How will the US military prepare for future conflicts?
October 16, 2016
Editor's note: This is the final installation of "Facing the Future: Military matters facing the next president," a five-part series.
As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump light up cable news and engage in debates, national security and military experts for the presidential candidates are thinking about the conflicts to come.
A growing list of challenges, from the dangerous and shifting threat of the Islamic State group to Cold War-era politics reanimating tensions with Russia and China, along with a re-escalation in Afghanistan, could, in part, frame the rest of the election, and the American public will expect action on a host of national security priorities shortly after the oath of office is taken.
But while navigating the tensions across the globe, a more philosophical question about the future of the U.S. military must be addressed: How should America’s forces and taxpayers adapt to a world rife with conflict where foes range from the lone extremist with an assault rifle to menacing fleets of warships?
The war against the Islamic State group is a good testing ground for the Pentagon to weigh its options for reshaping the U.S. military to defeat threats of all sizes.
In April, Defense Secretary Ash Carter delivered a speech to the nonpartisan Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies in which he described breaking silos of command that focus on individual pieces and moving toward a more holistic and modern view of the battlefield.
“Our combatant commanders from Central Command, European Command, Africa Command and Special Operations Command have had to coordinate efforts more than ever before,” he said. “Increasingly, I’ve also brought Strategic Command and Cyber Command into these operations as well, to leverage their unique capabilities in space and cyber to contribute to the defeat of [the Islamic State group].”
That concept is a wrinkle in his Force of the Future initiative that seeks to shatter partitions between commands and harness technology and innovation to overcome force reductions and an ever-scrutinized budget.
But those commitments to a doctrine refresh are not absolute. The battle over Pentagon spending comes down to two fundamentally different outlooks.
If the next president’s view of a more prepared military comes down to bigger numbers — more troops, ships and planes — the budget must balloon. If the commander in chief sees the future of the force as Carter sees it, and calls for investments in technology and upgrades in equipment, it will translate into more efficient war machines run by fewer men and women.
But the first fight won’t be on a battlefield. It will be on Capitol Hill.
Dollars drive defense
Defense spending looms over every operation.
Carter requested a $583 billion annual budget this year that would have sailed through Congress a decade ago. But in the age of hyper-partisan politics and calls for increased spending at home, the next president and defense secretary might have to expend political capital quickly to fund military personnel and programs.
“Everyone would like to see a grand bargain, which is a governmentwide deal that tackles revenue, entitlements and discretionary spending” in the military, said Mark Cancian, a defense budget expert with CSIS. “And the beginning of an administration is the time to do it.”
Cancian said the political climate points to a smaller bargain of two-year budget plans for 2018 and 2019, with the chance to strike longer-term bargains against domestic spending and the national debt. That tension has mounted since 2011 with the Budget Control Act, which aimed to cut nearly half a trillion dollars from defense spending through 2021.
While overseas operations are funded, training and mobilization efforts are impacted by budget cuts, Cancian said.
“Readiness is something you buy every year. It’s perishable,” he said. If there is an unexpected contingency, the Pentagon would be forced to deploy troops at a lower level of readiness than they would like, Cancian said.
Those contingencies are looking more likely every day.
“The U.S. military will fight very differently in coming years than we have in Iraq and Afghanistan or in the rest of the world’s recent memory,” Carter said in February as he previewed the 2017 budget. “We will be prepared for a high-end enemy.”
More than $3 billion was requested in the 2017 budget to ramp up the European Reassurance Initiative — the Pentagon’s mobilization effort of thousands of troops and warfighting equipment designed to dampen worries of NATO allies facing growing Russian aggression following incursions into Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military has been under immense pressure to keep tensions with China from escalating into conflict in the South China Sea, a territory where China bolsters its presence under condemnation from international courts.
Two Chinese jets intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance flight over international waters in May. The same month, a U.S. destroyer was confronted by warplanes as it neared an island being developed for Chinese military operations, including runways and a port.
The next president will have to juggle those growing issues with the funds for ongoing operations against terrorist groups.
The budget laid out $7.5 billion to fund missions to defeat the Islamic State group, nearly $2 billion of which will restock 45,000 bombs dropped since August 2014.
About $200 million will fund operations in Africa against Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabaab, Stars and Stripes reported earlier this year.
“If the Pentagon wants to prepare for and fight these conflicts, they need more money, and they can’t do it without the money and forces the budget allows,” Cancian said.
An exhausted force
A doctrine of expanding forces is not as straightforward as producing more war machines. The Pentagon also needs the men and women who fly planes, command ships and maneuver tank battalions. That has proven to be difficult in an unprecedented era of operations tempo and a force stretched across the world.
The Air Force — a critical component of the mostly air war against the Islamic State group — faces a significant plunge of fighter pilots in coming years, with a prediction of coming up short as many as 1,000 pilots.
“It is a crisis,” Gen. David Goldfein, the new Air Force chief of staff, said in August about the problem.
Pilots stressed by too many missions and not enough time at home, or the budget and time to train, along with more attractive options in the private sector are to blame.
