Lost Wars

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The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 profoundly change America’s national security equation – perhaps forever.

Those attacks spawned the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and these have all-but-consumed the U.S. military for more than a decade-and-a-half.

There have been several books – some good and some less so – that have tried to help us come to grips with not only why we embarked upon these wars, as well as why we can’t “win.”

Andrew Bacevich’s review of Daniel Bolger’s book, “Why We Lost,” offers some key insights. Here is how he begins:

The author of this book has a lot to answer for. “I am a United States Army general,” Daniel Bolger writes, “and I lost the Global War on Terrorism.” The fault is not his alone, of course. Bolger’s peers offered plenty of help. As he sees it, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, abysmal generalship pretty much doomed American efforts.

The judgment that those wars qualify as lost — loss defined as failing to achieve stated objectives — is surely correct. On that score, Bolger’s honesty is refreshing, even if his explanation for that failure falls short. In measured doses, self-flagellation cleanses and clarifies. But heaping all the blame on America’s generals lets too many others off the hook.

Why exactly did American military leaders get so much so wrong? Bolger floats several answers to that question but settles on this one: With American forces designed for short, decisive campaigns, the challenges posed by protracted irregular warfare caught senior officers completely by surprise.

Since there aren’t enough soldiers — having “outsourced defense to the willing,” the American people stay on the sidelines — the generals asked for more time and more money. This meant sending the same troops back again and again, perhaps a bit better equipped than the last time. With stubbornness supplanting purpose, the military persisted, “in the vain hope that something might somehow improve.

Want more? You can read the full article here

The Great War?

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For most Americans today, World War I is something that is consigned to history books. We learned that the United States entered the war reluctantly, but that we fought the good fight. We also get the notion that one of the results of the war was that America became a great power – and became greater during the 20th Century.

That’s why I found Michael Kazin’s New York Times piece, “The Great Mistake in the Great War,” so interesting. Here is how he began:

One hundred years ago, Congress voted to enter what was then the largest and bloodiest war in history. Four days earlier, President Woodrow Wilson had sought to unite a sharply divided populace with a stirring claim that the nation “is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured.” The war lasted only another year and a half, but in that time, an astounding 117,000 American soldiers were killed and 202,000 wounded.

Still, most Americans know little about why the United States fought in World War I, or why it mattered. The “Great War” that tore apart Europe and the Middle East and took the lives of over 17 million people worldwide lacks the high drama and moral gravity of the Civil War and World War II, in which the very survival of the nation seemed at stake.

World War I is less easy to explain. America intervened nearly three years after it began, and the “doughboys,” as our troops were called, engaged in serious combat for only a few months. More Americans in uniform died away from the battlefield — thousands from the Spanish flu — than with weapons in hand. After victory was achieved, Wilson’s audacious hope of making a peace that would advance democracy and national self-determination blew up in his face when the Senate refused to ratify the treaty he had signed at the Palace of Versailles.

But attention should be paid. America’s decision to join the Allies was a turning point in world history. It altered the fortunes of the war and the course of the 20th century — and not necessarily for the better. Its entry most likely foreclosed the possibility of a negotiated peace among belligerent powers that were exhausted from years mired in trench warfare.

Intrigued? You can read the entire article here

Super Soldiers

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America has depended on the men and women of the Special Operations Command to deal with the threats of this century. Army Rangers, Navy SEALS, Air Force and Marine Corps special operators and others have been on the front lines, “on the wall” protecting us from enemies who would do us harm.

But few know the history of special operations, and fewer still know it began beyond our borders. That’s why I found Max Boot’s review of “Rouge Heroes,” Ben McIntyre’s history of Britain’s SAS so fascinating. Here is part of what he said:

Once upon a time, when the president wanted to use military force without becoming embroiled in a major conflict, the cry would go out: “Send in the Marines!” Today the role once played by the Marine Corps — as the troops of choice for low-profile missions without a formal declaration of war — has been largely supplanted by the United States Special Operations Command. With tens of thousands of “operators” and a multibillion-dollar budget, Socom has become virtually an independent military service.

Given the ubiquity and importance of Special Operations today, it is a little startling to realize just how novel they are. While there have long been specialized units, like Rogers’ Rangers of the French and Indian War, professional Special Operations forces date back only to World War II. All of the combatants employed them, but it was the British who were most assiduous in creating small units of swashbucklers.

