The US Government has set out its vision of how budget cuts are likely to impact on the force structures and capabilities of the US military. At an announcement on Monday, Chuck Hagel, the US Defence Secretary set out his plans for the next few years, and warned of even further cuts ahead if budgetary wrangles continued. The full text of his speech can be found on the US Department of Defense website HERE.
The speech got a lot of headlines for both the planned reduction of the US Army to its smallest size since 1941, barely 450,000 troops all in. At the same time, it also generated headlines for its plans to reduce ship acquisition and deleting the legendary A10 aircraft. But in amidst all this, there were also some fascinating insights into the way US strategic thinking is evolving, which in turn is likely to have an impact on how the UK may seek to evolve its own forces.
One of the most telling signs of the impact on the military of the Iraq and Afghanistan years is the clear admission that in future the US Army (and wider military) is no longer going to be structured to conduct long term and large stabilisation operations. It is very likely that on resources grounds alone, the last decade represents the last cry of the ‘Peace and stability through the barrel of a gun’ approach to nation building which has characterised some views of international politics since the end of the Cold War. The chances of seeing sustained deployments into nations beyond the initial and aggressive ‘kick the door in’ at present seems slim.
But one should be wary of saying ‘never’ too loudly. There is an equally long history of trying to escape imperial entanglements, and somehow ending up ever more firmly stuck in the mire. If one looks at the history of the US armed forces in the 20th century, large amounts of time, money and blood have been shed conducting just this sort of operation in one form or another. Arguably, one could view the sustained presence of the US Army in Europe since 1945 as a very long stabilisation operation. The worry must be that cuts are made, a small detachment of advisors is sent in to conduct training and things quickly escalate out of control. Avoiding mission creep, and setting clear parameters on the limits of American power is going to be the real challenge for the US military in future – having grown up in a world of unquestioned military dominance, it is going to be difficult to explain why the US cannot do things that it used to take for granted.
The next reality is the acceptance that technological dominance can no longer be taken for granted in all domains: “ development and proliferation of more advanced military technologies by other nations that means that we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”
Since WW2 the unquestioned truism has been that when the US, UK and to a lesser extent the French engage in military action, they do so as the dominant masters of the battlespace. But times are changing, and the ability to sustain the full spectrum dominance of the past is slowly going. A new generation of capability is emerging – often highly niche, but as budgets decrease, a nation able to develop and deploy niche capabilities may well find itself as a world leader in a way not previously seen. Similarly, the growth of arms procurement and exporting of hugely capable equipment means that US and allied forces could theoretically find themselves fighting some very well equipped foes. While the training may not be as good, the sheer existence of hugely capable weaponry in hostile hands, and not the old cliché of cast off soviet equipment and ancient French missiles and Chinese knock offs means planners have to be far more cautious when considering what their courses of action are.
To match this, the US is proposing to continue to invest in technological R&D, fielding world leading systems ahead of the opposition. In many ways this is the identical approach to the UK – deploy smaller but more capable forces. The challenge is in squaring the circle and finding sufficient funds to deploy at the right level of numbers with the right capability. At some point there may need to be a tough discussion about accepting risk on less capable acquisition, if only to ensure something can be purchased. This is essentially the problem facing the British Army today – to field a force in HERRICK that meets the appropriate standards is ruinously expensive, and essentially limits the size of the deployable Army – so why have a larger Army if you cannot afford to equip it, and dare not risk deploy it if it doesn’t have the technological edge?
The slow reduction of this qualitative and quantitative edge is where there is an opportunity for allies to bring more to the party. Previously the US had no real need of allies except in the political sense – the sheer size of the force it could deploy, and the associated capability meant that to operate with them on ‘Day One’ (e.g. the toughest possible conditions at the start of a campaign), a nation had to invest heavily in high end equipment, and probably sacrifice a balanced military in the process. One could argue much of what has driven UK defence structure and acquisition over the last 25 years has been this need to keep a ‘Day One’ capability in order to retain influence with the US.
But, as US budgets decline, the opportunity now exists for some allies to take a more influential role. Investing in certain highly niche areas like Cyber, or provision of MPAs, MCMV, aerial tankers may help give them assets which increasingly hard pressed US commanders may welcome. There is opportunity here for allies to acquire and bring real capability to the table, in turn giving them a much more valuable contribution than perhaps previously has been the case.
