Editor's Note: This is a thought-provoking offering from Dr. Robert Tomes. In particular, his generational interpretation of attitudes towards strategy and military options will generate some spirited discussion. While he draws distinctions between the Generation X-ers and the Millenials, I think that many readers will see yawning intergenerational gaps between those X-ers who have been in senior leadership positions in the past decade and the "middle management" of officers who cut their teeth as lieutenants and captains in these small wars. Part of this yawning gap is a cleavage over the propriety and utility of the use of force to reshape societies. I think that we will see a return of something like the "Vietnam syndrome," especially on the part of younger veterans left scratching their heads over the conduct of operations over the past years. Second, while Dr. Tomes discusses a choice between a "rapid dominance" force restrained by Powell Doctrine-like tenets on one hand and a force that is ready to conduct stability operations in the name of human security (perhaps under the tenets of the "responsibility to protect"), this article does not delve into the grand strategic imperatives that would necessitate such involvement, nor does it explore how a more multilateral use of force would emerge to defend such apparently universal principles. These are issues I hope come up in the comments section.
When Alice asked, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” the Cheshire cat responded, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Similarly, the path taken by national security strategists and military planners depends a great deal on the direction the nation wants to go in terms of investments in force structure and future capabilities to accomplish an increasingly diverse set of missions.
This article explores the national security environment to inform debates about the future of U.S. defense strategy, the changing nature of warfare, and the evolution of American security policy at the start of the twenty-first century. It is noteworthy that this article was submitted for publication as the last U.S. combat forces withdrew from Iraq and began the final phase of withdrawal from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the effects of the so-called Arab Spring continued to ripple across Africa, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf, with nearly every Arab state experiencing some form of political upheaval while the U.S. and Iran openly challenged one another.
Revisiting the Era of Persistent Conflict
For some observers, Arab Spring is a harbinger of coming instability. Instability seems imminent in any state where more than fifty percent of the population is under thirty years of age, educated, increasingly aware of their poverty and lack of opportunities, resents government corruption, and can be mobilized into political action using new, pervasive social media and personal communication networks. For the foreseeable future, local and regional instability related to a global economic contraction, climate change, water and food shortages, urbanization, and other socio-economic problems will trump efforts to counter the effects of failed and criminalized states, criminal syndicates, and other malign transnational actors. As the West retrenches to deal with fiscal crises at home, much of the developing world seems destined for new waves of violence that will, inevitably, impel the United States to action.
For students of American defense strategy, informing the “where you want to get to” question regarding the direction of U.S. national security strategy requires gaining additional perspective on the nature of the emerging era of “persistent conflict,” a term attributed to Army Chief of Staff George Casey. In the United States Army’s 2008 Posture Statement, Casey’s views on persistent conflict were refined and bear repeating:
We are on the leading edge of a period when an increasing number of actors (state, non-state, and individual) in a less constrained international arena, are more willing to use violence to pursue their ends,,,[S]even enduring trends exacerbate these sources of conflict: Globalization conjoined with Technological innovations; Demographic changes coupled with increasing Urbanization; rising Resource demands; Climate change and natural disasters; Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and the consequences of Failed or failing states.
When Casey offered these words, it was fashionable but still intellectually questionable to talk about an emerging “era of persistent conflict.” This is no longer the case.
The 2011 uprisings in the Middle East and Africa sprang from a number of related social, economic, and political challenges common to nations in what the U.S. National Intelligence Council termed an “arc of instability” stretching from the northern parts of South Asia, across the Caucasus, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and into the Andean region of Latin America.
The destabilizing “Arab Spring” led to increased oil prices, which caused another increase in world food prices, leading some governments to increase food subsidies in an attempt to prevent further unrest. Internationally, food security experts are already warning of a repeat of the 2007-2008 world food crisis based on oil prices, drought, and other factors. Additionally, immigrants fleeing the instability for Europe are aggravating an already stressed political and economic climate on that continent. Instability in one area of the world affects stability in other areas – this is one of the realities of living in a globalized, integrated world.
Today, in light of continued instability across the Middle East, Africa, and the Persian Gulf, few question whether the phrase “era of persistent conflict” is an apt description of the current security climate.
