The Pentagon's politics of war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
21 May 2009

The United States political and military establishment is preparing for a new round of expenditure to meet the extensive commitments of a superpower engaged in two wars as well as involved in a host of lesser situations around the world. How is the debate in Washington shaping up, and are the plans being made appropriate to the challenges of the coming period?

The Barack Obama administration has now been in power for four months: time enough for a preliminary assessment of its likely impact on the US's defence posture. The ground for making a full judgment, however, will come from the next Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) due in 2010.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001In the shorter term, the evidence of the fiscal-year 2010 budget - which runs from autumn 2009 - is available. This is less than helpful, in part because much of it was decided by the George W Bush administration but even more for "internal" budgetary reasons: many of the large supplemental "war-fighting" funding requests related to Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to include money for substantial items of equipment as well as the actual costs of the wars week-by-week. The budget does specify some cuts (or at least delays) in big projects. But it is harder to read the larger strategic picture from the figures (see "The costs of America's long war", 8 March 2007).

There is in addition a greater "political" element in the fiscal-year budget. US politicians (especially Democrats) are cautious about cutting defence budgets because of accusations of lack of patriotism. Moreover, many of the Democrats in the House of Representatives have constituencies where there is a large dependence on Pentagon contracts; the prospect of a re-election campaign in November 2010 concentrates minds.

This makes the next Quadrennial Defence Review all the more relevant. The fact that QDRs are independent of the presidential-election cycle mean that they offer a clearer indication of any real changes in thinking (see "The world as a battlefield", 9 February 2006).

The new challenge

The QDR to be published in 2010 will have to take account of the progress of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan. What gives it an extra flavour is the unusual circumstance that the one senior cabinet member that Obama retained from the previous administration is the defence secretary, Robert M Gates (see Fred Halliday, "Robert M Gates: from cold war to long war", 17 November 2006).

Gates's influence can be measured in three ways: he has a bipartisan status that to a degree puts him beyond criticism (he was appointed midway through George W Bush's second term, and expected to stay on only if John McCain won the election); he is an effective, even ruthless, manager; and - most important - he is sceptical about grand military projects and much more focused on the wars that US soldiers and marines are actually fighting (see Greg Jaffe, "A Single-Minded Focus on Dual Wars", Washington Post, 15 May 2009).

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's books include Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcomingThis matters, because it looks very likely that Gates will have a strong influence on the 2010 QDR, even to the extent of making its central theme the response to what is variously termed terrorism, insurgency and irregular warfare.

The context of the US's challenge here is described in the leading journal, Defense News, as "the rise of a technology-enabled 21st century asymmetric warfare threat, an ‘improvised everything' environment that is forcing the DoD to rethink modern warfare and take the first steps to acquisition reform."

The reasoning is straightforward:

"Today's procurement system, a legacy of the Cold War, lacks the flexibility and responsiveness to optimally meet the challenges of this new environment, directly impacting troops on the ground. Our adversaries' ability to quickly innovate and rapidly leverage disruptive technologies, including commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, has challenged our military forces throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. Whereas our weapon programs can take years or decades before the first roll-out, the enemy's arsenal, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), can be rapidly modified" (see "Improved Environment Challenges Acquisition", Defense News, 18 May 2009).

This is the challenge that Robert M Gates and some of his senior staff see as being at the core of the emerging United States defence posture. They are determined to focus on it as the QDR takes shape. It will not be easy, for there is a major institutional obstacle to overcome: the nature of the US military and its current war-fighting capacities (see Winslow T Wheeler & Lawrence J Korb, Military Reform: An Uneven History and an Uncertain Future [Stanford University Press, 2009]).

The major argument

The wars the US is currently involved in are essentially fought by the army and marine corps. The navy and the air force are not heavily involved - yet they each have very big equipment items in the pipeline. The air force has already seen orders cut for the F-22 fighter, a sophisticated stealth-plane but one little involved in Iraq or Afghanistan. Now the force is fighting to preserve the even newer F-35, as well as arguing for a new fleet of tanker-aircraft.

