Author: Hugh White
Two recent speeches by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates — one at West Point last Friday-week and one to the USAF Academy last Friday — raise questions about America’s future strategic objectives and the future of the US Army which closely parallel those we face here about the Australian Army.
At West Point, Gates told the cadets that America is unlikely to fight major continental land wars in future. ‘The Army also must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements – whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere’, he said. ‘Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined,” as General MacArthur so delicately put it.’
Gates drew the obvious implication that the need for traditional heavy armoured and mechanised forces would decline in favour of lighter forces suited to the ‘security challenges we face right now’. The Army ‘will be increasingly challenged to justify the number, size, and cost of its heavy formations’, as ‘the prospects for another head-on clash of large mechanized land armies seem less likely’.
He also made it clear that the need for lighter forces would be, or should be, lower than over the past decade.
The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq – invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country – may be low. But…those unconventional capabilities will still be needed…to prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly – and controversial – large-scale American military intervention.
If I’m reading this right, Gates seems to be saying that the US Army should not be designed primarily for high-intensity conflicts nor for large-scale stabilisation operations, but for smaller scale interventions designed to avoid the need for large ones.
But Gates also suggested that the fad for counter-insurgency has already passed, at least in his ring of the Pentagon. ‘By no means am I suggesting that the U.S. Army will – or should – turn into a Victorian nation-building constabulary – designed to chase guerrillas, build schools, or sip tea’. (Or eat soup with a knife, he might have added.) So what does he think these ‘unconventional capabilities’ will do to stop the next Iraq or Afghanistan happening?
All this raises some very interesting questions about Gates’ view of America’s strategic priorities and objectives over the next few decades.
His emphasis on new security threats over traditional state-on-state conflicts sits oddly with the clear recognition in Washington that China poses America’s principal strategic challenge over the next few decades, and with what he said a week later at the USAF Academy (more on that below). But the focus on China is consistent with his priority for air and naval rather than land operations in high-level conflict. It is clear that US has no plans at all to confront China on continental Asia.
Likewise, we should not be surprised that Gates rules out large-scale land operations in the Middle East. But Gates’ view of the Army’s future has intriguing implications for America’s posture in Europe, which is rather pointedly not mentioned in any of the passages that deal with US strategic priorities.
Shorn of diplomatic window-dressing, America’s core strategic objective in Europe since the Cold War has been much the same as it was during the Cold War – to keep Russia out of Europe (well, if it’s not that, what is it?). America could not fight Russia in Europe without engaging Russian land forces on the continent. The eastward extension of NATO carried clear implication that that the US was willing to do that, all the way to the Estonia.
Gates is now very clearly implying that the US does not need to be able to fight Russia in Europe. So either he thinks there is a negligible risk of Russian military pressure on its Western neighbours over the next three or four decades, or he doesn’t think America needs to be able to do anything decisive about it. Either way, its pretty startling.
Moreover, it leaves a very big question: what exactly is the US Army supposed to do in the post-Cold War, post-War on Terror world? American strategic interests on other continents do not justify the huge costs and risks of major land campaigns against other major powers, and nor do they justify major land campaigns to stabilise weaker states.
The only compelling strategic rationale Gates seems to see for American land forces is to provide ‘swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations’ for ‘counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security force assistance missions’. And what sort of Army is that? Well, it looks to me like the Marine Corps.
We face a similar question here. If we can defend the continent at all, we must do it at sea. We will never be able to exercise significant strategic weight against Asian major or middle powers with the land forces we could deploy and sustain beyond the continent, and after the last decade’s experience we have neither the ability nor the appetite to use land forces on large-scale stabilisation operations near or far. So what exactly is the Army for?
That takes me briefly to Gates’ USAF Academy Speech. There he repeated earlier statements about the growth of China’s (and others’) anti-access and area denial capabilities. ‘The Air Force will play a lead role in maintaining U.S. military supremacy in the face of this anti-access, area-denial strategy’, he said, and went on to speak of the emerging Air-Sea Battle Concept. It is clear Gates sees countering China’s anti-access strategy as the core role for America’s air and naval forces over coming decades.
But this sits oddly with what he said at West Point the week before. He told the Army that America was not interested in projecting major land forces into Asia or anywhere else against major or even middle-power adversaries. So why does America need to defeat China’s anti-access strategy? Would it not be enough to be able to achieve the same anti-access objectives against China? What exactly is the Air-Sea Battle against China meant to achieve?
This comment was originally published in The Interpreter, Lowy Institute for International Policy