New Perspectives on American National Security Affairs
The United States has been at war for over a decade and faces a continued economic crisis. For the first time since the Vietnam War, an entire generation passed from adolescence to adulthood with only lingering childhood memories of true peace. Imprinted during adolescence with vivid images of the 9.11 attacks, the youngest generation of American national security professionals entered the workforce after a decade of continuous reporting on U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For them, frequent warnings of terrorist threats to U.S. interests around the world became “normal” long ago. This so-called “Millennial Generation” (those born after 1982) inherits a world that, according to some, will be one of persistent conflict, declining American power, and existential security threats ranging from daily cyber attacks to global warming, pandemics, sustained economic crises, and homegrown Islamic violence. Yet they want to remain engaged, believe in volunteerism, and accept the premise that multilateralism can make the world better.
Millennials believe in an assertive, multi-lateral U.S. foreign policy and security agenda to promote stability, democratization, and security. The generation that helped elect President Obama does not have the “never again” view of small wars and interventions that shaped the Baby Boomers’ (born between 1943 and 1960). The Millennial generation does not share the deep, almost visceral reactions to intervention, defined as the “Vietnam syndrome,” that their grandparents and parents shared.
In contrast, the generation of security professionals that entered adulthood with memories of the Cold War’s sudden and surprisingly peaceful end contemplated the implications of living in a world in which the forces of globalization make it increasingly difficult to prevent instability and conflict abroad from affecting life at home. Members of the so-called “X Generation” (born between 1961 and 1981) have childhood memories of Americans held hostage in Tehran, recall Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire Speech, and entered adulthood as the Berlin Wall came down. This generation still believes in the “line in the sand” symbolism that underscored the first Gulf War of 1991. Socialized at an early age to understand global politics as an ideological struggle between good and evil, the middle and senior managers running America’s sprawling national security organizations are also more comfortable with mental models that simplify security affairs into clashes between civilizations.
Concerning military interventions, Generation Xers embraced the 1990s ideal of rapid, decisive, U.S. military interventions that did not require prolonged occupations or even ground forces. For them, it is difficult to square an understanding of an American Way of War, an approach to warfare defined by definitive, rapid, and decisive action, with an the an approach to warfare that accepts potentially prolonged security, stability, transition, and reconstruction operations.
Members of both Generation X and their Baby Boomer parents have a harder time coming to terms with a world in which American interests are threatened at home and abroad by terrorists, criminals, and others seeking to undermine the international order the U.S. helped put in place following World War II. For them, the U.S. is relatively less powerful today than it was a decade ago: politically, economically, and in some cases culturally. They see political and economic power shifting to the East, a transition that is hard for those reared on Washington-Moscow bipolarity to accept.
It is unclear how the U.S. will respond to instability abroad or if the American public will support future military deployments. Results from a 2009 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey, for example, found that, for the first time since World War II, 49 percent of Americans believed the United States should “mind its own business and let other countries get along the best they can.” In April 2010, a similar question had 46 percent believing the U.S. should “let other countries deal with their own problems.”
What is clear is that America is in an era of small wars and interventions. It is hard to divide voters into hawks vs. doves, interventionists vs. isolationists, or other neat categories that parallel domestic political affiliations. There is, for example, a strong undercurrent on both sides of the American political spectrum to support the ideals embodied in the responsibility to protect or human security foreign policy camps. American support to NATO’s intervention in Libya represent a significant change from the Bosnia and Kosovo operations of the 1990s. While America seeks to increase its coalition approach to some interventions, it appears increasingly willing to take a stronger and more unilateral approach elsewhere.
Addressing Hybrid Warfare and Conflicts
Over the last few years, as more observers of the evolving international system have evoked terms like blurring, diffusion of power, and hybrid threats to describe the discontinuities, surprises, complexity, and structural inconsistencies of the international security system. “In the convoluted conditions of this operational environment,” the 2008 Army Posture Statement forewarned, “fluid combinations of actors will seek to achieve their ends through hybrid combinations of traditional, irregular, catastrophic, and disruptive challenges. A year later, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and one of her assistants, Shawn Brimley, similarly argued that “the US military will increasingly face three types of challenges: rising tensions in the global commons; hybrid threats that contain a mix of traditional and irregular forms of conflict, and the problem of weak and failing states.”
