The Holy Grail of Military Reform

The United States and many of its allies are in the process of dealing with the post-Afghanistan strategic environment. Soon it will be passé to talk of counter-insurgency campaigns, of military-led efforts at nation building and of humanitarian interventions. Budgetary constraints operating in Washington and other allied capitals are forcing a re-think. What sort of post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq force structures should be maintained? The knock-on effects of such speculations are daunting. Laboured by what can be afforded, national armies, navies, air forces and (for those that have them) marines, will have to be significantly pared back in size, and according to some – capability, in order to rebalance personnel, hardware and military readiness. Will this have a deleterious effect on the idea of conventional military deterrence? In the short to medium term, the answer has to be yes. During this transitional period it is highly likely that states such as North Korea, Iran, Russia and China will capitalise on America’s perceived weakness and the weakness of America’s more robust allies. What does this mean? It means that China will have a free hand to ‘push’ its naval forces out beyond the first to the second island chain and consolidate its presence in the Western Pacific and the South China Sea. Russia will be able to manoeuvre in Central Asia and the Caucuses, rebuilding its economic and social ties to both regions – when necessary at the point of a gun. Iran can pursue more aggressive policies against the GCC states, individually or collectively, while North Korea can rattle its sabre safe in the knowledge that South Korea and Japan cannot count on direct and timely US combat support. And while America’s recent experiment with targeted simultaneous special force raids in Libya and Somalia (Oct.5, 2013) demonstrated the effectiveness of high technology in combination with the extreme professionalism of special force units, only the Libyan raid succeeded. US Special Forces were pushed back by local militants in Somalia and were forced to withdraw. So while the US and its allies ponder over the future of their military, the future is already here. Those who for so long couldn’t pushback or act against the dominating presence of US influence, are now doing so, or preparing to do so. Over the next 5-10 years, should the US and its alliance network transit to newer, more economically sustainable and technologically adept force structures, the world will have changed. But for the prospect of social or economic collapse in either China or Russia, these two countries’ strategic footprints will be larger, and their willingness and ability to challenge, aid and support non-Western agendas will further expand. In the eventuality that the Chinese and Russian military modernization programs retain their ability to deploy military units ‘en masse’ and retain their organisational culture to sacrifice for the national interest against a light and nimble, technologically savvy, yet casualty-averse US-led West – the outcome of future battles, stratagems and diplomatic feints will be interesting to observe.

By Dr. John Bruni, Director SAGE International

6 THOUGHTS ON "The Holy Grail of Military Reform"

  1. Jake Kipp on December 6, 2013 at 9:49 am said:

    It may be strange but your image of a weak west and expasnionist Eurasian powers do not fit what the world looks lik from the other side of the hill. Russia just spent four years on a transformation to a “new look” military. It nded with the fiing of the Ministe rof Defense and cahges of corruption and kickbaks on a massive scale. The armament program which was supposed to be done by 2020 now looks liek 2025. The rcent failure of the Bulava SLBM in a routine test aboard th SSBN Aleksandr Nevsky has put into question the viability of the entire Borei class SSBN force. There are a host of other issues. Russian defense planners take seriously our Prompt Global Strike capabilities and see the objective being creation of a force that can disarm Russia’s strategic triad with precision conventional attacks. Putin’s Russia is not Stalin’s Soviet Union. I tis closer to the Russia of Nicholas II, with a very limited arms industry not developed to support the informatization of warfare. Shoigu seems to understand the need for brain power but the current system favors those with access to power, and they use that ot enrich themsleves. Russians worry that the Chinese are catching up fast. China, however, has its own internal problems. None of this makes for a more stable world, but I’d suggest that Western fears should be less focused on imminent threats from abroad and more on the structural sources of international instability, which could lead to conflict, especially in Asia. As to Russian re-assertino of authority in Central Asia, I would bet that China with its investments would have some say about that.

  2. John Bruni on December 6, 2013 at 9:50 am said:

    Thanks Jake, and yes, you are right. But what is concerning is the fact that Putin and other autocracies are playing on the very real notion of political confusion and weakness that is coming out of the West generally. Without firm leadership, one can have all the right weapons to intimidate, but without actually having an effect. The Russians have indeed struggled with modernisation, but they are cashing in on what seems to be a weak American presidency, European financial catastrophe and a slew of rising, potentially unstable non-Anglo powers. The very complexity of the new international disorder is overwhelming the ‘US next generation’, not helped by the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan has sapped American international ambition at the political level. If we take Russia’s re-emergence as a player of note, we are seeing it not in new Russian weaponry, we are seeing it in them playing a better political game. That the Chinese are angling for themselves is no surprise either. But since they don’t trust the Americans and the Russians and Chinese share autocratic leanings, they will be supportive of each other in order to hedge against the very real hard power America still possesses

