29 May 2012
Recently in Grand Strategy in the Pacific I discussed the change of command at Pacom — US Pacific Command — and some remarks by the incoming admiral, Samuel J. Locklear III, in an article on the DOD website, Locklear: Pacom’s Priorities Reflect New Strategic Guidance.
In the article cited above we find this explicit evocation of transnational threats:
Transnational threats pose another concern and area of emphasis for Pacom. Locklear identified cyber threats as the most daunting, noting the importance of secure networks not only for Pacom’s military operations, but also for regional stability and economic viability.
After a quote on the transnational threat posed by hackers, Admiral Locklear is quoted as follows:
“In the terrorist world, as you squeeze on one side of the balloon, it pops out somewhere else. [Terrorists] look for areas of opportunity. And they find areas of opportunity in places that are disenfranchised, that have poor economies and opportunity to change the mindset of the people looking for a better life but don’t know how to get it.”
The DOD article cites three specific transnational threats: cyber threats, terrorism, and drug trafficking. The UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE previously cited in Grand Strategy in the Pacific cited transnational threats as one of five “Focus Areas” along with “Allies and Partners, China, India, North Korea.” Specifically, the strategic guidance document says this regarding transnational threats:
5. Counter Transnational Threats
i. Work with Allies and partners to build capacity and share information to counter violent extremism, transnational crime, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
ii. Disrupt violent extremist organization networks and defeat the threats they pose.
iii. Partner with other nations to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and associated technologies.
The January 2012 strategic planning document, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, does not mention exactly the same mix of threats found in the Pacom strategic guidance or Admiral Locklear’s remarks, but it does prominently refer to “violent extremists” on page one:
“…violent extremists will continue to threaten U.S. interests, allies, partners, and the homeland. The primary loci of these threats are South Asia and the Middle East. With the diffusion of
destructive technology, these extremists have the potential to pose catastrophic threats that could directly affect our security and prosperity. For the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats by monitoring the activities of non-state threats worldwide, working with allies and partners to establish control over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary.”
The concern regarding “violent extremists” is repeated on the next page:
“Our defense efforts in the Middle East will be aimed at countering violent extremists and destabilizing threats, as well as upholding our commitment to allies and partner states. Of particular concern are the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD).”
While the Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense document makes no explicit mention of “transnational” threats, in the above discussion of violent extremists these extremist movements are mentioned in conjunction with “non-state threats.” This is a theme that continues later in the same document:
“To enable economic growth and commerce, America, working in conjunction with allies and partners around the world, will seek to protect freedom of access throughout the global commons – those areas beyond national jurisdiction that constitute the vital connective tissue of the international system. Global security and prosperity are increasingly dependent on the free flow of goods shipped by air or sea. State and non-state actors pose potential threats to access in the global commons, whether through opposition to existing norms or other anti-access approaches. Both state and non-state actors possess the capability and intent to conduct cyber espionage and, potentially, cyber attacks on the United States, with possible severe effects on both our military operations and our homeland. Growth in the number of space-faring nations is also leading to an increasingly congested and contested space environment, threatening safety and security.” (p. 3)
Compiling the remarks on particular threats from UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, and the quotes from Admiral Locklear, we get this list of presumably transnational threats:
● Cyber threats, cyber espionage, hacking
● terrorism, violent extremists, non-state threats
● transnational crime, including drug trafficking
● WMD proliferation, ballistic missiles, “the diffusion of destructive technology”
While I think few people would argue that these listed transnational threats are serious problems facing the world, and indeed most are recent threats that emerged as strategic trends in the late twentieth century and are only now coming into their own as major threats that could disrupt life and commerce in the major nation-states of the world (being threats to “regional stability and economic viability”), even from a purely conventional standpoint there are some problems with this strategic laundry list. I admire the concision and focus of these strategic guidance documents, but I am troubled by the overall strategic incoherence of the goals outlined.
The threats identified superficially present themselves as appropriate concerns for the world’s powers to seek to counter, but which fail to cohere as a grand strategy. The failure of a grand strategy to be coherent means that efforts can end up being at cross-purposes, dissipating themselves to little effect, meaning in turn that the threats may not be decisively met. Worse yet, if a threat comes under pressure, it will buckle and disappear if it was inconsequential, but if the threat is real and growing, and it meets with just enough pressure to stimulate it, to force its leadership to weld the organization into a disciplined force, a weak and insufficient effort to counter a strategic threat can be worse than no effort at all.
There is no question that transnational crime, especially highly profitable crime such as drug trafficking and human trafficking, often comes together with terrorism, violent extremists, and non-state threats to create a toxic and difficult to eradicate force. Violent extremists have no intrinsic objection to crime, and crime can be employed to pay the bills for ideologically motivated violence. The destabilizing effects of pervasive transnational crime creates further criminal opportunities in an escalating cycle of criminality. It is a legitimate strategic concern that networks of violent criminal elements will traffic in WMD and all manner of destructive technologies, but it must be understood that the primary threat here is trafficking, and not the employment of such technologies.
