Growing Concern Over Hagel’s Strategic Choices and Management Review

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DoD photo / Glenn Fawcett

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel

It seems the Pentagon‘s Strategic Choices and Management Review, ordered by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel more than two months ago, is taking longer than originally anticipated. Some say the whole review is in trouble.

If so, it’s not surprising:

– No one, particularly the service chiefs, wants to give up anything.
– The defense bureaucracy has missed or pushed back deadlines for dozens of short-term, audit-readiness milestones.
– Strategic planning and programming are conducted in an environment of perpetual crisis management.
– When blue-ribbon panels of alleged experts are convened to offer advice the panels are inevitably made up of people with “safe hands” — code for current or former Beltway denizens determined to ensure nothing changes in an overly-complex, industrial-age military establishment that lines lots of pockets in Washington, D.C., and across the country with defense dollars.

Result: The Department of Defense is strategically adrift at a point in time when Hagel has only two more budget cycles to extract savings through positive reform and restructuring. Moreover, the military strategy and forces that emerge from this process must also cultivate powerful new military capabilities for a radically different world that will emerge over the next 20 years.

Just how different?

Today, much of the world is living in a strategic environment that is a cross between the 17th and the 19th centuries. In Europe, economic and cultural realities are killing the utopian dream of a peaceful and united continent. In Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece the social and economic conditions look pre-revolutionary.

In Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Venezuela and Mexico the chaos is far more menacing. For the United States, what happens in these societies is really about damage limitation, not military intervention. In the Middle East, Africa or Latin America American military intervention would be tantamount to tossing a two-gallon can of kerosene on a house fire and hoping it puts the fire out.

In Syria, for instance, Iran — with limited backing from Russia, China and India — is fighting a regional conflict with its Sunni Islamist competitors, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf Oil protectorates. Good intentions to support the few, alleged ‘liberal democrats’ in the Syrian rebel camp have no more chance of succeeding in Syria than they did in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Using a “no-fly zone” or any other American military instrument to intervene in Syria, with a rule book designed by American politicians, appointees or generals with a cocktail level of familiarity with real war and its consequences, is the last thing Americans should consider.

Politically-correct halfway houses for the use of military power don’t work well.

When British General Sir Bernard Montgomery was a major in Ireland in 1920, he realized the Irish rebellion against British rule could not be stopped with tea and crumpets. As Montgomery put it, only “Cromwellian” measures would destroy the Irish rebellion, but that those harsh measures were unacceptable to the British public and counter-productive internationally, as well as in Ireland. Montgomery was right.

Fortunately, Prime Minster David Lloyd George agreed, overruled the British generals who wanted to “crush the Irish,” and withdrew the British army from Ireland.

If Iraq had ever been truly important to American strategic interests, we would have crushed the opposition to our unwanted occupation in a week. Not with riflemen posing as “strategic corporals,” but with tanks, automatic cannon, artillery and airpower. But the conquest of Iraq was never strategically vital to U.S. interests. Like the British army in Ireland, the U.S. Army eventually withdrew.

Of course, to admit that our large, forward-based U.S. military forces in the Mediterranean and the Pacific did nothing to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from taking over Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and creating Sharia law-compliant constitutions and states would mean an end to the justification for much of what the service chiefs say “forward presence” is designed to do. To admit that on any given day most of Africa is vulnerable to civil wars, genocide, and anarchy the United States and the West cannot stop would expose the myth of forward presence.

The truth is that nothing of strategic importance to the American people in these conflicted regions will be changed by drinking tea with the locals, bombing fixed installations or deploying hundreds of thousands of troops to occupy and police them. American military power cannot prevent Turkey and Iran from competing for strategic dominance in the Middle East, nor should it be used to do so.

Changes are needed in U.S. national-security strategy and structure, but Hagel must guard against attempts to adjust the purpose and nature of our armed forces to cope with the deteriorating economies and dysfunctional societies of the Middle East, Africa, Southwest Asia and parts of Latin America. Wars in the decades ahead will resemble the Balkan wars of the early 20th Century — except that fights for regional power and influence will overlap with the international competition for energy, water, food, mineral resources and the wealth they create.

These points are not meant to argue for America’s involvement in future wars over resources in the South China Sea, Africa, and Siberia, Antarctica or anywhere else. On the contrary, in the 21st Century, conflict avoidance — not military intervention — should be the organizing imperative of American and Western military strategies. But if we are compelled to fight, we must be organized, trained and equipped to win. We must be prepared to fight future opponents with effective armed forces.

The last 12 years have severely eroded America’s military technological edge, and advantages in training, discipline and flexibility, particularly in the Army and Marines. America’s military leadership is in no way prepared intellectually, professionally or psychologically for a different future, a future involving “come as you are” conflicts, with powerful nation-state opponents that are capable, well organized and lethally equipped.

U.S. military leadership is too busy clinging to the past, when America’s single-service warfighting structures and citizen-soldier mobilization paradigms have long since reached block obsolescence.

When the marketplace turned against the Bell telephone monopoly in the 1960s and 1970s, the company was psychologically unprepared for the competition.  Bell’s hierarchy and thinking were as fixed and immobile as the Detroit automakers struggling with Japanese and German competition. Rumbles emanating from the Strategic Choices and Management Review process suggest the U.S. armed forces are in a similar mental state.

Meanwhile, at least 80% of the American population struggles with a truly weak economy. The real net worth of America’s “bottom” 90% has dropped by one-fourth. The number of food stamp and disability aid recipients has more than doubled, to 59 million, about one in five Americans.

These Americans are deeply concerned about recent events in Boston and the permeability of America’s borders. But they want to trade globally, and defend locally. What they want is a plan to align American military power with the nation’s real security needs and interests, one without the inefficiencies and redundancies in the current U.S. defense posture.

For a Pentagon chief who grasps these realities, there is no time to lose.

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