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Friday, November 28, 2008

Do We Really Want to Fight China?

It's hard to discuss the future of the military these days without someone bringing up China. Whenever I mention the Air Force's lack of preparation for
"small wars", its focus on expensive next-generation weapon systems like the F-22, or the Air Force's resistance to the kind of transformation Secretary Gates is pushing through, I typically get a reply something like this: "Well, the military is going to regret sidelining the Air Force when the time comes to fight China." The concern with The Coming War Against China is not limited to the Air Force; a coming war is an unquestioned assumption for many military officers.

The United States needs to keep its strategic edge in war, but I'm convinced that this entire mindset towards China is fundamentally flawed. We don't fight and win wars for their own sakes. We fight and win wars to protect our national interests, which, according to the 2006 National Security Strategy, includes goals like championing aspirations for human dignity, igniting a new era of global economic growth, developing open societies, building democracy, and developing agendas for cooperative action with other main centers of global power. A war with China would be catastrophic for all of these goals. If we genuinely care about our national interests, if we genuinely care about building an international order that allows private freedom and economic enterprise to flourish, our nation should not just be preparing for a war with China; it should be working with all its might to build an international order that ensures a war with China will never need to happen.

I'm not the only person who thinks this. On November 26th the Boston Globe ran a story titled "Ex-commander: US needs new China plan." It an interview, retired Admiral William J. Fallon--who commanded both US Central Command US Pacific Command in recent years, and was one of the top strategic minds in the military before his retirement--said that that "the United States desperately needs to come up with a strategy for dealing peacefully with a rising China." He told The Globe, "There were people who warned me that you'd better get ready for the shoot 'em up here because sooner or later we're going be at war with China... I don't think that's where we want to go. And so I set about challenging all the assumptions." He recalls meeting with Pentagon hawks in 2005, during a chill in American-Chinese relations, and telling them, "What are the priorities, guys? Do you want to have a war? We can probably have one. But is that what you really want? Is that really in our interest? Because I don't think so."

What would a war with China mean? Regardless of whether we fight China directly or in proxy wars, it would mean untold expenditures of blood and treasure. It would mean a radical disruption to the global order, as the US collides with an entire constellation of countries in Asia. A war would threaten our relationships with many allies who would resist a war. It would unleash devastating consequences on the global economy. America's trade volume with China exceeded $386 billion in 2007. As of September 2008, China's holdings of US treasury securities amounted to $585 billion. The US-China relationship underpins the entire global economy; threatening that relationship would wreck both economies and cause far-reaching damage around the world. The human suffering wreaked by an American-Chinese war would be dreadful.

There are times when war is still necessary, when the costs of not fighting are even higher than the dreadful costs of war. But China does not fall in this category, at least for now, and war is hardly a foregone conclusion. International relations is seldom a zero-sum game. China's rise does not necessarily equate to America's downfall. The US and China have both profited from their economic relationship, and can continue to do so if the leaders of both countries pursue wise policies. This does not mean the US needs to be soft. The West, led by the US, should still push for China to behave responsibly as an international actor and expand domestic political freedoms. But the US should pursue these objectives within a broader strategic context, which seeks to peacefully integrate a rising China into the international order. This is our major national interest with China. Our military needs to train and prepare for wars anywhere, including China--that is a core part of its job--but we should not mistake these preparations for a strategy. In my view, if we need to fight a war with China someday, it will probably be because the political leaders of both countries have failed us.

How do we integrate China into the international order and forestall a war? Democratic Peace Theory claims that democracies (usually liberal democracies) almost never go to war with each other. Why this is true is a matter of speculation and debate, but most explanations revolve around the power of globalization to weave liberal democracies together. As countries become more economically intertwined, the costs of war and the incentives for peace both increase. An expanding volume of trade between the US and China, for example, gives more Americans and more Chinese a vested interest in ensuring the continuity of the relationship. The globalization of people--through immigration, study-abroad programs, and international work programs--builds even more linkages between countries. The globalization of ideas, through communications technology and media, strengthens the sense of international community and narrows the gulf of understanding between countries. The growth of civil society makes governments more accountable to their citizens, and generally provides a check on aggression.

The US should do everything it can to help China build these linkages with the rest of the international community. This is largely an economic matter. My biggest concern right now is the growing protectionist sentiment in the US. As long as the US keeps trading with China, the costs of war will be high, and China will have economic incentives to pursue a "peaceful rise." The subsequent economic growth in China will result in a larger middle class, more education, and more robust civic society. China's economic interests will also give the West leverage. On the other hand, protectionist policies will harm overall economic growth in both countries, dismantle the linkages between China and the US, and create economic rivalry that could eventually blow up into something worse.