It is the nature of transnational and non-state threats to be amorphous, flexible, evolving, geographically scattered, unstructured, and non-hierarchical. A transnational or non-state threat holds and defends no territory, has no permanent relations with other political entities, has no formal economy, has no permanent installations, no permanent personnel, and possesses no industrial plant and no infrastructure. It is a pure fantasy to attribute the pursuit of ballistic missile technologies to non-state actors. Ballistic missiles are a large and bulky technology that requires permanent facilities and a substantial industrial plant to produce or operate. It is only slightly less of a fantasy for a non-state entity to acquire WMD. If a non-state entity wanted to acquire WMD, they would seek the smallest, lightest, and most portable instances of WMD, and these would, for obvious technology reasons, be the most advanced versions of the technology, therefore the most difficult to acquire and the most expensive.
Further, the Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense document speaks of, “directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary,” and this of course has great appeal, but is precisely what is most difficult when it comes to transnational and non-state threats. I discussed this previously in The Political Context of Striking a Carrier, where I wrote:
“[A] response is not so much about what is possible as it is about what is sustainable and can be integrated into a comprehensive grand strategy. Just as Thomas Barnett pointed out, a dedicated adversary can sucker punch the US at any time; so too the US can strike back at any time, but for either the sucker punch or the retaliatory strike to have any meaning they need to be located in a political context. If the adversary is a non-state actor, the response becomes highly problematic. A reactive US response undertaken under domestic pressure simply to show that the US can strike back might satisfy voters but will mean almost nothing in a strategic context.”
A comprehensive grand strategy is also (ideally) a coherent grand strategy, and there is little either comprehensive or coherent about claiming to target groups with no permanent territory, personnel, assets, infrastructure, or industrial plant. One can expect the ongoing targeted assassinations of key personnel and charismatic leaders, as is currently the case, but the effect of such strikes is limited and local, whereas a truly transnational threat is non-local, non-regional, and non-individual. The criminal and terrorist network will repair itself and go on with its business, since it has little or no structure or hierarchy to destroy.
It is easy to find someone to kill, or a target to bomb, but this approach, if iterated irresponsibly, will do far more harm than good, especially when it comes to winning hearts and minds. Just as Mao said that a guerrilla moves among the people like a fish in sea, so too terrorists and criminals also move among the people like fish in the sea, and when you try to strike back at the moving, amorphous, adapting transnational threat hiding among the people, you hit the people far more often than you hit the threat. And every time you hit the people instead of the terrorist or the criminal, you create new enemies whom the terrorists and criminals will seek to recruit.
On a deeper level, if transnational threats become the all-purpose category of military threat (which seems to be the case here, with ballistic missiles and WMD thrown in the same grab-bag with non-state actors), there is the potential danger of calling any threat a transnational threat, and deriving the converse implication that any transnational movement is a threat. In the long term, such an attitude will serve any nation-state poorly, since one of the major strategic trends of our time is the rise of non-state actors, and not every non-state actor is maleficent. It has been said that, if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The danger, then, is seeing every non-state actor as a nail. In a strategic climate of opinion where “transnational” becomes a synonym for “threat,” there is the very real danger of stigmatizing as a threat that which may be the key to future peace and prosperity. And with the growing role of non-state entities in the international system, committing yourself to a course of action of opposing non-state entities means putting yourself in on the losing side of history and taking on a fight you cannot win.
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22 May 2012
The Pacific Ocean is the largest unified geographical area on the surface of the planet. Covering more than a quarter of the globe, it is, “almost equal to the total land area of the world” (according to the CIA Factbook), and is twice as large as the Atlantic Ocean. This vast realm of water has recently been the object of elevated strategic interest since a “strategic pivot” toward Asia was announced by the current US administration, perhaps heralding the first signs of a shift toward a Pacific-centered world order.
The strategic pivot to Asia has been accompanied by admirably clear strategic guidance for the current US Pacific Command (Pacom) commander. The admirably succinct (3 page) UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE, authored (or at least signed by) outgoing Pacom Admiral Robert F. Willard, mirrors the January 2012 strategic planning document, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (almost as succinct as the former at 16 pages, including several title pages and introductory material, which narrows the content to a mere 8 pages).
There was an interesting story on the DOD website from the American Forces Press Service about the United States Pacific Command incoming Pacom Commander Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III — Locklear: Pacom’s Priorities Reflect New Strategic Guidance (which I previously wrote about on Tumblr). Admiral Locklear was quoted as saying, “…the president and the secretary of defense have given me through their strategic guidance clear direction on what they want [and] what they expect to see.” Every commander should be so fortunate.
