This Is How The U.S. Military Sees the Future of War

The Buzz

The U.S. military is certainly going through some changes these days. It is considering opening historically unavailable roles for women. Despite the recent NDAA agreement, it is dealing with a new reality of fewer troops and a continued uncertain budget future, affecting the Department of Defense’s ability to prioritize and plan. Add to that the military modernization of Russia (despite having budget issues of its own), the greater assertiveness of China, as well as the rising instability caused by ISIS and the recent

attack in Paris.

With that alone, America’s armed forces would have their hands full. But that’s only the near- to medium-term. What about the long term?

Luckily, despite all other issues, our military services—the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force—released documents outlining their vision for how they can be most efficient and effective in the future. While there are differences among them, their similarities reveal what our defense establishment believes is the role of the military going forward. Indeed, they unanimously believe that the world of the future will be more complex than it is today, requiring America’s armed forces to be more agile, austere, intelligent, and capable of working among themselves, with allies, and with partners. While these ways are correct, they are being used toward the wrong ends (and the means continue to be in flux). Thus, a strategic realignment that places a greater emphasis on stability and security over outright defeat should animate our armed forces.

First, to the more difficult environment. The future military (and, in a sense, the current one) will deal with non-state actors that can carry out strategically significant actions; state actors challenging the status quo; urbanization and megacity conflict; the proliferation of under-governed areas; a new global middle class that will demand energy and other resources, further straining certain societies; climate change; the improvement in new tools of statecraft like cyber; emerging disruptive technologies; and crises simultaneously popping up in multiple areas. (Sadly, that is not an exhaustive list.) As the Army admits, “our exclusive use of previous paradigms is insufficient for the task ahead,” thereby “requir[ing] a bold an innovative approach,” the Navy believes. So what is the new approach that gets our services away from past ways of operating?

The services differ, but they agree that the military needs to change. Our troops should be more agile, not only in their ability to get from place to place, but also in “breaking paradigms and leveraging technology,” as the Air Force puts it. They should be able to operate in austere environments and without many resources. In essence, they should literally get the biggest bang for their buck. To do this, more responsibility will go to younger officers, behooving the military to ensure these officers are well trained and educated early on in their careers. Finally, the services need to be more interoperable, not only with allies and partners but also among themselves. This is a function of lower budgets and the reality that with events moving quickly, any complications among militaries will slow down a crucial military response.

At base, there is nothing really wrong with any of these. But to what ends? As the National Military Strategy describes it, when America is confronted with a state actor, the military should be used to “deter, deny, and defeat.” And, when the main adversary is a non-state actor, the strategy should be to “disrupt, degrade, and defeat.” However, these harken back to the “previous paradigms” the Army lamented, meant to achieve warring goals of previous eras. To be sure, right now “about 90 percent of conflicts are civil wars.” As Dominic Tierney explains, “the shift from conflicts between countries to conflicts within countries triggered an era of American military failure” where its “military campaigns [are] ugly at best and unwinnable at worst” (italics in original). The focus on “win[ning] in a complex world,” then, should be changed. Instead, I offer a new three-worded approach: stabilize, secure, and set (similar to a previous argument made by the Defense Department in 2006).

The military must recall that it is but one tool in the American national security and foreign policy toolbox, albeit the largest one. With instability likely to be the norm within states, and with that instability likely to spread, it is imperative that the military be used to stabilize situations. But military means will not be enough. The military will have to work even closer with the State Department, the Agency for International Development, and others that can help with governance. The military will provide the space for governance to arise; it will not bring about governance simply by military defeat. Further, the military can be used to stabilize certain areas that are starting to become unstable. Using force wisely and judiciously in certain situations to stop certain problems from getting worse will likely be the main task of the American military in the near- to medium-term.

