Peacetime planning and wartime innovation: how much risk is acceptable?

Preparing for the next war has always been difficult.  Among other challenges, planners must wrestle with imperfect information, cognitive biases (such as fighting the last war), and frequently ambiguous public support and political guidance. While all of these impediments can exist during wartime, they are exacerbated by peacetime conditions.  Even the most basic questions, such as who will be the enemy, are often unknowable until the shooting starts. What’s more, unlike during wartime, the lack of immediate feedback as to what is and is not working means one can never be too confident in one’s predictions. Developing new doctrine, weapons systems, and strategy in such a context is incredibly hard.  Planning for the next war, therefore, is a bit like trying to assemble an unknown puzzle while blindfolded.  You can get a feel for the pieces, but you’re really not sure what it is you’re assembling.

As a result of these difficulties, even the best planners end up making little better than educated guesses.  It’s no surprise then that the United States has been wrong time and again as to what the next war will look like and then been unprepared to fight it.[1]  As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in an address to the cadets at West Point:

When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect.  We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more – we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.

Peacetime planning, therefore, requires a constant balancing act between preparing for what you believe will be the next war and maintaining just enough flexibility in your force structure to accommodate alternatives in case your prediction is wrong.  Ideally, the point selected on this scale represents a reasonable compromise between capability, cost, and risk tolerance.  However, recent trends in weapons procurement have made finding this point even harder than it was in the past.  Specifically, the decades it takes to field new weapons systems means planners can no longer count as heavily on innovating during wartime to overcome major capability gaps and weaknesses.

Take, for example, strategic bombing in World War II.  At the beginning of the war, the U.S. Army Air Corps believed that daylight, un-escorted bombing of Germany would reap significant benefits at little cost.  Air Corps leaders believed that heavily armed bombers, such as the B-17, would be able to defend themselves against German interceptors as long as they flew in the proper formation.  When this assumption proved false and losses started mounting, the Air Corps was forced to search for an escort fighter that had both the ability to beat Germany’s tactical aircraft and the range to accompany the bombers all the way from the U.K.  Thankfully, such a plane had been quickly developed just a few years earlier: the P-51 Mustang.

The P-51 was the product of British interest in developing an American source of fighter aircraft for the RAF.  In addition to its amazing performance, one of the most spectacular things about the Mustang was the speed at which it was developed, tested, and then procured.  The first prototype aircraft was rolled out on September 9, 1940, just 102 days after the contract was signed.  The first test flight took place a month later on October 26 and the plane was officially introduced into RAF service in January 1942.  In total, the plane went from the drawing board to wartime service in under two years, allowing it to be available as an escort fighter when the US Army Air Corps came searching.

Such a story is highly unlikely today.  Modern weapons are so complicated, and the development and procurement bureaucracies so cumbersome, that new programs can take decades to bear fruit.  This poses the question of what the United States could do if it found itself facing a major capability gap in a future war.  Changes in doctrine and quick upgrades to existing systems could potentially fill some new requirements, but there’s a limit to how far such changes could go.  At a certain point, you cannot turn a tactical fighter into a strategic bomber, or an armored personnel carrier into a main battle tank.

Given this fundamental reality, it is more important today than ever that the United States fields the proper military equipment prior to the start of conflict. This means that peacetime planning should be far more humble and risk adverse.  The United States’ poor track record of predicting future wars, and the long time it takes to develop new systems, should caution policymakers and planners from over-investing in any one system or vision of the future at the complete cost of others.[2]

Most significantly, these facts suggest that the United States should spend significantly more money on defense than it currently does. The Pentagon requires more money if it is to be prepared to fight and win a wide variety of wars.  A larger budget would reflect not only U.S. strategic responsibilities but also the increasing difficulty of counting on wartime innovation to make up for peacetime compromises.

Donald Rumsfeld famously said you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want.  While this adage has always been true, its significance has grown as weapons systems have become increasingly difficult to develop and procure.  As such, peacetime planners and policymakers should accept less risk and increase the funding available to the military.  Otherwise, the United States risks being incapable of winning the wars of the future.


[1] In his book The Accidental Guerilla, David Kilcullen recounts a lecture he received in early 2001 as a student at the Australian Defense College from a retired American general. The general spent two hours explaining how the air campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, the stabilization missions in East Timor and Sierra Leon, and the humanitarian mission in Somalia had proven the obsolescence of ground warfare. He urged the students to focus on the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), promising them that technological advancement was the key to future success.

