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Strategy, Math. Whatever.

September 19, 2011

I was a little unnerved when Diana asked me if I’d write for her blog [ed note: I’m creepy!]. As I told her, since leaving graduate school and joining the Marines I haven’t written much, certainly nothing of an academic or analytical nature (rumor has it the military likes PowerPoint and discourages long-form analysis). This is doubly ironic since my first post-military job is at a think tank where I’m currently researching (and hopefully writing about) Persian Gulf militaries. Regardless, after a four year sabbatical from writing much of anything, minus the occasional dispatch from Iraq, here goes nothing. Be gentle in the comments section. 


Last week, the House Armed Services Committee held the second in a series of hearings entitled The Future of National Defense and the U.S. Military Ten Years After 9/11. The common refrain from the witnesses of these two hearings has echoed the comments of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: Strategy before math. Unfortunately, to date, there has been little strategy, both on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

Sameer Lalwani and Joshua Shifrinson, PhD candidates at MIT, go a long way toward filling this strategic void with their paper published by the New America Foundation, Whither the Commons? Choosing Security Over Control. Simply put, it’s excellent. To my knowledge it’s the first solid attempt at a credible alternative strategy for how the U.S. can maintain security in an austere budget environment. Basically, Lalwani and Shifrinson have offered up a first draft for DoD and its ongoing “roles and missions review.” Let’s be honest, if DoD absorbs the amount of budget cuts that are being bandied about, it will be unable to do everything we have asked of it over the last twenty years. A fundamental change in strategy will be necessary.

Anyway, onto their argument.

According to Lalwani and Shifrinson, “‘command of the commons’—the ability to project military power and engage in trade at times and places of its choosing while denying the same privileges to others… is a critical feature of American grand strategy.” Today, command of the commons translates into the ability whereby “the United States can credibly threaten to deny other states access to the commons in a crisis and can defeat another state’s efforts to deny the U.S. access to the commons in wartime.”

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has pursued command of the commons through an approach commonly referred to as “primacy.” This approach requires the United States to retain the preponderance of military power and deter potential challengers from even emerging; basically, doing whatever necessary to maintain the status quo. Lalwani and Shifrinson label the current U.S. approach to command of the commons as “control the commons—preventing the emergence of plausible threats to U.S. command by state and non-state actors alike, well ahead of their actual manifestation.” The problem with this strategy is that it’s, uh, expensive.

The paper’s thesis is that the U.S. can retain command of the commons with a less costly and more appropriate approach, one that the authors term “security of the commons.” This idea is worth quoting at length:

Under a security of the commons approach, the United States would maintain sufficient command of the commons to defeat military threats to U.S. interests and ensure the provision of global public goods such as trade and commerce. But it would recognize that America’s current commitments and force capabilities far exceed what is necessary to achieve these goals. The United States therefore can scale down the reach of its international activities and force presence without jeopardizing the key objectives of the command of the commons. It can do so because the United States faces unequivocal challenges to its command of the commons. Moreover, by pursuing a security of the commons approach, it can actually increase U.S. national security while lowering its cost. This is the case because under the current control approach, the U.S. tendency to over-provide the military forces to retain command can trigger “spirals of insecurity” and breed the very challenges to command of the commons it seeks to prevent. By contrast a security of the commons approach offers the possibility that by doing less, the United States can encourage other regional powers to do more in protecting the commons, thereby discouraging free-riding. Yet, at the same time, the United States would retain more than ample military capability to defend the commons should a credible threat emerge by scaling up in critical regions, thus acting as a security guarantor of last resort.

Seems like a solid alternative strategy to me. But, wait, that’s not even the best part!

Lalwani and Shifrinson’s critique of the control approach is devastating. It’s the verbal equivalent of the bin Laden raid. In five paragraphs, they kick open to the door to the American primacy argument and put two in its head, one in its chest, and, for good measure, empty the clip into its cold lifeless body. American primacy is thus whisked away and dumped unceremoniously into the ocean. The way it should be. (As a point of reference, if this critique is the equivalent of the bin Laden raid, then surely Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’ critique of Robert Pape’s latest book is a 20KT nuclear bomb.)

The U.S. should exercise control over the commons at all times. This equates security and openness of the commons with American monopoly of the international system. At the same time, the emergence of increasingly powerful states seeking to influence the commons is viewed with deep suspicions. Despite the rhetoric of multilateralism, influence over the commons is only accorded to allies under the aegis of American leadership.

