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Feasible cuts, but strategy still unclear

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10 January 2012 09:07

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

There is no argument that a nation which can reduce its military spending in times of relative peace in order to make an economic gain should do so. It would then be nice if the economic gain was used for something more enduring than short-term vote buying or propping up Wall Street bonuses.

The move by the US from the end of the Cold War era through the War on Terror and now into some kind of Asia Pacific strategic environment might still be too soon for definitive assessment, but following Sam's logical comments on the 'underlying reality' in the recent US strategic announcement, some things do occur to me.

We should be able to believe the US Secretary of Defense that the announced cut of US$487 billion over five years is manageable and it is probably right that most of it should fall on the land forces. Let's see how far the cuts go.

There is nothing new in what the US is doing. The US took a peace dividend at the end of the Cold War by reducing its military, particularly its land forces, to unrealistic levels in the absence of the likelihood of peace. It then had to expand its military again within a few years for Iraq and Afghanistan.

The UK did the same following its Strategic Defence Review in the 1990s. It cut drastically under new Prime Minister Blair and then the same PM, having full knowledge of what he had directed his military to be able to do, totally over-committed his forces to Iraq and then to Afghanistan. Prime Minister Cameron is now making drastic cuts.

For many years the US had a fantasy of being able to fight two wars simultaneously. This now seems to have been reduced to winning one war and deterring a second while handling a range of smaller military activities.

Strangely, we thought the 'two war' requirement was scuttled many years ago when President Bush in 2001 directed a 'new strategy' that ordered 'the armed forces to "win decisively" in a single major conflict, defend American territory against new threats and, at the same time, conduct a number of holding actions elsewhere around the globe'.

However, I do strongly support the statement at the time that the value of the 'two-war requirement' was less a full-blown strategy than a system for deciding the size of the American armed forces, and as such, a similar statement for force structuring purposes has value. But if your strategy has a 'two wars' requirement, it is a failure of strategy if you then find that you cannot fight two wars, as was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The so-called refocusing on the Asia Pacific might have some benefit for our region, in that we US allies can continue to under-resource our own security. Of course, this refocusing will only last one millisecond after the next crisis in any part of the world that is not the Asia Pacific. Even the US cannot define where the next crisis will be just by saying it.

There are still many nutters in the world outside the Asia Pacific and they might have a say. The Asia Pacific might pose the most difficult strategic challenge for the US in the long term, but I wonder if it is the most immediate.

In no order of priority, I wonder if some or all of the following are not more likely than an Asia Pacific conflict: a failure of the Arab Spring and its dominance by extreme groups who export terrorism; the failure of Pakistan as a state at the hands of their internal Taliban; the actions of Iran in the Gulf, with its ability directly or through its proxies to impact on Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Israel, oil, and some Gulf Nations; and/or an interaction of Iran and Israel and the bomb.

We might learn more of what the US intends strategically and how connected it is to reality as Washington announces its budget in the next few weeks. It might be wise to be sceptical and never believe what politicians say, especially if they are talking strategy. Only believe what they do.

Photo courtesy of the US Department of Defense.

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