Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=109517
Story Retrieval Date: 5/25/2013 9:41:34 PM CST
Tech Sgt Cecilio M. Ricard Jr, US Air Force/Courtesy Department of Defense
WASHINGTON -- Opportunity cost is a term economists use to describe the price of not doing something -- that is, the consequences of choosing one thing and thus foregoing another. If a woman chooses to drive herself to work each day, she must invest in a car, its maintenance, gasoline, tolls, the works. The benefits of the car are obvious, but they come at the invisible cost of other possible conveniences, like a remodeled kitchen or a home closer to work.
On the other hand, if this woman should give up the luxury of owning car in favor of public transportation, she is free to use the difference between the cost of an automobile and daily bus fares for that new kitchen, home or whatever else she wants. The only certainty is she cannot do both at once.
People deal with opportunity costs hundreds, thousands, possibly millions of times each day, often without knowing so. Every time someone chooses one option for another, an invisible possibility evanesces into some other universe or extra dimension, never to be seen or heard from again. Most times this doesn’t matter -- the decisions are small and so are the consequences. But every so often the consequences are huge and lasting, and when that happens the risks and rewards must be weighed and the consequences for choosing incorrectly seriously considered.
The U.S. military is now in such a period. As many of the top military brass describe Iraq in a ‘fragile and reversible’ state and the collective attention moves toward rising difficulties in Afghanistan, there is a debate heating up -- visible mostly in the pages of military journals, at prestigious think tanks in Washington and at defense colleges -- in which options are being weighed that will directly affect the lives of American troops and their families, the welfare of developing nations and the influence America projects around the world.
The debate centers on this question: Should the U.S. military adapt its institutions to reflect the hard lessons learned in Iraq? And secondly, but extremely important, does America wish to engage in nation building?
It may be surprising that the answers to these questions do not fit into neat political lines
as we may like them to. Those opposed to the Iraq war on the grounds that it was fought on faulty or possibly shaped intelligence by the worst scoundrels of the Bush administration are often those who would have the U.S. abandon its mission there to intervene in more humanitarian causes like Darfur. But the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed the broader War on Terror, would be central to precisely that sort of protracted undertaking.
Meanwhile, those who claim ousting Saddam Hussein was a legitimate end based on the proposition that preemptive wars could be fought to protect America’s strategic interests or for the sin of harboring terrorists -- essentially the Bush doctrine -- might oppose using American troops to “police” the world, protecting schoolchildren in Myanmar or building hospitals in Haiti. But it was their audacity, or recklessness, depending on how one feels, that pushed the military into a conflict with no foreseeable end and forced it to adapt to do exactly those things.
How these lines got to be so blurred can only be explained by that annoyance which so often spoils our convenient means of identifying, categorizing and then responding to the events of the world, that funny thing called reality. GWOT -- militarese for the global war on terror -- has been an active ingredient in that reality over a period of what is quickly approaching a decade.
As has the administration of George W. Bush. Its fast-approaching exit presents a logical chance to reconsider familiar but fading admonitions that, since 9/11, the world has changed, and so, too, must America’s willingness to confront the conditions that breed radicalism. And it’s worth asking, do Americans actually believe this? And if so, are they willing to pay the price -- measured in troops, time and money -- as well as the price of not doing something else?
A balancing act
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who took over after Donald Rumsfeld resigned following the midterm elections in 2006, represents to many Democrats and Republicans alike the level-headed practitioner one would hope to find at the top of the military. In his speeches he reveals that he is a balanced man, if anything.
But at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs earlier in the year, Gates criticized what he deemed to be a lack of balance in the military, an ailment he diagnosed as “Next War-itis.” Harmful enough to be given the suffix of a illness, but one sounding more chronic than debilitating, Gates was describing the tendency of the military establishment to focus on future wars to the detriment of preparing and executing the wars America currently finds itself in.
In September, in another speech, this one at the National Defense University, Gates again picked up this issue and expounded upon it.