“The reality is, pilots who don’t fly, maintainers who don’t maintain, controllers who don’t control are not going to stay with the company,” Goldfein said.
The administration’s reluctance to dispatch ground combat troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria translates into the same issues for special operations troops.
President Barack Obama has culled the numbers of conventional forces in Afghanistan to more than 8,000, down from 100,000 in 2010, with a focus on advisory roles. Special operations troops have filled that vacuum and embed with Afghan commandos for high-value target raids and assist in coordinating airstrikes on militant positions.
That role has taken a recent toll. All three U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this year were special forces soldiers. And a 2014 report by The New York Times said 49 special operators killed themselves in the two previous years, which was more than the previous five, even as suicides overall in the force declined.
It is a culmination of a much-discussed issue in the special forces community: As conventional units are replaced by drones and small numbers of operators, how can their edge on the battlefield continue as their need and stress increases?
The top commander of special operations has pointed to solutions. In his confirmation hearing with Congress in 2014, Gen. Joseph Votel said more predictability and increased rest time at home were key to retaining special operations troops.
If the Pentagon wants to continue their operations tempo, it must square the issues of more time at home and mental health treatment for troops with the demand on special operators across a host of combat theaters. How the next president chooses to accelerate and prosecute those conflicts will have an impact on that dynamic.
A deadlier world
The next administration must also decide whether it will continue to incubate new ideas and concepts of how the U.S. military retains its dominance.
In 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled what he called the third offset: a Pentagon-wide focus on rolling back the erosion of military superiority against global competitors.
“While we spent over a decade focused on grinding stability operations, countries like Russia and China have been heavily investing in military modernization programs to blunt our military’s technological edge, fielding advanced aircraft, submarines and both longer-range and more accurate missiles,” Hagel said at the Reagan National Defense Forum held in California. “They’re also developing new anti-ship and air-to-air missiles, counter-space, cyber, electronic warfare, undersea and air attack capabilities.”
Since the end of World War II, the offset strategy was used successful in the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. Once the Soviets were able to match the United States with their own nuclear arsenal, America led the development of precision weapons and battle networks to retain an advantage over a similarly armed foe through the end of the Cold War.
While not an official program, the third offset pulls together several priorities: investing in unmanned drones and ships, shielding networks from cyberattacks and modernizing the force to once again take on near-peer armies.
But an old problem has become new — how to protect forces from devastating munitions, said Shawn Brimley, a defense strategy expert at the Center for a New American Security think-tank in Washington.
Writing at the military and defense strategy site War on the Rocks, Brimley and CNAS colleague Loren DeJonge Schulman described the third offset as a strategy “to help ensure that U.S. military forces can successfully operate in a world of ubiquitous precision munitions.”
The worldwide spread of precision munitions is not simply one issue the Pentagon looks to overcome.
“It drives everything,” from the budget to what new weapons projects to undertake, Brimley said.
Pentagon defense strategists have followed the development of carrier-killing missiles with consternation. A Chinese military parade last September flaunted the land-based DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile, and announcements made during the parade indicate a variant for anti-ship capabilities has been produced, according to IHS Janes Defense Weekly.
The system’s 2,500-mile range means it can strike ground targets as far as Guam, according to a Pentagon assessment, and the anti-ship variant would create huge pockets of dangerous space in the Pacific Ocean if Navy commanders assess the risk is too great to put carriers and destroyers in the range of Chinese ships or land-based launch sites.
A larger bubble of hostile zones in the Pacific region has driven a similar mushrooming of missile technology for the United States. The Pentagon is adapting its SM-6 ballistic anti-air missile for use on destroyers to attack other ships much like the Chinese DF-26. The range of the SM-6 remains classified, but other developments point to a preference for long-range attacks.
Additionally, the Tomahawk missile — a reliable weapon against fixed sites like arms depots and communication nerve centers since the Gulf War — has been modified to track moving targets in a first for that platform. Unclassified video of a Navy demonstration last year showed a Tomahawk missile successfully punching a hole through a moving ship.
As developments continue, the missile’s range of 1,000 nautical miles will give admirals more options on deterring Chinese operations in the South China Sea without committing to close-range activity.
Upgrading munition capability will also partly solve a problem with budget constraints — how to better arm Navy ships in a cost-efficient way. The 2017 budget also mandates Virginia-class submarines nearly quadruple the number of Tomahawk missile tubes on board, Bryan McGrath wrote for War on the Rocks. That will greatly increase the strike capability of individual submarines instead of developing and staffing additional ships.
A turning point
The next president’s vision for how ground troops should be utilized will be a turning point in doctrine and technology development, where programs and ideas built for emerging threats could either get additional blessings or be removed under aggressive budgetary scale-backs.
However those programs unfold, threats to ground-based troops from precision munitions will only grow. War planners at the Pentagon have watched conventional fights closely as guided rocket and mortar systems have become more prevalent in recent years, such as ones used by Russia-backed fighters in Ukraine, Brimley and Schulman wrote.
Ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan faced sporadic indirect fire on its bases and rarely changed the operating theory of massing forces in one location. Commanders had few concerns of troops operating even a few hundred yards from the base of unguided and hastily prepared mortar tubes and jury-rigged rocket systems wielded by insurgents.
