Belmont Club

Pro and contra

Greg Jaffe at The Washington Post summarizes both sides of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ efforts to reshape US military strategy. It describes his efforts to bring costs under control, increase the speed of acquisition and cut out what he considers to be unnecessary weapons systems.

“Listening to our troops and commanders, unvarnished and unscripted, has from the moment I took this job been the greatest single source of ideas on what the department needs to do,” he told lawmakers Wednesday. When some lawmakers questioned whether he had done the rigorous analysis to justify his budget cuts, Gates responded in his flat Kansas twang that the Pentagon is “drowning in analysis.” Most of the changes he’d made were “kind of no-brainers,” he said. Gates declined to be interviewed for this article.

Others are not so sure.

Gates’s critics, including some active-duty generals and many of the senior officials he has fired, say his intense focus on Afghanistan and Iraq threatens to turn the vaunted U.S. military into an army of occupiers and nation-builders. “I am sure the North Koreans fear the MRAP and the Iranians are cringing in their boots about the threat from our stability forces,” former Air Force secretary Michael W. Wynne, who was dismissed last year, wrote in an online column. “Our national interests are being reduced to becoming the armed custodians in two nations, Afghanistan and Iraq.”

One constant in the history of warfare has been the need to leave someplace exposed in order to concentrate forces in another. Since it is impossible to be strong everywhere, it is necessary to deploy the available resources where they will be decisive. The quality of a strategy is measured by how correctly the general chooses which risks to run under uncertainty. An enemy often to tries induce his foe to run the wrong risks. Since it is often easier to avoid battle rather than to accept it, the weaker foe will often attempt to “head fake” a stronger foe into concentrating in an irrelevant place. From an intellectual point of view, that is what the controversy over Robert Gates’ decisions amount to. Is he running the right risks?

From a political point of view things get more complicated. Defense strategy is also about sacred cows. Bureaucracies — and the military is apparently no exception — tend to become divided around cliques, each with their own interests. The survival of a mission and its associated weapons systems determines the survival of the clique. Thus, the debate surrounding Gates will reflect an element of strategic irrationality corresponding to how loudly the sacred cows can moo.

The great thing about Afghanistan and Iraq is that they have brought forces which would have otherwise have avoided battle into contact. Those who’ve observed that Iraq and now Afghanistan serve as magnets to Jihadis around the world are partly missing the point when they call it a bad thing. During World War 2 it was discovered that convoys attracted Wolfpacks, which had the counterintuitive effect of concentrating the U-boats where the escorts could destroy them. Of course, the U-boats had a greater chance of sinking merchantmen, too. That was where the hard arithmetic of exchange ratios became decisive. As Wikipedia observes, “the destruction of submarines required their discovery, an improbable occurrence on aggressive patrols, by chance alone. Convoys, however, presented irresistible targets and could not be ignored. For this reason, the U-boats presented themselves as targets to the escorts with increasing possibility of destruction. In this way, the Ubootwaffe suffered severe losses, for little gain, when pressing pack attacks on well-defended convoys.” Afghanistan and Iraq have to some extent solved the concentration problem for the US and defeated the avoidance advantage of the Jihad.

But it would be a mistake to focus too narrowly. The Battle of the Atlantic, to extend the analogy, depended on the wider context of Allied investment in shipbuilding, electronic warfare, long range aircraft, sensors and weapons systems. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will to some extent, not be won on the ground any more than the Battle of the Atlantic was won around nameless patches of ocean. A large part of the victory will be due to developments in other areas.

Thus, both Gates and his detractors will have valid points to advance. Gates will naturally focus on the problem at hand, while some elements of the professional military may for reasons of strategy (or possibly bureaucratic survival) take a more general-purpose view. We can only hope the debate will be settled rationally. But spin! Ah, that’s warfare of another sort.


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