The regular army establishment, of course, sniffed at the idea of a self-proclaimed military elite, and not without cause. Field Marshal William Slim, the liberator of Burma, wrote, “Armies do not win wars by means of a few bodies of supersoldiers but by the average quality of their standard units.” But Winston Churchill was enchanted by the supersoldiers and countenanced the creation of myriad units like the Commandos, the Long Range Desert Group, Popski’s Private Army, the Special Operations Executive, the Special Boat Service and the Chindits.

None were more storied than the Special Air Service (S.A.S.), which survives to this day and inspired the creation of foreign counterparts like the United States Delta Force and the Israeli Sayeret Matkal. The origins of the S.A.S. are recounted with verve by the veteran British historian and journalist Ben Macintyre, who has made a specialty of writing about clandestine operations in World War II and beyond. (His most recent book was about the British double agent Kim Philby.) This is hardly the first time the S.A.S. story has been told — a number of its veterans wrote entertaining memoirs, among them Fitzroy Maclean’s “Eastern Approaches” — but “Rogue Heroes” is the best and most complete version of the tale, because Macintyre was granted access to a hitherto-secret scrapbook known as the SAS War Diary.

 

Want more? You can read the full article here

The U.S. Navy

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In a recent book review, of a new book from Richard McGregor entitled Asia’s Reckoning, Robert Kaplan, one of the most respected writers on international affairs, commented on the brittle nature of political, economic and military security in Asia.

As part of his review, he noted the following:

“Over the span of the decades since World War II, the United States Navy has made Asia rich but not altogether stable. It was only the security guarantee provided by the U.S. Navy that allowed Asian countries not to fear one another and thus to concentrate on building their economies instead of their militaries…Thus the U.S. military, principally the Navy, remains the most important factor in keeping the peace. And the U.S. Navy, as we know from recent mishaps at sea, is being stretched to the limit.”

After thirty years in a U.S. Navy uniform and another fifteen working as a Navy civilian supporting the Fleet, I see the U.S. Navy’s decline, starkly, every day. The recent groundings and collisions, with their tragic loss of life, are the result of a long decline in the size and readiness of our Navy.

Rather than offering a detailed opinion on the “whys and wherefores” of this decline, I’ll refer you to a group of excellent articles on this subject. Together, they should provide a well-nuanced view of how the U.S. Navy got to where it is today, and what we as a nation can do to restore our Navy to prominence:

August 22, 2017: The Wall Street Journal, Editorial, “The Navy’s McCain Moment”

August 23, 2017: The Wall Street Journal, “Navy to Relieve Admiral of Command After Collision”

August 24, 2017: The Wall Street Journal, Seth Cropsey (Op-ed), “Has the Navy Reached a Breaking Point?”

August 28, 2017, The New York Times, “Strain on Resources Set Stage for Recent Crashes, Sailors Say”

Whither the United States

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A recent op-ed about North Korea, jointly authored by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, put an exclamation point on fact that, for the United States, as well as for most nations, foreign policy success, is to have diplomats and military officers, work hand-in-hand to ensure the security and prosperity of the United States.

That’s why I was intrigued by two recent companion New York Times articles: “The Diplomats Can’t Save Us,” and “The Generals Can’t Either.” Together they paint a challenging picture for the future of United States foreign policy. Both articles deserve a full-read by all of us. A few highlights to whet your appetite:

From “The Diplomats Can’t Save Us:”

The president signaled early on that military might, not diplomatic deftness, was his thing. Soft power was for the birds. This worldview (in essence no more than Trump’s gut) has been expressed in a proposed cut of about 30 percent in the State Department budget as military spending soars; a push to eliminate some 2,300 jobs; the vacancy of many senior posts, including 20 of the 22 assistant secretary positions requiring Senate confirmation; unfilled ambassadorships — roughly 30 percent of the total — from Paris to New Delhi; and the brushoff of the department’s input in interagency debate and in pivotal decisions, like withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Days are now marked by resignations, unanswered messages and idled capacity.

From “The Generals Can’t Either:”

During a recent conference in Singapore, someone asked Secretary of Defense James Mattis whether, given President Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement, we were “present at the destruction” of the America-led postwar order. In a twist on a remark by Abba Eban (often attributed to Churchill), the former general answered: “Bear with us. Once we have exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.”

Read more of these two revealing articles here, and here.

