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A More-Friendly Enemy: Back to the Future

The Pentagon shifts its focus from terrorists to Russia and China in its latest strategy

Jim Mattis
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis unveils the Trump administration’s first National Defense Strategy, in Washington Jan. 19. (Photo: Dept. of Defense / Kathryn E. Holm)

If you’re a long-ago kid now of a certain age, you may recall watching the magician on the Ed Sullivan Show. You tried to follow his swiftly-moving black-and-white hands as they moved his assorted cups so you could figure out which one hid the fuzzy ball. Reading the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy brought that fond memory back.

Sixteen years and $7 trillion spent fighting terrorism—which mysteriously morphed into nation-building before our eyes—hasn’t panned out? Well, don’t focus on that failure. Focus instead on this cup, over here: the renewed threat posed by Russia (and China, too, for good measure).

That’s the bottom line of the Trump administration’s first formal military strategy, released Jan. 19. If you’re the U.S. Defense Department—or a commander-in-chief preoccupied by the size of your nuclear button—there’s something comforting about a return to the Cold War playbook. After all, it generated steady funding blessed with what the military-industrial complex cherishes: a decades-long, eyeball-to-eyeball showdown requiring immense investments in new weapons, but without firing a shot. Think of it as national-security symbiosis: the threats, sufficient without exaggeration, generate even more lucre when peddled as a dire threat to the nation. That’s why Trump and Mattis will reportedly propose a $716 billion defense budget for 2019 next month. That represents a 7 percent hike over this year’s pending spending plan, and a sharp 13 percent hike over 2017’s.

“[W]e will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today, but great power competition—not terrorism—is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said when he unveiled the 11-page unclassified summary of a much-longer secret strategy. Russia and China are "revisionist powers" trying to "create a world consistent with their authoritarian models, pursuing veto authority over other nations' economic, diplomatic and security decisions,” the defense chief said.

“We cannot expect success fighting tomorrow's conflicts with yesterday's weapons or equipment,” he added. “Investments in space and cyberspace, nuclear deterrent forces, missile defense, advanced autonomous systems, and resilient and agile logistics will provide our high-quality troops what they need to win.”

“Win”?

It’s a word Mattis used more than once (along with “lethal,” another favorite of the retired four-star Marine general), although the U.S. military hasn’t done it routinely since World War II.

The Pentagon rolled out the heavy verbal artillery to make its case. The world’s “security environment” has become “more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory” as the “long-standing rules-based international order” falls apart. Yet the Pentagon decries this state of affairs as if it is an innocent bystander on the global stage, instead of an invader now fighting in 76 countries around the world—40 percent of the total.

“A more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force” will “sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order,” the National Defense Strategy says. This is the Pentagon’s report, to be sure, but the notion that economics, diplomacy, culture and cooperation can play a role are strangely MIA.

“In this time of change, our military is still strong,” Mattis said. “Yet our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare, air, land, sea, space and cyberspace, and it is continuing to erode.” But there are few specifics. The publicly-available National Defense Strategy is a blueprint for the future U.S. military drafted in invisible ink. It’s a take-it-or-leave document, crammed with assertions and claims but with no discussion of numbers of troops or dollars or tradeoffs, or the underlying rationale for the sought-for increased investment. It’s basically the Pentagon issuing marching orders to the American people.

There is no measured self-reflection in the document to help taxpayers understand what the nation, and its brave troops, have accomplished after 16 years of non-stop war. But in today’s Washington, even raising such questions is often seen as tantamount to treason. Any cost-benefit analysis of U.S. military ops since 9/11 would hardly support the notion that the U.S. military needs more money.

That’s why, unlike the Obama administration’s pivot to the Pacific (now all-but-forgotten), the Trump administration is pivoting to Moscow and Beijing. NATO isn’t the most powerful alliance in the history of the world—it’s the confederation binding the military, its contractors, and Congress that holds that title.

But military might can no longer fly solo. “Since World War II and during the Cold War, American policy was based on the unstated premise that military deterrence and political (or strategic) deterrence were synonymous, equivalent and inseparable,” U.S. defense analyst Harlan Ullman wrote on The Observer website Jan. 24. “In the 21st century, military and political deterrence are no longer synonymous nor necessarily even connected.”

There is no measured self-reflection in the document to help taxpayers understand what the nation, and its brave troops, have accomplished after 16 years of non-stop war.

Predictably, China and Russia aren’t fans of the new Pentagon approach, either. “What makes the new strategy different from previous ones is that it only stresses competition among major powers without considering cooperation,” Guo Xiaobing, deputy director and a research professor at the Institute of Arms Control and Security Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, wrote on China’s Global Times website the same day. Such an approach “will lead to a vicious circle of an arms race, escalate tensions among big powers and result in traditional geopolitical conflicts.”

Which isn’t to say that Mattis’ strategy doesn’t make some fair points. The U.S. has exaggerated the threat of terrorism ever since 9:03 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, when Islamic fundamentalists flew United Airlines Flight 175 into the World Trade Center’s south tower 17 minutes after another airliner crashed into the north tower. What many initially thought was a terrible accident instantly was transformed into America under attack.

That has led to war without end. Of course, modern weapons don’t translate into wins against foes like the Taliban in Afghanistan. In fact, counter-insurgency—the Pentagon keystone in Afghanistan and Iraq—is absent without leave in this latest National Defense Strategy. The Department of Defense, and its suppliers, have long preferred planning for big-league wars with big-league weapons (too bad no one ever tells the enemy).

And to Mattis’s credit, he scraps the fiction that the U.S. should build a military big enough to win two major wars simultaneously (something the U.S. couldn’t juggle in Afghanistan and Iraq). Instead, he’s promoting a more realistic “1+” strategy based on defeating a single foe while maintaining the status quo against another. That’s precisely what the U.S. did starting in 2003 when it put the Afghan war on the back burner to focus on its invasion of Iraq.

Mattis also lobs some rounds at Congress. He slams lawmakers for their inability to pass budgets on time—predictable funding allows the Pentagon to spend its money more efficiently. “As hard as the last 16 years have been on our military, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the U.S. military than the combined impact of the Budget Control Act's defense spending cuts, worsened by us operating—nine of the last 10 years—under continuing resolutions, wasting copious amounts of precious taxpayer dollars,” he argued.

The strategy also pushes Congress to let it shutter unneeded military bases, something that petrifies lawmakers. That’s why there hasn’t been a round of base closings since 2005, leaving the Pentagon to pay for 19 percent of the domestic bases it doesn’t need. And cash isn’t the only cost: another round of base closings and adjustments would let the military shift its fighting units closer to their training sites. "The country should embrace a process that allows us to put our forces at locations that ultimately will provide the most benefit,” Lucian Niemeyer, the Pentagon real-estate guru, argued last fall.

Don’t hold your breath.

But back to that magician on Ed Sullivan. The Sunday-night show aired from 1948 to 1971, amid false Pentagon’s claims about a U.S. “bomber gap” and then a U.S. “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. CBS cancelled Sullivan’s show one week before The New York Times began publishing the Defense Department’s secret history of the Vietnam War. Those so-called Pentagon Papers turned the U.S. government’s already-widening “credibility gap” into a chasm.

Maybe the Pentagon thinks it’s time for a rerun.

Photo of Mark Thompson

By: Mark Thompson, National Security Analyst

Mark Thompson writes for the Center for Defense Information at POGO.

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