WASHINGTON: Where’s the strategic beef? That’s what Andrew Krepinevich wants to know.
“When the administration came out with its strategic guidance [in] January, I thought the guidance made a lot of sense in terms of setting priorities,” the head of the influential Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said this morning at the headquarters of the Air Force Association. “Western Pacific No. 1, Persian Gulf region No. 2, that certainly made a lot of sense. But what I haven’t seen since then is the strategy. If these are the objectives, how do we go about meeting those objectives?”
When we talk about a possible conflict with the Chinese, for example, “what do we want [Pacific Command chief] Adm. Locklear to do?” Krepinevich asked. “Do we want him to defend the first island chain [running from Japan through Taiwan and the Philippines to northern Indonesia], think about blockading any adversary, [or] do we want to practice nuclear brinksmanship, appeasement, accommodation?”
Krepinevich has been the leading non-government advocate of the Air Force-Navy “AirSea Battle” concept, seen largely as a war plan against Iran and China. But even that idea, he said, is still vague and underdeveloped compared to its inspiration, the Cold War “AirLand Battle” doctrine for defending Western Europe from the Soviets and South Korea from the North during the Cold War. It’s so inchoate, in fact, that officials from America’s Pacific allies have been showing up at CSBA, wanting more detail that the Pentagon apparently isn’t giving them.
Figuring out what we want to do is particularly important when we can no longer afford to everything. “We may not get sequestration,” Krepinevich said, “but the fact of the matter is we’re either going to get sequestration dumb” — i.e. automatic cuts across the board beginning Jan. 2nd — “or we’re going to get it on the installment plan.” It’s widely agreed that any grand bargain to avert the fiscal cliff is going to trim the defense budget further. “I don’t think the cuts will be as front-loaded,” said Krepinevich, but I think in the long term they’ll be as great or greater as we see in sequestration.”
“We’re in an odd situation,” he went on. “You have to go back to the 1930s to find a time when the challenges to our national security were increasing and our resources were decreasing.” Yes, Osama bin Laden is dead, more American civilians have been killed in the last decade by mentally ill kids with guns than by al-Qaeda, and the US is out of Iraq and coming out of Afghanistan (eventually), but Krepinevich sees more fundamental problems arising in the near future.
“The American military is losing some critical sources of advantage that it’s enjoyed over the last twenty years. One is the near monopoly we’ve had in precision guided weaponry,” he said. Not only are China and Iran investing in precision, he said, but even the terrorists who struck the US consulate in Benghazi may have used precision-guided mortar rounds, a low-cost but highly effective application of smart weapons technology that guerrillas and terrorists could use, a threat described by many analysts as “hybrid war.” As capacities once unique to the US proliferate — smart weapons, unmanned air vehicles, computer networks for military command-and-control — US intervention anywhere will be increasingly bloody.
Already, in the past decade, “we’ve found out how costly protracted conflicts and regime change can be,” Krepinevich said. “This isn’t an area we can afford to be in.” Occupying Iran — which has 80 million people, almost three times the population of Iraq — would be strategic folly. Invading China would be just plain silly: The paramilitary People’s Armed Police alone have more men under arms than the entire US Army.
But you don’t need to send in ground troops to defeat an enemy, Krepinevich argued. “It’s not like we can’t hold other countries’ assets at risk,” he said, with long-range airpower, missiles launched from well-hidden submarines, and cyber-attacks. (This is a bit odd coming from a man who wrote a widely hailed book about the Vietnam War, where years of staging blockades and air raids against the North, while keeping all our ground forces in the South, never got Hanoi to back down).
So America’s technical advantages in “long-range precision strike” — i.e. bombers or a prospective and highly controversial non-nuclear ballistic missile — and undersea warfare — i.e. submarines and underwater drones — are particularly critical to invest in, he said, both to strengthen the current force and to keep the industrial base alive for future build-ups if global tensions rise. “Once you let that [industrial base] go,” he said, “that’s not something you can resurrect quickly.”
But stealth aircraft and submarines, manned or unmanned, are some of the most expensive systems the Pentagon can buy. “How do you reconcile the ends-means disconnect?” Krepinevich asked. “One is — I know this is going to be very unpopular with this audience — we’re going to have to cut the size of the ground forces.” The audience, largely composed of Air Force officers, laughed. Krepinevich also restated his call to cancel the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle, which is meant to use only proven technologies, in favor of spending more on long-term research that could truly revolutionize ground warfare, eventually.
Krepinevich did, however, steer clear of mentioning CSBA’s long-time skepticism of the Air Force’s and indeed the whole Defense Department’s largest program, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the thinktank has criticized as too short-ranged to penetrate the deep “anti-access/area denial” defenses of a country like China. In a recent “budget wargame” simulation run by CSBA, six out of seven teams decided to cut the F-35 over the next 10 years — and the seventh cancelled it outright.
That’s not advice anyone at the Air Force Association wanted to hear. But if you read Krepinevich and company closely, they’ve got plenty of bad news for everyone.