Check. It is fiscally unsustainable to continue performing this mission. Well, unless the Army and Air Force are prepared to take one for the team and give budgetary priority to the Navy. Or unless Americans are willing to sacrifice their entitlements. Yeah, I didn’t think so. Also, we’ve bought into a system where we always have to be the leader because we think the international system would devolve into anarchy without us. When we’re not leading with toughness and seriousness, the sky falls. Wait, what was that? Sky falling? Oh, never mind, it was just Tripoli.

U.S. command also provides a global public good that is perpetually vulnerable to ready disruption. In this view, the United States acts as ‘steward’ for the international community in providing access to the commons. As such, efforts to limit U.S. command by reducing its ready access to certain maritime regions is taken as a challenge to the openness of the commons and threat to the international economic system.

Check. This view neglects the fact that countries like China and Iran have a vested interest in maintaining open sea lines of communication for their own benefit. Why would Iran close the Strait of Hormuz, thereby shutting down its only outlet to the global economic system? How does the regime benefit from preventing its main export, oil, from reaching the market? The first person who can offer a credible explanation where Iran initiates hostilities by closing the Strait of Hormuz—in other words, not as a response to hostile actions undertaken by the United States or one of our regional partners—wins a free beer. Busch Light.

As a result, it is imperative to forestall potential challenges to the commons. Because any expansion of the contested zones is treated as an undesirable challenge to American leadership, control over the commons places a premium on early identification of potential challenges—even those that have yet to clearly emerge.

Check. Everyone is a threat. Every state action that the U.S. disagrees with is an assault on America’s toughness and seriousness. Got it. The problem is that in practice, the United States goes around swatting every little housefly with a carrier battle group. Some flies, while annoying, are not worth the effort. Take Iran for instance. Iran is an annoyance and its nuclear program is a cause for great concern and warrants vigilance, but Iran is not a military threat to the United States. Yeah, I said it. Here are the Coors Light cold, hard facts on Iran: Iran’s military is neither trained nor equipped to project meaningful power outside its borders. Iran does not have modern tanks or armored vehicles. Iran’s artillery consists largely of towed systems pre-dating the Iran-Iraq War. Iran lacks a long-range strike capability. Iran’s navy is not classified as blue-water. Even if it possessed these capabilities, Iran does not have the logistics support in place to sustain operations. Iran’s equipment, due to sanctions, suffers maintenance and readiness shortfalls. Iran spends $10 billion annually on defense, roughly equivalent to what DoD spends on toner and paper. Still, the American political class persists in treating Iran as some sort of great power, elevating it from the middle rate power that it is to a state that is on the cusp of challenging U.S. supremacy. We’ve forward deployed substantial military assets to contain a military that contains itself.

And finally, the coup de grace:

This… is a particularly costly strategy because it conflates efforts by other states to preserve their sovereignty and protect their interests with outright challenges to the commons. Moreover, by equating openness of the commons with unambiguous American leadership, the strategy actually causes other powers such as China and India to fear the possibility that the United States will one day decide to deny them access to the commons.

The United States has a reinforced Brigade Combat Team in South Korea, a carrier battle group in Japan, long-range strike on Guam, a Marine Expeditionary Unit on Okinawa, and I don’t know how many short-range fighter/attack aircraft in the region. If you’re China, why wouldn’t you feel threatened by this force posture? Why wouldn’t you start developing weapons meant to deny U.S. access and freedom of maneuver? If my name is Hu Jintao, I’m spending money hand over fist on SA-20s, submarines, and anti-ship cruise missiles, anything that will create an anti-access / area denial capability.

On the whole, this argument jibes largely with my own thinking on the subject. It is impossible to provide security for everyone, everywhere, at all times. We simply cannot afford it, at least, not unless the U.S. federal government is prepared to spend money only on entitlements and defense. More importantly, this strategy of control is unnecessary. Even the states that we view as threats (Iran) or possible challengers (China) have vested interests in the current system. China in particular owes its rapid economic growth to participation in the current global economic system. Thus, why should the United States provide access to the commons for it, thus reducing China’s cost of doing business? If and when China begins to alter its force posture in a way that undermines our security and/or impedes the free flow of commerce to U.S. detriment, then as the authors point out, regional states will bandwagon against it. If they don’t, the U.S. can do what it does best: MOAR WAR! And none of this counterinsurgency crap. I’m talking Air-Sea Battle, high intensity operations. Shock and Awe II: East Pacific. EA SportsÒ: It’s in the game.

