The US Department of Defense is fond of issuing reports, many of which contain a massive amount of Pentagon jargon and gobbledygook terms. But, one recent report, while not lacking in typical gibberish, contains one clear and unambiguous message. The neo-conservative «New American Century» pet project, which saw the United States engage in quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as an unending «global war on terror», is dead and buried.
A US Army War College (USAWC) report, titled «At Our Own Peril: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World», has raised eyebrows inside the Washington Beltway and beyond. The report, written by an Army Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) and USAWC team headed by Professor Nathan Freier, states it does «not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US Government». It is doubtful the report, sponsored by the Joint Staff of the Pentagon, would have been commissioned had the Pentagon not seen the need to prepare for the end of America’s unipolar military dominance that has been in place since the end of the Cold War.
The post-primacy report saw input from the Department of Defense and US Intelligence Community, including the Joint Staff, the US Central Command (USCENTCOM), the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), all critical stakeholders in the revamped US military strategy.
Lest anyone believe that the report represents a new way of thinking by the Donald Trump administration, it should be pointed out that the commissioning and preparation of the report began in July 2016, six months before the end of the Barack Obama administration. The report was a budgeted requirement contained in Obama’s Fiscal Year 2017 Pentagon budget.
The report identified five key components of the US post-primacy strategy:
- Hyperconnectivity and weaponization of information, disinformation, and disaffection (this has already seen a decision to split the US Cyber Command off from the National Security Agency to allow cyber-warriors extra-constitutional «leg room» to conduct offensive information warfare operations against both military and civilian targets).
- A rapidly fracturing post-Cold War status quo.
- Proliferation, diversification, and atomization of effective counter-US resistance.
- Resurgent but transformed great power competition.
- Violent or disruptive dissolution of political cohesion and identity.
The Pentagon’s acceptance that there is a «rapidly fracturing post-Cold War status quo» is perhaps the most important realization of a change in superpower status since the United Kingdom concluded that the days of the British Empire were at a close. This resulted in the decision of Prime Minister Harold Wilson in January 1968 to withdraw all British military forces from «East of Suez.» Defense Minister Denis Healey made the dramatic announcement that all British military forces would be withdrawn by 1971 from major military bases in South East Asia, «east of Aden», primarily in Malaysia and Singapore, as well as the Persian Gulf and the Maldives. The decision saw the independence of Aden as a socialist republic – South Yemen, the leasing to the United States of a military base on Diego Garcia in the newly-formed British Indian Ocean Territory (along with the removal of Chagos Islanders from their native islands), the independence of the Trucial States as the United Arab Emirates, and transfer to US control of a British naval base in Bahrain.
The Pentagon’s post-primacy report questions the need for foreign military bases in support of «surge» military operations. The report states «considerations of surge can no longer be limited to high-end combined arms warfighting». This is a tip of the hat to the cyber-fighters who may see their own capabilities increased with the de-prioritization of surge military combat. The report also states that DoD «no longer can—as in the past—automatically generate consistent and sustained local military superiority at range.» In other words, forget about a US military response such as Operation Desert Shield that saw a massive transfer of US military might to Saudi Arabia prior to the retaking of Kuwait and the first US invasion of Iraq in 1991.
The Pentagon sees some international risks as acceptable if they can be managed. This risk mitigation appears to be focused on the North Korean nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile threat. The report states that the US should avoid «policy goals that prove overly ambitious or unattainable in practice». A US military defeat of North Korea would only be possible after the resulting mass deaths of South Korean and American military personnel and civilians in South Korea». Chalk off a US military defeat of North Korea as «overly ambitious» and «unattainable». The report also states that there are «prohibitive costs» involved in some military policies. The authors urge that American military doctrine steer clear of «objectives or goals that in the end prove little more than Pyrrhic victories.» This is a clear reference to the quagmires and «false victories» previously proclaimed by the US and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, both Pyrrhic victories in the truest sense of the term.
One member of the post-primacy study team shocked his colleagues by telling them that it is very possible for the US to be defeated in some military confrontations. The «we can lose» specter helped guide the conclusions of the report. Among the conclusions are the possibilities that «the vulnerability, erosion, or even loss of assumed US military advantage vis-à-vis many of its most consequential defense-relevant challenges» should be taken seriously and that the «volatile restructuring of international security affairs appears increasingly inhospitable to unchallenged American leadership». The emergence of China as a significant world military power and the re-emergency of Russia as a military power are cases in point. Turkey’s steady drift away from Europe into a «Eurasian» and «pan-Turkic» world view adds the NATO nation to a growing list of potential US adversaries. These and other developments are seen by the post-primacy planners as a part of «resurgent but transformed great power competition».
The Pentagon study team also clearly views the «violent or disruptive dissolution of political cohesion and identity» as a watershed in altering the post-Cold War and post-9/11 eras that saw a dominance of the United States over global military and economic affairs. The success of the Brexit referendum that saw the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union, as well as popular support for the independence of Scotland and Catalonia are seen by the Pentagon as «disruptive dissolution of political cohesion and identity». Whereas in past Pentagon reports there would have been suggestions on how to counter such «disruption» with a military and counter-insurgency response, in the post-primacy world, the Pentagon is merely calling for the management of the risk involved. It is a far cry from rattling sabers and sounding the clarions for war, whether in Libya and Syria or Somalia and Panama.
The post-primacy report recognizes that the post-9/11 US military policy is no longer practicable nor doable. That policy, spelled out in the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) for 2001, stated: «the foundation of a peaceful world… rests on the ability of the US Armed Forces to maintain a substantial margin of national military advantage relative to others. The US uses this advantage not to dominate others, but… to dissuade new functional or geographic military competitions from emerging and to manage them if they do». Those days are over with China and Russia, along with Turkey, Iran, Germany, France, and India forming «new functional military competitions.» The US is unable to «manage» them, so Washington will have to determine how to live with the «risks».
The report’s authors believe that «the status quo that was hatched and nurtured by US strategists after World War II and has for decades been the principal ‘beat’ for DoD is not merely fraying but may, in fact, be collapsing. Consequently, the United States’ role in and approach to the world may be fundamentally changing as well.» This is a cogent view of the present state of world affairs minus the jingoism often heard from the Trump White House and right-wing members of the US Congress.
The post-primacy recommendations see the primary priority for the United States as the protection of US territory: «Secure US territory, people, infrastructure, and property against significant harm».
The second priority is to «secure access to the global commons and strategic regions, markets, and resources.» This would include keeping sea lanes and air routes open for US commerce.
The report’s authors agree with the pronouncement of British Prime Minister Theresa May in a speech in Philadelphia on January 26, 2017, six days after the inauguration of Donald Trump: «the days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over… the UK will only intervene where there are British national interests… Nations are accountable to their populations, and their powers are derived from the consent of the governed and they can choose to join international organizations, cooperate, or trade with whom they wish».
There is one clear message in the Pentagon’s «post primacy» report. The days of US-led dubious «coalitions of the willing» taking unilateral military action are over.