PARIS --- The one great failing of the QDR unveiled this week is that it does little more than fine-tune a system that is failing to do its most basic job: provide effective armed forces and generate cost-effective military capabilities.
Since 2003, the United States has spent $904 billion on military operations in Iraq ($687 billion), Afghanistan ($184 billion) and related activities ($33 billion), according to an estimate by the respected Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. In return, it has made virtually no progress in defeating its designated enemy, Al Queda, which at most consists of a few thousand fanatics so primitive that their most lethal weapon is the suicide bomber.
The real fight against Al Queda is being fought elsewhere: by Predator UAVs cruising in Pakistani airspace and disposing of terrorist leaders by remotely-piloted assassination, at a cost of a few million dollars, while no-one really remembers what the hundreds of thousands of troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan are supposed to achieve. Are they there to support Jalal Talibani’s and Hamid Karzai’s interpretation of elective democracy? Their pro-active tolerance of government corruption? Karzai’s participative approach to the pharmaceutical industry? In any case, the US has preciously little to show for its investment of over 5,000 military lives and nearly one trillion dollars in south-west Asia.
It should by now be abundantly clear that defeating Al Queda and other terrorist organisations requires three things, none of them military: selective assassination (CIA); infiltration and monitoring of terrorist networks (NSA, CIA, allied intelligence services) and preventing attacks on US territory (Border Patrol, FBI, counter-intelligence).
Military intervention in South West Asia has had no demonstrable effect on terrorists; on the contrary, it has been the catalyst for the emergence of the suicide bomber, and for a popular, anti-Western Islamic movement which did not exist beforehand.
Against this background, the QDR simply ambles along, cutting a program here and adding a few billion there, but with the primary goal of fixing the damage that eight years of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have wrought on the all-volunteer force and its reserve components.
As noted elsewhere, it is remarkable how little the QDR changes the current force structure. None of the rumored major cuts in some capability areas came to pass; on the contrary, more money is invested in more capabilities, such as ISR and helicopters, without comparable cuts in others, and this will inevitably lead to higher costs down the road.
There also is a deliberate move to rebalance the Pentagon towards counter-insurgency operations. The first goal “is to prevail in today's wars -- the first time this objective has appeared in a QDR,” US Defense Secretary Gates proudly noted, adding that “Achieving our objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq has moved to the top of the institutional military's budgeting, policy and program priorities.”
But it is a mistake to let the tail wag the dog, because focusing on today’s counter-insurgency operations will distract the Pentagon from the conventional, large-scale operations that are, and will remain, its priority mission until universal disarmament becomes a reality.
Instead, the QDR should finally have recognized that fighting terrorists is primarily a job for the intelligence services and police, not for the military, and that protecting the homeland is the job of the Department of Homeland Security, not the Pentagon.
The consequences are clear: a sizeable chunk of the Pentagon’s budget and establishment should be transferred to these organisations, to allow their expansion and equipment.
This would leave the Pentagon primarily focused on conventional warfare, and on protecting national interests globally. And it is already structured and amply manned for these missions, and requires only a radical and long-overdue overhaul of its acquisition bureaucracy to avoid waste and duplication.
This leaves open the question of what to do with Afghanistan, Iraq and other failed states, and new missions such as piracy.
Here, the QDR should have recognized that peace-keeping, counter-insurgency and similar missions are complex but non-war tasks that require different equipment and training than conventional warfare. Accordingly, these para-military missions should be transferred to another bureaucratic entity – perhaps a new department, or perhaps the State Department, which is more attuned to civil missions like policing and mentoring. And the Marine Corps, augmented by part of Special Operations Command, could for example be tasked with the military aspects of these missions, returning it to its original historical role of fighting the Barbary pirates “on the shores of Tripoli” rather than continuing as the Navy’s private army.
And the forces and equipment (22,000 MRAPs, for example) now used for counterinsurgency operations could form the nucleus of the standing international peace-keeping force that the world’s diplomats have been dreaming of for decades. Whatever, just as long as they are hived off from the Pentagon.
Such a restructuring would transform US defense into three distinct, and distinctly focused, entities: homeland defense and counter-terrorism; unconventional warfare; and conventional warfare, with a slimmed-down Defense Department being tasked only with the latter.
One final thought. Gates was finally forced to act decisively this week to put the Joint Strike Fighter back on the rails, after discovering that he had been lied to about its true status by the US Air Force and Lockheed Martin.
This should have led him to question other Air Force decisions, such as the termination of production of other “unnecessary” aircraft like the F-22 and C-17, and development of the JSF’s alternate engine. These dubious decisions have drawn a lot of flak, which Gates curiously continues to ignore just as he ignored widespread and long-standing criticism of the JSF for far too long.
Instead of continuing to insist that they must be cancelled, he should now carefully reconsider whether, on the strength of his experience with the JSF, he can trust the Air Force leadership to have made the right calls on these three programs. Because once production is stopped, there will be no turning back.