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Think Small

Looking for the "vision thing" at the Association of the U.S. Army convention.

9:00 AM, Oct 22, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
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In both cases, this means the services bend over backwards to demonstrate how they--or rather their favorite programs--play a critical role in whatever ongoing mission or operations have the Administration's attention at the moment. Today, that means counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and related low-intensity operations such as stabilization and reconstruction, disaster relief, etc. The real problem is the role of the Air Force and the Navy in low intensity operations is limited to support of the ground forces. For the Army, the main problem is low-intensity conflict really doesn't support acquisition of big ticket items (tanks, artillery, attack helicopters, etc.), nor does it offer the chance for career enhancement in the branches that have, typically, dominated the Army command structure (armor, artillery, mechanized infantry).

Rather than think seriously about how to reshape their forces to meet strategic requirements, the services all go through intellectual contortions and produce truly bizarre analyses to show, e.g., why a supersonic stealth fighter or a new guided missile destroyer, or an advanced armored vehicle capable of killing a main battle tank are keys to beating the Taliban and al Qaeda.

A lot of the blame this time around goes to the Obama Administration (and to some extent, the preceding Bush Administration) for its chronic inability to walk and chew gum at the same time where strategy is concerned. A look at the recent National Defense Strategy issued by Secretary Gates (in advance of the new National Security Strategy, which is putting the cart before the horse) shows an almost myopic focus on our two ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But strategy is supposed to be forward-looking, at the very least, from three to five years into the future (and preferably a good deal more); one way or the other, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will be resolved by the time goals of the National Defense Strategy are implemented. There is very little discussion of the potential for high-intensity regional conflicts, or of the emergence of a peer competitor in the near future.

That emerging peer competitor, the proverbial elephant in the living room, is China. No other country has the combination of wealth, political will and conflicting interests to pose as a major strategic threat to the United States. Russia is a spent force (why does the Obama Administration waste so much time appeasing it?), Brazil and India have no interest in regional hegemony, Europe is too self-absorbed. So, at the very least, the U.S. should be laying the groundwork to deter, and if necessary, defeat regional aggression by China, especially as the global economic center of gravity shifts to the Pacific Rim. A cursory look at the map will immediately reveal one critical fact: China lives in a strategic cul de sac, penned in by the desert and the mountains to the west, by the jungle to the south, by the Siberian tundra to the north. If China is to achieve its strategic objective of extending hegemony over East Asia, of reintegrating Taiwan, of seizing the vital natural resource areas of the South China Sea, then it isn't going to do so by land: China can only become a superpower by developing the ability to project military power by sea and air. Conversely, the United States has no real ability to project land power onto the Chinese mainland. Our limited forces in Korea are sufficient to deter Kim Jong Il, but no matter how much force we put on the Korean Peninsula, we could never seriously threaten China by that route.

So, if we must fight China, we will fight at sea and in the air, not on land. That has profound implications for our military posture and the defense budget. For the Navy and the Air Force, it means maintaining a technological edge by investing in new ships, submarines and aircraft. During the recent budget debates, production FA-22 Raptor was terminated by the Obama Administration after just 183 aircraft, far below what the Air Force required. It was claimed by the Administration that the Raptor was irrelevant for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--as indeed they are; but that was entirely beside the point. The Raptor was meant to counter the threat of the latest Chinese fighters and air defense systems, which are superior to our aging F-15s, F-16s, and FA-18s (all of which were designed in the 1970s). Yet the FA-35 Joint Strike Fighter was retained, even though it is not yet in production, suffers from escalating costs, and will in all respects be inferior to the FA-22. Go figure.

Similarly, the Navy got itself tied in knots by trying to design a Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and a new guided missile destroyer (DDG-1000) that would be "relevant" for low intensity conflicts when it really needed a ship to challenge the emergent Chinese navy.