Securing the area where the military is deployed will also be vital. Like stabilization, securing the area will allow life to go on somewhat normally, ultimately leading to a more peaceful situation. Of course, security does not only mean physical security to the person, but also security in life of the individual. Here, other U.S. agencies, along with allies, partners, and friends, will take the lead. But troops will be needed to ensure a stable situation turns into a secure one. Finally, when things get back to normal, the military along with other parts of the U.S. government and agencies from other actors—state and non-state alike—will ensure the area is set so all can leave. If the area still remains slightly unstable or slightly insecure, it is not set. Being “set” could mean ensuring that an effective government is in place; that the actors involved have had their interests met and no longer use warring methods to get them; that the American interest is not threatened to a point that the costs outweigh the benefits of staying; etc. Since defeat of an outright adversary is less likely in the short- to medium-term, aiming to set a situation, and beforehand stabilizing and securing it, make more sense than aiming for “defeat.”

All that said, our military should still be able to beat an adversary. After all, having the ability to defeat other actors not only deters, but is also among the ultimate guarantors of the preservation of the nation. But, if defeating adversaries will not be required in many future missions requiring the military, then it should not strategically be set up that way. Instead, it should focus more on ensuring that bad actors do not want to test it; that bad situations do not get worse; and that bad times do not arise after the military leaves.

To do all this, the services should continue their approach of being more agile, austere, intelligent, and interoperable. These new attributes should serve a new purpose, not an old paradigm—and civilian leadership should recognize this. America’s military should still be the best and ensure that any fight it enters is not a fair one. At the same time, the services—and the military writ-large—must realize that these attributes should serve a new end. If they do not, then all the power America has vanishes, and ultimately it may lead to our own defeat.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 


Get Ready, ISIS: France's Armed Forces Pack a Lethal Punch

The Buzz

Here’s how to put the scale of Islamic State’s attacks into perspective. Within a span of few weeks, the radical Islamist group carried out the deadliest terror attack in modern French history, killing 129 people, and the deadliest attack in modern Turkish history — the Oct. 10 Ankara bombing, which killed 102.

Between the two, I.S. blew up a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai, killing 224. Another 44 people died in suicide blasts in a Hezbollah-controlled Beirut neighborhood, the worst terror attack in the city since the end of the Lebanese civil war. A drumbeat of suicide bombings in Baghdad killed dozens.

In other words, Islamic State has launched a war on the civilian populations of all its major adversaries — NATO, Russia, Iraq and an Iranian ally.

A day after the Paris bloodbath, French Pres. François Hollande called the murders “an act of war that was committed by a terrorist army, a jihadist army, Daesh, against France.” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls vowed to “annihilate the enemies of the republic.”

All of Islamic State’s enemies will likely strike back hard. But don’t underestimate France. Its military has been one of the most aggressive in battling Islamist groups from Mali to Afghanistan.

France has been at war with Islamic State since September 2014 under the name Operation Chammal. Paris can call on the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle — due to arrive Nov. 18 near the Middle East to support the war — and her assortment of Rafale and Super Etendard strike aircraft. A French two-star general is also attached to U.S. Central Command.

The French war in Iraq and Syria — the latter which France began bombing in September 2015 — includes six Rafales flying from the United Arab Emirates, and three Mirage 2000Ds and three Mirage 2000Ns based in Jordan,according to IHS Jane’s.

Charles de Gaulle served a previous combat deployment near Iraq in February, March and April.

But we should expect any French response to be limited as the French military is relatively resource-poor. At the same time, its highly-skilled expeditionary units are “general-purpose forces with a long-standing expeditionary mission and outlook” derived from France’s colonial history, according to Michael Shurkin in a 2014 RAND study.

All combined, this means French officers learn to do more with less — though they would like to have more resources — and accept a higher level of risk than their American counterparts. The French army, for example, often has to make do without satellites, drones or advanced surveillance aircraft.

In fact, the old-fashioned French military has tried to deliberately unlearn tactics handed down by the Americans in Afghanistan, where French combat troops fought until 2012. Kurdish troops in Iraq have also praised French air strikes for their accuracy to War Is Boring.

