drove LCS’ design. The three official mission packages – anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, and mine-countermeasures – are all meant to fill counter-A2/AD capability gaps. And the ship itself, with its shallow draft, is meant to open access to U.S. forces in precisely that area of congested waters, the littorals, where most hostilities are expected to take place. This is the reason just purchasing multiple HSVs, as Juramentado and Mr. Hipple suggested, would not work. It is the same reason the National Security Cutter would not work.

 

This is not to say LCS can perform every mission of a destroyer or frigate – but that’s okay, that’s not what the Navy meant it or needs it to do. Nor is LCS perfect. Rather than risk-averse organization Mr. Hipple portrays, if anything, the Navy took too much risk on immature technologies for LCS’ mission packages, as Juramentado suggested. Budgets and politics also played a role in the program’s history. And sure, I would love to see a better anti-ship cruise missile, but this is a failing across the entire U.S. Navy, not confined to LCS. Learning from experience, capitalizing on feedback, and tweaking things like manning and mission package equipment will help.

 

There are still wrinkles in the LCS program, but a question of the role of LCS within the U.S. fleet remains only if the technologies that enable the originally intended missions do not come to fruition. That is no small wrinkle, but it is a different one than finding a strategy. 

Trees Without a Forest

A good measure of a military’s intellectual health is it’s dedication to firmly connect present procurement to future purpose. In discussions with peers in the American Navy, I often find myself a lonely voice of pessimism about our future and capabilities. However, LT Albaugh’s article about LCS inadvertently highlights how our procurement vision has managed to stray so far from the path. The U.S. Navy does force-planning through a bureaucratic balancing act of risk aversion rather than making the hard decisions necessary to handle outside threats.

 

LCS is the perfect example of this inability to commit. When viewed alone, it is a vessel with relatively even capabilities across the board. However, having no relative weakness is not the same as having any strengths. LCS represents an unwillingness to take risks. It is too big to truly be a littoral/riverine boat (PCs would be better). It is too slow to make up for its weak hull and poor weaponry (European corvettes would be better). It is not fast or strong enough to penetrate areas under enemy control, nor advanced enough to perform high-end ISR in those areas(submarines and aircraft would be better). Its real purpose today is clearly as confused as it was 8 years ago. It almost seems like the sole justification for the project really is, as Mr. Albaugh indirectly implies, that it exists. This tepidness is indicative of the Navy’s overall strategic planning. LCS’s attempt to be everything has made it nothing, and is now designed specifically to not risk a weakness for a particular strength.

 

Compare LCS to the Chinese Houbei-class missile boat. While American defense planners are unable to commit to overly generic systems that are already on the factory floor (F-35), the Chinese navy has committed to a vessel perfectly suited to its area-denial mission. Smaller and of the same hull material and speed of the LCS, the Houbei is weak in many areas by design. However, it is specifically created as part of a particular strategy. With the ability to stealthily approach and then quickly deploy 8 C-803s into an enemy ship, this little mosquito packs a greater ASCM threat than any brawler American ship-of-the-line. When under the aegis of home-turf, the Houbei is an invaluable piece of a very recognizable operational concept. The firm direction of the Chinese investment outclasses by far the strategic waffling behind LCS.

 

While our competitors learn from and move past their mistakes, we fret over and defend ours. In the past, defense planners forgot that as in the commercial world one can only choose two of the following: cheap, fast, or good. Now, we have forgotten to decide what we actually want before we choose, ending up with: expensive, drawn-out, and poor. There are incredible ideas that the American Navy is capable of executing in the future: unmanned aviation, surface drone motherships, long-range rocket gunnery, REAL patrol boats, SSGNs that create strike opportunities in environments where enemies deny us the surface and air. However, our constant attempts to re-shape ourselves for a single weapon system we “like” or have sunk too much cost into is creating a force-planning disaster; it is becoming less writing on the wall, and more a wall itself.