The Buzz

Where America Fights Next Is VERY Predictable

Recently, Aaron Bazin published seven charts that explain the American way of war. Expanding on his work, I offer the single graphic that displays the United States military’s activities over the past thirty-five years, a chart that suggests some insights for how the United States might re-organize its forces and capabilities. Importantly, this analysis moves beyond major combat operations such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and includes others in the range of military operations, including actions as diverse as non-combatant evacuation missions in Africa and firefighting relief in the homeland.

Since 1980, the United States has fought in seven major combat operations: Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom/Inherent Resolve, Enduring Freedom, Odyssey Dawn/Unified Protector, Allied Force, Urgent Fury and Just Cause. Further, major peacekeeping operations occurred in Kosovo and Bosnia, requiring significant forces to conduct said missions. Beyond these combat and peacekeeping missions, the overwhelming majority of U.S. military operations since 1980 have been humanitarian assistance or disaster relief operations, to include those conducted in the homeland. In addition to humanitarian assistance missions, the United States executed multiple non-combatant evacuation missions as well as punitive and global strike missions.

Other continuing efforts include theater security cooperation missions conducted by the combatant commands. Further, the U.S. military conducts continuous strategic deterrence missions with its nuclear capabilities. And intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions in support of these operations and other persistent requirements are a constant requirement for national and military leadership. These mission sets, although paramount to U.S. and global security, are outside the realm of contingency operations. It is on these contingency operations, and how the U.S. military can best posture itself to meet the associated demand, which this analysis is focused.

Missions and Regions

If recent history is a guide to the future, the next major combat operation will likely occur in either the Middle East or the Balkans. Indeed, the current crisis in Syria and Iraq lend a degree of confirmation to this prediction. However, the United States military, as it looks to establish its capabilities for the mid- to long-term future should seek to find a balance between the most dangerous and the most likely missions. This requires balancing risk associated with major combat missions and humanitarian assistance. There is, of course, risk in using this model, since a major change in the focus of U.S. foreign policy would invalidate its assumptions. Prior to the outset of World War I, for example, an analysis of the previous fifty years of U.S. military experience would have focused efforts on operations within North America, and occasionally in the Pacific, missing entirely the European focus that would emerge. With this caution in mind, however, we can perhaps learn something by treating the past as prologue.

CENTCOM: The Middle East remains the most likely location for major military operations. Since 1980, operations in the CENTCOM area of operations (AOR) include the Tanker Wars, Lebanon peacekeeping, Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom (with associated persistent obligations such as Northern and Southern Watch), Enduring Freedom and the Multinational Force Observer mission in the Sinai. Today’s ongoing missions also include support to nations who seek protection from adversaries such as Iran. There is no shortage of demand for missile defense capacity in this environment, and investment in and forward presence of missile defense capabilities at the expense of ground combat vehicles can serve to both assure allies and dissuade adversaries.

Other missions in the CENTCOM AOR include global strike or punitive strike operations. These missions range from El Dorado Canyon to the continuing drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen since 9/11. Further, counter-terrorism missions remain a paramount concern throughout the Middle East.

AFRICOM: Non-combatant evacuation (NEO) remains a serious concern in areas of the globe where governments are historically weak. Over time, NEO operations have frequently occurred in the unstable West Coast of Africa. In the design of regionally aligned forces, the Army should consider what specific capabilities each region traditionally requires. Forces aligned to AFRICOM should be focused on the execution of a NEO, in lieu of major combat operations on the continent. This does not lend itself to forces optimized for building partnership capacity, but could include forces required to occupy ports and airfields to move citizens off the continent.

PACOM: The necessity for strategic lift in the PACOM area of responsibility is paramount. As in the AFRICOM AOR, the demands of NEO often require aircraft to travel great distances over the Pacific Ocean. Further, the ability to deliver humanitarian assistance to nations in the Pacific such as the Philippines and Indonesia require aircraft that can deliver supplies and equipment over long distances into remote areas. Moreover, from an interagency perspective, aligning USAID stockpiles with the modes of transport in these regions could enhance the immediate effectiveness of HADR operations.

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