  3. Jake Kipp on December 6, 2013 at 9:52 am said:

    John, I agree with you concerning the disarray in the Euro-Atlantic Community. Much of the blame belongs here. The US administration has fallen into the trap of symbolic gestures in the absence of strategic vision. The problem was already present at the end of the Bush administration, Having gambled on an easy win in Iraq and having left Afghanistan to drift back into insurgency/civil war, they played a final and silly hand in Georgia. Ron Asmus wrote about a shared NATO interest in Georgia even after Bucharest had made clear there was no stomach for granting Georgia and Ukraine MAPs. August 2008 handed Putin an opportunity to act in response to a suicidal Georgian provocation. The Bush administration left office committed to Georgia, but unable to do much. Obama sought by the Reset to restore US-Russian relations and to carry forward bilateral strategic arms reductions. Whatever larger vision for improvement in US-Russian relations sank in the Russia-NATO dispute over missile defense.

    You make much of the fact that both Moscow and Beijing have “autocratic leanings.” To an extent that is true, but it misses very great differences in Russian and Chinese culture and ignores the very great differences in their societies. Short of an immediate strategic confrontation with the West, these differences will continue to shape very different destinies. When Kennan wrote the long telegram in 1946, he had in mind the reality of Stalin’s Soviet Union. No contemporary scholar of Russia or China would draw the same sort of portrait.

    Long-range vision, however, should not blind us to the fact that the PRC and Russia are today strategic partners with very different geo-strategic agendas. Russia is still a Eurasian power tied into a complex web of security issues extending from Europe, across the Middle East, and Central Asia into Northwest Asia and the Russia Arctic. Its power is defined not by economic hegemony or the capacity to project conventional military power, but by its strategic nuclear forces and their contribution to strategic stability and residual deterrence. Russia is still a great power, but it faces a very dynamic international environment. Putin and the Russian elite talk about the coming Asian century but understand that the Russian Far East is weak, isolated from European Russia, and subject to the security challenges emerging in the Asia-Pacific region. Russia is and remains a continental power. China by becoming a key part of the global economy is both a continental and maritime power. In that sense it has an interest in the emerging Asia-Pacific economic sphere, which depends upon other economic and financial pillars. Russia needs a stable Euro-Atlantic community for its own welfare. What would serve Washington’s interests best, would be for an American national security elite in conjunction with the leaders of the Atlantic Community to address the creation of new structures which will ensure global peace and stability and to invite the cooperation of other regional powers.

  4. Greg Chalik on December 6, 2013 at 9:53 am said:

    It seems to me that reform is not the problem for the US DoD. The real problem is that no one seems to be aware of what the form of the US armed forces was supposed to be in the first place. Its a bit like house renovations. One can’t take an Edwardian house in the country, and convert it into a post-modern rural bungalow. There is the original architect’s intent that new owners have to contend with.
    And this is the problem – there had never been an original intent about the form the US armed forces should take. The reason for this is because the US armed forces entered a transition from a sort of a late teenage-hood of the post-Civil War period coincided with momentous technological changes of the motorisation and introduction of aircraft into the formula. Unfortunately, the US focus on the strategic contest with Spain directed most of the funding to the Navy, and so by the time of the First World War the Army was non-existent in real terms, and aircraft had to be borrowed from her allies.
    It didn’t help that just when some sense was being made of the way in which aircraft and motorised/mechanised forces were to integrate into the armed forces was being made in the late 1920s and 30s that the Great Depression made funding to develop the theory behind the strategy, operational and tactical concepts impossible, and so when the USA entered the Second World War the form the ground and air forces took was arbitrary, dictated more by the logistics of inducting 8 million personnel into the armed forces and moving them around the globe than any conscious attempt to design a military structure and systems. There wasn’t a doctrine, so units and equipment were deployed on the perceived need to have rather than any thought for their employment.
    US forces that eventually went into combat in Europe resembled the British forces which were in turn more or less modelled on the German organisations using different words.
    The real problem was that by the end of the war the US armed forces didn’t have a shape, but resembled a vast patchwork of combined arms, even combined services groupings.
    It is for this reason that the US were caught off guard in Korea, and in attempting to put troops on the ground. Its troops had been occupying Japan, and commenced defence of what would soon become West Germany, i.e. assumed the form of a garrison and a continental armed force.
    But, what remained true by the virtue of geography is that the USA remained, and still does, a maritime power, heavily dependent on security and freedom of the seas to sustain its economy. Through the 50 years of the Cold War it seems no one had remembered this, even when the USA was caught off-guard again when Kuwait was occupied. Britain in her days of ruling the waves would have never been surprised as she was by Argentina, and it seems the USA had learned noting by ignoring long-term threats made against small but strategically important items of global real estate.
    The answer of course was the projection of maritime power, the pre-emptive intervention in the past known as the gunboat diplomacy. This is where having a few small ships and a couple of companies of marines in the right place at the right time made more difference than sending many large ships and entire divisions as the Crimean war proved. The US Navy failed to have any ships off Kuwait, and it took the USMC nearly two months to get its contingency brigades to Saudi Arabia.
    So when thinking ‘reform’, someone in Pentagon should realise the ‘form’ DoD is supposed to have, is that of the maritime power, and ultimately reforming this form, they first need to unearth the structure buried under the haphazard ‘constructions’ of the 20th century, as so many ‘extensions’ to a 19th century structure never intended to function as armed forces of a maritime power which the USA was not even in 1918.