If we shouldn’t underestimate France, we also shouldn’t overestimate the country’s ability to defeat Islamic State. The war in Iraq and Syria is the world’s bloodiest ongoing conflict — and there’s little appetite or capability for France to expand far beyond the current advise-and-assist mission.

But it could expand behind the scenes. French troops have quietly deployed to Iraq in the past year to conduct advising and training programs for Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers. It could send weapons to allies — such as more U.S.-made but French-donated M-2 machine guns in service with the Kurdish peshmerga. Paris could bolster its land-based warplanes in the region, but this would stretch a tight defense budget.

More air strikes may not be necessary. Coalition air strikes have been on an upward trend, with 2,670 “weapons released” in October, according to U.S. Central Command. This number has not dropped below 2,000 since July.

At the same time, there are fewer targets to bomb as Islamic State has abandoned fixed positions and takes to operating mainly at night. Then there’s the ever-present problem of how to correctly identify targets in the first place. And that’s something the United States with all its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance hardware struggles with in Iraq and Syria.

In other words, France may escalate its role — more air strikes, more weapons supplied to friendly troops — but is unlikely to fundamentally change the war’s characteristics. That’s something no country can do on its own.

Instead, the most significant changes may be at home. And this was underway before the terror attacks in Paris. In January, Islamist gunmen murdered people in the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and at a Jewish grocery store.

Which is to show Islamic State is not just a regional threat in Iraq and Syria — but an international one. The identities of the terrorists who gunned down handicapped concertgoers is still unclear, but they appear to be a mix of French citizens and militants from the Middle East.

After those attacks, the French government announced an increase to its military budget by $4.2 billion over the next several years, with the bulk of the spending directed into homeland security. The French government will “permanently dedicate 7,000 soldiers to homeland security to counter the threat of terrorist attacks,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

French Air Power Goes to War Against ISIS

The Buzz

After a string of barbaric attacks on Paris that left 129 people dead on Friday, France has started to strike back at Daesh—the self styled Islamic State—terrorist organization. As part of the initial French response, the Armée de l'air hit targets in al-Raqqah, which Daesh claims as its capital.

Some twelve warplanes—a total of ten Dassault Rafales and Mirage 2000s—dropped twenty bombs on two targets according to the French Ministry of Defense. The first target was a Daesh facility, which the Islamic terrorist group was using as a command post, recruiting center and armory. The second target was a terrorist training camp.  “Operation Chammal hit operational structures held by Daesh in Raqqah, Syria,” reads a French Ministry of Defense statement. “The two targets of the strikes were destroyed.”

According to the French defense ministry, the aircraft took-off from bases in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. France is coordinating its operations with the United States, which is sharing intelligence with Paris. However, while the French air raid was coordinated with American forces, the French defense ministry said that French forces had previously identified the targets during reconnaissance over flights.

Meanwhile, France’s sole aircraft carrier—the nuclear-powered Charles De Gaulle—is set to deploy to the region when it leaves from Toulon on Wednesday. The 42,000-carrier, though less than half the size of the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz or Ford-class supercarriers, still packs a punch with an air wing consisting of Rafale Ms, Super Étendard strike aircraft and E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft.

The vessel can carry about forty aircraft onboard including roughly twenty strike aircraft. Normally, Charles de Gaulle carries two fighter squadrons—one equipped with the Rafale M and another with the Super Étendard Modernisé—also referred to as the SEM. The Marine nationale—which is still colloquially referred to as La Royale— is expected retire the SEM in 2016 once there are enough Rafale Ms in service. The ship also carries a pair of Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeyes. The carrier is certified to launch and recover even larger aircraft like Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet—and cross-deck operations have been practiced many times in the past.

During previous deployments, Charles de Gaulle sustained between ten and fifteen sorties per day for two months flying against Daesh. However, given the France’s rage over the recent attacks in Paris, the carrier might hit more targets per day but at the cost of endurance. Charles de Gaulle—with a full complement of aircraft—could generate up to 100 sorties per day, but the ship does not normally carry as many jets as it could (roughly a maximum of forty) nor enough weapons and jet fuel to sustain that pace for long.

