|Number 501||January 27, 2012|
This Week: The New American Way of War
I realize that everyone seems to be paying attention mostly to the presidential campaign. I'm not. I'm much more concerned about the institutional forces that will dictate the policies of whichever figurehead we end up placing in the White House next. The power of the military-industrial complex is always a primary concern of mine, and that is the subject of this week's Nygaard Notes.
I'll be on a long-overdue vacation for the first two weeks of February, so if you write to me you won't hear anything until after February 14th. I'm going to try to ignore the daily news while I'm gone, which always gives me a slightly altered perspective when I do come back and "tune in." I'm looking forward to that.
A feature I run sometimes around the end of the year is a collection of the Nygaard Notes "Quotes" of the Week from the previous year. I'll have a look at them and try to publish my favorites either just before or just after my vacation. I'm in the middle of researching a couple of other pieces (three, actually) and I'm not sure which one will appear next, or exactly when. It depends on how far behind I am in the rest of my life when I return from my break.
Have a good time while I'm gone, and I expect to return all bright-eyed and with a clear mind after kicking back for a couple of weeks!
"Quote" of the Week: "Unrestricted by Borders"
On January 26th the New York Times ran an article by a reporter who was, for some reason, traveling aboard the nuclear aircraft carrier The U.S.S. John C. Stennis, in the North Arabian Sea. The reporter was focused on the sailors known as "red shirts," those sailors who put together bombs, experts in assembling "the parts that allow a carrier and its aircraft to reach inside another country and kill."
In the midst of the article, the Times reporter inserted this paragraph:
"American Navy officers have a line they repeat passionately and often: A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is an imposing and versatile manifestation of the United States' power. A ship like the Stennis, they say, which was sending aircraft on missions over Iraq one day and over Afghanistan 36 hours later, allows Washington to project influence, unrestricted by borders or basing rights."
As the articles in this issue of the Notes make clear, the ability to operate globally, "unrestricted by borders or basing rights," is central to what is being called "the new American way of war."
Discreetly tucked away on page 8 of the Monday, January 9th New York Times was a story with huge implications for the role of the United States in the 21st Century.
I was intrigued by the headline: "U.S. Focuses on Growing Threat as Rivals Deploy Cheap but Potent Weapons." What "threat" could they be talking about? Is someone threatening the United States with potent weapons? Then I read the first paragraph, and the picture began to come into focus:
"President Obama's new military strategy has focused fresh attention on an increasingly important threat: the use of inexpensive weapons like mines and cyberattacks that aim not to defeat the American military in battle but to keep it at a distance."
"Keeping the American military at a distance" sounds a lot more like "defense" than "threat." I guess threatening the U.S. military's ability to attack is a sort of threat, but it's not like anyone is threatening the United States itself. Adds the Times, "The president and his national security team predict that the security challenges of the coming decade will be defined by this threat, just as the last one was defined by terrorism and insurgency."
There's that word again: "Threat." This word appears throughout the article. I spoke in Nygaard Notes #499 about a 1999 news story about a "threat" from Iran, which was the "threat" that "Iranian missiles are able to target any place that threatens Iran." So, here again we see how another nation's defense against U.S. aggression becomes, in true Orwellian fashion, a "threat." War is Peace, Self-Defense is a Threat.
I often tell people that the corporate media is a good source of information, but only for those who know how to read the code. Sometimes the code is not very sophisticated, as in Paragraph Three of this New York Times article:
"A growing number of nations whose forces are overmatched by the United States are fielding these weapons, which can slow, disrupt and perhaps even halt an American offensive. Modern war plans can become mired in a bog of air defenses, mines, missiles, electronic jamming and computer-network attacks meant to degrade American advantages in technology and hardware."
Of course, every nation on the planet is "overmatched" militarily by the United States, which spends more on its military might than any other country by far. (Which I detailed in Nygaard Notes #477 "War Spending: 'The USA Continues to Be Exceptional.'") And why would such "cheap, potent weapons" be deployed? Why, to "slow, disrupt and perhaps even halt an American offensive." And, of course, anyone attempting to interfere with "modern war plans" by "degrading American advantages" is a "threat."
Threatening "Our Access and Freedom to Operate"
The Times reports that "At his announcement at the Pentagon last week, Mr. Obama said the country should invest in 'the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access.' The new strategy specifically orders that efforts to counter the threat, which the military calls 'anti-access, area-denial,' become one of the 10 primary missions of the American military."
Here the Times engages in a bit of editorializing. The "new strategy" doesn't actually refer to "anti-access, area denial" as a "threat." What the document ("Sustaining Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense") actually says is that "the United States must maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged." Anywhere on the globe, that is. I hope to report on this document at some length in these pages before long.
The Pentagon speaks of "adversaries" who may "complicate our operational calculus" by using such things as "advanced air defenses." Again, if an "adversary" engages in "defense," it is defined as a "challenge." Or, if you are the New York Times, as a "threat." Adds the Pentagon, "States such as China and Iran will continue to pursue asymmetric means to counter our power projection capabilities..."
What are "asymmetric means"? There is no official definition of "asymmetric means" in the military lexicon, although the term appears all over the place in documents like the one we're discussing. The accepted meaning is hinted at in a comment by Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Writing in a blog for the influential magazine Foreign Policy, Singh said that "Iran's navy . . . has invested in vessels and armaments that are well suited to asymmetric warfare, rather than the sort of ship-to-ship conflict that Iran would surely lose."
