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2013: Time For US Strategy To Get Real

Posted by Doug Macgregor on



As the old year dies, Breaking Defense has asked its expert Board of Contributors to look ahead at the next (click here for the whole 2013 forecast series). Today we hear from Col. (retired) Douglas Macgregor, a decorated combat veteran of the first Gulf War, prolific author, and a passionate skeptic of conventional strategic wisdom.

In his book Only the Paranoid Survive, Andrew Grove describes a strategic inflection point as a point in time when the balance of forces shifts from the old structure and the old ways of competing to ones. As Grove writes, successful business structures adapt and thrive. Archaic structures that fail to adapt, decline and die.

What Grove describes is precisely what the incoming Secretary of Defense and his (or her) team must do in the opening months of 2013: Recognize we’ve passed a strategic inflection point and adapt the armed forces to new realities, fiscal and military, while extracting real $ savings in the process. After all, if businesses can do it, so can the American defense establishment, right? Actually, it’s not so easy.

Hindsight tells us that machine guns and artillery would kill millions of infantrymen during World War I and that command of the airspace would be vital to the outcome of battles on land and sea. Frankly, it never required much imagination to figure out that the Arab Spring would soon turn to winter with the replacement of a secular dictator like Mubarak with a Sunni Arab Islamist like Morsi.

Today, it seems incomprehensible that anyone in or out of uniform could miss these realities. Why, Americans ask, could hindsight not have been foresight if viewed through a better, more focused lens? Yet, since the end of World War II, the political and military leaders of the United States have established a record of recurrent misjudgment and misperception of strategic reality from Saigon to Baghdad.

To be fair, the human ability to see into the future is always limited, but foresight of any kind is impossible if the lens cannot focus. Whenever the rich record of human cultural, historical and economic experience is dismissed in favor of wishful thinking, a world comes into view that does not really exist; the kind of world described in 1992 by the late Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, where the US Armed Forces are employed to “punish evil doers.”

Inside the Beltway, the lens of wishful thinking is further deformed by the unending struggle on Capitol Hill with the myth that only generals and admirals can or should formulate the concepts governing the application of American military power or military doctrine. In the last four years, this myth has transformed the president, as well as the current Secretary of Defense, into door mats for the four-stars. It’s why many Americans in and out of uniform think the United States is doomed to experience a military disaster on the scale of Pearl Harbor, or the Communist attack on South Korea in June 1950, before the post-9/11 paradigm of neo-Wilsonian nation building and counterinsurgency are tossed onto the “trash-heap of history.” The skeptics have a point.

On the Hill, the cocktail level of familiarity with real warfare, informed by an unhealthy dose of nostalgia for a post-World War II world order that is crumbling fast, is certainly not helpful. Combine these problems with the unreasoning fears of dysfunctional, backward Muslim societies that have no scientific-industrial capacity; with the grossly exaggerated dread of China, a country riddled with corruption and a ruling class obsessed with keeping the lid on unrest amongst 1.3 billion people; and the picture worsens.

However, like it or not, the incoming Secretary of Defense has no choice but to project technology and conditions into the future while they develop armed forces today that will be used a decade or more after their conception. The question for 2013 is whether the incoming defense team will chart a new course in defense?

Will the new team simply reinforce the pursuit of global dominance with the use of military power to control and shape development inside other peoples’ societies? Will the new defense team devise a military strategy that does less with less, while concealing as much as possible our trimmed down military posture from the American public?

Or will the new team begin framing a new national military strategy, one tied to realistic, attainable political and military goals? Will the new defense team treat the American military establishment as a hedge against wars we don’t want to fight? Will it foster a military establishment designed to maintain our market-oriented, English-speaking Republic, a Republic that upholds the rule of law, respects the cultures and traditions of people different from ourselves and trades freely with all nations, but protects its commerce, its vital strategic interests, and its citizens?

Put another way, will the incoming defense team admit that it is truly a matter of strategic indifference to the American people which Asian nation controls the Spratlys in the South China Sea, so long as our freedom of navigation, our ability to pursue commerce, is not limited or obstructed?

Whatever actions the new Secretary of Defense and his team undertake, it will not be easy to align the structure and capabilities of American military power with strategic reality, but it is still essential they start doing so in 2013.

What do you think?