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President Obama's national defense guidance: forward to the past



On Jan. 5, the Obama administration released its Defense Strategic Guidance document. It provides the administration's view of the current security environment, the priorities for future US military missions, and guiding principles for organizing the US armed forces. (Note: It does not contain specific recommendations for the US military organization. Those will be released in early February.)

The security environment

Al Qaeda is much less of a threat
In the administration's view, the death of Osama bin Laden and many other senior leaders means that al Qaeda has been severely degraded. Terrorism by al Qaeda and other associated groups now constitutes a much-reduced threat. What continues to exist has diffused away from the Pakistan-Afghanistan region to other areas around the globe, including Somalia, Yemen, and the Maghreb. Consequently, Afghanistan as a major theater of operations is no longer a high priority, and other areas are of greater concern. As a result, US resources will be drawn down from Afghanistan and redistributed to meet the new threats.

Asia-Pacific will become more important
The Asia region, the arc through East, Southeast, and South Asia, will become much more important both strategically and economically. The central concern is China, which is expected to emerge as a regional power with the potential to affect the economy and security of the US. Europe will become less of a security concern. Cooperation with European countries will continue, but US military priority there will be lowered. The focus for the US conventional military will shift from Europe to Asia.



Military missions

Although the US military will need capabilities for many different missions, the priority will be placed on organizing the military for the following subset:
  • Counterterrorism and irregular warfare
  • Deterring and defeating aggression by conventional military forces
  • Maintaining a nuclear deterrent
  • Defending the homeland

Counterterrorism and irregular warfare
While the battle against terrorism is still important, it will not be fought as a major war with the US in the leading role. It will be prosecuted with more limited means, such as Special Operations Forces actions, drone strikes, and law enforcement activities. For counterinsurgency operations, the US military will no longer be organized to lead large-scale, long-term operations like those in Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead, the military will be sized and organized for smaller-scale missions. In the ideal scenario, the US would be in a supporting role, assisting local forces. This would be done in conjunction with allies who would provide additional support to the local forces.

As previously announced, the US will to continue to draw down operations in Afghanistan. The US troop level will be reduced from today's 90,000 troops to 67,000 by September 2012, and the level will likely continue to decline to perhaps 15,000 trainers and advisors by the end 2014. At the same time, counterterrorism operations may be initiated in the other areas. As described above, they will be more limited in scope, involve more non-military means, and be conducted in cooperation with allies and partners.

Aggression by conventional military forces
US conventional military forces will be sized to be able to simultaneously fight one major war while fighting a smaller-scale, short-term, or diversionary war somewhere else. The strategic goal is to have the capacity to deter "opportunistic attack." In other words, if the US becomes engaged in a major military operation, the US will also deter opponents in another region from exploiting the opportunity, by having sufficient forces to deny the objective or impose unacceptable costs. If the US were fighting a major conventional land war in Korea, for example, the US would still have sufficient forces available to repel an attacker's attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz.

Given the emphasis on Asia Pacific generally and China specifically, it is likely the US will move the bulk of its conventional military forces to the Asia Pacific region, with smaller contingents elsewhere.

Note that this strategic defense guidance is particularly vague. One can imagine a large number of permutations of possible conflicts that each require a different military size and organization.

Nuclear deterrent
According to the document, "it is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force." The administration's policy will likely be to continue to reduce the US nuclear stockpile, in line with the "New START" Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty negotiated and ratified with Russia, with negotiations for further reductions possible.

Military structure: guiding principles

Cost-effectiveness
Cost-effectiveness will become a central issue in planning US forces and operations. The US will use "innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities."

Reversibility and regenerative ability
The administration concedes that the future is highly uncertain. The US cannot definitively say any capability will not be needed. However, the US also cannot afford to maintain robust capabilities in all areas. Therefore, US forces will retain capabilities in a broad range of areas, but some capabilities will be reduced to a reserve force level and structure with the assumption that they can be rebuilt if needed in the future. (The specific capabilities affected have not yet been identified.)

