Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The wars of the future will be the legacy of the austerity of the present

Half the fun of reading foreign policy wonks is that at times they feel like the hipsters of the commentariot; "Oh, sure, we're still involved in three wars, but c'mon, focusing on what we're doing right now? Sooooo last decade." It is this insistence upon forward-looking that most informed me as I read the following three articles.

The first, and most far-reaching, was John F. Cooper's assessment of the strategic importance Taiwan plays in the grand strategy of the United States. As long as Taiwan remains sovereign and supported by the American navy, then it will remain the primary focus of Chinese military power, much as (to use Cooper's analogy) the independent American Indian nations remained for a century the primary focus of US expansion and campaigning. As Cooper relates, if Taiwan were to fall, China will be able to project her power globally, through a navy that was no longer
“contained” by a proximate chain of islands extending southward from Japan, through the Ryukyu’s, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia."
What's fascinating about Cooper's piece is the emphasis it gives to preparing for and/or safeguarding against great power war as the primary goal for US strategy. Decades ago, this had been a given; throughout the Cold War many smaller wars were fought with the ultimate objective of making the situation favorable to the United States should a great power war break out. But since the fall of the USSR, the United States has had a clear and uncontested global reach but no similar singular focus. Part of Cooper's argument is that this has been possible because our probable global rival has been singularly focused on an enemy just off their shore. The wider implication of Cooper's piece, though, is that our military focus (and, explicitly in the piece, budget priorities) should guarantee our military strength against other great powers.

I read Cooper's article the same day that the New York Times published this editorial, about the experience of NATO in Libya. This was the first war undertaken by NATO where the United States was insistent upon taking a secondary role to the militaries of Canada and Europe. While Qaddafi's regime was ultimately toppled by the NATO-supported Libyan rebels, it was a success more guaranteed by the weakness of the opponent than the prowess of the Western forces involved. The editorial cites ammunition shortfalls and outdated technology as the genuine problems, and suggests more broadly that the combination of austerity measures during the economic downturn has only exacerbated a general trend in Europe of allowing the largess of the Pentagon to substitute for European defense spending. It ends with this condemnation
European leaders need to ask themselves a fundamental question: If it was this hard taking on a ragtag army like Qaddafi’s, what would it be like to have to fight a real enemy?
The nations of Europe, it appears, are unready for any war, and are notably unprepared for a great power war for the first time in centuries.

This is fine if one believes that the coming wars will not be symmetric ones. Such skeptics of major conflicts can point to the aughts most memorable strategist, who has spawned a whole school of thought focused on how big powers fight the little wars. Given the present balance of power, and cognizant of the last half-century of American warfare, this makes sense. But such a narrow focus has limitations. Spencer Ackerman writes
With the wars of the future looking likely to occur in sea, air, space and cyberspace, a generation of Army officers forged in counterinsurgency — critics call it a cult — will be challenged to adjust
The nature of wars that will be fought in the future remain a fortunately-unanswered question. But the defense priorities set now, in a time of austerity for the West, will profoundly shape the warfighting of the next decade and beyond.