The ascent of “hybridism” in U.S. defense strategy and military planning has sometimes confused more than clarified discussions about the emerging security climate. In response to senior U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) officials referencing hybrid warfare and hybrid warfare tactics in testimony from 2008 through 2010, Congress asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to examine “whether DoD has defined hybrid warfare and how hybrid warfare differs from other types of warfare” and “the extent to which DoD is considering the implications of hybrid warfare in its overarching strategic planning documents.”
GAO researchers reported the following on June 16, 2010:
DoD has not officially defined ‘hybrid warfare’ at this time and has no plans to do so because DoD does not consider it a new form of warfare….DoD officials use the term ‘hybrid’ to describe the increasing complexity of armed conflict that will require a highly adaptable and resilient response from U.S. forces, and not to articulate a new form of warfare.
While the DoD has not officially defined the terms hybrid warfare and hybrid threat, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) catalogued a number of definitions from government and academic sources. The best remains Frank Hoffman’s (p. 8), the leading scholar on hybrid warfrae:
Hybrid Threats: Threats that incorporate a full range of different modes of warfare including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder, conducted by both states and a variety of non-state actors.
Today, the term hybrid warfare remains highly contested but has no suitable alternative. A number of critics decry its use, arguing that it is unhelpful analytically, confuses our lexicon more than clarifying it, and obscures the fact that conflicts throughout history have included a mixture or blurring of different types of warfare. Healthy and vigorous discussions over concepts and definitions often serve as a signal of their importance, and as former Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy William H. Natter observed about the term “hybrid warfare,” “debate continues about the definition, meaning, and usefulness of the term.”
One outcome of these debates about the emerging era of conflict has been deeper appreciation for the importance of a simple, often under-appreciated fact of life for national security professionals: many of the traditional ways of thinking about national security affairs no longer apply. The term hybrid warfare retains its utility precisely because it, more than any other single term, sparks debate among defense strategists and military planners. Hoffman sums up the current state of debate regarding the: “If at the end of the day, we drop the hybrid term and simply gain a better understanding of the large gray space between our idealized bins and pristine western categorizations, we will have made progress.”
Rebuilding Defense Strategy
For much of the last century, the “where you want to get to” question concerning direction of American national security strategy and military capabilities has been a much different type of strategy and planning problem than the one facing today’s national security professionals. From World War II through the 1970s, U.S. military thought underwent a profound transformation, and the “strategy” associated with the conceptualizing and planning of military operations increasingly involved applying abstract concepts from deterrence theory to theater war planning. At the height of the Cold War, emphasis was placed on funding strategic nuclear forces at the expense of conventional or “general purpose” forces. The risks were much higher then, as intervention abroad ultimately meant a direct or indirect clash with Soviet forces or their proxies. The advent of nuclear strategy altered the defense planning process and, arguably, left a void in the development of strategists that continues today.
What began as nuclear deterrence theory in the 1950s and early 1960s eventually became defense strategy, which evolved into the nuclear warfighting doctrine. For Martin van Creveld, the path of military strategy was “splintered” by nuclear weapons into “nuclear strategy, conventional strategy, grand strategy, theater strategy, economic strategy, and other types too numerous to mention” (p. 53-54). Van Creveld argues that the splintering of strategy led to so many uses that the very word “strategy” was no longer appropriate. Lawrence Freedman similarly concluded his seminal work, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, by lamenting the evolutionary end-state of nuclear strategy: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas stratégie” (p. 433).
This “splintering” of strategic thought coincided with declining interest in unconventional warfare and preparing for small wars. By 1975, three years after the end of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, “no instruction in low-intensity conflict was presented at the U.S. Army Armor or Field Artillery Schools” and “no instruction on the topic to future platoon leaders in its Officer Basic Course.” Some two decades later, the first post-Cold War revision of the U.S. Army field manual on low-level conflicts – renamed Operations Other Than War, optimistically concluded “U.S. neutrality in insurgencies ‘will be the norm’” in the post-Cold War era.
The ascendency of the generation of military officers that rebuilt America’s armed forces in the shadow of Vietnam codified a set of guidelines or beliefs meant to bound the appropriate use of military forces. For them, American forces would be employed only to mitigate risks to vital national interests and in an overwhelming fashion to quickly accomplish missions tied directly to national-level strategic objectives. They preferred to define an exit strategy upfront as part of a “commander’s intent” for the operation, which served to both clarify the objectives – and constraints – of the military mission and to establish expectations for U.S. troop withdrawal. An underlying imperative was that troops go in with clear objectives, resourced to win quickly and decisively, and brought home quickly after objectives were met.