It remains to be seen just how much France will pick up the pace of its operations against Daesh post the Paris attack. French president Francois Hollande vowed to destroy the Islamic terrorist movement in a speech before the both houses of the French Parliament earlier today at the Palace of Versailles. “France is at war,” Hollande said. “I want us to respond with the cold determination that is appropriate to this appalling attack. Our democracy has triumphed over far worse adversaries than these cowardly assassins, these appalling killers.”

Meanwhile, the United States is promising to intensify its so-far piddling air strikes. But U.S. president Barack Obama said that he would maintain his strategy because it’s working. “We always understood that this will be a long term campaign. We are concentrating on intensifying our air strikes against ISIS, of which there have been 8,000 to date, and on taking out ISIL leaders and killers, “ he said.

That might be true, but during Operation Desert Storm, U.S. forces averaged 1200 per day—right now the Pentagon is averaging four per day. Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute, criticized the slow, politically micro-managed and overly restrictive American air campaign as “pathetic.”

“We have it within our capacity to destroy the Islamic State leading to the elimination of their sanctuary for terror,” Deptula wrote in USA Today. However, to do so will require moving beyond the current anemic, pinprick air strikes, to a robust, comprehensive use of airpower — not simply in support of indigenous allied ground forces, but as the key force in taking down the Islamic State. It will require focusing on the Islamic State as a government, not an insurgency, and for Central Command and their subordinate task force to stop fighting the last war, and start the serious use of airpower.”

The question is not if the Pentagon has military might to annihilate Daesh. It’s a question of if the United States has the political will to wipe the Daesh scourge from the face of the Earth.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar

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America's Next Stealth Bomber: A Nuclear-Armed Bomber?

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Recapitalizing the air-breathing segment of the American nuclear triad has generally not been the U.S. Air Force’s first argument for developing its new Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B). Sustaining a global capacity for massive, repeated, marginally economical surgical strikes has long been the core of the argument. But nuclear certification is planned for 2027, just two years after the Air Force’s declaration of initial operating capability in 2025. Eliminating the immediate nuclear requirement would save some money in the beginning, but only a small fraction of the cost of the whole program. For this reason, adding nuclear capability to the LRS-B continues to be programmatically appealing. The bigger question, however, may be how useful the LRS-B is for American nuclear strategy.

We have heard the argument that the bomber force is a useful signal of the potential for nuclear escalation in a crisis. The United States sometimes does forward-deploy B-2s and B-52s to airfields in the United Kingdom or Guam, to send strong messages to Russia, China, or North Korea—or any other country from which political or military leaders haphazardly threaten nuclear attacks on Warsaw, Los Angeles, or Austin. We say possibly because it’s unclear just how seriously that posturing is taken. Otherwise, a nuclear-armed bomber force makes little marginal contribution to deterring a large-scale nuclear attack. Without wartime dispersal, airfields for USAF bombers comprise just five well-known aim points, easily destroyed with a handful of nuclear explosions.

In contrast, the relative advantage of the Minuteman ballistic missile force—beyond its low operating cost—is the 400 aim-points it presents any attacker. Destroying all those silos would elicit an intense U.S. response given the large scale devastation that would undoubtedly occur. Even if these attacks were conducted with low-yield weapons, the death, destruction, and fallout from so many atomic explosions would be considerable and long-lasting. Depending on the wind, Bozeman, Billings, or Bismarck could be at least rendered uninhabitable. An enemy would have to be reckless to presume that sort of bombardment could be conducted without an intense, and most likely immediate, response.

The problem, however, is symmetrical. Military planners must assume that even a single ballistic launch from a North American silo would be detected almost immediately by an enemy, and could quite possibly compel a nuclear response even while the weapon was still in flight. Land-based ballistic missiles also cannot attack just any target. The Minutemen are awkwardly constrained in their target sets, as a shot towards China needs to fly over Russian Siberia possibly eliciting an unintended response.