This strategy is essentially a tradeoff between cost versus deployment readiness. Generally, it is cheaper to maintain a reserve force than a ready one. But a reserve force cannot be immediately deployed; time and additional resources are needed to rebuild a reserve into a deployable capability.

Partners and allies
Missions in the future will attempt to include partners and/or allies in some way. "Building partnership capacity will be important for sharing the costs and responsibilities of global leadership." The document cites India as one such example: "The United States is also investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region."

The tradeoff here is between cost and flexibility. While this "burden sharing" cuts the cost, it also constrains US operations to areas where we have a readily available partner. This partnership scenario cannot always be assumed to exist, however, which means the tradeoff creates significant burdens and risks for US strategic options.

Commentary: forward to the past

In many ways, this strategic defense guidance document charts a return to the US defense strategy of the 1990s, the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 era. At that time, the size and budget for the US military were reduced. The military was being reorganized for smaller-scale operations, with larger operations dependent on the mobilization of reserve forces. A nuclear arms reduction treaty was being negotiated with Russia. China was the up and coming threat. And fighting terrorism was a law enforcement issue, not a war.



READER COMMENTS: "President Obama's national defense guidance: forward to the past"

Posted by mike merlo at January 12, 2012 5:06 PM ET:

Once again our 'Lollipop In Chief' exposes himself for the geopolitical neophyte that he is. While the Far East certainly merits renewed interest particularly in light of Communist China having designated the South China Sea as a 'Core Interest' along with Tibet & Taiwan. It should be noted one cannot choose where the next 'engagement' will 'surface.'

The Indian Ocean along with expanding hostilities throughout the breadth of the Sahara & adjoining regions coupled with developments in the Middle East, Mediterranean North Africa & Iranian nuclear aspirations reveal a swath of earth in need of just as much if not more attention than the Far East.

The 'Continentalism' that 'cursed' Europe for many centuries has come to envelope an arc of earth spanning two continents. A continuous unbroken collection of nations ranging from the Eurasian Heartland to Africa's NW Atlantic's shores(see Mackinder & Admiral Mahan).

Afghanistan has been repeatedly misidentified as 'The Graveyard of Empires.' Nothing could be farther from the truth. Afghanistan is the geographical 'post' upon which the 'tides' of humanity 'pivot.'

Much like Poland & parts of Central Europe Afghanistan serves as a front line platform in which stability or instability is expressed through a variety of 'instruments.' Iraq to with the US withdrawal has emerged as a candidate for an 'Anschluss' or 'Sudetenland.'

And for those who convinced themselves that with the demise of the USSR so to went the Cold War that to is patently false. It's 'center of gravity' has simply shifted from the Kremlin to Beijing. Along with that shift has been a reemerging personality that differs significantly from that of the Russian(see Chinese history/foreign policy).

The above is just a glimpse of what awaits. President Obama is just as naive as President Carter.

Posted by Mac at January 13, 2012 3:14 AM ET:

There will be no regenerative ability from this!

Posted by Mike at January 13, 2012 10:42 AM ET:

The editorializing in the last paragraph, not to mention some of the language in the preceding reader comments, is false and unduly disrespectful to the Commander in Chief. How exactly does widespread use of drones and special forces, and de-emphasizing legacy commitments in Europe, constitute a return to something like a pre-9/11 footing? Resources are not unlimited, and moving away from keeping large (but never large enough) ground armies in occupations and counter-insurgencies has not been a cost-effective means of defeating terrorism. In fact, it has done precious little to lay groundwork for enduring, stable, even semi-democratic governments in the countries where it has been tried at a cost of thousands of American lives and untold hundreds of billions, nay trillions added to our debts. This blog should not be used for such shallow political attacks.

Posted by cjr at January 13, 2012 12:39 PM ET:

Mike:
You are correct. Articles here should not be a shallow political attacks.....and this one was not meant to be. The commentary section was an attempt to give context to the situation. I believe it to be factually correct (although you can certainly argue this point). It was not meant to assert that the strategy was good or bad. (That would deserve a MUCH longer analysis.)

Commentators:
Your opinions are welcome, but please conforms to commentary policy:

"The comments section is not a place for partisan debates."

