The Coming Age of Special War
The last couple weeks have witnessed one of the most significant periods in decades in the annals of diplomatic history. Having deeply mishandled the domestic side of the Syrian crisis, the Obama administration proceeded to worsen matters by, in effect, outsourcing the problem to Vladimir Putin. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m pessimistic about any Moscow-brokered WMD deal having the effects that the West desires. That said, much remains to be seen, as this issue is really only in the first chapter of diplomatic resolution.
However, I’m confident in stating that the United States backing off from overt military intervention in Syria’s civil war has important implications, already visible, for the U.S. military. That diplomats, not generals and admirals, were walking point in the White House on this issue has been widely noted, as has a budding civil-military conundrum that will very likely get worse in the years ahead.
Looming over all this, though, is the reality that the U.S. military may have simply priced itself out of the market. After the thrashing of Saddam’s forces in early 1991 by a U.S.-led coalition in Operation DESERT STORM, it was evident to nearly everyone that facing America’s military in a stand-up fight was a losing proposition. Our technological lead, coupled with superb command-and-control (C2), gave the United States a remarkable competitive edge in the tactical-to-operational realm of warfare. Strategy, however, would prove a much tougher nut for the Pentagon to crack. Even Saddam, in the years after his 1991 defeat, never seriously planned for conventional resistance against any future U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which even the man from Tikrit realized was a fool’s errand.
In the heady time of Blitzkrieg triumphs early in World War II, Hitler famously proclaimed “nothing is impossible for the German soldier” (dem deutschen Soldaten ist nichts unmöglich) and in the salad days of U.S. hegemony after 1991 that Nazi mirage seemed to have been realized, at last, by the Americans. Yet tactical awesomeness does not equal strategic competence, and any serious analysis of U.S. military performance since 9/11, in the era of the Global War on Terror, must conclude that Americans arms failed to deliver promised political outcomes in either Iraq or Afghanistan. While there is much blame for this to be laid at the feet of barmy politicos, U.S. top military leadership is equally culpable for the strategic setbacks. History will not be kind to the likes of Generals Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez, to cite only two particularly egregious examples, and any attempt to dodge this truth can fester into a kind of “stab in the back legend” (to allow a second Germanism in one paragraph), a fate to be avoided at all costs.
Above all, the U.S. is broke. This week, while addressing the baleful impact of sequestration on the Pentagon, three of our four service chiefs bluntly informed Congress, in open session, that they could not execute even one Major Theater War under current financial conditions. Since the end of the Cold War, the MTW has been the military’s gold standard. Down to 9/11, the Pentagon’s positions was that it could fight two MTWs simultaneously; now, with readiness in trouble due to wars and empty coffers, the reality has set in that the Pentagon is facing a crisis. The post-modern American war of warfare, which very few if any countries could hope to match in complexity and cost, is now so expensive that even Americans can no longer afford it. The strategic impact of this realization promises to be vast and far-reaching.
Conflict, though, shows no signs of evaporating. We can expect a gradual move away from the high-intensity warfare that the U.S. has perfected in the tactical-operational realm. Which may be just as well, given the current state of the U.S. military, particularly our ground forces, which are tired after 12 years of counterinsurgency in CENTCOM. Although the possibility of force-on-force conflict with China seems plausible, particularly given rising tensions in East Asian waters, the rest of the world appears uninterested in fighting the United States the way the U.S. likes to fight.
This, paradoxically, may not actually be good news in the long run, as the United States is seriously unready for other forms of conflict. Worse, the U.S. Government has persuaded itself that it is more ready for lower-intensity forms of conflict than it actually is. To be fair, in recent years the Pentagon, in collaboration with the Intelligence Community, has made UAVs a serious threat to terrorists around the world, while DoD’s Special Operations Forces – as large as the entire militaries of many Western countries – are the envy of the world in terms of their size, budgets, and capabilities. Yet all these are really just somewhat more subtle forms of traditional military applications of force.
What is needed instead is a serious capability in what some Eastern intelligence services term “special war,” an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense. Special war is the default setting for countries that are unable or unwilling to fight major wars, but there are prerequisites, above all a degree of cunning and a willingness to accept operational risk to achieve strategic aims. I’m afraid the U.S. Government falls quite short in those two departments.
The apparently total inability of the U.S. Government to keep secrets these days indicates a basic unreadiness for special war. Just as serious an obstacle is the mindset of most U.S. warfighters, which remains vividly conventional and unimaginative. No less, the risk aversion that characterizes too many American military and intelligence operations, caused by having lawyers oversee everything the Pentagon and the IC do, will have to be dispensed with if America wants to develop any real capabilities in special war.
There are templates to follow. Britain and France are more proficient in aspects of special war than we are, in part due to a legacy of colonial-era operations that lingers in London and Paris. Israel in particular is comfortable with the nuts and bolts of special war – aggressive espionage, subversion of hostile foreign factions, and even assassinations - but the Israeli model has its limits. In the first place, it’s questionable how much a system developed for a small state with a defined set of foes can be expanded to meet the needs of a huge global power. Moreover, Israeli political culture is tolerant of special war, including the mistakes that inevitably accompany it, showing a degree of public maturity about such messy matters that seems seriously lacking in the United States.
Unfortunately there is one country that excels at special war, and that’s Russia. Moscow’s proficiency in these dark arts goes back to the late Tsarist period, when the regime’s solution to a rising terrorism problem was to penetrate terrorist groups while creating some of their own: a politically tricky strategy that worked nearly perfectly, as long as one is willing to close one’s eyes at key moments. Proficiency in espionage, subversion, and terrorism was perfected under the Soviets, yet the skills of Russian intelligence in this domain have, if anything, increased under the rule of President Putin who, by virtue of being a onetime KGB counterintelligence officer, fully comprehends the power of special war.
Putin’s years in power have witnessed a blossoming of special war in Chechnya, where intelligence-led counterinsurgency has worked where blunter military methods failed to subdue the rebellion; in the Baltic states, where Russian intelligence successfully influences and intimdates these small NATO countries; and especially in Georgia, where the full range of Russian secret tricks has been employed intensely. The August 2008 Russian military intervention got the world’s attention, while the day-in, day-out activities waged by Moscow against Tbilisi, encompassing a rough form of spywar, get little press outside the region. The lead-up to the Obama administration’s agreement to a Russian offer to settle the Syrian WMD issue is a classic case of Moscow’s active measures - a key aspect of special war – setting the field for a big Russian diplomatic win.
Special war works when competently handled. It’s very cheap compared to any conventional military operations, and if executed properly it offers states a degree of plausible deniability while achieving state interests without fighting. The United States at present is not ready – organizationally, legally, politically, or culturally – to compete in special war. But getting proficient in special war will soon not be a choice, but a necessity. We’re already losing at it, whether we realize it or not, and the current trajectory is worrying. Over 2,500 years ago Sun Tzu, an early advocate of special war, argued that the acme of skill is not winning battles, rather subduing your enemy without actually fighting. It’s about time the Pentagon caught on.