Archive for the ‘Comments’ Category

Fixing a Failed Strategy in Afghanistan

Gilles Dorronsoro. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 2009.


…the International Coalition, with its limited resources and diminishing popular support, should focus on its core interests: preventing the Taliban from retaking Afghan cities, avoiding the risk that al-Qaeda would try to reestablish sanctuaries there, pursue a more aggressive counterinsurgency strategy in the North, and reallocate its civilian aid resources to places where the insurgency is still weak.

Editor’s Comment

Some would say that Pashtunistan is already a nation which can’t yet fully establish itself as a state (although there is already considerable local governance, both Pashtun tribal and Taliban.) Presently Punjabi (Pakistani) and US/NATO military intervention prevent the establishment of a state.

Dorronsoro’s Afghan war strategy would seem to be a step in moving the Pashtunistan national cause to within a decade or so of success. Of course, the cities of Kandahar and Jalalabad would have to fall under Pashtunistan governance eventually, even if Western forces resisted for some years.

Map of Pashtunistan

Keeping the aircraft carrier fleet afloat

Christopher M. Lehman. Boston Globe, 14 October 2009.

Editor’s Comment:
It has been several decades since simply counting the numbers of weapon systems or platforms has been anything like a reliable measure of military power. In a modern military effective power is achieved by the combination of well-trained men and women, advanced communications, agile allocation of forces, precision controls and, of course, good weapon systems and appropriate platforms for this complex package.

Christopher Lehman’s op-ed in defense of the eleven carrier fleet (Boston Globe 14 October 2009) fails to mention, let alone assess, any of these crucial aspects of the modern Navy. Nor does he mention the numerous expeditionary strike groups, surface action groups, and missile-armed submarines that also project American power around the globe. And he does not mention that a term of preference in today’s Navy is “network-centric.”

Although the number of platforms (ships) in today’s Navy is considerably fewer than during the Cold War, the firepower on today’s collection of ships has more than doubled, and is still growing. And that is only a starting place for measuring the effective power of the Navy. Reducing the size of the carrier fleet by one or two flattops is not a high risk proposition for the national security of the United States.


Reader Comment from a letter to the Boston Globe:

Isn’t it inappropriate for the Globe to publish an oped advocating the construction of aircraft carriers when the author works at a consulting firm that represents Northrop Grumman, the company responsible for carrier construction? In Christopher Lehman’s Oct. 14 oped, “Keeping the aircraft carrier fleet afloat,’’ the Globe did not bother to disclose the author’s financial stake in the position he was arguing, which would have helped readers evaluate Lehman’s credibility (or lack thereof) as a dispassionate analyst.

Lehman doesn’t base his case on military or strategic grounds, conceding at the very beginning that “the United States does not need aircraft carriers to counter those of other countries.’’ Instead, he asserts that carriers are valuable as power projectors that the United States uses to affect crises “without releasing a single weapon.’’ In other words, while carriers might not actually do much militarily, they make us feel like we’re shaping outcomes. Proponents of building more carriers can then cite such shaping, which is impossible to prove or disprove, as evidence that we need more carriers.

Lehman also points out that carriers both act as “levers of American good will’’ and are being built by many other countries, including some considered potential future adversaries of the United States. On the first point, humanitarian missions are not sufficient justification to build $11-billion-per-ship carriers that spend most of their time floating around in the middle of the ocean. Other ships are more practical. A carrier is a weapon of war, and arguments that try to frame it as anything else are disingenuous. On the second point, Lehman implies that because other countries build carriers, the United States should build them, too. “Keeping up with the Joneses’’ is the antithesis of strategic thinking, particularly when the United States already maintains such a large advantage in military capability.

— Travis Sharp, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Washington, D.C.

How I learned to stop worrying and live with the bomb: neither terrorists nor rogue states like North Korea are likely to use nuclear weapons

Michael Lind. Salon, 13 October 2009.

Editor’s Comment:
Even if the nuclear abolition movement grows in power and is able to convince the governments of the U.S., France, and Great Britain to move toward abolishing their nuclear weaponry, there is little chance that other great powers such as Russia, China, and India will follow suit — not as long as any of those powers can imagine a conventional war against the U.S. (or against other countries with powerful conventional forces.) Unfortunately, there is no way to separate the problems of nuclear weaponry from the problems of international power politics and war. You can work hard to deny the connection in your mind, but in the end denial won’t help the cause of making the world safer. If there is to be really deep nuclear disarmament it must be in concert with conventional disarmament and new agency for international security.

A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army

Gian P. Gentile. Parameters, Autumn 2009.


Population-centric COIN may be a reasonable operational method to use in certain circumstances, but it is not a strategy.

Editor’s Comment:

Agreed! COIN is a collection of tactics. What is missing in Afghanistan is a strategy with any credible chance of success … despite the lip-service to political solutions.

A clear and present danger: QDR must recognize need for two-war construct

Mackenzie Eaglen and Jim Talent. Armed Forces Journal, October 2009.

Editor’s Comment: Before launching into their polemic calling for even more investments in the military sector (on top of 40+% real growth in the last decade for the Pentagon base budget) Eaglen and Talent usefully point out that the forthcoming QDR is, in a formal sense, based on the last Bush administration National Security Strategy, now three years old.

Logically, if the QDR is to serve as an expression of how military planning, program and posture align with national security and defense strategy, then our current schedule for the production of these documents is seriously out of sync with political cycles. It is reasonable to expect that an incoming administration, such as Obama’s, might require eighteen months to review and craft a revision of the National Security Strategy.

