Where America Fights Next Is VERY Predictable

December 23, 2015 Topic: Security Region: World Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: U.S. MilitaryHistoryInterventionWarForeign Affairs

Where America Fights Next Is VERY Predictable

 "We can perhaps learn something by treating the past as prologue."

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.

The absence of major combat for the past thirty years, however, does not negate the conventional threats presented by North Korea and China, for example, and the potential for major combat operations in this AOR. The Asia Pacific region will likely require a continued commitment of U.S. forces. This commitment is evident in the stationing of forces on the Korean Peninsula and in Japan. Further, to ensure global reach, the U.S. military positions forces on its island territory of Guam. Finally, to support the pivot to the Pacific policy, increased levels of partnership and forward forces in Australia and the Philippines will likely increase.

NORTHCOM: The most likely missions in the NORTHCOM AOR include defense support to civil authorities (DSCA) and humanitarian assistance operations. Often, the National Guard retains the responsibility for actions in the homeland, including wildfire response and disaster relief following events like Hurricanes Andrew, Sandy and Katrina. In addition to DSCA, homeland defense is central to NORTHCOM’s purpose.

Missile defense is also paramount to homeland defense. Indeed, when considering the employment of missile defense systems such as the Patriot, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and their respective ISR and communications enablers, NORTHCOM competes for the same assets as PACOM, EUCOM and CENTCOM but with an imperative to protect the homeland. Based on the high demand for missile defense, the U.S. military should consider increased investment in missile defense, perhaps even at the expense of the conventional force.

EUCOM: The European theater of operations is an unusual case study. Throughout the Cold War, forces in Europe served as a conventional deterrent to the Soviet Union. Since 1989, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the number of missions has expanded, albeit without the necessity of multiple tank divisions. Indeed, over the past thirty-five years, major combat operations and peacekeeping operations took place in the Balkans with a heavy emphasis on both air power and ground forces. The U.S. military also continues to provide both the backbone and muscle of NATO, having contributed air power over Kosovo and major logistical support to NATO allies. This includes air-to-air refueling and strategic lift to the French to support their operations in Mali. Other operations in Europe included multiple humanitarian assistance operations to relieve earthquake victims in Turkey in addition to assistance for Russia and Israel in combating wildfires. Moreover, in lieu of confronting Russian forces following the invasion of Georgia in 2008, EUCOM provided humanitarian assistance to rebuild parts of that nation’s infrastructure.

The inter-theater lift aspects of the European theater bring to light the aspect of Europe as a bridge to the Middle East. The United States should continue to invest in en-route infrastructure within Europe to ensure forces destined for major combat operations can make it to the fight. Further, any analysis of forces destined for permanent stationing in Europe should consider how they would contribute to major combat operations in other AORs. This holds true for all elements of the joint force, from Army brigades to Air Force air-to-air refueling aircraft.

SOUTHCOM: Multiple missions continue to occur throughout Latin America. The past 35 years has seen major combat operations occur in Grenada and Panama, counter-drug operations throughout South America, and Humanitarian Assistance Operations in Haiti and elsewhere in South America. Other missions include assistance to Cuban refugees as well as detainee operations at Guantanamo Bay.

So What?

Commanders in the joint force prepare for two scenarios: the most likely and most dangerous. Combatant Commanders in the SOUTHCOM and PACOM areas of responsibility should each count on executing at least one major humanitarian relief mission during their respective tenures. Further, any AFRICOM commander should be ready for a NEO mission in support of the Department of State. And the services should be prepared to provide the capabilities necessary to support these most-likely scenarios to the various combatant commands. This is one lens that allows the services to focus their capabilities in a resource-constrained environment.

Analyzing the composition and location of Army (and other) pre-positioned stocks is a good place to begin. In both the Pacific and Caribbean regions, the past would suggest these should focus on humanitarian assistance capabilities, and these capabilities should tie directly into USAID’s pre-positioned humanitarian stocks. Examples include intra-theater lift capabilities, engineering, medical, and logistical support capabilities. On the other hand, pre-positioned stocks in the Middle East should naturally focus on major combat operations, and in the Pacific and Asian regions, major combat operations continue to be a concern due to the ever-persistent threat of North Korea.

Consistent humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the homeland reiterates the need for greater lift and logistical capacity in the National Guard. The ability for state governors to react to a crisis with adequate means is paramount to the well-being of their citizens. Missions such as firefighting support in the Western forest fires, flood relief along the Mississippi, and hurricane relief along the East and Southeast coasts demand attention from the U.S. military on an annual basis. Although recent attempts to move Apache helicopters from the Guard to the active force have met with resistance, the wisdom behind this proposal is on solid historical ground.

Critical to the capacity of the U.S. military to sustain operations in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two decades are the contributions of the National Guard. Contributions of the Guard and Reserve forces range from sustainment and military police to infantry and special forces. However, throughout the global war on terror, and continuing into 2016, the preponderance of missions for the National Guard occur in the homeland.

As the manning and funding of the force decreases, how the military invests in future capabilities becomes a critical question. The demand history of capabilities shows a trend toward humanitarian assistance and ballistic missile defense. Further, trends in current policy favor air and naval power to deter and contain geopolitical threats. The United States has largely relied on air power to strike enemies such as ISIS, relying on partner nations to provide supporting or supported the ground forces. Recent events in Paris and Lebanon might call into question the effectiveness of this strategy. The use of air power over Syria fails to defeat terrorist cells in European cities. Further, air power alone may not defeat ISIS ground forces in Syria and Iraq. However, an armored invasion in Syria with U.S. ground forces is about as likely (and intelligent) as a ground invasion of Russia.

The risks in focusing investments in HADR and BMD capabilities include the possibility of the need for ground forces for a major combat operation. Had the United States military focused its capacity on counterinsurgency in 2003, or other missions outside of major combat operations, a resulting failure to reach Baghdad, or worse a defeat by an opposing Army would have been catastrophic for the nation.

Interestingly, this review of operations since 1980 confirms the Non-Integrating Gap theory proposed by Thomas Barnett in his seminal book, The Pentagon’s New Map. According to Barnett, areas of lesser development — Latin America, the Middle East and areas of the Pacific — constitute this gap. Moreover, use of the military element of national power tends to occur in these areas. Nations outside of the gap tend to resolve conflict without outside intervention.

To address global requirements, Barnett introduced the concept of the Leviathan and Sysadmin force. In Barnett’s paradigm, the focus of the Leviathan force is major combat operations. The focus of the Sysadmin force is other missions ranging from humanitarian assistance to “Phase 4” nation building activities.

The creation of the Sysadmin and Leviathan force as envisioned by Barnett may not achievable in an era of fiscal constraints. However, the joint force should prioritize the ten missions outlined in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review per geographic area of responsibility. Using the past as a prologue indicates the feasibility of this approach.

Daniel Sukman is a strategist in the U.S. Army and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the DoD or the U.S. Government. This article first appeared at the Bridge.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Krista James.