Of particular interest is the reviews emphasis on the continued decline of the US Navy. The news emerged that the Littoral Combat Ship has been capped at 32 units (with a frigate to theoretically follow), while at least 11 cruisers will be put into long term reserve while they are overhauled. It is hard to see them all emerging, particularly when most are getting on for 25-30 years old now (it perhaps brings back memories of the RN and its cruiser modernisation plans of the 1950s and 60s). Where this leaves the escort fleet is unclear – the future US fleet is likely to operate 60 Arleigh Burkes, 10 Ticonderoga class cruisers, 17 gun frigates (the very old and almost obsolete Oliver Hazard Perries) plus a small number of LCS and DDG-X vessels slowly entering service.
This may sound a lot, but a Navy built around 70 missile carrying escorts capable of blue water operations, of which many are ageing in number and others are tied to carrier battle groups, means that there is going to be a huge reduction in US naval presence around the world. Consider that many of these ships are older designs (Burkes date back to the early 1980s in design), and there is a sense of an emerging ‘escort gap’ which could cause problems for the USN in future.
It is particularly interesting to note that the USN has focused on retaining all of its 11 carriers in full operation. One is increasingly drawn to the parallels of the RN and the USN, with the USN continuing to follow where the RN had to go in the 1950s and beyond. A desire to remain a carrier operating navy meant protection of carrier hulls over escort numbers was the priority – one sees the same pattern emerging here. At the same time though, this is a clear indication of US priorities for the future – its going to be about mobile presence, not long term ground holding that matters.
This is also something which impacts on the UK, and may influence longer term planning. If the US is stepping away from the sustained presence on the ground, then one has to ask what this means for the British Army? It has done a superb job of effectively becoming an adjunct of the US Army, capable of working as a close ally on high intensity operations – but if the US is clearly stepping away from a desire to involve itself in this sort of work, then can the British Army continue to justify its need for 82000 regulars? Arguably much of the compelling argument for its force structure to date has been the need to be able to generate an Armoured Division or Brigades to deploy and sustain themselves on both high intensity fighting and long term sustained peacekeeping / stability operations. With the US clearly steering away from this, it is hard to see a willingness of the UK to take a lead in this sort of operation in future. One has to wonder whether the cuts in the US will in turn impact on the future structure and size of the British Army over the next 5-10 years.
The final thought is that in a sense by shifting away from the culture of ‘you break it, you pay for it’, the US is implicitly perhaps trying to walk away from conventional ground based warfighting full stop, except as a deterrent of last resort. It is hard to envisage a situation emerging in the near future like Iraq, where a US led coalition functionally defeats a regime, only to then see the US withdraw shortly afterwards as it has no appetite for long term stabilisation. Would allies be willing to stay the course if the US were themselves not willing to do so? Either this will lead to far fewer high intensity land based operations (somehow the desire to pay for damage and reconstruction caused by an air campaign like Libya seems less compelling), or it means that in future the US will simply walk away, leaving a shattered power vacuum at the outset with wider implications for regional stability.
What this means is perhaps twofold – firstly there needs to be a much higher emphasis on low level operations like capacity building, governance and other types of aid to try to avoid the situation arising where the US feels it has to resort to kinetic measures. Secondly, one has to wonder whether the threshold for US ground intervention will become so high that it becomes almost unthinkable. By making the Army the size where it can defend the nation, but not project power for the long term, it once again becomes a deterrent to be used when need really demands it, rather than when it feels right to do so.
This is just the start of what will prove to be a very painful process. Defence cuts are difficult to implement in the US due to the way in which scrapping forces and capability is often easier than shutting down a redundant storage depot. That said, it will be interesting to watch and see how the US military adapts to what could be a hugely challenging situation over the next couple of years, and in turn see how this impacts on both the UK and other nations too. There is scope for efficiency measures – anyone who has worked with the US system can testify to how inefficient it is in places, and how little jointery really exists, particularly when compared to the UK system. One way in which the UK is well placed is to advise the US on what it means to be a superpower in decline, and how to cut cloth to match aspirations. There is much that the UK can teach the US on its own experiences, and this in turn may prove helpful in trying to preserve the front line where possible.
One once again senses that we are living in very interesting times indeed…