“When referring to ‘Next War-it is,’” Gates explained, “I was not expressing opposition to thinking about and preparing for the future. It would irresponsible to do so -- and the overwhelming majority of the people in the Pentagon, the services and the defense industry do just that. My point was simply that we must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future conventional and strategic conflicts that we neglect to provide both short-term and long-term all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as we are in today.”
It may seem odd that a defense secretary would find it necessary to say to the military, essentially, ‘Win the wars you’re fighting,’ and it does sound like something Yossarian might irreverently say to Col. Cathcart in Catch 22. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Gates is walking a tightrope between adapting to the realities of a complex world today and hampering the ability to deter or respond to large scale, conventional conflicts in the future.
And in doing so, he’s asking: Is the country more likely to see another Iraq or Afghanistan -- a failed state in need of fundamental rebuilding -- than it is to see a conventional war with a belligerent state, like China or Russia? Gates, and many others, say
“It is true that the United States would be hard pressed to fight a major conventional ground war elsewhere on short notice, but as I’ve said before, where on Earth would we do that?” Gates asked.
And despite Russia’s recent mischief in Georgia, which ignited in many renewed fears of the Cold War, Gates explained in his speech that the Kremlin’s motivations and capabilities differ greatly today and are a result of “a desire to exorcise past humiliation and dominate their near abroad -- not an ideologically driven campaign to dominate the globe.” As such, Gates said, the response must not be a return to military and nuclear buildup as seen in the 1980s.
Instead, Gates is touching on the issue of whether the adaptations that have occurred over the last five to seven years as America adjusted in Iraq and Afghanistan -- thus far paid for through emergency supplemental bills outside the baseline defense budget -- should be institutionalized. While few question the effectiveness of the tactics, there are those asking whether the military should really be a one-stop shop for nation building. And they worry that as U.S. troops build roads, pick up trash, provide electrical generation and train police, they lose their ability to fight and win the wars of tomorrow.
The changing rules of the game
“You have to go back to the original version of what ‘defense transformation’ was supposed to be,” says Thomas Donnelly, a defense analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. Following Vietnam and the end of the Cold War, it was thought that information technology and precision weapons had changed the landscape of war by reducing costs and increasing the efficacy of remote firepower. Destroying a bridge during World War II took hundreds of bombs. In Vietnam, it required a couple of dozen. Today, the U.S. military can destroy a bridge with one precision-guided bomb or cruise missile.
What these vast technological gains amounted to, at least on their face, was a new kind of war, one in which satellites in the sky replaced boots on the ground, in which machines literally replaced men. Practically speaking, it meant high-tech, light, specialized forces designed to deploy wherever they were needed, and few were more vocal proponents of this than Donald Rumsfeld.
And to a certain extent, it worked. The Taliban were ousted in months after the attacks on September 11, and it took a mere three weeks to topple Saddam in 2003.
“But that was a kind of reductionist view that looked at warfare as simply the delivery of firepower,” Donnelly says.
America had learned to play the game better than anyone else. The only problem was that the game changed. Following the fall of the Taliban and Saddam, and then lengthy periods of fledgling counterinsurgency efforts with mixed results, the country became engaged in conflicts symbolized, rightly and wrongly, through the “surge strategy” and General David Petraeus.
Gates talked about this at the Defense University. “What is dubbed the war on terror is, in grim reality, a prolonged, world-wide irregular campaign—a struggle between the forces of violent extremism and moderation,” he explained. “We cannot kill or capture our way to victory.”
In this type of conflict, conventional military wisdom is turned on its head. Its founding handbook, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, lists various paradoxes: “Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.” Another: “Sometimes the more force is used, the less effective it is.” In this realm, firepower is often a last resort rather than the first. And while air strikes may be exceptional ways to knock things down, they are useless in putting things back together. They can create more enemies than they kill. “The U.S. military’s ability to kick down the door must be matched by our ability to clean up the mess and even rebuild the house afterward,” Gates said.
This is because in Iraq and Afghanistan, winning requires that the people of those countries choose their own governments over the insurgents. To do this, the military must protect the population from attacks while engaging in a great number of tasks once considered the sphere of those foreign governments, nongovernmental organizations and the State Department.
