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Speaking on 31 January to students at the National Defense University in Washington, The Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld announced a major shift in United States military strategy. The new objective was to be “deterrence in four critical theatres, backed by the ability to swiftly defeat two aggressors at the same time, while preserving the option for one massive counter-offensive to occupy an aggressor’s capital and replace the regime”.
Until then US Defense policy had gone through three distinct phases. Until the early 1970s, when the communist regimes were seen as forming a single bloc, it was based on a “two-and-a-half conflicts” scenario. Preparations were made for simultaneous wars with the Soviet Union and China, plus a regional conflict involving an enemy with a much smaller military capability than the two giants. The Korean war, the Vietnam war and the US military interventions in Lebanon, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic all fell into the “half-conflict” category.
The second phase began after the rift between the Soviet Union and China, when President Nixon adopted a “one-and-half-conflict” strategy, retaining the means to fight a major war with either the Soviet Union or China at the same time as a limited regional conflict.
The third phase started immediately after the end of the cold war. In the Base Force Review published in 1991, the Bush administration announced a new approach based on “two major regional conflicts”. This was confirmed by the Clinton administration in the 1993 Bottom-Up Review, and again in the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, where such conflicts were renamed “major theatre wars”.
On 31 January Rumsfeld not only extended the prospects of conflict from two to four major theatres. Attempting a closer definition of the threats facing the US, he grouped together in the enemy camp both terrorist organisations with global ambitions and states supporting them that were allegedly developing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. “The real concern at the present time,” he said, “is the nexus between terrorist networks and terrorist states that have weapons of mass destruction.” Threats were now defined both by their source and by their nature. “We need to prepare for new forms of terrorism, to be sure, but also attacks on US space assets, cyber attacks on our information networks, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.”
Paving the way for a considerable increase in US Defense expenditure, Rumsfeld listed six “transformational goals” of the new Defense strategy: to protect the American homeland and US bases overseas; to protect and sustain power in distant theatres; to deny the US’ enemies sanctuary; to protect US information networks from attack; to use information technology to link up different kinds of US forces for effective combined operations; and to maintain unhindered access to space and protect US space capabilities from enemy attack.
These far-reaching changes do not affect current doctrine on the deployment of forces, which continues to be based on the “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) (3) and focuses on the use of high-precision long-range weapons and on permanent information concerning potential targets and the deployment of enemy forces. RMA technology has led to the adoption of “strategic control” as the central concept of American Defense policy. Strategic control means the ability to monitor the enemy’s situation permanently, sap his strength by surgical strikes on military, industrial and political targets, and if necessary destroy his military, industrial and political potential completely in order to force him to retreat or capitulate.
Room for pragmatism
US strategists have consistently maintained that the strategic control doctrine was conceived as a means of responding to all types of conflict. How it is applied depends on the nature of the enemy (population, industrial potential, infrastructure, size of cities, etc). Above all, it depends on the nature of the political regime and the means required to overthrow or neutralise it. There is thus considerable room for pragmatism. No wonder that US experts and their think-tank consultants have being looking very closely at the way the doctrine was applied during the Gulf war and the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo.
The US air offensive against Iraq in 1991 lasted 43 days. It was followed by only four days of ground operations. In 1994, when ground operations in Bosnia were delegated to Washington’s allies, US bombers hit 300 targets at the cost of two planes lost and two American casualties. In the Kosovo war, the US air offensive lasted 78 days. It proved effective only against civilian targets in Serbia, Montenegro and on the territory of Kosovo itself, without any loss of life on the American side. The Pentagon admitted only the loss of one F117 stealth fighter and a dozen drones. The experts investigating the application of the strategic control concept agree that the air strikes against the Yugoslav armed forces were almost a total failure, destroying no more than 12 or 13 enemy tanks. These figures tally precisely with those of the Yugoslav high command. They are a far cry from the triumphant claims of Nato’s information and propaganda services during the war itself. Yet the same experts argue that US air strikes have become more effective from one war to the next.
The strategic control doctrine was also applied in Afghanistan, where it was adapted to the special nature of the terrain and the deployment of enemy forces. As long as priority was given to building up a political force capable of replacing the Taliban, US air strikes were directed against the enemy’s military potential – airfields, tanks, hardware concentrations and munitions dumps. They were backed up by high-precision cruise missiles fired from planes or warships.
When the objective shifted to the occupation of territory by the Northern Alliance, and subsequently by locally recruited Pashtun militias, the US switched to blanket bombing. This enabled its proxy ground forces to advance with the aid of a few US special units and without the need for large-scale engagements. Both Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul fell without major battles, although this did not prevent massacres from taking place. In Kandahar, where the Taliban had dispersed their forces, the strategy was to obliterate the city from the air. The death toll has not been published.