Our economic policy around the world also matters. The global trading system is in tatters now. The failure of the Doha Round of trade negotiations has put the world in jeopardy, and exacerbated a rift between the global North and South. More and more countries are turning away from global trade and towards Preferential Trade Agreements, which economist Jagdish Bhagwati calls "termites in the trading system." Without strong economic leadership, the global trading system will give way to regional economic organizations, accelerating the global transition to a multipolar system and increasing the danger of war.

In "Once an Eagle", we follow the soldier Sam Damon for 1300 pages, from one gruesome war to another. Interestingly, the climax of the novel is not about Damon's brave heroics in yet another war. The climax is about Damon's efforts to prevent a costly and stupid war from happening: an invasion of China. This unexpected twist of storytelling shows the subtle and complex responsibilities of a military officer. I hope, for the sake of the entire world, that there are enough Sam Damons out there to save us from a war that I never want to fight.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Why the Air Force Needs Sam Damon

The Air Force has tried for years to instill a stronger "warrior ethos" in its Airmen. It has instituted longer basic training, a harder physical fitness test, combat "dining ins", and most recently an "Airman's Creed" (which I have strong opinions about, but which I will save for another day). Nothing has really seemed to stick; the Air Force continues to search for ways to instill the warrior ethos. I would like to propose a thesis. The Air Force has struggled to instill a warrior ethos because it does not train warriors; it trains narrowly-focused airpower specialists.

I enjoy browsing reading lists published by the military, because they tell you a lot about what each service believes institutionally, and what the services want their soldiers, sailors or airmen to believe. When you compare the reading lists from the Chief of Staff of the Army and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, strong cultural distinctions emerge. The Army Reading Program publishes an 18-page brochure with extensive lists broken down by rank. It includes books about military history from The Peloponnesian War to the present, leadership, strategy, and concepts of military officership. Until recently, it also included two works of fiction: "Once an Eagle" by Anton Myrer and "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara (I have no idea why these are no longer included). Two of my favorite lists come not from the Army itself, but from counterinsurgency blogs that are widely followed in the Army and Marines: Abu Muqawama and Small Wars Journal. You can tell some cutting-edge thinkers work on these lists, who know how to fight today's wars and who care about what soldiers read.

The Chief of Staff of the Air Force list, on the other hand, fits on a single page. This year it includes three biographies of airpower pioneers, three books on airpower employment, two books on contemporary foreign affairs, and four books on general military history. The intent of the program, according to the website, is "to help each of us become better, more effective advocates of air and space power."

The picture that emerges from these lists squares with my experience so far in the Air Force. Since its inception, the Air Force has defined itself against the Army. It firmly adheres to a historical narrative in which courageous airpower pioneers risked their careers and credibility to advocate airpower, which the majority of the Army "didn't get." In one war after another, airpower advocates had to fight with their sister services and with their civilian leadership to fight an air war "the right way." They finally succeeded in Desert Storm, showcasing the elegance and power of a strategic air campaign. While we must tailor our strategy and models to rapidly evolving threats, the essential tenets of airpower employment are now understood. Airmen must vigorously defend them to ground commanders who do not understand them, and who will try with all their might to dismantle strategic airpower. This is the narrative I was taught in every Professional Military Education (PME) course in the military. It's consistent with the criticism the Air Force leveled against FM3-24 after its publication, and it's consistent with the way the Air Force has approached warfighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is a lot of truth to this narrative. Strategic airpower can be employed in ways far more powerful and creative than just Close Air Support, which is what the Army generally favors. Also, the Air Force has had to fight many battles to carve out a separate identity from the Army. With that said, I believe the Air Force has gone too far. It has divorced itself from pre-airpower military history and from the warrior culture of the Army and Marines. It has focused so intensively on airpower that it has excluded broader questions of strategy. For example, my five-volume Squadron Officer School curriculum includes a single article about Afghanistan. It is a glowing appraisal of airpower's decisive role in the battle for Mazar-e-Sharif. True, this was an operational victory, and the Air Force deserves credit for the vital role it played. But the curriculum gives no discussion to broader strategic questions in Afghanistan. What was our strategy for Afghanistan in 2001? What did we plan to do with the country after the Northern Alliance defeated the Taliban? When I read Bob Woodward's account of the early war planning, I found the absence of clear strategy chilling. Today, our deficit of strategic planning in Afghanistan has caught up to us. It is vital that our next generation of military officers understands these concepts, but Air Force PME gives them no discussion, at least at junior levels--which is when it needs to begin.