Directed Energy

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I was recently honored by the Surface Navy Association with their Literary Award for my U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article, “A Potent One-Two Punch.” It’s always an honor to receive an award such as this one, but I believe what contributed to the award had less to do with fabulous writing than it did to do with the importance of the issue, that is, what kind of ships should the U.S. Navy build in the future. I argued that we will be most successful against our adversaries if we build more ships like the Zumwalt-class destroyer, that is, electric drive ships with directed-energy weapons. Here is part of what I said:

The promise of directed-energy weapons has captured the imagination for more than a century. By the eve of the last century, the understanding of physics had progressed to a point where directed-energy weapons had become a staple of popular fiction, perhaps most famously captured in the Martian “heat rays” of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in 1898.

For more than 50 years, the Department of Defense has pursued the goal of using directed-energy for military purposes. Today, these weapons represent some of the most innovative technologies under development by the U.S. military. Research and analysis suggest that the services in general, and the Navy in particular, can leverage these weapons to field transformational capabilities in the near-, mid-, and far-terms.

Directed energy–based systems are already contributing to the emerging capabilities that enable a new American way of war. Laser range finders and targeting systems are deployed on tanks, helicopters, and tactical fighters. These laser systems provide both swifter engagements and greatly enhanced precision. The role of directed-energy systems in support of military operations will continue to grow.

Directed-energy weapons are a natural next step in the transformation of the U.S. military. While the past decade was marked by the shortening of the sensor-to-shooter cycle, this decade is likely to demonstrate a marked reduction in the shooter-to-target cycle. Directed-energy weapons provide a means for instantaneous target engagement, with extremely high accuracy and, in many instances, at very long ranges.

Three primary types of devices are currently being weaponized for naval use: high-energy lasers; radio-frequency weapons, commonly referred to as high-power microwaves or ultra-wideband weapons; and electromagnetic railguns. Lasers excite atoms to release photons in powerful bursts of coherent light that can be focused and aimed by mirrors. With sufficient power, lasers can quickly pierce or overheat a wide range of targets, including aircraft and missiles. Radio-frequency weapons operate in the lower-frequency, longer-wavelength portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to generate bursts or beams capable of disabling electronic systems. Electromagnetic railguns––while not a directed-energy weapon per se––represent the third major weapon category.

A recent Congressional Research Service report on directed-energy weapons highlighted the potential of these technologies to revolutionize naval warfare, noting:

The Navy is currently developing three potential new weapons that could improve the ability of its surface ships to defend themselves against enemy missiles—solid state lasers, the electromagnetic railgun, and the hypervelocity projectile. Any one of these new weapon technologies might be regarded as a “game changer” for defending Navy surface ships against enemy missiles. If two or three of them are successfully developed and deployed, the result might be considered not just a game changer, but a revolution.

 

You can read the entire article here.

All Levers of U.S. Power

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Many who watched President Trump’s speech on July 22, as he commissioned the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, took his remarks as a flexing of American military muscle. Speaking of the Gerald R. Ford, President Trump said, “American steel and American hands have constructed a 100,000-ton message to the world: American might is second to none…We will win, win, win. We will never lose.”

A former U.S. Marine, Jake Cusack, had a sobering assessment of this speech. Cusack, who served multiple tours in Iraq as a platoon commander, pointed out the dangers of relying too heavily on military power while ignoring all the other levers of U.S. national power. Here is part of what he said:

Mr. Trump’s speech reflected his administration’s emphasis on the military as the primary instrument of U.S. foreign policy. He has delegated broad powers to his military commanders while sidelining the State Department and proposing deep cuts to foreign aid. As a former Marine, I loved seeing a new aircraft carrier commissioned. But as I listened to Mr. Trump, I recalled a lesson from my service in Iraq a decade ago: Feeling strong and being strong are often two very different things.

I vividly remember one particular mission in which we searched four compounds for “high-value” insurgents. It was the heady stuff of recruiting commercials—heavily armed Marines riding helicopters into lawless terrain in the dead of night. The raid was a success, and when we landed back on base at 5 a.m., we felt great, high on testosterone and adrenaline.

But I soon began to wonder if this was the best we could do with our superior technology and troops. More than 60 Marines, backed by assault helicopters and fighter planes, just to capture a few Iraqi farmers who had taken potshots at other Marines a few weeks earlier?

Later in my deployment, I joined a small group of Marines to talk to some sheikhs who lived along a U.S. resupply route that was riddled with explosive devices. We tried to map the road out in one- or two-kilometer segments, identifying which local leaders held their communities’ respect. With various rewards and punishments as our tools, we worked with them to reduce the number of roadside bombs.