In Afghanistan as in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo, the US authorities believe their strategic control concept is being applied – with inevitable variations – effectively enough for them to achieve most of their political objectives with negligible losses for themselves.
The US military strategists and their supporters frankly admit the link between strategic control and the current plans for anti-missile Defense. Predictably, they invoke the supposed threat from states that have a limited military potential but possess medium- and long-range missiles capable of reaching US territory (4). They argue that American aerospace power rests on the invulnerability of US territory, since anti-missile Defense systems deployed abroad or at sea can at best serve as a back-up. The correlation between strategic control and anti-missile Defense turns out to be more decisive than official explanations would lead you to believe. The anti-missile Defense project, now renamed the Missile Defense System (MDS), originally came in for a great deal of criticism. But US determination to push ahead overcame all opposition – even when the Bush administration publicly announced its intention to withdraw from the 1972 ABM treaty. And even when it successfully carried out an anti-missile missile test launch from a surface vessel in defiance of the requirement for six months’ notice.
The MDS was the outcome of a strategic analysis based on absolute US superiority in all areas of Defense. The strategists involved – the members of the Rumsfeld commission and the Secretary of State, Colin Powell – concluded that the US need no longer be bound by the concepts of mutual deterrence and nuclear parity that had prevailed during the cold war. The present objective should be to reduce nuclear arsenals as far as possible while Russia and the US kept their own nuclear deterrents, since they no longer had any interest in attacking each other or any intention to do so. It followed that the American homeland, together with areas on the territory of US allies considered to be of vital interest, and US air and naval bases abroad had to be protected by an anti-missile system.
Protected against whom?
But protected against whom? Some of the strategists argued that the potential enemy whose offensive capability would be neutralised by an anti-missile barrier could be one of the “rogue states” stigmatised by US diplomacy. Others had no doubt the enemy was China. That debate has now run its course. Both the rogue states and China are accepted as potential threats in current US thinking, although the former are now simply referred to as “states involved in developing weapons of mass destruction”. China is unambiguously designated as a “peer competitor” and possible adversary in the “Joint Vision 2020” military analysis of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, a low-key version of which was published in June 2000.
Clearly the first zone beyond US borders to be protected by the MDS would be Taiwan, to prevent China seizing control of it. The US air and air-ground bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which Rumsfeld says are there to stay, would also be protected. To retain credibility, China would have to respond by increasing the number and performance of its missiles well beyond their current level. According to reliable US sources, it could within 12 years have more than 100 mobile ground-to-ground missiles fitted with nuclear warheads capable of reaching the US. Being mobile, they would be invulnerable to pre-emptive strikes.
The potential enemy could also be one the states forming the “axis of evil” which President Bush referred to in a speech on 29 January – Korea, Iran and Iraq. Yet none of these countries appears to have relations with the terrorist organisation responsible for the attacks on 11 September. Nor do they possess weapons of mass destruction, since those that Iraq was developing have now been dismantled.
The new strategy envisages the use of conventional forces against these three states. For each of them, various scenarios are being studied. In the case of Iraq, it is already clear that a pinpoint air offensive would not be launched unless the US was certain of locally recruited ground support. The aim would be a full-scale combined operation designed to end only with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The geographical, demographic, economic and military dimensions of Iran make conventional war against that country unlikely. The various scenarios envisaged range from a partial blockade to surgical strikes against industrial and military installations supposedly manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. But a blockade would require the creation of a disciplined coalition, which is no easy matter. And none of these scenarios would prevent reactions and counter-reactions escalating out of control.
The fact that North Korea has China as its neighbour restricts the possibilities for air or air-ground operations against it, although US strategists do not rule them out. They are also considering negotiating agreements with the North Korean government to restrict the production, development and export of missiles, similar to past agreements concerning the production of nuclear weapons.
The new US Defense budget is sufficient proof that the Bush administration is determined to prepare for the full range of possible conflicts with these three countries. Military expenditure was already on the increase towards the end of the Clinton administration. It rose from $259bn in 1998 to $279bn in 1999, $290bn in 2000 and $301bn for the financial year 2000-2001. While the new budget does not signal a general upsurge, the pace has clearly accelerated: from $328bn for 2001-2002 to $379bn for the following year. By 2007 we could be looking at a figure of $450bn. Under the impact of the September attacks, some budget heads have gone through the roof. Funding for measures to combat biological terrorism, for example, has almost doubled, from $1.4bn to $3.7.
The lesson is clear. The American administration has announced that the use of force is a necessary and legitimate means of achieving its aims. It is now gathering all the necessary resources.
Paul-Marie de La Gorce is a French journalist. His latest book is Le dernier empire : le XXIe siecle sera-t-il americain?, Grasset, Paris, 1996. This article originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique. Translated by Barry Smerin.