The Air Force often complains that it is treated like a mere annex to land power. Air Force leaders leveled this critique at FM3-24, where airpower literally was relegated to a short appendix. If this is is the case, the Air Force largely has itself to blame. In the Army Combined Arms Center and in online think tanks like Small Wars Journal, Army leaders do not simply talk about "landpower"; they debate how to reintegrate Sunni fighters into the Iraqi Army, whether the Taliban can be negotiated with, and how to better integrate Provincial Reconstruction Teams into our military operations in Afghanistan. The Air Force mostly sat out of counterinsurgency discussions until 2007. The word "counterinsurgency" appears in my 800+ page Squadron Officer School correspondence curriculum precisely one time, and I never heard the word at the in-residence school a year ago. A friend of mine just attended the school this summer, and he said the academics are not much better now. Yes, our service exists to employ air and space power. That should be our focus. But officers of any service are entrusted with fighting and winning the nation's wars, which means every one of them--whether they walk the streets of Baghdad, command an Aircraft Carrier, or strap into an F-22--need to understand War in its entirety.

If Air Force PME is short on broader issues of strategy, it could also do better on leadership and the warrior ethos. Sam Damon and Courtney Massengale--the protagonist and antagonist of "One an Eagle"--are household names in the Army, grand archetypes of good and bad officership. "Once an Eagle" is one of the few books I can honestly say changed my life, but most people in the Air Force have never heard of it. Few leaders bother to point our young airmen that direction. The Air Force has plenty of its own leaders who deserve our study and admiration, but it does not need to limit itself. There is nothing wrong with studying leadership in land warfare as well. We do ourselves no favors by excluding centuries of military history because they don't include airplanes.

I'm a fan of Jointness. Period. I'm proud to serve in the Air Force, but I want to make it better, and I want to see Air Force leaders further integrated into the joint team. To do that, we need to change our service culture, by altering the narrative we use to understand our own history. We should not define ourselves against the Army. We're past that now. We exist as an established, separate service. We should have the confidence to fight alongside our ground-pounding brethren as peers. A little Sam Damon might help us.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Latest Defeat for Openness

This is supposedly a blog about "building peace." Why, then, do I care and write so much about building dynamic, flexible organizations? Because building peace is hard. Improving security, strengthening institutions, and providing services is difficult work under any circumstances, but the challenges multiply in a conflict zone where insecurity undermines peacebuilding efforts at every turn. The Counterinsurgency Manual FM3-24 opens with this quote from Gen. Peter J. Shoomaker: "This is a game of wits and will. You've got to be learning and adapting constantly to survive." The manual goes on to say, "In COIN, the side that learns faster and adapts more rapidly--the better learning organization--usually wins."

So I'm always quick to cheer when the military embraces "openness" principles that empower soldiers, airmen, and sailors to dynamically meet challenges in the field. I'm disheartened when the military does the opposite: when it dismantles or blockades the vital infrastructure that empowers us to do our jobs.

I'll give the latest example.

Yesterday I showed up to my Arabic classes at DLI to find my classmates and teachers gathered outside the classroom, venting anger and frustration. The Army, it seems, implemented a new policy that bans any external media from their computers, like thumb drives and external hard drives, which are a vital part of day-to-day operations in the military. As far as I'm concerned, banning thumb drives is like banning staplers or hole punchers. I'm not sure if this is Army-wide or confined to our own installation. Either way, the local fallout is significant. We were supposed to give PowerPoint presentations in class yesterday, but our teacher postponed them because we couldn't figure out how to transfer them from our personal laptops to the government network. The teachers are frantic, because they frequently produce Arabic audio recordings for us and have no good way to deliver them. One teacher has gigabytes of video and audio material he frequently brings to class on an external hard drive. So much for that. The school has gigabytes of resources on the network that I had planned to transfer to my computer before I go to Jordan, so I can use them in my continuing Arabic studies. I'm not sure what I'll do now. If this policy is indeed Army-wide, I can only imagine the fallout, multiplied across every installation and every unit in the Army.