  5. Greg Chalik on December 6, 2013 at 9:54 am said:

    In other words the ‘form’ the US armed forces have now, is but the most recent ‘renovation’ or ‘extension’ to those of the previous ‘owners’, so now it isn’t possible to tell who built the DoD house, Jack, the three little pigs or the three bears. What IS obvious however is that every time since the 19th century US entry into the World international power politics it has conducted expeditionary operations! Even if the Vth and VII Corps were stationed in Europe for decades, they did originally come by ship, and since the 90s they have been leaving by one also. It is just a logistic fact of life that the USA remains a maritime power, and the form its armed forces will ALWAYS take is that of expeditionary forces. Strategically, whatever the technology, it must retain the capability to move ground and air components by water as fast as possible, and deposit these, even against the opposition in the combat theatre, on shore to continue the pursuit of strategy by operational and tactical doctrines.
    And, expeditionary forces are NOT intended to become forces of occupation. This is because doing so is really expensive and the best sort of war is a quick and cheap one. Maritime powers do not fight protracted wars if they can help it, and indeed the British Empire’s longest war was in Spain during the wars against Napoleon, and its longest insurgency was in what became Israel. Both were failing when the British EXPEDITIONARY forces were forced to become occupational garrisons.
    So what should be the goal of the Pentagon in its new reform? Create armed forces that can adequately serve a maritime power? The servicing of a strategy for projecting force by pre-emption? The structuring of forces for manoeuvre rather than attrition as they are structured now? Creation of a viable naval logistic capability? Perhaps these could be the guiding principles of the reform. There are after all some scenarios that can not be serviced with a fleet of drones.

  6. Jake Kipp on December 6, 2013 at 9:56 am said:

    Goldwater-Nikolas aside, we still have separate branches and no unified vision of the force we need. The complicating factor remains nuclear weapons. The classic strategic duality outlined by Delbruch as annihilation vs. attrition simple does not apply if both sides have sufficient nuclear arsenals. Expeditionary forces under suhc conditions are large and inviting targets. Preemption means gamling on a first strike and prayer that the destruction unleashed does not negate the untility f the political objective to be achieved. As to scenarios with a flee tof drones, am I to assume that only one side has drones. Do remember Vannevar Bush’s declaration about unilateral deterrence in the summer of 1951 saying Stalin was stopped by the atomic bomb, even as the Chinese continued to fight in Korea? Short of the strategic arsenal we are left with meaningful choices as you correctly suggest. For the United States, as for Britain, the logical first choice is maritime power. That runs like a red thread through US strategic thought down to the nuclear era. The issue today is what constitutes the key instruments of naval power. I would tend to agree with Admiral Owens’ system of systems as a fitting replacemnt for the notion of the Navy as a machine. But that doe snot answer the first questions: What platforms for what systems? What networks to connect the systems? During th eCold War and beyond the US used its ecoomic and tehcnical base to shape the global arms race to its advantage, much as Britain did in the 19th century. But today, as witt Britain in the early 20th century that questions is open to debate and alternative interpretations. Britain found itself forced to go into local alliances, concentrate nval forces against its primary threat, and then even without a war, concede naval parity to a former colony in the 1920s. There is as yet no peer cmpetitor at sea, but the technological issues are in play. Our constitution speaks of raising an army and maintaining a navy. It does not answer what sort of navy. And tha tis the great issue of the 21st century. The right investments can ensure naval dominance, the wrong can mean disaster. The past is not a a very good guide here. Revolutions in naval technology involve complex systems. Dominant powers in one tehnological set may find themselves having invest in the wrong priorities. How does your fleet of drones affect the exercise of command of the sea. On eof the great problems for naval planners after the Napoleonic Wars was a shortage of fleet combts and an excess of technoloigcal innovation. I think we are living in suhc an age right now.

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