In the new year, America’s power projection forces must be restructured and we must pursue a ruthless retirement of old weapons in favor of the new.
Much of this can be paid for and modernized because of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, which costs $2 billion a week. Logistics costs in Afghanistan alone have diverted money from investment accounts and have frozen US forces into a force used only to manage territory. Cost savings from withdrawal need to be conjoined with a significant re-configuration of forces as withdrawal unfolds. If Secretary Panetta can manage it, the withdrawal, downsizing and reconfiguration of Big Army is really at the heart of structural redesign of US forces.
U.S. forces need to become more agile, flexible, and global so they can work with allies and partners to deal with the new world after Afghanistan and Iraq. Protecting access points, the global conveyer of goods and services, ensuring an ability to work with global partners in having access to commodities, shaping insertion forces which can pursue terrorist elements wherever necessary and partnering support with global players all require a reinforced maritime and air capability. This means priority will be placed on the Coast Guard, the Navy, Marines and the Air Force. This will mean upsetting the apple cart because balanced force structure reduction makes no sense. Our current force structure was redesigned for land wars that the US probably will not fight in the decade ahead. The Army can be recast by the overall effort to shape new power projection capabilities and competencies in the decade ahead.
If the emphasis is on the naval and air services then retiring their older systems, which are logistical money hogs and high maintenance, will save money. Fortunately, the country is already building these new systems and is in a position to shape an effective transition to a more affordable power projection capability.
The strategic urgency of reshaping US power projection forces is rooted in the variety of responses our forces have engaged in. In the past two years, US forces have deployed to earthquakes, tsunamis, pick-up wars, counter-piracy operations and a variety of impact points which could not have been planned in advance. At the center of every response were agile commands, agile forces and agile capabilities.
The difficulty is that every response further degrades remaining capabilities. Operations drain the remaining capability of deployed assets. Leaders love to use the tools, but not to pay for their replacements.
To be ready for such a wide array of missions you need agility. Agile elements such as Tanker Airlift Control Center (TACC) or the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) structure are essential. Agile forces such as the Agile Response Group built around the newly enabled Amphibious Ready Group.
We are not ready for the unexpected. The rare event equals uncertainty. So the key conclusion here is rather simple: we need to rebuild our forces to be more agile, and more flexible. Plug and play capability with allies and partners becomes significantly more important in the period ahead.
And having significant scaleability with regard to one’s forces would be a core advantage. As an event emerges, the National Command Authority responds with what make sense to them. But then the situation evolves and the forces sent appear to be inadequate, or the wrong ones. The deployed force can reach up and out to scale a response. And those forces can depart as new ones come.
For example, in a recent conversation with senior Japanese officials who dealt with the tsunami and reactor meltdown crisis, the officials discussed the significant challenge of recovery in the midst of a crisis. “We were prepared for single instances of crisis, flood relieve, Tsunami recovery, nuclear reactor problems; we were not prepared for simultaneous incidents which created a collapse. In shaping a response and recovery strategy, a key problem was an attempt to apply single incident plans to the crisis. We focused initially on defining the crisis as a nuclear meltdown and tried to approach the crisis this way, but that only worsened the situation as the entire population in the core area was hit by floods, etc. were panicked by the meltdown, but unable to move and to focus on their ability to have proper help to provide for tactical and strategic mobility.”
According to these officials, it was crucial to be able to apply tools which would buy the Japanese leadership time. “We did not have the proper tools in place to allow us to move people and to restore confidence.”
The US offered various types of help, but the initial assistance came in the form of carriers and amphibs to provide relief supplies. “At first we focused on direct relief, but soon came to realize that the sea bases provided significant alternative hubs to manage the movement of persons and to provide a sense of mobility and support to a population which hitherto felt trapped. In other words, the sea bases became instruments not simply of relief, but facilitated recovery and reconstruction. They became much more than supply depots to help the endangered population; they became part of the infrastructure for recovery and reconstruction. Obviously, the aircraft aboard these ships, notably the helicopters, became part of the mobility team able to not supply but move people strained in the situation. The sea base became a visible reality to the Japanese people of how to overcome the limits of an island nation facing such catastrophe.”
Some of the candidate events for 2012-2013:
• A nuclear Iran with its attendant consequence on the Middle East and beyond;
• The Islamic Republic of Libya finds its place in the world;
• The Euro implosion leads to a significant power vaccum in Europe filled by the Russians and their energy wealth;
• The Syrian implosion leads to outside intervention in shaping the future of Syria looking like the new Lebanon;
• With the acquisition of new defense systems from Russia and Europe allows Vietnam to position itself to assert its interests against the PRC and this will mean even significant armed intervention;
• Pakistan attacks a US UAV operating from Afghanistan;
• A terrorist mine sinks an oil tanker in the Gulf;
• A loose Libyan MANPADS is used to shoot down an A380;
• A presumed nacrco mini sub is seized by the USCG and turns out to be a terrorist armed mini sub;
• Iranian border incursions into Iraq lead to pressures for dismemberment of Iraq and pressure to build autonomous regions with significant outside pressure rewriting the Iraqi map.
Such events would challenge the U.S. and its allies to provide security and defense of their interests. But with the U.S. engaged in internal debates about budgets rather than strategic re-positioning and Europe enmeshed in reversing the last 20 years of its history, these types of event will have even greater consequences. And with the West enmeshed in its own reflections, the actors shaping the period ahead will be largely non-Western.
In wake of an inability to re-shape U.S. and allied agility and creating effective forces and decision-making systems, the dominance of the 1990s by the West will be a distant memory in a few years, not decades.
Writing from the perspective of 2021, we might expect a strategic analyst to write:
“As we go forward in 2021, it is good to look back on the last 10 years to identify key trends that have reshaped our defense futures in Europe. The last 10 years have seen significant change, and with that change a re-configuration of the defense challenges facing Europe.
“One significant change has been the continued decline of US power projection capabilities throughout the decade. The cancellation of the F-22 was the harbinger of US preoccupation with its land wars. Significant reductions in military space, a slowdown in the bomber program, termination of hypersonics programs, and a 40% reduction of the Air Force and of blue water naval assets accompanied the cancellation of the F-22. The retirement of the F-16s, F-15s and A10s were accompanied by a slow roll-out of the F-35 program. Allied defections from the F-35 program, accompanied by a 40% cut in US numbers have slowed the program significantly with significant cost increases.
“Although there has been much talk of strengthening European integration, European efforts remain tepid. The joint forces, which would replace US diminished capabilities, have not materialized. Indeed, in response to the great recession of 2009, Europe cut its defense budgets, invested heavily in the inconsequential Afghan campaign, and the result has seen a 30% reduction in European air and naval forces.
“As a result, the West’s overall ability to influence global events through air, space and naval forces has significantly declined.”
Robbin Laird, a member of the AOL Board of Contributors, is an international defense consultant, owner of Second Line of Defense website and a former National Security Council staffer. Ed Timperlake, the co-author, is a former U.S. Marine who works with Laird.