In comparison, a successful penetration by an air-breathing bomber would detonate a nuclear bomb prior to detection. A strike could disrupt or even destroy the enemy's nuclear command-and-control network, and theoretically could decapitate the political leadership, without their ever knowing what had happened. Relatively small nuclear bunker-busters could destroy China’s relatively small intercontinental missile force in its silos, with the fallout killing hundreds, not millions.

That said, Keir Lieber of Georgetown and Daryl Press of Dartmouth have argued that the U.S. Navy’s Ohio-class submarines (and their eventual replacements) could achieve the same result. Both a decapitating strike and a blanketing of China’s ballistic missile fields could be achieved from submarines silently moved forward into the western Pacific, firing Trident missiles on depressed-trajectory shots. The leadership in Beijing would have only a few minutes past detection in which to respond— very probably not enough before the weapons impacted. Moreover, eight Ohios are at sea at any time. The fleet thus generally comprises ten aim points, but only their bases at Bangor, Washington and King’s Bay, Georgia are known for sure. The American submarines are very hard to find, and no enemy has the submarine fleet to find them all at once.

But full stop—what are we talking about? Signaling with nuclear-armed bombers may be an occasional course of action, but it’s a bit buccaneering. Nuclear first strikes are far crazier. And all of this assumes that China will not eventually deploy large submarines with trans-Pacific missiles in the bastion that it is trying to make of the South China Sea, and that there aren’t hundreds more intercontinental missiles hiding in caves. Perhaps building a potential first-strike bomber force may, as Eli Jacobs of the CSIS suggested, encourage the Chinese to spend lots more money digging this “Underground Great Wall.” But frankly, as Benjamin Friedman, Christopher Preble, and Matt Fay of the Cato Institute argued in The End of Overkill: Reassessing US Nuclear Weapons Policy (2013), “cases where the success of deterrence hinges on the US capability to destroy enemy nuclear forces are far-fetched.” Their report recommended basing the entire nuclear force on submarines, as the United Kingdom does today, or perhaps retaining just the land-based missiles, as they’re not that expensive.

Back in 2009, Dana Johnson, Christopher Bowie, and Robert Haffa of the Mitchell Institute had a similar set of arguments and policy prescriptions in their monograph Triad, Dyad, or Monad? Shaping the US Nuclear Force for the Future. As Rebecca Grant wrote in the forward, they suggested “nixing any research and development money for a new, nuclear-capable [air-launched cruise missile] and redirecting it toward a conventional-only bomber” [our emphasis]. If there is to be a big bomber, then perhaps nuclear capability is not a useful justification. More so, nuclear capability may actually be something one doesn’t want in that bomber.

But then what kind of bomber does the U.S. need? An early opponent of this whole plan was “bomber-hating” General James Cartwright USMC. As Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and previously as Commander of Strategic Command, Hoss influenced Defense Secretary Robert Gates to terminate the preceding Next Generation Bomber project in 2011. Back then, he told Time magazine that “nobody has showed many anything that’s required a person in that airplane—nobody.” Cartwright has even remarked that ballistic missiles are not manned either, and yet are trusted to deliver nuclear weapons. This begs the question of whether an air-breathing bomber—nuclear or not—could instead be a drone. We’ll tackle that question later.

James Hasík is a senior fellow and Rachel Rizzo is a researcher at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security where this piece first appeared


Russia's Syria Operation Reveals Significant Improvement in Military Capability

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Although relatively small in scale, Russia's military operation in Syria has highlighted some major improvements in Russian military capabilities.

Compared to the 2008 Georgia War, which was the last time the Russian Air Force operated in a combat environment, the Russian military appears to have made great strides in increasing operational tempo and improving inter-service integration. It has also made significant advances in its ability to carry out expeditionary operations and showcased its recently developed stand-off strike capability.

