TCS Daily


Strategic Clarity

By James Pinkerton - April 1, 2003 12:00 AM

Let's get a grip here. The nattering nabobs of negativism notwithstanding, the U.S. is winning a military victory in Iraq. American high-tech is proving itself yet again, performing even more miraculously in Operation Iraqi Freedom (someday to be known as Iraq War II) than it did during Iraq War I (today commonly called Operation Desert Storm). To be sure, the United States still faces significant challenges in Iraq, but those challenges are on the tactical, not strategic, level. That is, once Saddam Hussein's regular forces are smashed, and that will be soon, the irregulars that might survive will not be a serious threat to American military occupation, so long as Uncle Sam keeps his willpower.

The strategic concerns that the U.S. will soon face are not in Iraq, but elsewhere in the world. What concerns are those? What might be called the "Three Pre's," Precognition, Preemption, and Precision. That's Precision, as in precision-guided munitions, or PGM's. The Three Pre's are much more than tactics; they are the real strategic deal, and so they will inevitably spread beyond the U.S., as other countries follow the leader. And it's that other "P," Proliferation, that will loom large in our future long after Saddam Hussein is an unlamented memory.

In the meantime, of course, Operation Iraqi Freedom faces withering fire-from the news media. Headlines in the Washington Post ("U.S. Losses Expose Risks, Raise Doubts About Strategy") and the New York Times ("Allies Adapt to Setbacks") might lead some to believe that American and British forces were confronting the First Day on the Somme. But in truth, as of the weekend, Coalition fatalities numbered 63; more Americans have been killed in car accidents in the same period.

Indeed, when reporters talk of "heavy fighting" and "tough going," what they are usually describing is a battle such as that which raged around Najaf, on Tuesday, in which perhaps 300 Iraqis were killed. American losses: zero.

Such lopsided body counts are the result of the "Revolution in Military Affairs" that has rolled through the Pentagon over the last two decades. American military leaders, determined not to see a repeat of Vietnam, set out to make the military leaner, in terms of manpower, and infinitely meaner, in terms of firepower. As the Wall Street Journal editorialized,

The striking fact of the first four days of this war has been the astonishing show of military technology and execution. After more than 6,000 air sorties as of this writing yesterday, not one aircraft had been shot down by enemy fire. The daring use of special forces, the mobility of even regular Army units using global positioning systems and the integrated battle-management have to be reassuring to all Americans.

Or, as General Bernard Trainor, USMC-R, said of the American approach to the Iraqi foe last week, "If he moves, we kill him; if he stays put, we kill him." And of course, all these feats of death dealing have occurred without the five weeks of bombardment that preceded the last Iraq war. This time around, the Americans moved in immediately-after a daring effort at "decapitation," relying yet again on the most precise of PGM's-and used air-launched weapons on a "just in time" basis. If this level of martial proficiency keeps up, it might be possible for a handful of Americans to take down a whole country, surrounded, as they would be, by a curtain of fire-a 24/7 envelope of target-annihilating Tomahawks and JDAMs.

In other words, in its first military tryout, the Bush Doctrine has been a success. That is, the President engaged in Precognition of the Iraqi threat (with apologies to the Philip K. Dick short story-turned-movie, "Minority Report"); then Bush engaged in Preemption of that threat. And the Pentagon has used precision technology to eliminate that threat; not a single Iraq airplane has scrambled into the air-much to the chagrin of our jet-jockeys, as Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart said at the CENTCOM briefing on Saturday. Such 100 percent air superiority quickly converts to unquestioned ground superiority, as well; perhaps the coolest video image of the war so far was the image of a U.S. PGM blowing up an Iraqi tank tucked under a bridge, even as the bridge remained intact.
So from an American point of view, the Three Pre's offer a formula for maintaining national hegemony. As last September's White House document, "A National Security Strategy for the United States," declared, the goal of the United States should be to "dissuade future military competition." And if the United States keeps an active focus on the Three Pre's-including spending what it takes on intelligence and weapons systems-then it's possible that the White House and the Pentagon can usher in a New World Order.

But there may be some bumps-big bumps.

The bumps are three: first, in the short term, political; second, in the medium term, techno-military; third, in the long term, political once again.

First, as for the short term, the Three Pre's can identify a threat, identify a solution, and solve the threat as it was perceived-but they can't win hearts and minds. Weapons with names such as "Predator" and "Hellfire" might be great for zapping a foe, but they don't seem to have the effect of "shocking and awing" the survivors into submission. This is not the fault of the weapons; rather, it's a concern for civilian policy makers, who might have expected too much hearts-and-minds-winning as a result of high-tech weaponry. That is, "shock and awe," followed by "see it and kill it," isn't necessarily the best way to make friends.

There's also a question for weapons-systems-namers; maybe America should go back to slightly less threatening names for its weapons. One might recall that President Reagan called the MX missile "Peacekeeper"; the Gipper won the Cold War without having to fire even one of those nukes.

