Apr 14 2009

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A Maginot Time for Defense?

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It’s budget time on Capitol Hill, and with a Bush holdover at the helm, the Obama administration has come out with a surprisingly robust plan for change at the Defense department, with wide-ranging impacts on policy and procurement.

At a more conventional time, without the pressures of war and recession and fundamental government attempts to restructure American society, the defense debate would be Page 1 news in its consequence. With all respect to our “green” enthusiasts, American citizens are still more likely to be killed by malicious groups and the armies of hostile governments than by carbon dioxide. This makes this particular debate about changes in defense policy more significant than the attention it’s getting.

You see, no matter how careful we are or how hard we try, history shows that more often than not, we get this wrong.

Yes, of course there was a time of stability and assurance. The soldiers and sailors who staffed the British Empire in 1700 would have had little difficulty integrating into British army and Navy of 1800.  But the dizzying pace of political change and industrial innovation and capacity over the past 200 years has never really allowed planners to grasp the future of combat operations in a manner that planned for them.

Consider that during the American Civil War, Union forces marched in a parade style formation that the British at Bunker Hill would have recognized, into the entrenched line of Confederates at the battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, suffering truly horrendous casualties. Less than a year later, General Pickett and his men attempted a similar grand march against the entrenched Union line at Gettysburg. The age of defense through fortifications and concentrated fire power had arrived.

40 years later, the Europeans fought a far deadlier version of the American Civil War with the introduction of machine guns, barbed wire and breach loading, high velocity artillery that laid waste to the large, mass-wave infantry attacks. Instead of a planned war of maneuver that would end in weeks, European military planners presided over the second worst blood-letting of the 20th century in the mindless trench warfare of WWI.

France, which had lost nearly 15% of its population in WWI, took as its lesson after the conflict that the future of warfare was based on the primacy of defense.  To that end, it invested $500 million ($7 billion in today’s dollars) in creating the Maginot Line during the 1930s, a series of concrete defenses that stretched from Italy to Belgium.1  It was the most powerful defensive line since the Great Wall of China.

By contrast, the strict limitations on German defensive capability mandated in the Versailles Treaty that ended WWI moved the Germans to invest in two new technologies introduced at the end of the first war, the aircraft and the tank.

In May 1940, the Germans invaded France, flanked the Maginot Line by arching into Belgium and through unfortified – and until then supposedly impassable – Ardennes forest, trapped and surrounded French and British troops using massive, mobile tank columns, mechanized infantry and dive bombers. A new form of mobile warfare unforeseen by military planners in the inter-war period was now supreme.

France, which had been the battlefield for four years during WWI, fell in a month.

Also during the inter-war period, the world’s leading naval powers agreed to a disarmament conference in 1922 to head off an arms race at sea that had so contributed to Anglo-German animosity before WWI. The conference was designed to place strict limits on production of battleships and cruisers, the supreme capital ships of their day.

Under the Treaty that emerged from the conference, Japan and the United States were each allowed to use the hulls of two battle cruisers then under construction for conversion to aircraft carriers.

On December 7, 1941, it was strike aircraft from the Japanese carriers Akagi and Kaga, Japan’s two converted battle cruisers, as well as four other aircraft carriers, that sank all the American battleships lined up at Ford Island, ushering in a revolutionary new kind of sea warfare.

America’s success in war-planning and war fighting after WWII was mixed, pivoting off the successes during the conflict and managing unknowns.

The US excelled in large scale, conventional warfare where the objective was victory and commanders had the ability to maneuver and mass men and fire power.  The US never completely understood irregular warfare and was slow to adapt to it or master it.

In Korea, political limits on conventional war ended in an armed truce that continues to this day. In Vietnam, no amount of conventional military might subdued the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese organizers, whose supply lines were untouchable through international political protocols, leading to nearly 60,000 dead, a negotiated American withdrawal, and the collapse of the Saigon regime two years later.

It was the Reagan administration that returned US focus to deterring and if necessary defeating larger scale conventional combat against the Soviet Union.

The $1.6 trillion defense build-up provided a 600 ship Navy built around 14 aircraft carriers, modern tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, F-14, 15, 16 & 18 fighter aircraft, new “smart” ordinance and most importantly, the advanced electronic to integrate the weapons systems with communications, sensors and battle management systems.

The collapse of the Soviet Union gratefully prevented a global test of the Reagan build up against its intended adversary. But America’s fight with Iraq in 1990-91, demonstrated the superiority of American arms and doctrine over a Soviet client state armed and trained by the Russians. It was a catastrophic failure for the Iraqis, who mixed modern Soviet weapons with WWI static defense lines for a crushing defeat.

During the 1990s American military advances in electronics and computer technology allowed for the integration of an array of enhanced combat platforms that attacked more precisely, from greater distances and allowed for better, real-time intelligence targeting, even as the US military contracted significantly under a post-Cold War build down initiated by the Clinton administration.

In NATO’s two major engagements in the former Yugoslavia, the Alliance – with the US shouldering the bulk of the burden – caused extensive but highly specific damage through an air campaign that cost no American lives.

This thread of incremental, conventional military development hit is apogee when the Bush administration authorized hostilities against Iraq in 1993. For all the subsequent debate on Iraq, the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom was by every objective measure, a startling success.