Guided munitions change that picture against conventional threats, Brimley said, and even groups such as the Islamic State have the potential to acquire guided mortar systems and guided shoulder-fired rockets in the open arms bazaar of conflict-ridden Syria and Iraq.
Similar to the need to create standoff from naval threats, guided munitions have forced commanders to rethink how soldiers and Marines coalesce, mobilize and infiltrate in combat.
Line items in the next budget will propel this idea forward with evolving technology, if the new administration continues the momentum.
Bell Helicopter is betting its next decade on the V-280 Valor, an aircraft it believes will replace the Army’s stock of Apache and Blackhawk helicopters and solve the headaches of commanders and Pentagon accountants alike for decades: how to get troops to the fight faster from farther away, with a lower logistical hurdle.
The Pentagon has funded development of the Valor, including a prototype that is nearly 70 percent complete. Bell is confident it will fly next year, said Robert Hastings, the head of communications and government relations at Bell.
Hastings described the aircraft in a way that makes Pentagon budget analysts grin: It’s designed with digital engineering for efficiency backed by 350,000 hours of experience with the V-22 Osprey, the Marine Corps’ tilt-rotor workhorse. That wealth of research material has led Bell to leapfrog design challenges that meet most experimental programs.
The aircraft is the next generation of tilt-rotor aircraft, like the V-22 Osprey, that meld a helicopter’s vertical take-off with the speed and range of fixed-wing planes. The Valor is built around an Army infantry squad of up to 14 soldiers, Hastings said, constructed with the vision of swarms of aircraft assaulting the enemy.
What makes the Valor built for modern threats is its design, Hastings said. The aircraft can fly twice as fast and go twice as far as any helicopter in the Army’s inventory, and it can do so with less fuel — dramatically shortening the logistical presence that haunts military aviation units.
Hastings points to the Osprey’s use in Afghanistan as a proof of concept for the Valor. In that country, the Army relied on a network of nine medevac Blackhawk bases to cover the region to meet the standard of one hour from combat wounds to hospital care. The Marine Corps met that requirement with two Osprey bases.
The Valor’s expansion for the Army means the biggest service branch will give commanders a series of new options for how to flex forces at will, Hastings said. And its 2,100-nautical-mile range can keep troops safely away from most threats, with the Valor’s speed neutralizing the problem with time getting to target while remaining a safe distance from an enemy force.
“Imagine a unit of the 82nd Airborne being told they need to get on the other side of the world,” Hastings said, describing a scenario where paratroopers would self-deploy on a fleet of Valor aircraft. It could also be utilized for carriers in the Pacific and Indian oceans to deploy for missions ranging from disaster relief to pushing back on Chinese aggression.
The operational goal for the Valor is set for 2029, Hastings said, but development could be sped up to 2024. That could make the Valor a very visible project when the prototype is ready for flight next year—just a few months into the next president’s first year in office.
The survival of the third-offset philosophy will largely come down to the Pentagon managing budget and bureaucratic entanglements, Brimley and Schulman wrote.
“With so many competing priorities, many components in the building will not be inclined to lobby for sustainment and scaling of offset strategy efforts in the  budget next spring, and the next administration may not be inclined to embrace the hard work currently underway,” they wrote.
Much of the future of the strategy will fall onto elected leaders.
“When you look at the success of the second offset in the 1970s, it was civilians in Congress driving change,” Brimley said.
Writing for the magazine Foreign Affairs in August, Vice President Joe Biden advised the upcoming administration to remain focused on a to-do list for the next commander in chief.
“The choices we make today will steer the future of our planet,” Biden wrote. “In the face of enormous challenges and unprecedented opportunities, the world needs steady American leadership more than ever.”
Biden understands the urgency to make good on campaign promises and to start a presidency strong after he or she takes the oath of office. The opportunities are numerous. Achieving early success will silence critics and create early momentum. But it is also a time with new leadership across the administration under the same pressure to perform amidst new job responsibilities.
The enemies and global competitors of the United States understand the first few months of the new administration as opportunities to exploit inexperience.
The next Pentagon chief will be swamped with reviews and briefings while the war in Afghanistan enters its 16th year, U.S.-coalition forces battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group and Russia and China continue to ramp up their militaries in their spheres of influence. That includes Syria, where the United States must carefully manage airspace shared with Russian forces protecting President Bashar Assad regime’s as American bombers pound Islamic State targets there.
Russian will almost certainly step up military maneuvers and operations early in the year, Brimley said, and China is just as likely to test U.S. responses to construction of military outposts in the South China Sea.
But Brimley cautioned against one-off responses like military exercises to demonstrate strength. Russia is already thinking in terms of major combat operations as Ukraine and Syria are further destabilized, and as China’s economy falters it could use military aggression to compensate for domestic problems.
“The military and intelligence planning communities know this is coming,” Brimley said about the early pokes to U.S. power. “So they’ll be ready.”
horton.Alex@stripes.com Twitter: @AlexHortonTX