In many ways, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is the antithesis of his predecessor, Robert Gates. He is a consensus-builder who tries to work with the military services rather than dictating to them. But when it comes to concerns for the future of the NATO alliance Panetta appears to be channeling Gates. In his speech today to the opening of a meeting of NATO defense ministers, Panetta added his somewhat gentler voice to that of Robert Gates regarding the danger that continuing force structure cuts will render the alliance militarily irrelevant. Gates pointed out in his June speech that the U.S. had to provide critical capabilities that allowed the NATO allies to conduct a successful air campaign. Panetta reiterated this theme, adding a very specific list of NATO shortfalls:
“NATO had a significant shortage of well-trained targeting specialists, and the United States had to make up the difference by deploying more targeters to determine the targets to be struck. In addition, shortages of supplies and munitions plagued the effort — forcing the U.S. to sell millions of dollars of ammunition, repair parts, fuel, technical assistance, and other support items simply to keep the operation going. But nowhere were the gaps more obvious than in the critical enabling capabilities: refueling tankers, provision of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms such as Global Hawk and Predator drones.”
Both secretaries stressed that NATO had to remedy these critical capability gaps. Panetta added a warning that in the future the U.S. military might no longer have the resources, the critical enablers, to address both NATO requirements and America’s other security needs.
The Libyan conflict provides important lessons not only for NATO but also for the Department of Defense (DoD) as it struggles to adapt to declining budgets. The most important of these lessons is the importance of continuing to invest in the full range of capabilities needed to field and operate a modern military. NATO had plenty of air superiority and even ground attack aircraft. But as Secretary Panetta pointed out, the U.S. had to provide capabilities that allowed those combat aircraft to conduct their missions — ISR, cruise missiles, electronic warfare, aerial refueling, precision weapons and targeters. During the drawdown of the 1990s, DoD skimped on ammunition, spare parts, medical support and maintenance. Going forward, the department must resist the temptation to retain combat systems at the expense of supporting or enabling capabilities.
The second lesson is that airpower not only can compensate for an imbalance between hostile and friendly ground forces but in many circumstances can achieve decisive results virtually on its own. This is a lesson NATO first learned in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, relearned in the initial phase of Operation Enduring Freedom and now has confirmed in Libya. Modern airpower is uniquely capable of empowering even extremely weak ground forces. As DoD decides how to reshape the U.S. military for the future it must look to leverage the strategic and operational advantages airpower can provide both to other U.S. forces and to our allies.
A third lesson is that in order for airpower to serve this role it is vital to establish air superiority. Once U.S. and NATO forces had destroyed Gaddafi’s air defense and command and control systems, the skies were safe for the family of U.S. drones, not only the Global Hawk and Predator, mentioned by Secretary Panetta but tactical drones such as the Fire Scout and Scan Eagle. Future air defense environments are likely to be more challenging. Consequently, DoD needs to maintain planned investments in systems that can gain and maintain air superiority, including the stealthy F-35, the long-range family of strike systems, next generation electronic warfare capabilities and a new generation of drones that can operate in contested airspace.
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