These were, of course, the core tenets of the Powell Doctrine, named for former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin L. Powell. An unstated corollary to these guidelines was added: American troops would not lead reconstruction or nation-building efforts and would not engage in prolonged peace-keeping or nation-building efforts. Security and stability operations were not a priority.
Defense Strategy and the Legacy of the First Gulf War
American defense planners are myopic. We look into the future with a dim view of our past. The first Gulf War, for example, is a distant memory for many of today’s defense planners and strategists – they cut their teeth in the rugged hills of Afghanistan or on the road to Baghdad.
It is important, however, to pause to reflect on how different the current national security planning environment is compared to the 1990s, the formative period for what is still described as a new American way of warfare based on stealth, night vision, intelligence and information dominance, precision strike, and dominant maneuver. The rhetoric was much different in the 1990s, as were the planning assumptions driving defense spending. Then, the prevailing view was of a “new world order,” not an era of persistent conflict punctuated by instances of hybrid warfare.
In the early 1990s, U.S. defense planners avoided urban conflict in doctrine, rejected interventionism, largely ignored human security arguments, and accepted the premise that airpower could compel or coerce most adversaries to submit. But as globalization encircled tyrants and dictators, many tyrants and dictators have adopted a siege mentality, attempting to force the U.S. and the West into a decision to accept their marginal sovereignty or to escalate to intervention with troops on the ground. In hindsight, moreover, it is important to remember that many believed that the first Gulf War represented an ideal, even repeatable example of a successful military intervention. It was relatively quick, militarily decisive, resulted in little loss of American life, and avoided a prolonged occupation requiring U.S. troops on the ground. It is unclear what the current “model” is for future military interventions.
The first Gulf War was planned and led by Vietnam veterans; won by an all-volunteer force that was professionally trained; led at the tactical level by a new generation of American military officers that embraced an offensive doctrine; and, waged with information systems providing exquisite battlefield situational awareness, decision support, and precision weaponry. The American-led coalition forces defeated an Iraqi military of several hundred thousand in less than six weeks and with only 240 casualties. Stephen Biddle observes that “this loss rate of fewer than one fatality per 3,000 soldiers was less than one tenth of the Israeli’s loss rate in either the 1967 Six-Day War or the Bekaa Valley campaign in 1982, less than one twentieth of the German’s in the blitzkriegs against Poland or France in 1939-40, and about one-thousandth of the U.S. Marines’ in the invasion of Tarawa in 1943.”
For Lawrence Freedman, the first Gulf War “validated” a new American approach to military operations “and the US military concluded, not surprisingly, that all in all, it would prefer to fight all its wars this way.” For the rest of the 1990s, American defense strategists and planners accepted the ideal image of a new American way of war defined by operational concepts like rapid decisive action, dominant maneuver, information dominance, and precision engagement. Acquisition programs reinforced trends established during the late Cold War era, which emphasized airpower, sophisticated – and expensive – armored vehicles, and a precision location and targeting enterprise. American military forces would not engage in prolonged peacekeeping or “stabilization” missions and would not engage in urban warfare.
Toward the Rebalancing of U.S. Defense Strategy
Visions of the future fundamentally changed with the September 11, 2001 attacks and with the experience of the war in Afghanistan, which has become America’s longest war, and with the experience of regime change and nation-building in Iraq. By the end of the 2000s, the lieutenants and company commanders that won the 1990-91 Gulf War (now Colonels or one-star Generals), had witnessed one of the most critical and far-ranging transformations in American defense strategy since the early days of the nuclear era. This transformation overturned much of the military thinking that dominated the 1990s and is now also tempered with the experience of waging simultaneous wars of ‘security and stabilization” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
It has been a rough transition, with company-grade officers pushing for innovation from the battlefield. This was not the first time that American military planners have been caught intellectually and organizationally unprepared for what are now called “security and stabilization” missions. Some fifty years ago, in the face of communist-backed guerrilla warfare, Army Chief of Staff General George Decker opined that “any good soldier can handle guerrillas” and the intellectual father of flexible response, General Maxwell Taylor, stated “any well-trained organization can shift the tempo to that which might be required in this kind of situation” (p. 103).