" Please refer to current and former elected officials and public leaders respectfully."

Thank you

Posted by Tony at January 13, 2012 1:21 PM ET:

"Forward to the past" is not necessarily a mistake. Following a disastrous wrong turn into Iraq, backing out and attempting to repair some of the damage only makes sense.

Obama doesn't make these decisions in a vacuum, he's relying on experts who have studied the issues for years. Just like W did.

Posted by M. Muthuswamy at January 13, 2012 3:43 PM ET:

Just to follow through on Mike's and Tony's comments...

The widespread use of the drones and special forces suggests an irregular warfare conducted by the United States.

In fact, the shift that has occurred is one of massive military deployments to irregular warfare.

Such warfare, diverges, even more vividly from law enforcement tactics.

I would say that, belatedly, but correctly, the United States is embracing irregular warfare strategy. In time, I suspect that this warfare will be extended to target non-combatant strategic leadership of enemy nations, if the recent killing of Iranian nuclear scientists is any indication. High on such a list should be clerics who provide leaderships to jihadist groups or who advocate violent jihadism.

It will be interesting to see how the international organizations such as the International Court react to this.


Posted by Devin Leonard at January 13, 2012 5:25 PM ET:

I agree with Mike Merlo on our shift in strategy. China needs to be contained so that part of our strategy I like. But we will always outspend China on national defense and IMHO we will always be 1-2 generations ahead of the Chinese in terms of weaponry, training, technology..etc. And we will be the dominant superpower in the world for the far forseeable future.

What I don't like is the cutting down of our troop strength. We need as many Marines and Army porsonel as we currently have in case of a land based war, and quite frankly...other then the Brits, we can't always rely on our allies. I realize it's qaulity not qauntity and we have the best trained soldiers on earth, but I still say cutting our soldier strength is a bad idea.

Posted by KW64 at January 13, 2012 6:25 PM ET:

While the description of the policy says it will rely more on regional allies, our policies now being put in place seem to reduce the number of potential regional allies. Early departure from Iraq seems likey to lead to a divided Iraq and/or one dominated by Iran that will not be a regional ally. Early departure from Afghanistan would seem to jepeordize the possibility of a potential regional ally by allowing the Taliban to retake control and bring back Al Quida to return to recruiting, training and planning for terrorist acts of the future. The decision to demand that Israel return to a pre 1967 border that has many times been held to be indefensible suggests a willingness to lose another potential regional ally. Standing idly by while Hezbollah reasserted control over the Lebanese government after the people there had heroically defied the Syrian occupation caused us to forego the possibility of another potential regional ally.

In view of this record, what certainty do we offer to potential regional allies who will have to continue living in an area after the US has split and left them holding the bag. What certainty do we offer to the individuals in these countries who commit themselves to our cause. Look at the Iraqis we had working with us who are being abandoned to the tender mercies of our enemies there?

In the end we cannot rely on allies just as they cannot rely on us. As Frederick the Great elector of Prussia said "You can only rely on yourself."

Posted by Setrak at January 13, 2012 7:51 PM ET:

KW64,
The political situation in Lebanon was demolished by the 2006 summer war. Hezbollah came out of it politically-stronger than ever. I'm not really sure what friends in Iraq you're referring to and what enemies; the last I checked, al-Maliki wasn't really much of a friend despite how we treated him.

Posted by bill h at January 13, 2012 10:22 PM ET:

i believe we can all respect this gentleman's thoughts on the subject:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

... we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence.... by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Dwight David Eisenhower, President of the US
Supreme Commander of Allied forces WW 2.

Posted by bill h at January 13, 2012 11:01 PM ET:

for those who think obama has impeded the execution of our nations interests over seas i present the following as an argument to the contrary:
1. he has kept the chain of command intact from the Bush administration;
2. he authorized the assassination in a hostile nation of Bin Laden;
3. he is putting more pressure on the mullahs in iran than any prior administration;
4. he has removed our forces from Iraq and is removing them from Afghanistan.

we are spending 700 billion dollars on defense. at what point is it enough. if we cut it in half it would still be more than the expenditures of the China, Russia, England France and Japan, combined.

