Features, Online — January 8, 2012 at 10:51 pm

The Defense Strategic Guidance: What’s New? What is the Focus? Is it Realistic?

By Ty Cobb* –

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President Obama went to the Pentagon to announce the Defense Department’s new “Strategic Guidance,” the document that will serve as the template for weapons acquisition, force sizing, military strategy, budgeting, and geographic focus for the future. It is highly unusual for the President to personally announce the new guidance, but it was clear that Obama wants everyone to understand that, however controversial (and it is), this is the document that will drive force reductions, mission realignments, and procurement for the next decade.

The new Defense Guidance is being driven first and foremost by the fiscal crisis. The 2011 budget agreement requires the Pentagon to reduce spending by $487 billion, with $263 billion of that over the next five years! And that’s only if “sequestration” isn’t implemented in FY 2013, a move that would require another $600 billion in cuts!

Geographic and mission shifts

The Guidance shifts the focus of military planning to the Asia-Pacific area, calls for deep reductions of Army and Marine ground forces in favor of air and naval forces, abandons the “2-war” capability concept, and says good-bye to nation building and counter-insurgency operations.

Specifically, the Army will be reduced to 490,000 troops from 570,000 and the Marines to 175,000 from 202,000. The President and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta justified the downsizing by emphasizing that the U.S. is now “looking beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and is unlikely to be engaged again in long-term nation building with substantial ground force commitments. The document directly states that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.”  The Pentagon leadership hastened to add that we would retain the “know how” to conduct COIN operations if necessary and the ability to “regenerate” appropriate force levels if required. That might be very hard to achieve.

Panetta said the U.S. will increase its power projection capabilities, “focus on enhanced presence,” capitalize on our “technological edge,” maintain a force that is flexible, adaptable and nimble, and, above all, be cost effective. Hmm? Does this sound like Don Rumsfeld 10 years ago?

Geographically, the shift of emphasis to the “Asia-Pacific” theater portends a major rethinking of our base and force presence in Europe. Look for a major drawdown of our presence there and a demand that our allies take on more of the regional commitments as well as assisting in our global responsibilities. This all makes strategic sense given the low threat level presently in the European theater.

The enhanced presence will mainly be in the waters south of east Asia, but not with respect to Korea, ironically considering the turmoil in Pyongyang following the death of Kim Jong Il. Nor does it say anything about Japan. The focus is on China and the oceans and seas nearby.

The Guidance is quite clear with respect to the abandonment of any pretense of maintaining the ability to fight two major contingencies simultaneously. In reality we lost that option years ago, if we ever really had it, but this is the first time that it has been acknowledged. We now will have the ability to fight one major war while handling other minor contingencies. Realistic.

What is driving the new focus of the Guidance clearly are concerns over the growing military might of China and what is seen as the PRC’s expansionist goals in the South China Sea and beyond. Thus in place of the “Air-Land Battle” doctrine of the Cold War era, the Defense Guidance emphasizes the priority that the “Air-Sea Battle” doctrine now has.

What are the weapon choices for implementing this guidance?

The President stated that, “We will continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems so that we can invest in the capabilities that we need for the future.” What might these weapons be? Probably nuclear weapons for starters, although they are relatively inexpensive. Secretary Gates already cut the buy on the F-22, thinking that there is no country that could significantly challenge our air superiority. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, hobbled by cost overruns and serious technical issues, might be a candidate for reduced purchases. Ironically, given the stress on power projection, the Pentagon also plans to reduce our aircraft carriers from 11-10 (probably reflecting valid conclusions that the Chinese will soon have missile capabilities to take out carriers and surface ships rather quickly).

Cyber warfare is highlighted often in the Guidance, so expect significant increases in denial capability as well as offensive cyber intrusion capabilities. Look for an expansion of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like the Predator drones, which have become a mainstay of our counter-terrorism operations and will be more fully integrated into war planning for major contingencies.

Any capability that enhances the work of Special Operations forces will be given a high priority since CIA-JSOC forces and requirements will receive more attention. In countering threats in places like Yemen, Somalia, or even Pakistan, the direction will favor the employment of aerial drones and Special Operations forces. They are cheaper and less politically intrusive.

The Defense Guidance comes under quick and heavy criticism

Critics were quick to dump on the new Guidance. Some feel the focus on a singular threat (China) in place of “strategic pluralism” fails to anticipate where threats may arise. They note that we have been very weak in forecasting where U.S. forces might need to be committed over the past 20 years, and the Guidance foregoes flexibility on that front. They also point out the maintaining “multiple capabilities” complicates a potential enemy’s planning.

Nearly everyone adversely impacted by this shift has raised alarm bells, including organizations that protect military retiree and health benefits, which will certainly be reduced! Army and Marine related groups are understandably apoplectic, as are major defense firms producing weapons for the current environment or for the “fight two major wars simultaneously” contingencies. Not too many main battle tanks to be coming off the assembly lines in the future.

In sum however, these critics fail to take under consideration the fiscal crisis the country faces. Reductions across the board are coming down the line and the Pentagon cannot be exempted. Indeed, as the President pointed out, we will continue to spend more on defense than the next 10 countries combined! And with a public mood decisively shifting away from “foreign entanglements,” the Defense Guidance does reflect political as well as economic realities.

Do you agree? For your information the Defense Guidance is available here. Take a shot at rewriting it!


*Dr. Cobb was a professor at West Point and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army in the years just prior to the Reagan Administration. He consulted with the National Security Council during the latter half of the Carter administration and the early Reagan administration on international energy issues. At the start of the Reagan administration, Dr. Cobb was on an exchange in the Soviet Union. After the change in National Security Advisor to William Clark and Deputy Robert “Bud” McFarlane, Cobb was asked to submit strategy papers regarding the long-range strategic position of the United States vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. As a result of these papers he was asked to join the NSC staff as a member of the European and Soviet Affairs Directorate to work on European issues and Canada, and to provide some input on long-range strategic Soviet policy. He took Dennis Blair’s slot within this directorate. Cobb worked very closely with Peter Sommer and they divided responsibility for 34 countries among themselves. Cobb was responsible for France, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Austria, the Vatican, etc. As part of his Soviet responsibilities, Cobb attended the Geneva and the Reykjavik summits. In 1988, Cobb took Robert Dean’s place as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of the International Programs and Technology Affairs Directorate, with responsibility for science & technology agreements, export policy, United Nations issues, and the environment. He became President and CEO of the Business Executives for National Security (BENS) in 1991, then left to become President/CEO of the Yosemite National Institutes (1995-2002). He returned to his home town of Reno, NV, where he heads up the Northern Nevada Network as well as the National Security Forum. Dr. Cobb received a Ph.D. from Georgetown University, an M.A. from Indiana University, and a B.A. from the University of Nevada. He is married to Suellen Small of Reno, NV. They have three children.

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  1. Pingback: Pentagon Fires at an Unhittable Budget Target: Peter Orszag | Cheap Fires

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