The Pentagon’s quadrennial review of strategy and requirements is returning the joint force to a threat-based military posture. After eight years of toying with the idea of a “capabilities-based” posture, policymakers are keying military preparations much more closely to current threats and challenges. That’s good, because during the Bush years the infatuation of policymakers with futuristic technology seemed to be putting America on the fast track to defeat in Iraq.
The quadrennial review has identified gaps in joint force capabilities for dealing with irregular threats and high-end “asymmetric” attacks that will lead to new spending priorities for the military services. Mr. Gates may not hail from the ranks of big strategic thinkers, but he is doing everything he can to assure that America doesn’t lose the wars it is currently fighting. In fact, this quadrennial review is much more focused on challenges the military will face within the 2011-2015 budgeting period than more distant dangers, which is something of a departure from previous quadrennial exercises.
But while threat-based planning is a lot more concrete and relevant to current needs than the nebulous capabilities-based approach, it has one key drawback: it allows current adversaries to dictate military priorities. Planners are so absorbed in winning today’s fight that they neglect other kinds of challenges — such as the conventional threats posed by successive waves of imperialism, fascism and communism in the last century. The simple truth is that today’s threats are relatively modest, and it is our war aims that make overseas contingencies difficult to win. If our only goal was to wipe out the Taliban the way we wiped out the Nazis, our troops would have come home a long time ago. Instead, we are trying to win the hearts and minds of some rather peculiar people.
Which brings me, oddly enough, to the subject of unmanned aircraft. Unmanned aircraft like Predator have become emblematic of the way we are fighting wars today. They provide an unblinking eye over hot spots that would be hard to monitor continuously from manned aircraft or satellites, and they have proven remarkably useful in killing terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The bigger unmanned systems like Global Hawk provide extraordinary richness and reach in reconnaissance, while their smaller tactical cousins give combat commanders new ways of understanding local conditions.
However, what many experts fail to grasp is that the value of unmanned systems results largely from the weakness of current adversaries. Because the Taliban and Al Qaeda lack their own air forces, or radars, or surface-to-air missiles, they cannot counter unmanned aircraft effectively. That would not be the case with state-based adversaries such as China and Iran — or even Serbia — because unmanned aircraft are intrinsically fragile and largely defenseless. Indeed, they may be the first military planes in history that can be defeated by adversaries flying in unarmed trainers.
Because unmanned aircraft have small payloads and limited maneuverability, there are many missions they cannot perform even against poorly equipped enemies. In other words, they are a niche capability for accomplishing certain types of missions against certain types of adversaries, not a revolution in warfighting. So while unmanned aircraft may be the Pentagon’s technological flavor of the day, don’t expect them to do the heavy lifting when a real enemy comes along.
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