That no man should scruple, or hesitate a moment, to use arms in defence of so valuable a blessing, on which all the good and evil of life depends, is clearly my opinion. Yet arms, I would beg leave to add, should be the last resource ....

George Washington

Posted by mike merlo at January 14, 2012 3:39 PM ET:

President Eisenhower's thought's are dated, parochial & of as little relevance in today's world as they were to yesteryear's concerning the 'MIC.' While one could certainly make an argument in support of his statements it would behoove one first to place his reasoning in the proper context. Which is what were the prevailing conditions that 'birthed' that position in the first place; a virulent Fascism & Japanese Imperialism immediately overtaken by predatory Communism. The 'MIC' was a response not a catalyst. Where it not for the 'MIC' & the accompanying troop levels much of the Eurasian & African continents, if not all, would be Communist dictatorships. Rather than chastised the rise of this behemoth the nation & the world would have been better served had he singled out & identified the threats that precipitated its 'birthing.' Its called survival.

Posted by dc at January 15, 2012 3:28 AM ET:

DDE thoughts are not dated they entirely relevant . Is MM suggesting that Eisenhower as the C-in-C during those dangerous days in the Fifties was not aware that the USA survival was at stake ?

Clearly he was entirely aware yet he still made his famous statement . Why ? Simply he was stating that in combating our enemy we may turn into a mirror image of them & endanger the very freedoms we are fighting to protect.

Posted by Observer at January 15, 2012 11:38 AM ET:

Currently the greatest threat to the USA national security is its own budget deficit. I am watching your campaigns as an outsider heard one candidate promising to build the most powerful military that no one would dare challenge it. How can you achieve that by borrowing money from China, etc.

Budget deficits brought down Greek, Roman, Egyptian and other empires.

Posted by Devin Leonard at January 15, 2012 3:23 PM ET:

Budget defecits did indeed bring down other great empires, but America is unique in that we are more powerful then all of those empires combined. Our budget deficit needs to be under control, but we need our economy fixed first, and that may require more govt. spending. Obama is trying to tackle both problems at once which is admirable, but I don't think he should do it solely based on the defense dept. We need to be able to counter China and that means spending at least 4-500 billion a year on defense. And I still say that cutting manpower is the wrong way to go about reducing the military. We need our soldiers and they need thier jobs.

Posted by Observer at January 15, 2012 5:44 PM ET:

Currently the main challenge that Chinese Forces pose are their new Stealth fighter and space hugging missiles which can prevent USAF from delivering its pay load during a confrontation. Otherwise USAF and US Navy, have got the munitions to do the job if things went bad.

Posted by Devin Leonard at January 15, 2012 6:59 PM ET:

That's true, but we have top notch stealth fighters and bombers of our own that are superior to the Chinese ones...and with our drone technology we can take down thier battleships without risking a man. We are also producing counter measures to the very technology that you are talking about. It's like the great Gen. Barry McCafferey said the other day. "As long as we stay 2-3 generations ahead of the Chinese, we would wipe them out in a war". They would do damage, but they would still end up losing badly in the end. Of course this is about 10 years down the road. Right now the Chinese aren't even close to us militarily.

Posted by bill h at January 16, 2012 11:58 AM ET:

this discussion about countering the chinese is as interesting as it is misguided. the chinese are a competitor for influence. they are a five thousand year old society that has never sought to conquer nations outside their own.

they are not an existential threat to the use. We need to compete with them in the economic sphere. we need to push back against them in north korea, taiwan and indochina. we do not need to fear an attack from china.

DDE's quote is very, very relevant here. the hawks for ever greater defuse spending trumpet a chinese threat that they know does not exist to further their interests in jelling their arms. this is exactly what DDE was warning us against.

Posted by mike merlo at January 16, 2012 1:36 PM ET:

re: dc
What I'm characterizing as dated & 'reactionary' is DDE(good acronym, thanks) suggesting the MIC conceivably posed a 'threat' to US democracy is misguided & irresponsible. DDE's MIC 'statement' has been repeatedly used as fodder by 5th Columnists, 'fellow travelers,' & agent provocateurs to mislead, degrade & negatively influence US security interests.