In the mid-2000s, the Defense Department moved to square Departmental policies and planning processes with lessons learned from Afghanistan and Iraq. Among the most notable developments was the November 2005, publication of Department of Defense Directive 3000.05, Military Support for Stability, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction, which made stability operations a core military mission. The document codified in Departmental guidance what many strategists had already observed in programming, budgeting, and training activities: stability and support operations should not be viewed as secondary activities from the perspective of readiness, doctrine, training, and acquisition priorities. Security and stability operations were henceforth to be considered co-equal missions alongside traditional military missions.
Meanwhile, the US Army published Field Manual (FM) 3-24 on Counter-Insurgency and updated its foundational doctrine Operations (FM 3-0) in February 2008, defining “full spectrum operations” as the simultaneous application of offensive and defensive measures in concert with stability operations.
The strategic direction of U.S. defense strategy shifted as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates implemented his “rebalancing and reform” agenda. The strategic imperatives underscoring the rebalancing and reform approach include deficit reduction, changing the mix of capabilities available to fight and win future conflicts, and revamping internal processes. Rebalancing remains an attempt to square U.S. defense programming and force structure planning with the actual missions and activities U.S. military forces are likely to face in the twenty-first century. Reforming the Defense Department, the second pillar of Gates’ overhaul that his successor continues, is focused on reductions in contractor and government workforces, eliminating duplication, and making the Department leaner, more efficient, and more fiscally accountable.
As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and other senior policy makers chart a new defense transformation agenda, it will be difficult to drive policy, acquisition, and other initiatives based on assessments about future conflicts. The more important driving force is the national debt and political requirements to cut spending quickly. This will muddle further understanding of how assessments of the security environment relate to force structure decisions.
American defense planners and strategists have a mixed record when it comes to predicting and preparing for future conflicts. Too often we prevail through brute force and the capacity to expend significantly more resources than our adversaries. But this model may be passé. It worked very well in the industrial age of World War I and in the mechanical age of warfare in World War II. We prevailed in the nuclear age through the illogic of nuclear annihilation and, perhaps, through the foresightedness of early Cold War leaders like Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. But in the era of hybrid conflicts, cyber wars, and persistent threats that directly challenge the international regimes on which the post-World War II world was founded, defense planners must challenge the established assumptions and precepts carried forward from the Cold War.
There are few opportunities to fix the American defense planning process. The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) process, despite its flaws, is one of them. The 2010 QDR, readers will recall, received mixed reviews, simultaneously praised for continuing efforts to increase capabilities for security and stabilization missions and criticized for insufficient prioritization across different mission areas. Definitions of future threats in the last QDR, furthermore, were too abstract to support detailed costing and procurement planning. Balance is hard to achieve if one does not know the appropriate place to apply leverage. Defense strategy cannot guide decisions and action if it is not clear about threats and priorities. Historically, when defense budgets are in decline, service parochialism increases.
Defense strategists and planners are preparing for the 2014 QDR process, with a new Defense Strategy already shaping planning efforts. Planners, however, are caught between two conflicting visions about the American approach to warfare. On the one hand, the deep cultural legacy of the Cold War “rapid dominance” approach to conflict reinforces reliance on technology, conventional deterrence, and a reluctance to build forces optimized for intervention and occupation. On the other hand, the turn toward security and stability operations as a core competency of U.S. military forces has combined with increased willingness to intervene and promote “human security” abroad to mandate sustained funding for counterinsurgency and national building capabilities.
Historically, defense strategy and American force structure decisions are marginalized in presidential election years. Preparations for the 2014 QDR will likely focus on cost, not capabilities – despite the best intentions of senior officials. To keep the process on track, an active and engaged public debate is required. In an era of social media and increased transparency, it may be up to the readers of forums like The Small Wars Journal to ensure that the defense planning process delivers capabilities required for an era of persistent conflict.
 Howard D. Graves, “U.S. Capabilities for Military Intervention” in Sam C. Sarkesian and William L. Scully, U.S. Policy and Low-Intensity Conflict: Potentials for Military Struggles in the 1980s (New Brusnwick: Transaction Books 1981; 89).