With a force only half the size of that used in the first Gulf War, the US military marched 330 miles from Kuwait to Baghdad City, against an enemy with nominally over 500,000 under arms – nearly twice the US force level – reaching Baghdad in 21 days. US military casualties at the end of major combat operations numbered 139.

There is no modern precedent for a military force to move so fast and so effectively to defeat an enemy. Consider, by contrast that it took 38 American and British divisions 60 days to march 110 miles from Normandy to Paris in WWII.  American casualties on the first day of the invasion in 1944 exceeded 5,000 alone.

Thus for a period roughly from the late 1980s through the early 21st century, the United States was preeminent militarily, able to project mass power with precision, speed and effectiveness. It was effectively unchallenged.

But the six years since the fall of Baghdad has changed the landscape of warfare again as new powers rise, calling into question the mix of forces needed to deter enemies, and if necessary, defend American interests.

Insurgency in Iraq neutralized overwhelming American conventional power. Counter-insurgency efforts by the US only succeeded after local political, economic and security elements were incorporated into the US battle plan with enough boots on the ground to make the war plan a success that has routed Al Qaeda, restored domestic security and empowered a democratic government made up of all religious and ethnic factions. This was not before more than 4,000 Americans died in the war.

In Afghanistan, a hybrid war of special-forces, local militia and American high technology munitions toppled the Taliban. But weak Afghani national leadership, uncoordinated efforts at economic development, the continued strength of tribal leaders outside of Kabul and ambivalent Pakistani efforts to reign in Al Qaeda and Taliban safe havens in the Afghan-Pakistan border area have contributed to President Obama’s decision to make a significant, additional military investment in Afghanistan.

The lesson that Secretary Gates has taken from the last decade is the importance of US forces being able to wage unconventional warfare.  To that end, he has added helicopters and Predator drones to the budget, and significantly increased intel/survel/recon infrastructure by $2 billion.   These are all useful additions for ongoing combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the Secretary is also canceling production of the F-22 high performance fighter, deferring new naval ship design and construction, limiting strategic missile defense and, significantly, altering the Army’s highly advanced “Future Combat Systems” program as it does not conform to the realities of roadside bombs encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is too early in the process to say how much of the Obama-Gates plan will survive the congressional approval process, where parochial district or state defense industries are paramount. And this is not to suggest that weeding out ineffective or cost-prohibitive programs isn’t in the national interest.

But looking at today through the lense of history, it appears that the US has mastered counter-insurgency through difficult and costly trial and error and is investing heavily in that capability to ensure we are not found wanting again.

But beyond our current engagement with Al Qaeda, Afghanistan and Iraq, what are the realistic threats that the United States faces over the next ten years?

Iran, North Korea and the People’s Republic of China.  And none of these are count-insurgency threats.

Iran’s nuclear program stands out as the most dangerous, immediate flash point for the United States in south Asia. An Iranian nuclear capability is as calamitous as any military efforts to stop it. Any attack on Iran, by the US, or an increasingly belligerent Israel, will mean general war.  It won’t be a guerilla war, and if it is unconventional, it will be through the Iranian use of WMD.  To cope with Iran we will need conventional forces, not counter-insurgency forces.

North Korea is only a few steps behind. Armed to the teeth with huge conventional forces and unconventional weapons, the North Korean border is only 28 miles from Seoul, capital of South Korea, and 233 miles from the southern-most tip of the Korean peninsula.  It has a 1.1 million man army, significant biological and chemical weapons, and large caches of missiles to launch the weapons and wreak havoc on the South.  It is the presence of American ground troops and the threat of nuclear retaliation that has kept the peace for the last 50 plus years.

And finally China.  Since Premier Deng and the opening to the West in 1979, the People’s Liberation Army has been vastly modernized with the latest Russian aircraft, new submarines, destroyers and missile bearing cruisers.  China has arrayed hundreds of long range missiles along the straights bordering Taiwan. A recent study by the Defense department saw these developments at power project ominous given the relative lack of any military competitor in the region. China maintains a robust and growing strategic nuclear threat that targets the United States.

Taiwan is the great unknown of US-China relations.  For the United States it is a thriving, vibrant, free market economy governed by a boisterous and democratic political process. Taiwan is an American success story if ever there was one. Its citizen’s ability to determine their course is essential to the success of their experiment.

For China, it is a matter of reuniting all parts of China under a nationalist umbrella. If Taiwan declares independence, will China attack as it has threatened?  Will the US fight to stop a Chinese attack as it has said?  To defend an ally in all but name?  To take on the second largest military force on earth?

What about the intriguing and ironic case of Vietnam. Communist solidarity aside, Vietnam and China have a millennium of animosity between then when Chinese providence extended all the way to the city of Hue.   What if the Chinese decide to come back?  It won’t be guerilla forces that stop them, but American conventional might.

Americans and Vietnamese allied against China.  Now that is a historical twist.

In any event, a first blush shows that the history of planning is fraught with danger and unexpected surprise. That surety is illusory.  And now, after years steeped in counter-insurgency, are we taking our eye of the bigger ball in planning for the next generation of military threats.

Let’s hope Secretary Gates has thought it out to our satisfaction.

1. New York Times, January 1941


1 comment

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