There are workarounds. We can e-mail documents to ourselves, but only if they're small enough (and if we use e-mail accounts that aren't firewalled). To give PowerPoint presentations we can unplug cables from the expensive video projectors, and hook in our personal laptops. We're going to try burning CDs today; maybe that still works. If the Army insists on building such an enormous obstacle in the middle of day-to-day operations, tens of thousands of affected soldiers will apply their collective ingenuity to find workarounds. The point, though, is that this policy makes our lives significantly more difficult.

Network security is a serious issue, and I'm sure senior leadership had their reasons for implementing this policy. But in today's world, banning thumb drives is taking an axe to a problem that calls for a scalpel. Blocking a soldier's ability to easily manipulate and transfer data does more harm to the Army's day-to-day operations than any Chinese hacker ever could. At least in my classroom, we will have to spend a good amount of time and energy inventing workarounds--time that we should be spending learning Arabic.

Furthermore, I'm skeptical that such policies actually work. This falls in a broad category of security measures that tend to punish legitimate users, without posing a significant obstacle to illegitimate users. I'm reminded of a security fence I saw at a deployed airbase, topped with with razor wire and equipped with a combo-locked gate. It looked menacing, but the bottom of the swinging gate was a foot and a half off the ground. I accidentally got locked outside this gate one time. After checking to make sure no one was watching, I dropped to the ground an rolled under the fence. Likewise, blocking thumb drives does nothing to stop the illegitimate flow of data. The digital borders are still porous. Illegitimate users can still pass data to and from the network.

This issue is more important than just thumb drives or the inconvenience to my own life. What concerns me is the military's overall posture towards cyber and information security. The global trend in computing (and society) is towards more transparent, fluid, dynamic flows of information. Both data and applications are migrating from local PCs to the Internet. These trends pose significant challenges to military security, to be sure, but the responses I've seen from our military--firewalling vast stretches of the Internet, blocking personal e-mail accounts, strictly regulating what software is allowed to run on its computers, forbidding social technologies like blogging and Facebook, and now banning the standard medium in our society for transferring data--are headed in the opposite direction. These policies do not help build a "learning organization" that can fight and win wars.

UPDATE: Wired Danger Room posted an article about the ban. The measure is DOD-wide, and was undertaken to stop the advance of a worm virus.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What Can Soldiers Say?

If the military is to embrace blogging, it must provide guidance and education about what soldiers can and cannot say. When soldiers blog, they tread through a minefield of potential problems--for example, violating OPSEC, slandering superior officers or politicians, or simply saying something stupid that could later blow up on them. The Old School has addressed these concerns by simply banning blogging. For reasons I've stated before, I believe that is the wrong answer. Instead, the military should establish clear guidelines that give soldiers the freedom and confidence to blog within specific boundaries.

What should these guidelines be? This is a big question that demands a lot of thought and discussion. I wrestle with this myself, which is why I've mostly limited this blog so far to discussions about technology and its integration into the military. I'm testing the waters before I turn to more sensitive topics like the severe problems I see everyday in the military's Arabic training pipeline or how we should be engaging with Arab media. But I have a few thoughts, which I'll share below.

In August of 2007, Lt. Col. Bob Bateman wrote an article in Altercations titled "Can Say They That?" It was reposted on Small Wars Journal. It was about precisely this question. Bateman draws his guidance about media interaction from Col. Hal Moore (of We Were Soldiers fame), who gave the following guidance to soldiers deploying to Vietnam in 1965:

"Talk to any reporter you want. Say what you want, but speak the truth. Do not exaggerate, and stay in your lane. Talk about what you know personally, what you have seen, what you have done, and then stand by your words."

This guidance doesn't cover everything--it doesn't help certain C-17 pilots who want to discuss why US agricultural trade policy is undermining our national security, for example--but it's certainly a good place to start. Moore's rules aren't just good for press interaction; they're good for any soldier who wants to raise criticism and fight for change within his or her organization. Moore's rules have kept me out of trouble more than once in my career (or at least out of worse trouble) when I've raised criticisms and suggested improvements.

Col. Bateman expands on these principles in his article. It's worth a read.

Soldiers in the Blogosphere

I haven't posted in a while because Arabic has me swamped. I have a big test coming up, and needed a couple weeks to really buckle down and study. The irony of learning Arabic is that it's so intensive and so demanding that I don't have adequate time to keep up with world politics, let alone write about it. It's frustrating going from Graduate-level International Relations studies to studying passages all day that most Arab first graders would have no problem with, but this is part of the hard road of learning a strategic language... a topic I hope to begin blogging about soon.

In the meantime, here is a link to a new blog run by an Army Major--about soldiers who blog. Check out Soldiers in the Blogosphere.