The Landing Zone | 8.13.15
By Alan W. Dowd
The Joint Chiefs of Staff recently released their National
Military Strategy (NMS), concluding that “global disorder has significantly
increased while some of our comparative military advantage has begun to
erode…We now face multiple, simultaneous security challenges from traditional
state actors and trans-regional networks of sub-state groups.” From the big
picture to the close-ups, it’s a sobering document.
The NMS concludes, “Russia’s military actions are
undermining regional security directly and through proxy forces.”
“China’s actions are adding tension to the Asia-Pacific
region,” according to the NMS. “Its claims to nearly the entire South China Sea
are inconsistent with international law,” and its “aggressive land reclamation
efforts…will allow it to position military forces astride vital international
Labeling Iran “a state-sponsor of terrorism that has
undermined stability in many nations,” the NMS bluntly declares that Iran’s
revolutionary regime has “brought misery to countless people.”
The NMS concludes that North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program
and ballistic-missile technologies “directly threaten” South Korea and Japan. “In
time, they will threaten the U.S. homeland as well.”
According to the NMS, al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) are
“radicalizing populations, spreading violence and leveraging terror to impose
their visions” on the Middle East.
Add to this tally what Director of National Intelligence
James Clapper recently said about cyberspace—“Cyber threats to U.S. national
and economic security are increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication and
severity of impact”—and it’s fair to conclude that the global order America
helped build is under sustained assault from all directions.
Although the policymakers seem oblivious, the NMS offers a
road map through this time of troubles. Among the signposts:
“Deter, deny and
defeat state adversaries”
To deter near-peer competitors like Russia and China, to deny revolutionary
regimes like Iran and reactionary regimes like North Korea their goals, and to
defeat death-wish dictators like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein requires
an ambidextrous, power-projecting military. It presupposes highly trained, highly-specialized commando
units suited for kinetic operations against asymmetric foes; large but mobile
units capable of extended operations focused on deterring rational adversaries;
joint forces—integrating space, air, ground and sea capabilities—that can strike hard, fast and deep; and the capacity to conduct
multiple kinds of operations in multiple theaters of operation simultaneously.
But sequestration is dismembering the very force the Joint Chiefs
say they need. Defense spending is 3.2 percent of GDP—headed for just 2.8
percent of GDP by 2018. The last time America invested so little in defense was
Even as Washington whittles away at the big stick, China’s
military spending has jumped 170 percent the past decade, Russia’s 108 percent.
Given what Russia has done in Georgia and Ukraine, and what China has done in
the South China Sea and cyberspace,
these adversaries seem anything but deterred.
“Disrupt, degrade and
defeat terrorist groups”
Several national-security policies have undermined the
Pentagon’s ability to achieve this objective, including the aforementioned
bipartisan gamble known as sequestration.
On the frontlines of the war on terror, there can be little
doubt that pulling out of Iraq and pulling back in Afghanistan have made it
more difficult to defeat ISIS and al Qaeda.
Withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 provided fertile ground for
the rise of ISIS. Recall that Gen. Lloyd Austin recommended keeping 20,000
troops in Iraq after 2011. But the White House demanded that any follow-on
stabilization force operate under a status-of-forces agreement blessed by the
Iraqi parliament, rather than simply signed by the Iraqi government. When Baghdad
balked, as Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, reports,
the White House went forward with the zero option “despite the fact that no
military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could
secure U.S. interests.”
Remarkably, Washington is in the process of repeating the
same mistake in Afghanistan, as the administration plans to remove all U.S. troops from the very place that spawned
9/11 by the end of 2016. None other than Gen. David Petraeus warns, “We have no realistic way to deal with threats in this
region without bases in eastern Afghanistan.”
To its credit, the administration reversed course when ISIS
swept into Iraq, and responded with airstrikes. However, a year into Operation
Inherent Resolve, 75
percent of warplanes launched are returning to base without releasing their
weapons. Consider this comparisonbetween the air war against ISIS and previous air campaigns: The average number
of strike sorties per day against ISIS is 11, with an average of 43 weapons
releases per day; the average number of strike sorties per day in the early
phases of the Iraq War was 596, with
an average of 1,039 weapons releases per day; the average number of strike
sorties per day in the early phases of Afghanistan was 86, with an average of 230 weapons releases per day; the average
number of strike sorties per day during the Kosovo War was 183, with an average of 364weapons releases per day; the average
number of strike sorties per day in the Gulf War was 976, with an average of 6,163weapons releases per day.
“Airpower needs to be applied like a thunderstorm, and
so far we’ve only witnessed a drizzle,” explains Gen. David Deptula, who led
the initial air campaign in Afghanistan.