Starting with a revised National Security Strategy (The White House) appearing in June 2011 a schedule for the derivative documents might then be:

National Defense Strategy (SecDef’s office) – January 2012
National Military Strategy (Joint Chiefs) – June 2012
Quadrennial Defense Review (SecDef’s office) – June 2012

Note the logic of this sequencing: The White House sets any considered changes in the broad strategy (the National Security Strategy) eighteen months after coming into office. The Secretary of Defense then leads the process of determining and announcing six months later refinements to the National Defense Strategy. The Joint Chiefs have six additional months to refine their National Military Strategy document which is published the same month as the DoD’s Quadrennial Defense Review (which puts the strategy, defense planning/posture and budget all together.)

Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy

Justin Kelly and Michael James Brennan. Strategic Studies Institute, Army War College, 16 September 2009.


Recent western military exploits in Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and East
Timor, all represent, if not strategic failure, at least failures of strategy. The question we need to ask
ourselves is whether this weakness is endemic or at least partially a result of our own theoretical failings by
allowing operational art to escape from any reasonable delimitation and, by so doing, subvert the role of
strategy and hide the need for a strategic art?

Editor’s Comment:

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, there emerged in this country a revisionist narrative of “meddling” by civilian leaders such as Johnson and McNamara which had “prevented” the military from winning the war. Although this narrative was almost entirely counter factual, it has had enough resonance in a nation deeply troubled by the war’s outcome that subsequent civilian leadership has opted to effectively “hand-off” wars to their generals and step back from responsibility for key strategic decisions.

Generals are, for the most part, skilled operational practitioners, but only sometimes do they have well-developed strategic skills or wisdom. As the authors point out, handing-off responsibility for strategic decisions to the generals is an error in the practice of grand strategy… and we should not be surprised with how often our subsequent wars have gone badly.

My hope is that President Obama will read this essay before making his decision about what to do next in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

U.S. Navy May Extend Some F/A-18s in Wait for F-35C

Antonie Boessenkool. Defense News, 03 August 2009.


“They must, they absolutely must, enter the fleet on time and on budget,” [Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations] said, stand­ing before a green-painted F-35C at Lockheed Martin’s assembly plant here. “If we don’t get this airplane on time, we’re going to realize a gap in the number of airplanes we take to sea.” Roughead said the Navy may ex­tend the service life of its older F/A-18 models as it waits.

Editor’s comment:

The Navy could relax its delivery schedule for the new fighter by five years or so if it downsizes its carrier fleet (without sacrificing strategic power projection) as recommended by the Project on Defense Alternatives. This would free up newer F/A-18s to replace older ones in the Navy’s remaining active air fleet.

See also: “No Navy Fighter Gap: PAE” —

Is the QDR ‘a PR stunt’ or a sincere effort to reconcile posture and budget with strategy?

by Charles Knight

Last fall I attended a seminar at MIT entitled “Analytical Tools for the Next Quadrennial Defense Review” given by senior analyst who had worked on several QDRs. The QDR is an every-four-years Pentagon study mandated by Congress and meant to review how closely the defense posture and its supporting budget fits with the national strategy. The seminar presenter spent an hour detailing the analytical methods of those who worked on the “force structuring” and policy studies that provide the basis for the QDR review process. That process is ongoing this year in preparation for the release of fourth QDR in early 2010.

After the presentation a former member of the National Security Council who happened to be seated to my right turned to me and said, “[The QDR] seems like a fraud.”

More recently Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI), Chairman of the House Armed Services air and land forces subcommittee, referred to the QDR as a “PR stunt” and a “PR exercise” (as reported by Marjorie Censer, Inside the Pentagon, 18 June 2009.) Rep. Abercrombie then went on to offer a less than precise elaboration, saying, “It’s all Thunderbird stuff, booms and all that.”

I can not be all that sure what the former National Security Council member or Rep. Abercrombie meant by their characterizations of the QDR. But, having followed all four QDRs fairly closely, I can make an educated guess at what they are getting at.

Congress has intended that through the QDR the Pentagon will make a serious attempt to reconcile the national defense strategy to the defense posture of the services and from that presumed point of congruence reconcile it to the defense budget. Policy analysts frequently complain that strategy, posture and budget are dangerously out of whack. If the QDR process addresses this problem and then does the analytical and policy work required for making real advances toward reconciliation then we can judge that it is meeting its stated purpose. If it results in a public document that uses rhetorical flourish in order to mask disjuncture of ends and means and to perpetuate prior posture and budget directions, then it is something like a ‘fraud’ or ‘PR exercise.’

The unfolding 2010 QDR process gives us a good opportunity to look for evidence of either real reconciliation or PR exercise. A few pieces of evidence:

  • There are dozens of high level policy professionals and planners in the Pentagon who have more than a cursory responsibility for aspects of the QDR. They work with hundreds of others, some inside the military and many civilian consultants and contractors. Models are built and simulations are run. Task forces and issue teams work the results. No doubt many of these people would be indignant if you told them their work was simply serving public relations and had little effect on the direction of policy.
  • On the other hand, modeling output and even the output of task forces are quite sensitive to starting assumptions and specifications. Senior civilian and military leaders in the Pentagon carefully review input parameters and seek to influence how the particulars of output is summed up and presented to those responsible for the next steps in the process of getting to the final report. “Startling findings” and their policy implications are unlikely to find their way into the document drafts unless senior leadership wants them there.
  • Consider also that Defense News has reported that the Pentagon is moving ahead with the FY’11 budget process before the budget work on the 2010 QDR is completed. This is at least suggestive of prior budget and posture decisions running the QDR output rather than the other way around.
  • [This site will take note of what other evidence emerges pertaining to the question of whether the QDR is ‘a fraud’, ‘a PR stunt’, or a sincere effort to reconcile posture and budget with strategy? I invite your comments and viewpoints on this important question.]