I was born in Berlin in 1955. My mother hails from Konigsberg East Prussia. My father was a NCO lifer in the US military. I'm fully aware of what was & still is at stake.

If DDE was so concerned why didn't he block occupation of Tachen Islands or provide air support at Dien Bien Phu?

re: bill
Communist China aids & abets installation of Communist dictatorship in North Korea. Communist China invades, occupies & annexes Tibet. Communist China invades, occupies & annexes parts of India in late 50's & early 60's. Pakistan cedes territory to Communist China that was acquired during 1947 Kashmir War. Communist China invades Viet Nam in 1979. Communist China has reresurrected Japan's Co-Prosperity Sphere. Communist China has formalized the South China Sea as a 'core interest' & has engaged in multiple maritime 'skirmishes' seeking to establish their imprimatur. Communist China is to clever ( & to weak) to directly confront 'us.' All the more reason to spy & be wary of them.

Posted by dc at January 16, 2012 3:46 PM ET:

Mike , the misuse of DDE's statement does not negate the warning contained within.

The two events you mention were in the wider context minor & tactical. As far I understand it, the Tachen Islands retreat was a tactical success & Dien Bien Phu was a lost cause ( French Indo-China) & a useful slap in the face for French hauteur.

I agree China is THE long term problem but not because they are Communist madmen but because they are Nationalist fanatics.

Posted by M. Muthuswamy at January 16, 2012 5:22 PM ET:

“Currently the greatest threat to the USA national security is its own budget deficit.”

Observer:

IMO the U.S. has not been able to adjust to a threat that uses the cover of religion. While the challenge posed by China long-term is all too clear, the U.S. still faces the increasing prospect of a nuclear 9/11, thanks to its past and present clueless policies.

For instance, Pakistan, a state that, arguably, poses the gravest threat to the U.S. and the staging ground for the 9/11 attacks (through its sponsor, the Taliban) has the fastest growing nuclear weapons program in the world that includes miniature nukes.

A nuclear 9/11 could constitute a “Black Swan” event and, hence, should be avoided at all cost. It is not at all clear to me how Washington plans to address this threat.

No amount of resources can overcome knowledge limitations.

Posted by mike merlo at January 16, 2012 7:48 PM ET:

Tachen Islands = 'strategic asset.' Communist Chinese now have FOB. A platform capable of supporting medium to short range missiles(accuracy increases when distances shortened), unimpeded access to surrounding waters to place sensing equipment, a submarine base etc.

english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90776/90882/7340852/.html

Communist Chinese are now that much better positioned to compromise US Navy operations in Yellow Sea( Korean Peninsula), East China Sea(Ryukyu Islands) & Taiwan Strait's.

What warning. A bunch of 'yahoos' in the Defense Industry taking over the country. Yeah right. That '7 Days In May' nonsense is exactly the type of underhanded propaganda I'm talking about.

Air support would have set the Communist's back a least 1 if not 2 decades in IndoChina. Most if not all their cannon's & heavy weapons were concentrated around Dien Bien Phu. With upwards 2/3rds of their manpower plus accompanying resources also concentrated in the vicinity.

I'm sure any of the 58,000 dead Americans would have found French hauteur quite palatable. The French would have eventually faded just as the Europeans did in the Western Hemisphere, Africa & other parts of Asia. With their disengagement unlikely to have required such a heavy US involvement.

Viet Nam was not a isolated 'expression of Communist intentions. Malaysian Emergency, HUKS, & Communist inspired rebellions & intriques were also rampant in Thailand, Indonesia, Burma & Singapore. Not to mention Pathet Lao & Khmer Rouge(both Domino's).

Nationalist, Fascists, Communists, Leninists, Islamists etc., much of the terminology, ideology, language etc., at 'the end of the day' begins to fade in significance once 'the shooting starts.' At the end of the day we all know its the same ole stuff; power, control, real estate & wealth.

Personally I feel Communist China is heavily over rated. Any time you have a nation as populated as Communist China having to import as much basic food stuffs as they do you're talking about a nation with very serious internal problems.

