Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, North Korea, Haqqani Network, al Qaeda, Rwanda, Bosnia: the list of unpredictable and largely unforeseen threats goes on and on. Should the US build a military largely predicated on these threats, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates has argued. Or will we return to the primary model of the last 60 years or so, where we built a military focused on defeating one dominant threat anywhere on the globe. Nathan Freier of the Center for Strategic and International Security examines the choices and says the Pentagon better be ready to respond to small wars and other disorders.
The Funding Implications of Disorder
Just as Secretary Gates has re-injected a little “next war-it is” into the defense debate in his recent service academy speeches, the likeliest defense future is actually unfolding on our TVs in a spate of shocks that span the globe. Given half a chance, senior defense leaders — military and civilian — will want to hedge their bets and reset the force “back to the future.” After all, as Gates has long acknowledged, conventional thinking is still deeply embedded in parts of the Pentagon. Budgets appear well on their way to flattening, and will likely then decline. If history is any guide, DoD will winnow its various missions down to whatever it decides is “war”, holding itself back for “the big one” while using the language of risk as justification.
However, recent circumstances make it abundantly clear that “war” — whether the high-tech “regular” kind or the low-tech “irregular” variety — may not be the likeliest or most disruptive future defense demand. The world doesn’t answer to program priorities. Like it or not, the U.S. military is a multi-use tool that, in spite of declining resources, will still be called upon to manage a vast swath of responsibilities.
If you pay close attention to the sirens of looming peer military competition, you might think otherwise. You may conclude the China’s inevitable military modernization is the second coming of the Soviet Union. The logic follows that Job 1 then is resetting and reshaping the joint force to confront Beijing at the expense of all else.
Without question, DoD needs to stay ahead of potential adversaries who raise the price of U.S. power projection by investing in anti-access/area denial capabilities. However, the U.S. response must be proportional to threat capabilities, intentions, and methods. Here a caution from Clausewitz is instructive; any first-rate statesman or commander should know upfront what kind of war they are in. Thus, the U.S. shouldn’t automatically over-militarize what is most likely a political and economic competition first. Consider, for example, that China’s “carrier killer” missile and stealth fighter might just be today’s “Star Wars” and we are conveniently reprising the role of a hyperventilating Soviet Union.
Going forward, senior defense officials should recognize that their challenges manifest in two distinct forms. “Purposeful threats” — al Qaeda, Iran, North Korea, a future peer competitor, etc — act with malice, according to some coherent design. Every move is hostile, intended to deny the U.S. and its partners one or more of their strategic objectives. Purposeful actors might be violent. But, today they are just as likely to be threatening but non-violent or passively aggressive. Nonetheless, their intentions and actions can still be warlike in impact.
“Contextual threats”, on the other hand, have no anti-American design whatsoever. Contextual threats are hazards simply because they are; not because they aspire to be. They include political instability and civil conflict, pervasive criminality, and natural or human disaster. They kill, injure, or paralyze important populations and states. They consume resources, time, and attention. And, they retard development or destroy vital economic activity.
While there is no intention for strategic harm against us specifically, US interests are still imperiled by them. Unchecked, they will inflict damage in areas important to us and our allies. Contextual threats are more unpredictable and unmanageable precisely because they occur spontaneously in the absence of strategic-level design or malice. Further still, they are wickedly complex, as most attempts to intervene change their character in unforeseen ways.
Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aside, contextual threats present DoD with its most frequent and thorny problems. Recent events provide DoD ample food for thought in this regard. Five Arab countries have either fallen to popular revolt or are under extreme pressure. One is experiencing a violent civil war that we now have inserted ourselves in with military action. A second has triggered military intervention by its immediate neighbors. Somali pirates have become more aggressive against commercial shipping off the Horn of Africa. Japan suffered a crippling earthquake, a devastating tsunami, and a nuclear disaster of historic proportions. Meanwhile, nearer to home, Mexico’s drug war alternates between high simmer and low boil. All of this leaves many asking, “What’s next?” Each of these is an exemplar of the types of crises that might require significant defense contributions in the future.
DoD should carefully consider how contextual threats like these shape its operational future. As the worst among them emerge, the SecDef is likely to be challenged directly by those assembled in the cabinet room with an impossible choice —“If not you, then who?”
We are all now well aware of the defense implications of disorder. Among them the need for punitive strikes and expeditions; manhunting and crime fighting; providing security for strategic resources, key facilities, and critical infrastructure under fire; protecting populations, instituting no fly zones, and responding to mass atrocity; securing commerce and critical lines of communication; humanitarian intervention and disaster relief; and security force assistance. These missions are far more likely in the future than forced entry in the face of a sophisticated, high-tech adversary. While missions like these emerging might not be the type of “next war” the current or next Secretary has in mind, they will monopolize much of their energy.
Nathan Freier is a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies New Defense Approaches Project and a visiting research professor at the Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute.