“MORE BANG FOR THE BUCK?”: Report on the U.S. Army War College Annual Strategy Conference
By Dan Bisbee
Report on the U.S. Army War College Annual Strategy Conference, April 10-12, 2012
After a long decade at the center of the U.S. military missions, with ground forces engaged in major operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army is uncertain about its place in the nation’s grand strategy. Fortunately for the Army, it seems as though as the specifics of that grand strategy have a certain degree of uncertainty as well. Such was the tenor of the Annual Strategy Conference, held at Carlisle Barracks April 10-12, 2012. The major theme of the conference was “The Future of U.S. Grand Strategy in an Age of Austerity: Challenges and Opportunities,” and this formulation offered the variety of speakers and participants an extended range of targets. The silhouette of “China” popped up repeatedly, but few compelling arguments emerged about the appropriate policy towards our Pacific rival-slash-partner. An acknowledgement of a significant U.S. “pivot” towards the Pacific rim, along with an attendant rebalance towards the naval and air force components of our arsenal (referred to as the Air/Sea concept), was clear and widely anticipated; yet the role of the Army’s ground capability in such a strategic context remained vague and uncertain. The conference served as an excellent venue to voice a variety of concerns about ground combat in U.S. grand strategy in the near future and to consider whether or not the ongoing financial crisis and budget debates will dramatically change U.S. Army posture in the near term.
The day began with a keynote address by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who in tour-de-force style provided a country by country appraisal of the state of the world and how U.S. interests should be pursued with our partners abroad. He reiterated the major theme of the day: that China was of significant strategic interest to the U.S.; but he indicated that the internal issues the Communist Party faces should be considered by U.S. strategists before the label of ‘threat’ was applied. China must deal with the pressures of shifting from an export economy to that of internal consumption; significant urbanization and regional ethnic conflict are also important factors in China’s development. One theme that Armitage hammered home (as is his style) consistently was the influence of corruption as a driver of change in many of the countries the U.S. might consider strategically important. Citizens, in China, in the Arab Spring countries, and elsewhere are speaking out against official corruption. While the U.S. has previously (notably under the Bush Administration under which Armitage served) framed its engagement with many nations according to a ‘freedom agenda’ and an eye towards future democratic development, Armitage suggests that in many cases, the upheaval of ‘people power’ we have seen is not necessarily nascent democracy, but a movement against official corruption sponsored by, or accepted by political parties in power in these states. The U.S. should rethink its strategy of engaging political movements in the developing world accordingly; we may be better served by an approach to these societies reflecting their concerns about ways to address official corruption, as opposed to framing our interests as tied to democratic practices, like elections.
The conference fostered debates over whether the current climate of ‘austerity’ was truly of historical significance or merely represents the cyclical nature of U.S. defense spending. The case was made that, for the first time in U.S. history, we are shifting out of a period of major war but without a concurrent major reduction in the threat environment (e.g. end of the Cold War). Unsurprisingly, many discussants suggested that the U.S. could be spending even more on defense (relative to other items in our budget, and absolutely); however a few dissenters reiterated the need for a closer review of our strategic interests prior to making the case for budgetary expansion. Unfortunately, no clear consensus emerged on what U.S. strategic interests should be preserved by the application of armed force.
Major points from discussion sessions:
The near-term future of the Army (and Navy)
• The Army is focused on reshaping itself by 2020, acknowledging a complex threat environment and a strategic ‘pivot’ towards the Pacific that raises significant questions about the role of ground forces in a theatre commonly viewed as a naval arena, said LTG Walker (TRADOC). Ground forces will remain important in missions supporting the proposed Air/Sea Concept and operations preventing enemy “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) attacks against U.S. interests.
• The central idea shaping the development of the Army for an environment with a complex array of threats is operational adaptability, said LTG Walker (TRADOC). This shapes training and doctrine in a way that promotes officer and soldier development, and flexible organizations. For example, the Army used to have 18 different kinds of brigades specialized for a variety of contingencies. There are now 3 major types, each prepared for multiple scenarios. The Army is now entering a phase where it needs to rebalance its tripod, with training, education, and experience making up the three legs of officer and soldier capability. (The current Army is over-weighted in experience in the field.)
• The Army faces a significant intellectual challenge in the near term, with a new generation of leaders shaped by the Iraq and Afghanistan experience. Is the Army now conditioned to emphasize COIN, or will it reject recent lessons in favor of the conventional combined arms fight of the late Cold War era—something it does superbly? (the ‘feel-good’ era of Desert Storm) (Dr. Mahnken, Naval War College).
• Counting up months ‘at war’, the post-Cold War era has seen more conflict than the Cold War era that preceded it. Where was the peace dividend? U.S. power in the globe has been too closely identified with military power, said Navy Undersecretary Robert Work, and this needs to be rebalanced. Work reviewed the Obama Administration’s national security strategy document and highlighted the major points that have led to policy developments:
o a refocused interest in articulating a nuclear deterrent posture
o promoting ‘access to the global commons’
o a rejection of ‘nation-building’ as a means of terrorist-haven denial
o a view of the Middle East as a maritime theatre, not as a ground theatre
• Special Operations Forces have been used primarily as a counterterrorism force in recent years; they will likely shift back to focus on core missions involving training foreign forces in the near term. However, the expansion of these forces, in number and capability, under Obama will likely continue.
Austerity and U.S. strategy
• Proponents of the “Offshore Balancing” strategy (Mearsheimer, et al), that suggests a reduction of foreign bases housing U.S. ground troops in favor of greater sea and air capability, are misguided, accorded to Dr. Thomas McNaugher (Georgetown). A review of the 20th century suggests that when U.S. forces are positioned abroad, peace prevails – and when they are not- major worldwide conflict has been the result.
• Our ‘military industrial complex’ is actually a ‘military industrial midget’ according to General Dynamics VP Tom Davis. The 5 biggest military suppliers, together, amount to about half of Wal-Mart’s value. Fuel supply and health care provision are among the DoD’s biggest supply needs these days.
• Just as the nation faces serious debates about its entitlement commitments, so does the DoD, said Dr. Korb (Center for American Progress). Military retirements are becoming too generous, and need-based assessments should be shaping entitlement policy, both inside and outside the military, if we are going to address our budget problems in a meaningful way.
• Spending on defense can be reduced in meaningful ways through internal reform, and a strong person in the position of Deputy Secretary of Defense who understands how to manage Congress, the industry, and the Joint Chiefs. (Korb)
• The defense budget might not need sequestration (the proposed forced cuts if no budget agreement is reached) if the Bush tax cuts were allowed to expire, several discussants suggested. Sequestration would be a disaster for US national security posture—there is no way to manage such large cuts in such a short time and do it responsibly.
• The U.S. should not pursue alliances in S.E. Asia – and not put any government in a situation where it needs to choose the U.S. or China. (McNaugher)
• China, while mainly pursuing its foreign policy according to strict realpolitik, is beginning to learn the value of cooperative engagement (e.g. recent South China Sea issues with neighbors). This might be the beginning of a new era of Chinese foreign policy that involves values-based policy (or not).
• Offering a Chinese perspective on the U.S. strategic conundrum, Dr. David Lai (USAWC) proposed that China might in fact relish the U.S. scramble to ‘pivot’ towards Asia. The U.S. will spend huge amounts to build and maintain presence in the Pacific, which the Chinese will by and large benefit from, while spending very little on their own.
• Notably, in his remarks about U.S. foreign policy, Armitage made no mention of NATO, alliances, or international bodies as a means to achieve U.S. strategic interests. Referring to the EU’s ongoing crisis, he pessimistically noted that the entire project was based upon the ‘lie’ of fiscal independence with monetary union.
• Lt Gen Newton (UK) suggested that the U.S. needs to better articulate what it means by ‘partner’: are we looking for shared commitments, or merely proxies for engaging in situations the U.S. doesn’t want to dirty itself in? Newton acknowledged the ‘free rider’ problem among European allies, but hoped that the U.S. was not turning away from NATO and other institutions.
• The new arrival of Marines posted in Darwin, Australia was discussed. Australia has maintained its commitment to a strategic partnership with the U.S., even as China has now become its number one trading partner. Australia’s position is based on ensuring global free trade with the U.S., according to Dr. Palazzo (AUS Directorate of Army Research).
Further information about the conference, including presentation materials and speaker bios, is located at the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute’s website, click here.