The Asian Pivot as a New Form of Warfare


It’s old, and likely thoroughly forgotten now, but last summer the Washington Post ran an excellent article on the U.S. military‘s “pivot” toward Asia, its origins, and its budget implications. It presented some meaningful background on where the pivot came from, and how it so quickly became dogma in Washington as the decade-long ground wars receded in the national rear-view mirror.

Beyond that, Greg Jaffe’s article last August offers a good explanation for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta‘s hysteria about defense budget cuts, and a useful criterion to assess Panetta’s nominated replacement, former Senator Chuck Hagel.

I urge you to read the piece: the pivot is not just a redirection of attention toward Asia; it is a proclamation of a new form of warfare, Air-Sea Battle, to solve the problem of defeating China’s presumed military ambitions in the Pacific with an assemblage of existing and new long-range, precision-strike weapons.

It is the brainchild of Andrew Marshall, the long-sitting director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, who has been working on the concept, in its many formulations, for at least three decades. Over the years, Marshall, who is described by both detractors and admirers as Yoda-like, has carefully nurtured-in some cases literally-a network of disciples in Congress, the defense industry, assorted think tanks and inside the Pentagon, especially in the Office of the Secretary of Defense-where he works.

The Air Force and the Navy are particularly enthusiastic about Air-Sea Battle; after a decade of budget emphasis on the Army and Marine Corps in the mostly-land conflicts in the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, ASB is so much all about the Navy and Air Force that, according to Jaffe’s article, they have “come up with more than 200 initiatives they say they need to realize Air-Sea Battle” and it “provides a framework for preserving [and expanding] some of the Pentagon’s most sophisticated weapons programs.”

The heavy bill for the hardware Air-Sea Battle contemplates was noted, last August, by numerous skeptics. In Jaffe’s article, Barry Posen-the director at MIT’s Security Studies Program-pointed out Marshall’s history of rationales for what is now called Air-Sea Battle saying “it should be called the Office of Threat Inflation.” As well, Jaffe quotes the Marine Corps-likely to lose big chunks of budget share under ASB-saying in a contracted study it would be “preposterously expensive.”

In a scorching piece at Time magazine’s Battleland that appeared shortly after the Post article, a widely-read military affairs author,Thomas P. M. Barnett, treated Marshall and his ideas with open contempt: “The most egregiously implausible efforts ever made to justify arms build-ups.Purposefully zeroing out all outside existing reality.Strategic thinking has been completely eliminated in the quest for program-preserving rationales.”

For some, the force has left Yoda. Indeed, he may have never had it.

Marshall’s earlier labeling for his infallible-hardware ideas about warfare, termed “Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA),” fell flat on its face-despite the hype that claimed otherwise-in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. There, laser guided bombs achieved nothing near the claimed “one bomb, one target:” for example, bridges-an iconic guided munition target-required 10 “precision” weapons on average, not one, to destroy.

The preposterously over-hyped F-117 “stealth” light bomber did not, as claimed, destroy Saddam Hussein’s radar air defenses in the first hours of the first night: that first night, bomb damage assessment confirmed that the F-117s got to and destroyed just two of their assigned 15 radar air defense targets, and by day five of the air war, Air Force intelligence assessed those radar air defenses as “down but not out.”

What is more, the RMA advocates were promising before the war that just five days of strategic bombing of critical nodes in Iraq would bring Saddam Hussein to surrender without the need for a ground campaign; instead the bombing took 31 days and the subsequent ground campaign took three days.

Not to be denied, for the second Iraq war, the RMA advocates told us “shock and awe,” the new moniker for RMA applications, would bring Saddam’s surrender (and death) in the first days, if not hours; that campaign didn’t quite turn out that way either.

The Post article also gives us an insight on why the recurring failures of RMA and ASB have such an everlasting grip in Washington. An early disciple, Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, now runs the prestigious Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank in Washington. According to Jaffe, CSBA collects about 40% of its annual budget-“about $2.75 million to $3 million”-from Marshall’s office. Krepinevich himself draws “about $865,00 in salary and benefits, or almost double the compensation paid out to the heads of other.think tanks.” In fact, Marshall annually sprinkles up to $19 million to think tanks, defense consultants and academics “with close ties to his office.” It surely helps them keep the faith.

Despite all of this reasoning to be skeptical about Air-Sea Battle, it has become the premier element of President Obama’s pivot to Asia, and it has won out as the emergent conventional wisdom for the era after America’s bloody infatuation with then-Army General David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine and its application in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Panetta, more pol than strategist, has not propounded meaningfully, or at length, about Air-Sea Battle. But he has made clear that the “pivot”-and endorsement of Air Force and Navy budget predominance based on ASB concepts-is the wave of America’s strategic future. They don’t like hearing people say explicitly that it is directed against China, but it obviously is.

It is America’s new strategic fixation-even if some would argue that it doesn’t even qualify as a strategy, and is simply a shift of bureaucratic spending priorities for hardware garbed in pseudo-strategic talk.

The focus on historically under-performing hardware, especially the long range-“global”-variety, displaces the higher-level thinking now needed. We must contemplate how to leverage China’s geographical disadvantage of being literally surrounded by actively-antagonistic and potentially-hostile neighbors: Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Instead, the pivot and ASB assert bromides like “work with allies.” It gratuitously and transparently anticipates war with China – which does several things, none favorable to the U.S. It:

– Tends to unite the Chinese internally.
– Makes outsiders potentially sympathetic to its cause.
– Antagonizes other neutrals who otherwise might be sympathetic to our cause.
– And can make our own allies wary of our poorly-masked belligerence.

These concerns are just some of the rudimentary criteria to apply in testing for a strategy that is at least competent.

Worst of all, ASB presumes a new Cold War with China to sustain the Pentagon’s own budget, thereby swapping strategic thought with material considerations.

Panetta proclaims that the “doomsday” of the sequester of the defense budget-in all, nearly a 10% cut in spending over the coming decade-would require him and the Administration to come up with a whole new strategy.

Indeed; what a tragedy that would be.

Sadly, their inclination to think shallowly and materially probably would mean the same poverty of ideas simply at lower budget levels.

Watch Hagel closely on these issues. Surely, as the Obama Administration’s new cabinet-level apparatchik, he surely won’t be so rude in the confirmation process as to trash the pivot, or even the Air-Sea Battle’s dependence on future high budget levels. But it will be interesting to see if he leaves even the tiniest amount of daylight between himself and these strategically bankrupt ideas.

It does not seem likely Hagel will bring such a badly needed breath of fresh air. He has already capitulated-fully and completely-against complaints that he is insufficiently inclined to war with Iran, as he made remarkably clear-in written words no less-to Senator Boxer in his Jan. 14 letter to her.

But even a hint of Hagel’s appreciation for the insolvency of dealing with a potential world power (and huge trading partner) with a presumption of war, employing-or our side-weapons that have failed time and time again in the past, would be an important sign. Moreover, amongst an American population now both weary and wary of politicians in high places talking belligerence in the face of available facts, it would be a very welcome one, as well.

Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, which recently moved to the Project on Government Oversight. For 31 years he worked on national security issues for U.S. senators from both political parties and for the Government Accountability Office.

Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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