This prediction, of course, proved disastrously wrong. The RMA-inspired offensive in Afghanistan just a few months later proved capable of ousting the Taliban, but was ultimately unable to bring lasting peace to the country or strategic victory for the United States. Likewise, the invasion of Iraq demonstrated the continued necessity of ground forces in 21st century combat. Having bet heavily on one vision of the future, the United States paid a high cost when events turned out otherwise.

[2] For example, the decision to prematurely stop procurement of the F-22 because it was useless in Iraq and Afghanistan now appears shortsighted as concerns over China’s rise and modernization grow.

Terrorist safe havens are more diverse than you think

The news today that France has captured two of ETA’s top leaders is an important reminder about the varied nature of terrorist safe havens.  A conventional wisdom exists among U.S. policymakers that terrorists find sanctuary in “ungoverned or poorly governed territories, where the absence of state control permits terrorists to travel, train, and engage in plotting.”  The long history of ETA proves the fallacy of this argument.  For decades, ETA found safe haven in France, which viewed the Basque terrorists as a useful proxy against Franco’s dictatorship and continued to sympathize with their struggle for years after Franco’s death in 1975.  Yet France’s border with Spain is not an ungoverned or poorly governed space.  In fact, many would argue that France suffers from too much governance, rather than too little!  Therefore, we need a better way to understand terrorist safe havens, both in terms of how they form and how they can be eradicated.

My current boss, Dr. Elizabeth Arsenault, has a solution.  Several months ago she and a colleague of hers, Dr. Tricia Bacon at American University, wrote a fascinating article on how to better classify terrorist safe havens in the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. In the article, Arsenault and Bacon provide a typology for disaggregating terrorist sanctuaries based on the intersection of host government will and capability.  As a result, rather than perpetuating the idea that all safe havens are alike, the intersection of these two values reveals that there’s actually three types of safe havens.  Moreover, in practice, each category of safe haven is further differentiated by the type of terrorist group that resides within it.  For example, urban based groups pose far different challenges than rural ones, and while some groups may elicit unequivocal condemnation from the host government, others may receive support from certain government agencies at the same time that other parts of the government actively seek to oust them.  In other words, host government will and capability are dynamic – rather than binary – variables, thereby creating a wide variety of safe haven scenarios.

The article obviously covers all of this in much greater detail and offers additional insights as well.  For those of you who cannot get past the journal’s paywall or simply don’t have the time to read the full article, we put together a summarized essay of the piece for the Lawfare blog back in April.  While lacking some of the specific case by case detail that makes the original so compelling, the essay hits all the main points and is significantly shorter.  Overall though, the reason I am writing about this project now is because the ETA story provides a powerful reminder that not all terrorist sanctuaries are equal.  This conclusion has significant consequences for policy.  As Arsenault and Bacon write in the Lawfare piece:

Given the continued relevance of physical safe havens, it is important the government properly understands them and crafts its counterterror policies accordingly. The will and capability typology is a useful tool in this effort. It shows how sanctuaries are diverse rather than uniform entities that require specifically tailored strategies to account for where each one falls along the willingness and capability axes. As such, policies that may be suitable for combating one haven, such as sanctions or targeted strikes, may not be appropriate for another.

The United States must embrace this lesson moving forward given that it faces and will continue to face a variety of terrorist threats.  Otherwise, it risks applying a one-size-fits-all approach to scenarios that require much greater nuance.  According to the conventional wisdom, ETA, the FARC, ISIL, and the Taliban all operate out of similar sanctuaries.  Yet even a cursory glance at the facts reveals this to be untrue.  We need a more sophisticated understanding of terrorist safe havens if we are going to be able to defeat them.  Arsenault and Bacon’s typology is a great place to start.

Russia should love, not fight, the EU

As a believer in the project of European integration, I have watched the debate over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with alarm.  In particular, I have found frustrating the conventional wisdom that Putin was justified in viewing the European Union’s (EU) expansion as a threat.  To me, this assumption is far too simplistic and borders on legitimizing Putin’s actions.  As such, I want to offer the following argument as a quick, yet provocative, thought exercise.  I believe that EU and Russian history allow for an alternative argument: that Putin could have viewed the EU’s expansion as the greatest gift to Russian security in the history of his country.