The results leave much to be desired. ISIS controls an area
the size of Costa Rica. ISIS and al Qaeda franchises can be found in Iraq,
Syria, Yemen, Egypt’s Sinai, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Clapper
recently called 2014 “the most lethal year for global terrorism in the 45 years
such data has been compiled.” There are 41 jihadist-terror groups in 24 countries today—up
from 21 groups in 18 countries in 2004.
global network of allies and partners”
Regrettably, many allies feel undercut by Washington’s increasingly
standoffish, zigzagging approach.
president ignored his own red lines after Syria’s Bashar Assad used chemical
weapons, military partners in France and Saudi Arabia were left out on a limb. When
France asked for help fighting
jihadists in Mali, Washington sent Paris an invoice for U.S. air support. When Ukraine asked for weapons to defend itself, Washington
sent MREs. When the Arab Spring slammed into Egypt, Washington initially
supported Hosni Mubarak (America’s longtime autocratic ally), then supported Mohamed Morsi (Egypt’s first
democratic president), then supported a military coup that ousted Morsi.
“Maintain a secure
and effective nuclear deterrent”
After signing the New START Treaty in 2010, which cuts the
U.S. deterrent arsenal down to 1,550 warheads, the president outlineda plan in 2013 for further “reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by
up to one-third.” A one-third reduction from New START levels would whittle
America’s deterrent arsenal down to about 1,000 strategic nuclear weapons. To
put that number in perspective, the last time the U.S. deterrent arsenal
numbered just 1,000 nuclear warheads was 1952, when the U.S. had a 20-to-1
advantage over the Soviet Union.
The strategic environment of today is very different than that of 2010: The
Russia of 2015 is far more adversarial. Vladimir Putin recently unveiled plans
to deploy 400 new ICBMs. China (with an estimated arsenal of 250-600 warheads)
and Pakistan (100-120 warheads) are adding warheads to their arsenals. North
Korea now has 20 nuclear warheads; Beijing expects Pyongyang to double that by
next year. And then there’s Iran.
With much fanfare, Tehran has made a deal with the West
promising to halt progress toward a nuclear weapon. But it pays to recall that
this deal demands no change in Tehran’s support for terror, leaves Tehran’s
bristling arsenal of missiles untouched, allows Tehran to continue enriching
open Iran to unfettered inspections and enables Iran to remain a threshold
nuclear power. Even supporters of the deal concede that it will allow Iran to
remain “one year away from nuclear weapons ‘breakout’ levels” of enriched
uranium, as The Washington Post reports.
According to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), “We have gone from
preventing Iran having a nuclear ability to managing it…The deal doesn’t end Iran’s nuclear program—it
preserves it.” A day after the Iran deal was unveiled, Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he “would put the threats to this nation in the
following order: Russia, China, Iran.”
“Provide a global,
It’s a matter of simple arithmetic: The U.S military cannot
carry out a growing list of missions—deterring Russia in the Baltics and China
in the Pacific, fighting ISIS and al Qaeda, defending freedom of the seas,
protecting North America, NATO, South Korea and Japan, quarantining Ebola in West
Africa and piracy in East Africa—with fewer resources.
For example, when President Obama ordered warplanes from USSGeorge HW Bush to blunt the ISIS
advance into Iraq, CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert admitted “they stopped their
sorties” over Afghanistan to do so. When Tehran
threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, CENTCOM’s request for an extra aircraft
carrier was denied because it was needed
The Asia-Pacific region will be left unprotected by a U.S.
aircraft carrier for some four months this year. Navy Cmdr. William
Marks concedes, “The Navy is not scheduled to provide a continuous carrier
presence in some operating regions in fiscal year 2016.”
April 2013 marked the first time
since 1944 American heavy armor was not on European soil. That shortsighted
decision sent precisely the wrong message and was corrected in February 2014. Now, with Russia’s revived army rumbling
along NATO’s eastern flank, Washington is scrambling to increase deterrent
military assets across Europe.
“Resourcing the strategy”
The Pentagon chiefs warn, “We will not realize the goals of
this 2015 National Military Strategy without sufficient resources.” That brings
us back to sequestration. Some of the consequences of
sequestration are already on display.
According to Army Chief of Staff Gen.
Ray Odierno, today’s Army has “the lowest readiness levels” since he
entered the service (38 years ago).
of non-deployed Marine units “are missing some kind of necessary
equipment,” Military Times reports.
The Air Force recently
stood down 31 squadrons due to funding constraints.
The Navy numbers 284 warships. “For us to meet
what combatant commanders request,” explains Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450
So perhaps the NMS is more than a picture of “global
disorder.” Perhaps the Pentagon is sending policymakers a kind of distress
signal. Let’s hope the White House and Congress don’t ignore it.
The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.