A central strategy of guerrilla warfare—a part of the definition of which is warfare conducted by a weaker force against a militarily-stronger one—is to rely on "asymmetric means." Going head-to-head—warship-to-warship, tank-to-tank—would be "symmetric" warfare. The skillful deployment of some lesser weapon—like the "cheap, potent weapons" that are the subject of this New York Times article that I am analyzing—would be just about the only alternative for any country that wishes to "slow, disrupt and perhaps even halt an American offensive." After all, as retired Colonel Timothy L. Thomas wrote in the U.S. Army publication "Military Review" in 2001, "no one can symmetrically match up with US equipment and firepower."
That "no one" includes China, whose military budget is about one-sixth that of the United States. Both Iran and China supposedly pose big problems for the U.S., but the Times tells us that, of the two, "The potential challenge from China is even more significant, according to analysts. China has a fleet of diesel-electric attack submarines, which can operate quietly and effectively in waters near China's shore to threaten foreign warships. China also fields short-, medium- and long-range missiles that could put warships at risk, and has layers of radar and surface-to-air missiles along its coast."
This is a challenge, indeed, as "the thicket of Chinese defenses could oblige an American aircraft carrier and its strike group to operate hundreds of miles farther out to sea, decreasing the number of attack sorties its aircraft could mount in a day and diminishing their effectiveness."
So, China's ability to "threaten foreign warships," or field missiles that "could put warships at risk," or do anything that might "diminish the effectiveness" of a foreign military force "in waters near China's shore" are seen by U.S. planners as a "challenge." To put this in some kind of perspective one has only to imagine Chinese warships off the coast of Massachusetts, and the likely U.S. response.
How can the United States continue to "project power" all around the globe at a time of shrinking budgets? That's what "The New American Way of War" is all about. We turn to that now.
In my recent series on remote-control war I stressed the importance to U.S. planners of the ability to wage war without casualties (without casualties for the U.S., that is). Robots are not the only answer to this issue for the warmakers, as a front-page story in the October 22nd NY Times indicates.
Headlined "Seeing Limits of 'New' War," the article was all about the U.S. "success" in Libya, but noted that there were problems that "highlight why future offensives, against a stronger adversary, could be far more difficult."
On the "war without casualties" front, we have this comment: "The United States military has spent just $1.1 billion in Libya, and in the words of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., 'didn't lose a single life.' He added that 'this is more of the prescription for how to deal with the world as we go forward than it has been in the past.'"
The Times claims that the death of Muammar Gaddafi "gave senior Obama administration officials an opportunity to trumpet the new American way of war to a nation weary of ground combat in Afghanistan and Iraq."
What is this "new American way of war"? Well, it seems to involve getting other nations to do the actual fighting. The name of this game is NATO, and the idea is to have a global military force that can respond quickly and be accountable only to itself. The first practice with this "new way of war" was the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999. Notes the Times: "NATO missions were under way [in Libya] just 10 days after the alliance decided to move forward—compared to the 11 months it took to move from a United Nations resolution to the first airplane enforcing a no-fly zone over Kosovo in the 1990s."
Adm. James G. Stavridis, NATO's senior military commander, notes in this regard that "NATO works, and it can work at speed. The difference [from Kosovo] is that 10 years of integrated operations in Afghanistan have created an alliance that can move quickly, can move with alacrity..."
Despite wide acceptance of the idea that something called "NATO" had "full control" of the Libya operation, no one who's paying attention believes it. As the Times puts it in this article, "Washington put a European mask of command on the operation—an effort described as 'leading from behind.'" In this case "behind" means out of harm's way so as not to "lose a single life." But "shortages in allied intelligence-gathering aircraft, aerial refueling tankers and precision-guidance kits for bombs proved the United States remained the backbone of any NATO offensive." In addition, "Shortages in intelligence-gathering aircraft—both manned and remotely piloted—also revealed a near United States monopoly on these technologies, although NATO is considering purchasing drones for itself."
It's not cheap to maintain a monopoly on war technology, so the U.S. wants Europe to become more warlike so they can help police the world "at speed." That could be tricky, though, as "NATO will be able to add muscle to its military only by increasing its defense spending..." says the Times. Otherwise, as Robert M. Gates warned last summer when he was U.S. War ["Defense"] Secretary, NATO could become "a two-tiered alliance in which some allies could fight, and some really could not."
So this is what the "new American way of war" looks like at the moment: An international military alliance that can attack rapidly anywhere in the world, dominated by the United States, using U.S. weapons and technology, but with no risk to U.S. life. And all for as little as a billion dollars per conflict (against weak adversaries). And the headline in my local newspaper on the day that I write these words gives a hint of the Propaganda value of this "new American way of war": "Pentagon To Trim Budget for First Time in Decade."
U.S. leaders apparently think that this warmaking strategy will allow them to conduct the military operations necessary to the maintenance of an empire despite their nation being "weary of ground combat." If "weariness" is the biggest obstacle, perhaps they're right. If, instead, the obstacle is a population mobilized by principled outrage at imperial wars, then it might be a different story.