“It’s more like cops on a beat than it is like sending cruise missiles through a window,” Donnelly said. And as cops on a beat they must also identify and separate out those who can be turned away from insurgencies or terrorists and those who cannot, the reconcilables and the irreconcilables. This, too, is hard to achieve through a satellite or with high-precision bombs.
This is collectively known as COIN: counterinsurgency.
The crusaders and the conservatives
If there is a poster child for how important the argument over “Next-War-itis” is, it may be the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP. For years the nightly news inundated Americans (at least those who still watch the evening broadcast) with reports of troops killed by roadside bombs or improvised explosive devices (IED
’s) as many traversed the streets in Humvees, some with armor but many without.
Memorably, in late 2004 when an Army specialist asked then Secretary Rumsfeld why more combat vehicles weren’t up-armored, Rumsfeld’s responded this way: “You go to war with the army you have---not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
But Secretary Gates saw a problem here and continues to see it as a symptom of what is wrong with procurement in the military. According to the Pentagon, IEDs have been the No. 1 killer in Iraq, responsible for nearly two-thirds of fatalities. In May 2007 Gates made acquisition of MRAPs the Pentagon’s top priority, and there are now nearly 9,000 MRAPs in use in Iraq and more than 1,000 in Afghanistan, with a total of 15,830 contracted. Gates and others credit the MRAPS with drastically reducing casualties since their implementation.
“Why did we have to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities we need to protect our troops and pursue the wars we are in?” Gates asked pointedly.
The issue is more a question of continuous adaptation than finding a one-size-fits-all answer. Ironically, the MRAPs that have proven so important to the effort in Iraq are less helpful in Afghanistan, where mountains are many and roads steep, poorly built or nonexistent. MRAPs can weigh anywhere from 7 to 22.5 tons, so the Pentagon is again adapting to procure a modified, lighter version that would do better in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan.
Which segues nicely into the debate now heating up most visibly and cogently on the pages of Small Wars Journal, the publication run by the non-profit Small Wars Foundation. In its January edition, the quarterly will feature a point-counterpoint between the two men who have come to represent the arguments between the “conservatives,” those who say it’s the military’s job to fight and little more, and the “crusaders,” those who say America must proactively engage the world through realpolitik: John A. Nagl. And Gian P. Gentile.
John Nagl, a senior fellow at the Center for New American security and recently retired lieutenant colonel from the Army, could be called one of the true believers of the Petraeus camp. Nagl argues in his piece that fighting the wars of today means seeing the world as it is and responding to it.
“The U.S. military’s role in irregular warfare cannot be wished or willed away, and the Army has a responsibility to prepare itself to fulfill that role as effectively as possible. It is irresponsible to assume that current and future foes will play to America’s strengths by fighting conventionally rather than through proven, cost-effective, insurgent-like asymmetric strategies.”
On the other side is Col. Gian Gentile, director of the military history program at the United States Military Academy and bearer of the “conservative” argument. Gentile disputes the logic of placing nation building above fighting, and worries that the military core skills have atrophied as a result.
The real questions, in view of America’s ongoing military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, is whether the Army should be prepared to conduct stability operations, nationbuilding, counterinsurgency, and related operations for more than very brief periods. Experience to date both indicates the limitations of American military capability to reshape other people’s societies and governments and points to the limits of American military and economic resources in the conduct of these operations.
Coming back, Nagl states in no uncertain terms that he’s unconvinced by Gentile’s concerns for conventional warfare. “When bullets are flying, Soldiers are in harm’s way, and the national interest is at stake, the Army must devote the last full measure of its devotion to winning the wars it is in. Future conflicts are important, but the present conflicts are critical,” he writes.
n a somewhat ironic twist, Gentile worries that the military’s adaptations have made its thinking rigid. He says the military is dogmatically accepting the wisdom of Petraeus and COIN, and thus failing to challenge underlying assumptions about conflicts in different parts of the world.
“When problems of insurgencies and other sources of instability present themselves to American military planners, the only option seemingly available is large numbers of American combat boots on the ground protecting the people from the insurgents. This is why the Army has become dogmatic.”
