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07 May 2009

Cutting for Counterinsurgency

US Army 3rd Infantry Regiment at attention

US Army soldiers from the 3rd US Infantry Regiment practicing for a ceremony in Virginia, April 2007.

Gates’ new US defense budget proposal is praised for its restraint and practicality and criticized for neglecting longer term security threats, Peter A Buxbaum reports for ISN Security Watch.

By Peter A Buxbaum in Washington, DC for ISN

The US Department of Defense is attempting to implement the lessons learned from its recent experience in a new budget plan for fiscal year 2010.

Whether that is a good thing or not depends on whom you ask. For those who believe that for the foreseeable future the US will be involved in conflicts similar to those in Iraq and Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates might be on the right path. For those who want the US to be prepared for a wider variety of contingencies, the plan falls short.

On 6 April, Gates presented the Pentagon’s prospective budget proposal and detailed dispositions on a laundry list of defense programs. The top line, at $524 billion was $20 billion above the 2009 budget - not nearly enough for defense hawks while representing fiscal restraint to others.

The US defense budget is constrained, and not only by current economic conditions. The Pentagon announced two years ago that it would increase the number of US Army and Marine Corps ground troops by 92,000 over five years. That initiative alone will cost $11 billion in 2010.

The increase in troop strength marks a contrast from the lean personnel profile of the Rumsfeld era and reflects the era of “persistent conflict” the US military believes it is facing - a period in which it will often operate among reluctant civilians in unstable environments.

The same goes for Gates’ recent decisions on US defense programs. By his choices, Gates is betting that the US will be engaged primarily in counterinsurgency and local and regional conflicts - as opposed to conventional theater warfare - in the short- to medium-term.

Counterinsurgency calls for the deployment of personnel over technology. That is one reason why Gates has taken the axe to some longer-term programs designed to produce next-generation technologies and equipment.

Restraint or vulnerability?

At the strategic level, Gates’ proposal represents a long-awaited move toward defense spending restraint, according to Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank.

“This slows the unprecedented growth in DoD’s budget, which increased nearly 75 percent under George W Bush,” he told ISN Security Watch.

But Gates’ approach also leaves him vulnerable to attack. Particularly in view of the capabilities China is building, Gates’ “supposition that American conventional power will remain an effective deterrent is questionable at best,” blogged Conn Carroll, on the conservative Heritage Foundation’s website.

Carroll termed “fundamentally flawed” Gates’ assertion that America’s “conventional modernization goals should be tied to the actual and prospective capabilities of known future adversaries.” Given the uncertainty of future threats, “a defense budget cannot afford to be tied to the present and prospective threats America faces,” said Carroll.

Gates’ approach of emphasizing preparation for counterinsurgency is illustrated by a few cases in point. He announced an acceleration in the purchase of Littoral Combat Ships, which he termed “a key capability for presence, stability, and counterinsurgency operations in coastal regions.” LCS is a cornerstone of the shallow-water strategy adopted by the US Navy earlier this decade, reflecting a naval mission that places less emphasis on major engagements and more on regional conflicts and close-shore operations.

The secretary also announced the termination of the $26 billion Transformational Satellite (TSAT) program, which was to provide future warfighters with 100 times the bandwidth of current military communications satellites. TSAT was not scheduled to launch until 2016 or 2017. In recent years, the US military has increasingly relied on aerial vehicles to provide local and regional communications.

The Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) program is also feeling the sting of Gates’ axe. Although he termed his action a “major restructuring,” the secretary's termination of the vehicle portion of FCS sounded the death knell for the program.

The FCS was to develop lighter and more maneuverable ground vehicles linked by an advanced information network. Better situational awareness would allow the lighter and faster vehicles to evade an enemy and keep him on the defensive, according to FCS theory.

“Gates targeted FCS vehicles in particular for cuts, noting that they are ill-suited for counterinsurgency operations,” said Korb.

Instead, DoD has invested $25 billion in Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, heavy lumbering trucks designed to protect personnel operating in populated areas.

A major point of contention in Gates’ plan involves ballistic missile defenses. In a nutshell, Gates added $700 million to existing theater defense systems while terminating longer term programs and cutting the overall Missile Defense Agency budget by $1.4 billion.

“Research and development on missile defense programs can be useful,” said Korb, but the programs cut by Gates are “unproven programs that are unlikely to be workable in the near future.”

But Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation, an institutional supporter of expanded missile defenses, said that “the changes to the missile defense program are at odds with the current and future missile defense needs of the United States.”

He contended that “while Iran has launched a satellite and North Korea is testing missiles with longer ranges, Gates is emphasizing defenses against short-range missiles.”

Spring also complained that Gates gutted a program to enhance US “boost-phase” capabilities to intercept missiles soon after they are launched.

This aspect of Gates’ plan may also be viewed as consistent with his overall approach, since the development of boost-phase capabilities is a longer term prospect and is much more costly than other aspects of ballistic missile defenses.

Spring acknowledged that Gates’ support for the sea-based Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) was a bright spot. “SM-3 can be expanded to engage longer-range missiles at earlier points in the flight trajectories,” said Spring.

SM-3 is part of a long-standing program that rolls out incremental design and functional enhancements.

Opening salvo

Gates’ proposals were “a series of one-time fixes,” said Andrew Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan Washington think tank, that “may be necessary for cost and individual program reasons but which do not define an overall plan or strategy."

On missile defense, Gates “provided no sense of future direction, architecture, procurement, or deployment for either strategic or theater missile defenses,” Cordesman said. “No mention of how this will affect plans for Europe, cooperation with Israel, or the needs of the Arab Gulf states in dealing with Iran.”

But for Korb, Gates outlined “an action plan to begin to bring defense spending under control. Gates’ announcement is only the opening salvo.”

After all, the US Congress must ultimately approve the budget, and its members may have something to say about some of the cuts Gates is proposing.


Peter Buxbaum, a New York- and Washington-based independent journalist, has been writing about defense, security, business and technology for nearly 20 years. His work has appeared in publications such as Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Information Week, Jane’s Defense Weekly, Military Information Technology, Homeland Security, and Computerworld. His website is www.buxbaum1.com.

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