As Americans are discovering in Iraq today, the political problems of "liberation" are beyond the scope of high-tech. The regular Iraqi military will soon cease to exist, but irregulars, paramilitaries, and terrorists might be around for good long while. While guerilla-war tactics can be damaging and demoralizing, such tactics are unlikely to veer the U.S. off its current strategy-as long as we retain our nerve, that is.

Second, in the medium term, American concerns are techno-military. That is, if our technology is this impressive, what will other countries do in response? Right now, the 190 nations of the world are engaging in a quick inventory, asking themselves, "Can we match what the Americans have?" The answer for most, of course, is "no." Those countries-maybe even North Korea-might well have their attitudes adjusted.

But a few states might figure that they can-or must-develop their own next-gen wonder weapons.

Which states? On the presumption that the United Kingdom and Israel are such close American allies that their high-tech arsenals are effectively merged with that of the U.S, one's speculative attention can turn to other countries with PGM-capability. Those countries might include France/Germany (treated as one unit here, in view of their increasingly tight alliance), Russia, India, China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Perhaps another country or two might make the list, such as, say, Iran. To be sure, not all of these nations might choose to go down this path, but if they don't, they might fall victim to another "Three Pre" power that gets ahead of them.

So, in the wake of Iraq War II, a new and accelerated arms race could erupt, as the aforementioned fistful of countries seek to make a quantum leap in their military capabilities. This could bring in a period of arms building and arms using akin to periods in the past, as when the European colonists used gunpowder on Third Worlders, or when those same leading European countries started using air power on each other. In fact, we could be entering into a dangerous era, as various countries around the world apply their own variant of the Bush Doctrine of Precognition and Preemption upon their enemies, real and perceived-exponentially empowered by Precision.

One potential hotspot to watch is the India-Pakistan theater. Both countries are nuclear powers, and that has led to a standoff, even as Pakistan seemingly allows Islamists to venture in and out of Kashmir. The Indian government, now controlled by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has the will, but not the way, to confront Pakistan. But in the post-Iraq War II future, the Indians might see their chance to do more than merely rattle their sabers; instead, they could create the real-world equivalent of light-sabers. After all, the BJP is not the peacenik-y party of Mohandas Gandhi; instead it is a we're-not-going-to-take-it anymore outfit full of ethnic avengers. One popular party slogan is, "Justice for all, appeasement for none."

The BJP-fortified Indians must be pondering how to create, within India, a military-industrial complex conducive to the creation of PGMs. Can they muster up the money and brainpower to establish an attack-deterring missile defense system? And then, also, can they build a first-use capacity, for either "decapitation" of Pakistan-or, more bluntly, annihilation? We'll know in a decade or so.

Other countries, too, might seek a final solution through the Three Pre's. What are the Chinese, for example, thinking about these days? That's another question that might be answered in 10 years or so, although the Taiwanese will likely be the first to find out the answer.

For all its potential fearfulness, the creation of a Precision Force might be an easier task than many think. David Colton, a veteran of the military-industrial-intelligence complex, fears that we could be entering into what he calls "COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) War." That is, many of the ideas and technology needed to gin up wonder weapons can be found through non-restricted channels. For example, the construction of a Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM-basically, tacking a "smart" guidance system on to a "dumb" bomb--costs the U.S. government about $500. But Colton believes that other countries could make JDAMs much more cheaply. To be sure, JDAMs are predicated on Global Positioning Satellites, and right now, the U.S. monopolizes the heavens. But that could change, as the European Union and other countries implement their own GPS systems.

If Colton is right, and "COTS War" is coming, then U.S. supremacy could soon be challenged. And of course, there's no law saying that other countries have to imitate our weapons; they could make something of their own, something that could come as unpleasant surprise-think Pearl Harbor, think 9-11-in a future conflict. In any case, the mere prospect of COTS War should keep the fire under American ingenuity brightly lit.

Which leads to the third consequence, to be felt over the long term. And that is, America might well come to the difficult conclusion that the ultimate challenge we face is political, after all. We could discover, for example, that we simply have enemies, regardless of their political system. That is, the fond American dream that democracy is the surefire path to international harmony could be disproven. Right now, the nascent anti-American coalition in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom includes not only such repressive regimes as China and most governments in the Muslim world, but also the governments of such semi-democracies as Russia and India. And finally, such full democracies as France and Germany don't seem to like us much.

The lesson might be this: what leads nation-states to take the positions they take is not their form of government, but rather, instead, the nature of their culture and outlook. The French, for example, don't dislike-maybe "hate" is not too strong a word-us because we're free, they dislike us because they're free. That is, if they want to despise us, and cross us at every turn, they can do so. Anti-Americanism isn't a democratic issue in France, it's a French issue. Such a Parisian position may reek of ingratitude and lack any semblance of moral clarity, but there doesn't seem to be much we can do about it. And the same could hold true for other countries; if we're the top dog, and they're the underdog, they might not like us.

So what to do? The United States needs to make an assessment. The Three Pre's have brought us triumph in Iraq, the natterers notwithstanding. But a far greater threat to America could emerge as other countries move toward the Three Pre's too. At which point, what will really be needed is Strategic Clarity, as we figure out how to deal with multiple threats to our national existence, all possibly coming at the same time.
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