Gentile has a valid point, says Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, a libertarian think tank. “The paradox of military preparation,” he says, “is that the things you don’t prepare for are often the things you are challenged on.”
Nagl and Gentile are not shy about referring to each other by name and explaining how the other has gotten it seriously wrong. The two, taken together, represent an emerging fissure in the military and broader national security community: on the one side, the Long War’s true believers who think it incumbent upon America to fight the breeding grounds of extremism wherever they are, which in turn means adapting the forces to do so. The military, while not the ideal body to do so, is likely the only one capable of it.
And then there are the true conservatives, who say America’s misadventure in Iraq has taught it a valuable lesson about trying to clean up the world. For them, the military is already overly adapted to counterinsurgency and should return to doing what it does best: defending the homeland and fighting when it must.
As with any good scrap, there are already those stepping in to break it up. Elsewhere in the Small Wars Journal, other defense experts seek to both moderate and synthesize the two arguments. In one, entitled “Nagl and Gentile are both right, so what do we do now?”, Robert Haddick writes that the military must recognize the world as it is today but must not fall into the trap of overextending itself in open-ended conflicts around the world. He proposes adopting Nagl’s plan for developing a 20,000-man Combat Advisor Corps to conduct prevention, shaping and deterrence operations in irregular conflict areas, while at the same time emphasizing the importance that the majority of forces focus on conventional capabilities.
In all things, moderation
Whether the country prepares for long, protracted, irregular conflicts has implications for the budget: it means more translators, civil engineers, specialized forces, “human terrain” teams, otherwise known as cultural anthropologists. And it may mean strongly modifying, delaying and/or even eliminating programs that don’t directly serve this mission, such as the Joint Strike fighter or the Pentagon’s ultramodern, $200 billion Future Combat Systems program.
It’s easy to get carried away on rhetoric. Experts who watch the Pentagon’s budget say under Gates occupancy there’s little sign of revolution. Any changes that have occurred, they say, have done so at the margins.
It’s “a moderate readjustment of priorities, not a radical shift in philosophy,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution. O’Hanlon likens the “Next-War-itis” argument to a rhetorical tactic designed to “light a fire” under the Air Force and Navy leadership to give him what he wants: namely, hastening the deployment of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which have been used with great success in Afghanistan.
Steven Kosiak, vice president of budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, agrees. “I think if you look at the broad-brush look at the force structure and the major modernization programs, I don’t think it would be fair to say there’s been a substantial change in direction under Gates,” he says. Kosiak cautions that this isn’t to say that changes at the margins, like the deployment of the MRAP or more UAVs, haven’t been extremely important.
This may be because adaptations in the budget that have occurred have done so through supplemental procurements, or “emergency supplementals” as they’re known in Washington, not changes to the baseline defense budget. But this may also serve to indicate how the military and Congress regard the state of the adaptations: as temporary.
But it’s also because institutional change is difficult and takes time. Neither O’Hanlon nor Kosiak denies the difficulty in implementing institutional change in the military. “A lot of this is sort of like turning a tanker at sea,” Kosiak says. “It takes a long time and it’s something you’re not going to do in a short period of time.”
And it’s also is because Gates, and many others, say it’s not about choosing one option or another. It’s about striving for balance.
“I personally don’t think it’s an either or,” says Vikram Singh, a fellow at the Center for New American Security, where Nagl is a colleague. Singh says there is still a great deal to debate about where the balance is struck, and how to ensure that the military is good at both counterinsurgency and conventional operations. While he falls more on the side of institutionalizing counterinsurgency, Singh doesn’t discount the argument for conventional preparations.
“These skills are perishable,” Singh says. “It’s not easy to do complex, conventional warfare operations.
There’s another voice that falls into this camp: President-elect Barack Obama. On the campaign trail, Obama often called for tempered, pragmatic adaptation in the military, saying the U.S. should buy less expensive war ships, train more translators, increase special operations units and put more money into intelligence and nonmilitary aid.
With word that he’ll stay on as secretary under President-elect Obama for at least the time being, Gates will have no shortage of advice on how to find the balance he’s looking for.