THE PENTAGON: While multi-billion dollar programs dominate the defense debate, the U.S. Army is quietly placing a big bet on a very small part of the Pentagon budget.

The service’s strategy? Leverage the administration’s interest in rebuilding military-to-military relationships around the world – long overshadowed by the simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – by launching an ambitious but relatively cheap program of international wargames, advisor missions, officer exchanges, and other efforts to “build partnership capacity.” As the Army seeks to redefine itself for the post-war era, the new strategy will mean more investment in Special Forces, which have always emphasized this mission. But the Army plans to go beyond this traditional mission for Special Forces and wants to enhance the ability of regular Army units to work with foreign troops around the globe.

“If we have to fight, we will fight with partners,” said Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale said yesterday during his budget briefing, implicitly emphasizing the Obama Administration’s break with George W. Bush’s willingness to act unilaterally. “So we need strong alliances and are taking a number of steps – not large dollars, but large, I think, in importance.” While Hale spent most of his Monday briefing on the 2013 budget talking about numbers in the billions and tens of billions, he also took time to talk about initiatives that look like rounding errors to most Pentagon programs:

  • NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance, the alliance’s program to buy its own flight of five reconnaissance drones in order to remedy deficiencies encountered during the airstrikes on Libya last summer: $200 million.
  • The National Guard State Partnership Program, through which individual states send their Guard units abroad to train: $100 million.
  • The COCOM Exercise & Engagement Program, through which the regional Combatant Commanders in Europe, the Pacific, and elsewhere fund joint training with allies: $800 billion.
  • The Security Force Assistance Program, which builds up foreign militaries: $400 million.

Added together, those four programs total just over $1.4 billion, big money to most people but less than a quarter of one percent of the Pentagon’s $613.9 billion total request for 2013. Yet Hale’s focus wasn’t a fluke. The administration took care to spotlight these same programs in its new Strategic Guidance on Defense. “Whenever possible,” the guidance declares, “we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities.”

“Low cost” and “small footprint” are the keywords that make this approach the opposite of the past decade. Instead of pouring resources into U.S.-dominated operations in just two countries, the Obama Administration wants to empower allies around the world to take the lead on their local and regional problems – take the lead, that is, with U.S. support and in ways that align with U.S. interests. Last year’s Libya operation test-drove the new approach, when the U.S. “led from behind” by supporting the NATO allies who carried out most of the air strikes, which in turn supported the Libyan rebels who did all the fighting on the ground.

In some ways, this approach is going back to the future: wargaming with NATO allies or the Japanese was a high-profile priority of the pre-9/11 military, and even the initial invasion of Afghanistan relied on providing select infusions of airpower, bribe money, and Special Operations support to a local ally on the ground, the Northern Alliance. Now the Pentagon wants to revive these long-sidelined efforts and infuse them not only with cash but with 10 years of hard-won expertise from building up local forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Because U.S. troops are out of Iraq and coming out of Afghanistan, moreover, even a downsizing military will have more personnel to spare to work with partners elsewhere. In Europe, for example, two of the Army’s eight combat brigades stationed on the continent are being disbanded, unnerving many in NATO. “Nevertheless,” said Hale, “the Europeans will probably see more of us, not less because many of the units now stationed in Europe are deployed to Afghanistan. As we wind down the troops there, there will be more of those units back in Europe.”

It’s the U.S. Army that has embraced the “building partner capacity” mission most enthusiastically. The Army’s Special Forces, the celebrated Green Berets, have always emphasized the advisor mission, but the sheer scale of effort required in Afghanistan and Iraq forced the rest of the Army to get in the act as well. Last fall, the Army announced that some units freed from the treadmill of repeated deployments to the war zone would become “regionally aligned brigades” dedicated to working with foreign forces in specified regions of the world, starting in 2013 with two brigades assigned to Africa Command. [The Marines have been pursuing a similar effort.] Just this month, the service devoted a week-long conference to the Army’s role in building partner capacity.

“Ten years ago, I dare say this probably would not have reached the threshold of having [such an] event,” Training and Doctrine Command chief Gen. Robert Cone said at the conference. “The culture of the Army has in fact changed,” he said. “We cannot leave behind the experience of the last ten years.” And, Cone added, after a decade of doing it the hard way – creating the Afghan and Iraq militaries from nothing in the middle of a raging conflict – Army soldiers can appreciate the new strategy’s emphasis on finding foreign partners and building them up before the shooting starts.

How can the Army do this better? There were a host of hotly debated ideas from a mix of civilian foreign and American experts and military officers. There was wide agreement that the solutions of the last 10 years had been too improvised, inefficient, and ad hoc, but they did not reach consensus on how to institutionalize those lessons learned. Some participants emphasized creating a cadre of foreign-area experts in specialized organizations devoted to particular regions; others preferred spreading a lower level of expertise throughout the Army as a whole. “Do we form separate units to do this or is this a fundamental requirement of a U.S. Army brigade?” Cone asked. “There’s a very rich discussion going on, [and] you have competing models.”

One area of almost universal agreement, however, was the need for the Army as a whole to take on missions once reserved for the Special Forces, and for main-force units at all levels of command to work more closely with the special operators. “[For] soldiers who have done this over the last ten years, they realize that a conventional infantryman is conducting a meeting with a local governor and solving tribal problems. They understand this is part of our identity now, and where I think we’d really have problems is if we tried to walk away from that,” Cone said. Nowadays and for the foreseeable future, he said, “this kind of interaction is a fundamental responsibility of our conventional forces.”

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