This strategy is as much a political strategy as a military strategy, though in the present case implemented by the military forces of the US (as no Clausewitzean would be surprised to hear, given the fungibility of political and the military exertion). Both the strategic guidance referenced above and Admiral Locklear himself (as quoted in the above-linked article) prominently discussed developing military-to-military cooperation between the US and Korea, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, and Singapore. The Pacom website has an article and many pictures from recent joint Royal Thai Navy and US Navy exercises. China, of course, gets a section of its own in the strategic guidance. Here is what the UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE says about China:
2. Mature the U.S.-China Military-to-Military Relationship
i. Sustain a consistent military-to-military relationship to prevent miscommunication and miscalculation.
ii. Pursue opportunities for increased military cooperation in areas of mutual interest.
iii. Monitor China’s military modernization program and prepare accordingly.
Some time ago on Tumblr I wrote in The Pacific Theater, Then and Now that, “It would be difficult to imagine the US and Japanese military forces gathering in the late 1930s for defense consultative talks.” The US and China, however, have held Defense Consultative Talks. Of the DCT gathering in Beijing in 2011 I wrote:
“One cannot but wonder at the feeling and atmosphere of the room at such meetings. It has become a parlor game among strategists to play off the US and China in a confrontation, with the US being the world’s only superpower and China being the superpower presumptive, however far it is from actual superpower status. Also, much can happen in the period of time that need to elapse for China to bring its military forces even roughly to par with those of the US.”
It is certainly a good thing that these two powers are at least talking to each other, however little comes from such meetings. These two powers — the two largest economies in the world — face each other across the North Pacific, and they are vulnerable to what the strategic guidance document diplomatically calls “miscommunication and miscalculation.”
As the two largest economies on the planet, and the two great powers on the Pacific, the US and China will have interests in common (“areas of mutual interest”) and interests in conflict. This is inevitable. Great powers have a bias to stability, and while China’s “peaceful rise” as a “responsible stakeholder” in the global community is actually a form of instability in the international system, it is an instability with a bias toward a future bi-polar world order with China and the US both desiring to preserve their status while not greatly disturbing the other through “miscommunication and miscalculation.” The Chinese are as eager as the US to keep the sea lanes open to international trade, as China’s burgeoning trade with the world is the lifeline of its resource-hungry, export-led economy.
But there is a fly in the ointment, and that fly is Taiwan. The US officially maintains a “One China” policy, but it also gives Taiwan security guarantees (though it remains coyly ambiguous about whether the nuclear umbrella covers Taiwan) and occasionally sells the Taiwanese advanced military hardware when it feels like poking a stick in the eye of the Beijing regime. For its part, China has floated its first aircraft carrier, rumored to be named the Shī Láng (施琅, formerly the Admiral Kuznetsov-class Varyag), and I do not think that it is merely coincidental that Shī Láng was a Ming-Qing Dynasty admiral who conquered Taiwan in 1681.
The Pacific Ocean has the distinction of being the only ocean on the globe to host the only major aircraft carrier engagements in planetary history. Aircraft carriers have been deployed in all the world’s oceans, but only the in the Pacific during the Second World War were there major military engagements between peer or near-peer fleets of multiple aircraft carriers. In The Pacific Theater, Then and Now I wrote, “Anyone who wants to understand carrier operations and carrier warfare studies Midway, Guadalcanal, and the Battle of the Philippine Sea. These are the only examples that we have.” I have moreover elsewhere stated that aircraft carriers are the premier instruments of force projection in the world today, and in light of this the entry of China into the lists of those nation-states operating aircraft carriers (a list about as short as the list of nation-states possessing nuclear weapons) suggests a re-run of historical naval arms races. Starting in 1922 with Hōshō (the first purpose-built aircraft carrier), the Japanese rapidly built a carrier fleet that was prepared to take on the US in the Pacific by 1941. That was a period of less than twenty years.
The Pacific Ocean is a relatively well-defined region that is not a nation-state. As such, it perfectly exemplifies that I recently wrote about in regard to regionalism. After posting my initial formulations of regionalism I realized that one way to define a region would be as a geographical area isolated from other geographical areas by choke points. The choke points of the Pacific Ocean are surprisingly few for a geographical region of this extent.
In the map above (if you click on it, it should get bigger) I have attempted to outline in red some of the obvious choke points that connect the Pacific Ocean to the rest of the world. The Bering Sea is the choke point for access to the Arctic Ocean; the Panama Canal and the Straight of Magellan are the choke points for access to the Atlantic Ocean. There is a particularly interesting buffer of southeast Asian islands interposed between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. One could regard this as a series of closely spaced choke points, or as something strategically distinct from a choke point, reticulate in nature, like a permeable barrier. Such an area would be difficult to transit in large capital ships or a fleet, but affords numerous hiding places (and re-supply opportunities) for small vessels that can safely negotiate the shallow seas and narrow straits of these islands.
Should the world begin to approximate a Pacific-centered world order, this world order would be at the mercy of the choke points noted above. In an A2/AD world, these choke points would dictate the dissemination of Pacific commerce to the rest of the world. Any power wishing to dictate terms to the world would seek to control these choke points, since by controlling the choke points, the entire Pacific Ocean becomes the subject of anti-access and area denial. One CSG per choke point would go a long way toward control of the Pacific. Whose carriers will it be?
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