It is widely recognized that Russia has a justified fear of invasion.  It was this fear that partially motivated Stalin’s push for control over Eastern Europe after World War II.  He wanted a buffer zone that could protect Russia proper in the case of another European war.  While the USSR’s collapse eliminated this physical buffer, the EU was poised to provide a substitute security blanket in the form of ideology, rather than geography.  The EU was established, in the words of Robert Schuman, one of its founding fathers, to make war among its members “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.”  In this sense, the Union has been remarkably successful.  No two EU member states have gone to war with one another since the organization was created.

This political transformation was accompanied by a gradual material and operational one as well.  European defense budgets had been in decline for decades prior to Russia’s seizure of Crimea.  Moreover, Europe had proven inept at operationalizing what resources it had left – its missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libya all proved to varying degrees the decreasing capabilities of European militaries to carry out complex operations, even when operating as part of large multi-national coalitions.  In this sense, Robert Kagan’s thesis from his influential 2002 article “Power and Weakness” remained true: Europe was content to live in its own post-modern world where the utility of force was marginal and therefore not worthy of investment.

Given this mission and history, Russia should have welcomed the ascension of every new country to the EU.  That so many countries would be willing to essentially forswear the use of force in Europe should have been seen as an incredible strategic gift in Moscow. Instead, Russia responded to the EU’s eastward expansion with alarm and invaded Ukraine.  The result has been a wake up call to Europe and to NATO, with numerous countries pledging to increase their defense spending and readiness levels.  Ironically, then, Russia’s invasion has produced the very situation it was designed to avoid: a hostile and stronger Europe on its doorstep.

That Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a humanitarian tragedy is obvious.  The thousands of dead strewn across Donetsk and Luhansk stand as a testament to the violence occurring there.  Yet the conflict is also a political tragedy because it has returned the possibility of major state-on-state conflict to the European continent.  For a country scarred by numerous invasions, Russia could have welcomed the growth of an institution dedicated to eliminating war from its neighborhood and perhaps even aspired to join it one day. Instead, Putin chose to view the EU’s expansion as a threat.  The conventional wisdom suggests he was right to do so.  I hope this brief counterargument serves as a provocative thought exercise in how events could have turned out differently.

68 Hours of Hunger

I’ve written about a variety of topics on this blog, but the majority of my posts address foreign affairs and strategic issues.  While these topics are my passion, they can often be rather abstract, talking about consequences in terms of sovereign states, global institutions, international relations theory, and so on.  When individuals are mentioned, it’s usually in the form of significant leaders. The citizenry, in whose name foreign affairs is practiced, is oddly enough, often absent from the discussion.  It’s implied that the benefits of a sound foreign policy will trickle down to them, but rarely is it ever stated directly. Given this characteristic of foreign affairs, it’s important to be reminded every now and then that we do all of this to help people.  That at the end of the day, the measure of success should be, by and large, whether people’s lives have improved or not.

I mention all of this because we had a family reunion two days ago and I had the pleasure of talking with one of my cousins and her wife about an amazing charity they run in their hometown of Nashua, New Hampshire called End 68 Hours of Hunger. The purpose of the charity is simple: to end the 68 hours of hunger “that some school children experience between the free lunch they receive in school on Friday afternoon and the free breakfast they receive in school on Monday morning.”  That’s right – even in the richest country in the world there are still kids who go hungry on the weekends.  I had no idea this was a problem until my cousin Sandy and her wife Lisa opened a branch of this charity several years ago.  Since then, they have expanded to provide food for over 150 kids during weekends throughout the school year. Nationwide, the charity now feeds thousands of kids every year.  It’s truly an amazing program and one that makes a direct and tangible improvement in people’s lives.

I’m writing about this not to brag – although I am incredibly proud of Sandy and Lisa – but because talking to them reminded me to think about people, rather than nation states, and how we can help them.  It was also a reminder about priorities.  Can we truly say we budget our money well as a nation if kids are going hungry all over the country? Both morally and practically I think the answer is pretty obvious.  If government success was actually measured by improvement in people’s lives, charities like End 68 Hours of Hunger wouldn’t exist, because there’d be no need for private individuals to fill such a gaping hole in our social safety system.  Which is why a reminder about helping people is necessary every now and then, especially for those of us who prefer the abstract world of foreign affairs.

Published on Small Wars Journal

I’m currently taking a course on special operations and unconventional warfare taught by David Maxwell, a retired Colonel with 30 years of experience in Army special forces.  We recently received our first assignment back and Professor Maxwell encouraged me to submit it for publication at Small Wars Journal.  Thanks to his support it was posted to their site today and I’m proud to share it with you all.  The link can be found here.  I hope you enjoy it.