Posted by bill h at January 27, 2012 6:07 PM ET:

mike i think you misconstrue DDE's comments regarding the MIC. He was not saying that the MIC would try to take over the country. he was warning against the unbridled expansion of the defense industry resulting in unwarranted expansion of the expense of carrying the military budget.

all of the expansions you assign to the chinese are not as clear as you seem to assert. vietnam and china have been at war for a very long time. they have fought border wars and competed for territory for over a 1000 years. china's assertion of control over tibet is not a new thing either. it is within what they consider (rightly or wrongly) their territory. Much like we took over PR, Cuba and invaded mexico and panama.

China is not a threat to us, militarily. they are a threat politically and economically. our spending on arms to fight them results in us weakening ourselves in the very areas we need to strengthen.

by the way for all those worried over our budget deficits and our borrowing money from china. lets examine this issue. we borrow say a trillion dollars from them say between 2008 and 2010. we pay them essentially no interest on these bonds. we pay them back in 2020 dollars. they cannot call the obligation as the bonds are payable on fixed terms only at a fixed time in the future.

They are not in the catbird seat. they are in a competition with us. they are not necessarily winning at this point. There are many experts who assert that china is poised for quite of bit of economic and social turmoil in the near future.

We need to worry about strengthening our society. We need to provide jobs for our people. we need to advance our educational system and our economic system. We need to cut our deficits to stop our problems of overspending. we have problems but fearing attack from china is not one of them.

we already have the most powerful military in history.
we don't need more military power.

We must defend against an indirect nuclear threat from pakistan, iran, and/or north korea. we are able to do this imo by making it clear what our response to a terrorist attack on our nation would be, namely the total obliteration of the responsible party. they know this. north korea is not interested in attacking the usa. they use their nukes for other reasons. pakistan is a weak and impotent nation with or without nuclear missiles. iran could not even defeat iraq. they would be obliterated by israel forget about fighting our nation. these nations all know their strength compared to the USA. i don't worry about an attack from outside i do worry about improving and strengthening our nation from inside.

Posted by bill h at January 27, 2012 6:08 PM ET:

mike i think you misconstrue DDE's comments regarding the MIC. He was not saying that the MIC would try to take over the country. he was warning against the unbridled expansion of the defense industry resulting in unwarranted expansion of the expense of carrying the military budget.

all of the expansions you assign to the chinese are not as clear as you seem to assert. vietnam and china have been at war for a very long time. they have fought border wars and competed for territory for over a 1000 years. china's assertion of control over tibet is not a new thing either. it is within what they consider (rightly or wrongly) their territory. Much like we took over PR, Cuba and invaded mexico and panama.

China is not a threat to us, militarily. they are a threat politically and economically. our spending on arms to fight them results in us weakening ourselves in the very areas we need to strengthen.

by the way for all those worried over our budget deficits and our borrowing money from china. lets examine this issue. we borrow say a trillion dollars from them say between 2008 and 2010. we pay them essentially no interest on these bonds. we pay them back in 2020 dollars. they cannot call the obligation as the bonds are payable on fixed terms only at a fixed time in the future.

They are not in the catbird seat. they are in a competition with us. they are not necessarily winning at this point. There are many experts who assert that china is poised for quite of bit of economic and social turmoil in the near future.

We need to worry about strengthening our society. We need to provide jobs for our people. we need to advance our educational system and our economic system. We need to cut our deficits to stop our problems of overspending. we have problems but fearing attack from china is not one of them.

we already have the most powerful military in history.
we don't need more military power.

We must defend against an indirect nuclear threat from pakistan, iran, and/or north korea. we are able to do this imo by making it clear what our response to a terrorist attack on our nation would be, namely the total obliteration of the responsible party. they know this. north korea is not interested in attacking the usa. they use their nukes for other reasons. pakistan is a weak and impotent nation with or without nuclear missiles. iran could not even defeat iraq. they would be obliterated by israel forget about fighting our nation. these nations all know their strength compared to the USA. i don't worry about an attack from outside i do worry about improving and strengthening our nation from inside.