The navy is worried that it will see a slow but progressive decline in the number of aircraft-carriers that it can deploy. These are at the centre of the navy's hugely powerful carrier battle-groups which are, in turn, what makes the US navy - still, despite the growing ambitions of China - the world's only global fleet. Indeed, in making their case for more firepower and resources both the navy and air force are assiduous in pointing to the rise of China as a military power, and even in highlighting a potential renewed threat from Russia.

These branches of the United States military also emphasise the claim that the country's guarantee of secure energy supplies is becoming increasingly vulnerable. A mere five countries around the Persian Gulf hold around 62% of the world's oil; while Russia, Kazakhstan and Venezuela possess another 20%. The concentration of ownership of natural gas is even greater: Russia has 27%, Iran and Qatar share another 31%.

The US isn't yet heavily dependent on Persian Gulf oil, but current trends indicate that its needs from the region will rise. Both the navy and the air force see the Persian Gulf as crucial to US security interests in a timeframe that stretches to 2030-40. From their point of view - to put it bluntly - the Iraq war in particular shows that "boots on the ground" get in the way. The country's security is much better gained through air power and control of the seas (see "America in the Persian Gulf: a choice of futures", 5 March 2009).

These arguments are being put with great force in Washington, supported by copiously funded defence lobbies. But it is not enough that such shopping-items as advanced strike-aircraft, tanker-fleets and aircraft-carriers are highly profitable: they need decent threats to justify purchase, hence the emphasis on China and Gulf energy resources.

A fair number of influential analysts, however, see things very differently. The Washington-based research organisatin CNA - linked to the Center for Naval Analysis - has, for example, published a report on US energy insecurity that draws on the expertise of twelve retired senior military officers. Instead of calling for domination of the Gulf, the report - entitled Powering America's Defense: Energy and Risks to National Security - argues that the US should move away from energy import-dependency, not least by making renewable resources and much greater energy efficiency a priority (see John Lorinc, "Addressing the Military's Energy Inefficiency" [AFP, 19 May 2009]).

How will these competing arguments unfold in the months ahead? There will be many compromises, and it is certain that some "big-ticket" programmes will survive; but the combination of the continuing wars and the financial squeeze means that many will not. The result may well be that Robert M Gates will get his way, and that the Quadrennial Defence Review published in 2010 will concentrate less on preparing for major inter-state wars and far more on QDR on counterinsurgency operations.

The big question

These administration and intra-service arguments, however, leave open the major question of whether and in what sense the counterinsurgency wars, as being fought by US forces, are winnable. The Iraq war may be easing, although the evidence of continued disturbance - including the series of huge bombs in Baghdad on 2021 May 2009 - is a sharp reminder that peace is still a long way off. Moreover, even to get to the point where withdrawal of US troops has become conceivable has been at the cost of around 100,000 lives and 4 million people dispossessed. A war waged by as many as 200,000 coalition troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi troops and police against an insurgent enemy never more than a few thousand strong has lasted since March 2003 and is still unfinished.

The story in "AfPak" is similar. In Afghanistan, 80,000 foreign forces and nearly as many Afghan army forces cannot subdue a few thousand Taliban in a struggle that has lasted since October 2001. In Pakistan, the army is bombing and shelling towns and villages in the Swat region, killing hundreds and displacing hundreds of thousands in what is fast becoming a civil war.

The failure of existing models of warfare, and the urgency of change, are evident. The very fact that the United States defence secretary and his associates seem to realise that the military is not designed or configured to fight the kinds of wars it has been engaged in during the 2000s represents a fresh influence in a musty system. But they have yet to ask: are these conflicts amenable to military "solutions" at all, or is a military approach more likely to make things worse? The real test for the Barack Obama administration will be its ability to look this question in the face.

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