The second mission lacked the action-movie excitement of helicopters whisking away bad guys under cover of darkness. But what feels effective is often different from what is effective. Winning the support of local leaders was a key part of the counterinsurgency strategies forged by such commanders as David Petraeus and H.R. McMaster (now Mr. Trump’s national security adviser). These low-key efforts buttressed the pulse-pounding raids—and made Iraq a safer place for several years before the U.S. troop pullout that ended in 2011.

Want more? You can read the full article here.

America and Asia

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Over five years ago, in his speech delivered to the Australian Parliament on November 17, 2011, then-U.S. President Barack Obama made the first official announcement of a change in U.S. security policy. He said:

Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth–the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation …Here, we see the future. With most of the world’s nuclear power and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress.

Since then, as I’ve reported on this website several times (see, for example)…

…and have written about in various national and international publications (here):

Few would argue that the point President Obama made in his speech, “The United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation,” is true, but it wasn’t until I read a book review by Gordon Chang, “Bibles and Ginseng,” in the New York Times that I understand not just why this is true, but also how it happened.

Read this short – and clarifying – review here.

Existential Threat

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Few national security issues have dominated the news this year than the threat of ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Opposition to missile defense has persisted since the 1980s, but the politics may be changing with technological progress and the rising threat from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons. Congress has an opportunity this summer to notch a rare bipartisan deal that enhances U.S. security.

Kim has already overseen more nuclear and missile tests than his father and grandfather combined, and the Defense Intelligence Agency warns that “if left on its current trajectory” Pyongyang will develop a capacity to hit Japan, Alaska, Hawaii or even the U.S. West Coast. The Trump Administration is pleading with China to stop the North, but Chinese leaders never seem to act and they’re even trying to block regional missile defenses in South Korea.

Opponents say missile defenses are too expensive given that interception might fail, so better to trust arms control and the deterrence of mutual-assured destruction. But arms talks with North Korea have been a fool’s errand since negotiator Robert Gallucci and Bill Clinton bought its promises in 1994.

Even a 50% chance of interception might increase deterrence by making the success of an enemy first strike more doubtful. North Koreans or other rogues also may not be rational actors who fear their own annihilation. U.S. leaders have a moral obligation to do more than let Kim Jong Un hold American cities hostage, and without defenses a pre-emptive military strike might be the only alternative.

To read more on this subject, see this link from the U.S. Naval Institute.

West to East

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Few topics are more timely than the relationship between the United States and China and that relationship is likely to dominate geopolitics throughout the 21st Century.

Perhaps because it is “topical,” a sea of commentators hold forth with theories about this relationship and there is often more heat than light on this subject.

That is why I found Thomas Christensen’s review of “Easterniation” so fascinating: it put the power balance between not just between the United States and China, but west and east into refreshing perspective. Here is part of what he had to say:

“Easternization” navigates the recent migration of economic, military and political power from the Western Hemisphere to the Eastern. Rachman repeatedly returns to that migration’s main engine — the rise of China — but his thesis is broader. He considers the rise of Asia as a whole, including the growing clout of India and the continuing importance of Japan, a nation that is not currently rising but remains wealthy, technologically sophisticated and economically linked to all continents. Rachman also explores the decreasing ability of Americans and Europeans to shape to their liking outcomes around the world. Relentlessly fair, he resists blaming Asia’s successes for Western problems and recognizes the West’s self-inflicted wounds.

Rachman’s wisdom about global history precludes cartoonish characterizations of “East” versus “West.” Western nations spent more blood and treasure fighting one another, especially in two massive world wars, than they did colluding to dominate others. Similarly, mistrust among Asian states today outstrips mistrust among them and the United States or Europe. Nor do political ideas provide a clear border between East and West. Europe has had more than its share of authoritarian regimes, so it is a stretch to consider the recent rise of illiberal nationalism in Europe as somehow a move “eastward.” Mainland Chinese propagandists rail against the “Western values” of multiparty democracy, a free press and independent courts, but some of the nation’s largest and most successful Asian neighbors — South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia and India — are no less Eastern for enjoying all of those institutions. No one, including Rachman, really knows how to categorize Russia. Moscow has tried with limited success to cobble together a Eurasian union with former Soviet republics in Central Asia, but it sees itself as the European part of such a union. Russia’s recent diplomatic lean toward China has more to do with energy markets and the two authoritarian regimes’ shared aversion to American support for color revolutions and regime change than it does with either realpolitik alliance formation or Sino-Russian cultural affinity.

You can read the entire article here