Conventional Un-Wisdom

Sept. 1, 2008

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on July 31 released a new national defense strategy. Not surprisingly, this event generated hardly a ripple in Washington, D.C.’s sluggish pool of summer political chatter.

It was, after all, the Bush Pentagon’s third strategy. In 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks, then-Pentagon head Donald H. Rumsfeld unveiled his first. He issued the second in 2005. This one comes very late in an Administration, turning off media interest.

The Gates strategy, though, bears closer scrutiny. From all appearances, its main purpose is to exalt irregular warfare above more-traditional “conventional” missions. Gates clearly hopes it influences the next Administration. If it does, USAF’s forces, programs, and concepts could be affected.

The 23-page document lays out four striking assertions about the threat posed today by Muslim extremist irregulars.

• It’s the No. 1 peril. The paper warns that “violent extremist movements such as al Qaeda and its associates” confront the US with an “urgent challenge,” as did fascism and communism in the 20th century. “Winning the long war,” it goes on, is the nation’s “central objective.”

• It’s more than two wars. “Iraq and Afghanistan remain the central fronts in the struggle,” notes the strategy. However, it adds that the US faces “an extended series of campaigns.” Success in Iraq and Afghanistan—alone—”will not bring victory.”

• It will last many years. The paper says we are fighting “a long-term, episodic, multifront, and multidimensional conflict.” Our security situation is “defined” by this peril and will be “for the foreseeable future.”

• US forces aren’t ready. The task of “improving the US armed forces’ proficiency in irregular warfare” is the “top priority” of the Pentagon, it says. It adds, “We must display a mastery of irregular warfare.”

Few would oppose building more capability to confront this threat—particularly ISR systems, unmanned air vehicles, tactical airlifters, gunships, and the like. Yet what about conventional forces—fighters, warships, and other weapons that have dominated the battlespace for decades? Don’t they need to be modernized? Won’t they ever be needed

“US predominance in traditional warfare is not unchallenged,” concedes the strategy paper, “but is sustainable for the medium term.” The services can “assume greater risk” there, claims the paper.

It is notable that the strategy does not refer to being able to fight two more-or-less simultaneous major regional wars. That has been the US force-sizing standard for nearly 20 years.

What does this all mean? The strategy paper does not exactly ignore possible big-power conflict; it raises some muted concerns about a dynamic China and a rearming Russia, along with Iran and North Korea. Yet Gates says, “I firmly believe” the US military is “much more likely” to face irregular foes.

The spirit expressed by the strategists is plain; they have peered into the future and have seen no need to worry much about state-on-state war—the kind that can extinguish a nation or perhaps some major allies.

The paper observes that the Pentagon will hedge its bets on conventional warfare, to a certain extent, with “diversification parallelism”—defined as “developing alternative or parallel means to the same end.” This evidently does not mean buying more weaponry.

A different picture, however, emerges from senior uniformed leaders, who see what may be described as the “least-likely-war fallacy” at work here. This means a failure to understand that some wars become “least likely” for a reason—the US has made itself so powerful that no one dares to mount a challenge.

Even the strategy paper concedes US conventional dominance is what has forced foes into irregular war in the first place. That is hardly an argument for soft-pedaling your dominance.

The four military service Chiefs reportedly opposed critical portions of the defense strategy. According to the June 19 issue of Inside the Pentagon, a trade publication, the four Chiefs “non-concurred,” warning that the strategy posed “too much risk” by de-emphasizing the conventional in favor of preparations for more Iraq-like missions. Gates went ahead anyway.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told a conference audience that the US may be missing the development of serious threats. “I personally worry about China,” he said. “I worry about a resurgent Russia.”

Similar reservations have been voiced by many senior uniformed leaders over the past year.

Some in the Pentagon act—and write—as if the world will never see another traditional, force-on-force war. Given the dangers of guessing wrong, one might ask: How the devil do they know

“Historically, we haven’t been very good about predicting the future,” Adm. Michael G. Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Washington audience. “You can go back to many of the conflicts that we have been in, and there weren’t many people who had predicted we would be in whatever that conflict was.”

Indeed, the human record of political prognostication is not unblemished. Take, for example, the infamous July 1936 prediction of Stanley Baldwin, Britain’s Prime Minister, regarding Hitler’s intentions. “We all know the German desire … to move East,” said he. “I do not believe he wants to move West, because West would be a very difficult program for him.” Four years later came the blitzkrieg, fall of France, and Battle of Britain.

It is not crying wolf to say that humans have not seen the end of state-on-state warfare or that we might one day be glad to have the right numbers and kinds of weapons and forces for fighting it. Focusing on the current irregular wars, and assuming future wars will more or less resemble them, is surely unwise.

This is an analytical weakness of the first order. Call it “this-war-itis.”