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For the past two months, top aides to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld have been conducting a systematic review of American military strategy and force structure.

Last week, as the first official leaks began to emerge, there were few surprises, reports Stratfor, the global intelligence company. Rumsfeld’s review reportedly has concluded the United States needs to move away from its initial post-Cold War doctrine that U.S. forces had to be sized and prepared to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously, such as fighting a renewed conflict with Iraq and repulsing a North Korean attack against South Korea.

As compelling and valuable as these reforms may be, however, Rumsfeld and his policy aides may be walking into a self-created trap. The Pentagon leadership is moving to examine — and likely to instigate major structural change to — the U.S. military, absent a review of overall U.S. national security strategy that should be the precursor to any changes in the force.

This is not to say the Defense Department and armed services aren’t overdue for a rooftop-to-basement re-examination of roles, missions, organization and weapons. They most certainly are.

For instance, the two-conflict military doctrine — now a decade old — created a requirement for the current U.S. military structure that includes both mobile and heavy combat units. Most critics point out that this doctrine required the fewest painful changes, allowing each service to trim its size without major cuts or, worse, asymmetrical sacrifices.

As a result, the Army today has a force of 10 divisions, including two stationed overseas (one in Germany and one in South Korea). In the United States, the ground force includes the heavy armored III Corps and its component infantry divisions, as well as the first-responding XVIII Airborne Corps that can call on a mix of light and heavy divisions in response to a crisis overseas. The Air Force has retained a mixture of fighter and bomber units that can deploy quickly to regional conflicts, and the Navy-Marine Corps team has continued a five-decade pattern of six-month deployments to areas of concern by aircraft carrier battle groups and Marine expeditionary units.

But the force structure generated from the two-war doctrine has had fundamental problems, particularly in terms of the span of distance from bases in the United States to regions such as southwest Asia or the Far East. Forces either need to be deployed in the area of anticipated conflict or the U.S. regional commander suddenly involved in a conflict must wait for their arrival, which can take months. On the other hand, if the troops are pre-deployed, as they are in Korea, they still may be unavailable should conflict inconveniently occur somewhere else. And for forces based in the continental United States, the time it takes to transport their equipment and logistical support to the theater of operations probably would create a window of opportunity for would-be aggressors.

During the Cold War standoff against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the United States and its allies enjoyed a degree of predictability about locations of potential theaters of operation. That meant the United States could pre-deploy troops and material with a degree of reliability. But with the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, the predictability of strategically important areas declined dramatically.

This problem became even more acute when the first Bush and Clinton administrations enacted force structure cuts of about 40 percent on the Cold War military, trimming the Army from 18 to 10 divisions, shrinking the Navy from 600 to 325 ships and reducing the Air Force by a similar fraction. Pentagon officials deemed it necessary to hold forces in reserve in the United States for deployment to unexpected areas. The problem with this strategy was obvious: Given the structure of U.S. military units, the time it would take to move troops, equipment and logistical support into a new area of operations could take months, meaning no significant force would be available for operations in a shortened time frame. U.S. military leaders who presided over the massive U.S. troop buildup in the Persian Gulf region for Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91 were candid afterwards in discussing the extreme vulnerability of early-arriving U.S. units to an Iraqi attack, and of the priceless strategic gift Saddam Hussein provided the allied coalition by allowing it to assemble overwhelming force against the Baghdad regime over a six-month period without challenge.

Even though most deployments of U.S. forces over the past 10 years did not require a massive deployment of Army heavy divisions and brigades, other problems stemming from the traditional force structure design did appear. Smaller deployments on the battalion or company level often meant critical components — from intelligence to communications — that are attached to larger formations were not available. Thus, the force packages available were either so large they could not to get the theater in time or, if appropriately sized, lacking in critical capabilities.

Rumsfeld’s review, therefore, seems to point to a reasonable conclusion that the fundamental structure of U.S. military organization must be reconsidered in light of the new strategic realities, as well as combat implications of new information technology. The division-brigade-battalion-company-platoon hierarchy — which dates back to the Napoleonic era — does not allow for smaller units to rapidly deploy with sufficient support. It appears certain the Pentagon review will encourage the Army to continue with its ongoing “transformation” effort that aims to field more mobile combat units that can be deployed overseas within 96 hours. Other experts argue that an even more flexible force structure — mobile combat strike forces that truly integrate systems from all of the services — need to be created.

Implicit in the defense restructuring is an assumption that is both true and misleading. Again, the majority of U.S. military deployments in the past decade were not on the magnitude of Operation Desert Storm and certainly not on the scale of our involvement in Vietnam or World War II. Rumsfeld is correct in assuming the majority of deployments in the next 10 or 20 years will parallel the last 10. But it is critical that the new Pentagon leaders not confuse the quantity of deployments with the strategic significance of those deployments. There can be 20 deployments that require company- to battalion-sized packages, and only one that requires a multiple divisional-sized deployment. But the United States could fail in all 20 of the smaller deployments and survive quite well, while suffering devastating consequences should the multiple divisional deployment meet with failure.

