Wikistrat’s Facebook and Twitter followers recently engaged in a 24-hour exclusive Q&A session with one of Wikistrat’s Senior Analysts, R. Jordan Prescott. Questions and Mr. Prescott’s answers are transcribed below.
Robert Jordan Prescott is a private contractor working in defense and national security. He blogs about American politics and security at House of Marathon.
Bilyana Lilly: Would you envision the U.S. reducing its military commitments in Europe given pressures for fiscal discipline on one hand and an increasingly aggressive Russian foreign policy posture on the other?
Answer: In my estimation over the near term (2014-2017), the United States posture in Europe will neither increase nor decrease. Specifically, the U.S. will not add to existing levels of manpower and equipment, but will shift extant posture eastward to reassure allies and deter Russia.
First, the impetus for fiscal discipline now becomes subject to the agenda of the newly-elected Republican Senate majority. Historically, Republicans have more supportive of a muscular foreign policy and higher defense spending; whether these traditions still hold and will translate again into formal policy and legislative provisions is unknown. The Republican Party is currently involved in a debate between its conservative establishment wing, which endorses intervention abroad and expanding military capabilities, and a libertarian insurgent wing, which is more selective in regard to intervention and more prepared to scrutinize Department of Defense organizational performance. The former will have concurrent allies in the form of bureaucratic constituencies and the industrial base; the latter will not, but is able to mobilize voters. Accordingly, a potential compromise would entail a Republican Congress producing a fairly static defense budget (or minor increases), with substantial shifts within the underlying accounts.
Second, the aforementioned debate between the two wings will play out more sharply in the 2016 Republican presidential primarily election. The final presidential ticket may be balanced, but a single individual will still be the clear representative of one wing or the other.
The last Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, named Russia as America’s principal geopolitical threat. In light of interim events, a number of Republican candidates might expand upon that theme.
The Democratic presidential race is less competitive, but the presumed frontrunners are veterans of the incumbent administration and have signaled their readiness to adjust policy. Accordingly, the two major party nominees will likely be proponents of a more confrontational stance and may be prepared to “out-bid” each other. As such, policy after 2017 is very difficult to predict.
To conclude, the military posture in Europe is still undergoing adjustment downward from the end of the Cold War. Russia’s foreign policy, while provocative, will not reverse these plans, but postpone them. Proponents of a “greater commitment” will likely succeed in approving more funding for training, exercises and deployments to Eastern Europe (and maybe accelerated deployment of missile defense systems). Proponents of a “fiscally-responsible” Department of Defense will likely expect continued downsizing and engagement with Russia. Lastly, this baseline will influence the 2016 presidential race and may lead to Democratic and Republican nominees competing on anti-Russia foreign policy positions.
Steve Keller: What would you say is the change in warfare that the U.S. military is least prepared to handle over the coming years?
Answer: In my estimation, the U.S. military is actually least prepared for traditional conventional warfare against a peer. Specifically, U.S. military operations between 1992 and the present have left it unprepared for potential conflicts with a peer like China or regional near-peers like Russia and Iran.
In 1991, the victory over Iraq was achieved by hurling a war machine designed to counter a superpower against a lesser regional power in a far more favorable environment. However, since then, the U.S. has not undertaken the comprehensive restructuring necessary to succeed at the missions assigned to the military, specifically occupation and counterinsurgency over the past decade or anti-access area denial in the next decade.
During the War on Terror, Wikistrat’s own Chief Analyst, Dr. Thomas Barnett, aptly pointed out that the Department of Defense was buying for one kind of war (conventional) while repeatedly being committed to another kind of war (counterinsurgency). Defense leadership augmented elements to counter terrorist threats (e.g., Special Operations), but in the aggregate, the wholesale shifting of U.S. Army training to counterinsurgency undermined its readiness in armor and artillery operations. (See Col. Gian Gentile’s Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency or my review of the book.)
Pivoting to the Indo-Pacific oceanic continuum, a paraphrase of Dr. Barnett’s critique still applies: the Defense Department is buying for one kind of war (conventional on land) while declaring its intent to prepare for another kind of war (anti-access area denial at sea). Again, leadership has devised concepts (e.g. Joint Operation Access Concept), but in the aggregate, the services have been slow to adjust doctrine, training and procurement.
In particular, the continued reliance on carrier groups in conjunction with the scheduled purchase of short-range fighters is a misplacement of scarce dollars, especially when the Western Pacific places a premium on concealed dispersal and long-range capabilities.
Nuclear weapons have obviated major power war, but recent events show China and Russia are prepared to engage in provocative actions, testing the limits of deterrence. A failure of deterrence means a limited engagement is increasingly possible. However, one failed armored or amphibious engagement or sunk carrier group for America would be catastrophic for international security.