The initial air strike campaign successfully targeted weapons and equipment depots that opposition forces had captured from government forces earlier in the conflict. Once these targets were eliminated, Russian air forces then coordinated with Syrian and Iranian forces conducting ground operations against opposition forces in the northwestern part of the country.

The operation has highlighted advances in Russian weaponry, but also the limitations of these new capabilities. During this operation, Russian aircraft have used precision-guided munitions (PGMs) in combat for the first time. But only about 20% of strikes have used such modern weaponry, while the rest have been carried out with older unguided bombs. The operation has allowed the Russian air force to test its new capabilities, including both PGMs and the ability to carry out nighttime sorties, and to highlight their existence to potential opponents.

At the same time, the Russian military has sought to limit the amount of new weapons expended because these munitions are expensive when compared to unguided bombs and because the air force has limited quantities of PGMs in its arsenal and does not want to expend them on targets where the use of such weapons is not necessary.

A similar calculus was evident in the land-attack cruise missile strikes against Syrian targets launched from relatively small missile ships in the Caspian Sea, which were primarily intended as a demonstration of this capability to potential opponents. They were not necessary for the success of the operation, which could have been carried out perfectly well by Russian aircraft already present in Syria. The real goal was to show military planners in NATO member states and Russia's other neighbors that Russia could threaten targets in their countries from ships that could not easily be destroyed by enemy forces.

The operational tempo of Russian air operations in Syria has been quite high, with an average of 45 sorties per day in October carried out by a total of 34 fixed-wing aircraft and 16 helicopters. Furthermore, the pace of the operations increased over time, rising from approximately 20 sorties per day at the start of the operation to around 60 per day at its peak later in October. It has since declined, most likely because the easiest and most obvious targets have all been hit already while opposition forces have adapted to Russian air attacks and are not operating out in the open as much as they were in September and October. The high operational tempo was especially surprising considering the rash of crashes Russian military aircraft suffered earlier in 2015, which had been blamed by many experts on the strain put by an increase in operations on an aging fleet of aircraft.

The operation in Syria has highlighted advances in integration among Russia's military services. This was one of the goals of the military reform undertaken after notable failures in this area revealed during the war in Georgia. While the air force is carrying out the active combat operations in this effort, it has shown an ability to work with both other services and with foreign forces.

The Russian Navy, for example, has not only provided sealift for the operation, but is also responsible for providing long-range air defense with the S-300 system based on the Black Sea Fleet's flagship Slava-class cruiser Moskva. Having a ship-based long-range air defense system allows Russia to provide defence against potential attacks by Western strike aviation operating in the area while avoiding tensions with Israel, which would be unhappy if Russia provided such systems to Syrian forces.

Although Russian ground forces have played a relatively limited role in the conflict so far, they have been important for defending the air base. More significantly, the Russian air force has shown an ability to coordinate its operations with Syrian and Iranian ground forces units, which have begun an offensive against opposition positions with the Russian air force providing air support.

Until September, most analysts (including myself) argued that Russia was not capable of conducting a military operation away from its immediate neighborhood because its military lacked the ability to transport significant numbers of personnel or equipment to remote theatres of operations. The Russian military was able to transport the necessary equipment and personnel by pressing into service the vast majority of its large transport aircraft and almost all of the naval transport ships located in the European theatre. Furthermore, it reflagged several Turkish commercial cargo vessels as Russian navy ships and pressed them into service to transport equipment. While it remains the case that Russia remains almost completely dependent on its rail network for military transport, the operation in Syria has shown that it has sufficient sealift and airlift capability to carry out a small operation away from its borders and that it can increase that capacity in innovative ways when pressed to do so.

Beyond its purely geopolitical goals, Russia's operation in Syria has been designed to test improvements in Russian military capabilities that have resulted from the military reform carried out over the last seven years and to highlight these improvements to potential adversaries. While the jury is still out on how successful the operation will be in helping the Syrian government turn the tide against its various opponents, it has already shown that the military reform has resulted in a significant increase in Russia's warfighting capability.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

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