That is, frequency of occurrence must not be confused with strategic significance. Among American policymakers of all political stripes, there appears to be a deep-seated belief that the array of conflicts the United States will face in the coming generation will range only from small-scale rescue and evacuation (Liberia and Albania) to mid-sized peacekeeping operations (Bosnia and Kosovo) to combat operations against secondary or tertiary powers (Iraq). The idea that the United States will have to confront another superpower or coalition of great powers in a long-term, high-intensity conventional conflict has not been seen as a significant threat or likely to occur.

To restate, there are two issues here:

First, how likely is a certain class of conflict? Second, how dangerous to national security is a certain class of conflict? It is obvious conflicts involving great powers are much more rare than the perennial outbreaks of low-intensity conflict. (One research organization counted 39 active low-intensity conflicts worldwide as of January 2001.) It is easy to foresee an inclination to build a force structure designed to deal with the most common threat. But it is not at all true that these low-intensity conflicts, regardless of how pervasive they are, can represent as great a threat to the U.S. national interest as a great power conflict.

The dilemma the United States faces today is similar to those the great empires faced. The British, for example, were constantly engaged in colonial wars, ranging from small-unit police actions to larger peacekeeping operations to more substantial, longer-term engagements. Over the course of about 150 years there were literally hundreds of such British operations worldwide, but only three instances of high-intensity, multi-theater conflict against other great powers: the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, World War I and World War II. However, these three conflicts challenged the fundamental interests and even the existence of Great Britain in ways that all of the other operations taken together did not.

The United States has the classic imperial dilemma. It has a sphere of influence that it has to patrol in order to protect economic and political interests. The nation also finds itself managing and controlling the security environment — through economic, political and military means — to prevent crises that can escalate into major war. To do this the United States must have a force structure capable of carrying out this complex mission.

At the same time, this mission must be secondary to protecting the United States against threats posed by great powers. Such a threat might emerge only once or twice in a century, but that threat, if mismanaged, could prove catastrophic. The great danger in focusing on the management of colonies and spheres of influence is that, unless carefully sized and balanced for the entire spectrum of conflict, military forces able to cope with a direct challenge to the American homeland simply will not be available.

The United States traditionally has used two means for coping with great power threats. The first is using the balance of power. That means the United States has relied upon allies or countries whose interests required them to engage and control great power threats. During World War II, the United States relied on Britain and the Soviet Union to block and wear down the Germans.

The second means was — for purposes of strategic defense — to use space to buy time. For all practical purposes, the United States is an island nation. By controlling the seas and using the balance of power, the United States could prevent a direct threat to its homeland and population while avoiding the triumph of its enemies. During this time, it could use existing forces judiciously, while building up its military forces over the course of months and years, forward deploying them and using them for the endgame. For this strategy to work today, the United States must cultivate reliable allies who can buy time, and the nation needs to maintain a lethal and robust Navy and Air Force to protect the U.S. sea lanes and to project forces overseas where and when they are needed.

This is where the fundamental problem with the Rumsfeld review comes into clear focus.

A small cadre of the Defense Department civilian leadership is carrying out the study; complaints by uniformed military leaders that the armed services themselves have been frozen out of the study have emerged already. As such, the Rumsfeld review will focus on only part of the issue: the force structure of the U.S. military. It cannot, by definition, focus on U.S. grand strategy in the broadest sense of defining a sensible alliance strategy or defining those sub-critical conflicts in which Washington should intervene and those crises in which it should not. Those issues are, appropriately, beyond the purview of the Defense Department and belong to the White House and National Security Council. Thus, in one sense, the Rumsfeld review is being conducted in a vacuum. Creating a force structure requires a set of strategic goals. That must come from the president and must derive, ultimately, from the nation’s sense of itself and its needs.

In a way, even the title of “Top to Bottom” review is a misnomer since it clearly does not come from the top of the U.S. government’s executive branch. To be effective, the department’s review should follow the dictates of a thorough re-examination and retooling of the National Security Strategy.

The danger of the Rumsfeld review is that it is operating in non-strategic context because no one on the administration’s foreign policy team — not the president, National Security Council or State Department — has set a new National Security Strategy for the United States. No one has said that while peacekeeping operations are important and containing Saddam matters, the ultimate concerns of the United States must be the emergence of other global powers and protecting the United States from new threats. No one has set about defining who those new global powers might be. The adversary du jour, China, may not be the most dangerous adversary facing our nation as this century proceeds.

Proceeding on insufficiently examined premises, the Defense Department seems heading toward constructing a new force structure to satisfy the needs of almost all missions, save the ones that will be a matter of life and death for the United States. There is a real danger that the review will assume things about the diplomatic and geopolitical structure of the country that are simply not supported by reality or by U.S. foreign policy.

From all reports, Rumsfeld is doing good work within the context of his statutory responsibilities. He is demanding a reconsideration of the foundations of U.S. defense policy and structure.

However, the whole point of a defense policy is to prepare for the unexpected. The most unexpected event would be a major high-intensity conflict with a great power. Truly, this may only take place once in the century ahead. But Rumsfeld should take care that he does not prepare for the frequent and minor and leave the U.S. unprepared for the rare, but life-threatening, catastrophe.

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