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Welcome to the Post-9/11 Era

In Ben Kurland on January 9, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Much has been made over America’s military role in the world in the past decade as a result of the attacks on the Twin Towers. Surely the wars spawned by the attacks have defined the past decade both tactically and strategically. It saw the rebirth of counter insurgency, a new understanding of intervention, and an all-around reexamination of the role of war in modern society. It seems more ink has been spilled over the simple numbers 9 and 11 than I care to create an analogy for. Call the era what you may (the 9/11 era, the era of American interventionism, etc.) the simple fact is that the 2000s made much ado of American military might.

Last Thursday, however, President Obama travelled to the Pentagon to jointly announce with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta a new outlook for the American military in the 21st century. The report, called Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21stCentury Defense, says many things but the most notable and the point most noted by news media and politicians alike is that the U.S. will seek to reduce in military budget over the course of the next decade. Military spending could be cut by as much as $450 billion over the next decade. Additionally, automatic budget cuts of $500 billion are called for after Congress’ Joint Budget Committee failed to come to an agreement in November (although they will probably find a loop hole).

We still do not know exactly where the cuts will come from but there are safe bets conventional troop numbers will be effected as well as speculation surrounding nuclear forces, R&D, health and benefits, or as the President outlined, “As we look beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and the end of long-term, nation-building with large military footprints – we’ll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces. We’ll continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems so that we can invest in the capabilities we need for the future, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; counterterrorism; countering weapons of mass destruction; and the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access.”

There are several elements to this statement that indicate what I have suggested in the title of this article, namely that we are now entering the beginning stages of the post-9/11 era. What we saw after 9/11 was a surge in the willingness to commit large numbers of forces to spots around the world perceived to be in accordance with our liberal values of spreading democracy, freedom, etc. Troop numbers and the size of the army and marines surged especially after the adoption of COIN theory in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This was in line with the tenets of COIN which called for large numbers of soldiers to commit to countering a hard to find and wily enemy.

We are moving away from this thinking, however. With budgetary concerns being brought to the foremost in the American politic, it seems even the military will have to do its part in reducing costs. What this means is that the United States’ “big footprint” tactics which also happen to be quite expensive will probably fall by the wayside. Whether or not COIN turns out to work in Afghanistan or not, more likely than not we have seen the United States employ it unilateral for the last time for at least the short run.

So, what will take its place? What will the post-9/11 era in US military strategy look like? It may actually look more familiar than you think. Speaking speculatively, I think you will see the adoption in effect (if not in name) of two doctrines that proceeded the attacks on 9/11; namely the Powell and Rumsfeld doctrines.

First is the Powell Doctrine or simply that the United States will only commit forces under strictly defined parameters after having answered several vital questions like “is there a vital national interest at stake?”, “have all non-lethal alternatives been exhausted?”, and “do we have broad international support?” There are more questions but you can get the gist from these few. The re-adoption of this mind-set is already underway. It is a direct genesis of having committed American forces too deeply and at too much expense to too many wars with too little support. Do not misunderstand me; the United States’ military will maintain a far advantage over any other military in the world. Even with tsuch being the case, it simply will not commit to the same level of exertion as was seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Frankly, this might not be a bad thing. If I may place it in a dual choice; the U.S. military will do better to fight smarter in the short-run rather than harder.

This leads me to my second principle, the Rumsfeld Doctrine. This may be quite shocking for those familiar with Donald Rumsfeld, the now mostly disgraced former Secretary of Defense who over saw much of the early mismanagement of the two wars that have brought the United States to this crossroad. What I am emphasizing, however, is not the need to mismanage future engagements (as a matter of fact I will make the bold statement that the United States should try to avoid such follies) but instead highlight some of Rumsfeld’s practical, pre-9/11 ideas. Namely, that the United States should commit to a highly mobile, technologically advanced force relying more on air support assisting a small, nimble ground force. In other words, the United States slims down, speeds up, and gets smart. We have seen a variation of this in the implementation and proliferation of drones. They are technologically advanced, highly integrated, relatively cheap, and mobile alternative to large scale, ground intensive troop deployments. They go places ground soldiers cannot, see things ground soldiers cannot, and can be lethal where ground soldiers cannot. Not to mention that they do not risk lives where the army does.

So, what does this have to say about the post-9/11 era? Ceteris paribus, the United States should reconsider these two approaches as a way to control costs while still meeting the challenges of a new era.

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