Look, I’m not saying that the U.S. should not have a robust military and that it shouldn’t look with suspicion upon states like China and Iran. And neither are Lalwani and Shifrinson. Contrary to what certain politicians might say, we’re not isolationists. At least I’m not; I can’t speak for Lalwani and Shifrinson. I’m simply saying that I believe we can maintain a qualitative military edge over these countries and maintain security and freedom of the commons in a smarter, more efficient manner that takes new fiscal realities into account.

One further thought. This paper is a great example of the utility of political science to the policymaking community. It has a very strong academic foundation with an equally strong theoretical construct, but it also has immense value and applicability to events that occur in the real world. Academics who feel the ivory tower should remain above the fray of politics ought to read this paper and start making themselves more relevant to international politics. Like, today.

So, go read this important paper. Tomorrow, or whenever I finish editing, I’ll post some critiques because contrary to what you’ve just read, the paper fell short in a couple areas. It was, however, a significant challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy, and at the end of the day, that’s more than enough for me.

  1. Fnord permalink
    September 19, 2011 4:32 pm

    A propos:

    Good to see someone seeing Iran in a realistic light. Get ready for war, though, when Perry rolls around…

  2. September 20, 2011 9:17 am

    Brilliant post on an otherwise tricky topic! Great reference and excellent summation! I’ve been happily passing this along to other interested parties. Hopefully, the geniuses on “The Hill” (if they ever get around to it) may actually do their homework, read the referenced paper and do what they’re actually getting paid to do: make things a little better than they currently are.

  3. Dave Foster permalink
    September 21, 2011 6:37 pm


    Thanks for alerting me to the paper. It’s refreshing analysis and a prudent set of recommendations. I can report from inside that the USN is consummed with China and the supposed problem with AA/AD. I’m skeptical of the need to materially prepare (sure, engage in wargames and planning) specifically for the China War a la AirSea Battle but do agree that maintaining and improving generic blue water and land attack capability is sensible. Us being uptight about China makes them uptight about us. China today is not the Soviet Union of the Cold War. Backing off a bit is both geopolitically sensible and also economically rational. Good post.


    • wjrue permalink
      September 22, 2011 9:08 am

      I have no doubt that the men and women in uniform toiling away with you on the inside are more sensible regarding potential threats from China and various other countries. I’d just note that even cracking China’s A2AD defenses will lead to another round of the “insecurity spiral.” It’s a tough nut to crack alright. Keep up the good work and thanks for stopping by.
      Agreed. Formulating strategy has become a problem. Unfortunately, it’s not done in a vaccuum, which is why it may never be done correctly.


  4. September 22, 2011 12:02 am

    You’re right, Lalwani and Shifrinson’s paper is excellent, as is your summation. I agree that we’re poking the tiger and creating many of our own problems through short-sightedness.

    Frankly, my problem with the “American Grand Strategy” is that I don’t think we really develop true strategy any more. Most of our strategies are not formed as a result of threats or national interest, but from politics and economics.

    We spend billions to develop a new technology (an F-22, a littoral combat ship, etc), and come up with a strategy to justify purchasing it in the name of jobs and maintaining the careers of elected officials, no different than Congress continuing to funds systems that the military says it no longer needs, or doesn’t need more of. Not that I don’t believe some of these systems are vital, and some are necessary stepping stones to greater technologies, but I suppose I’ve lost faith in my government officials’ ability to put the national interest over keeping their constituents sedated and their own re-election desires. Dave’s comment that backing off China a bit is both sensible and rational is right on the mark and would result in an overall calmer geopolitical climate, but it won’t happen as long as we need to keep those production lines going, and we need an active threat to justify all the gear we’re producing.

    I would LOVE to see a think tank do a non-partisan (as much as possible, anyway) proposal taking the current stated national interests and, without factoring in the political angles, developing an objective grand strategy to support those interests, the military power needed to fulfill that strategy (with options, of course), and the cost to build and sustain that military construct. I suspect we’d find a decent percentage of our budget savings in the result.

  5. Dave Foster permalink
    September 22, 2011 1:10 pm


    I’m out of uniform now in the acquisition system (Navair). A REMF^2, or maybe ^3. I try my best to stay informed and keep in touch with bubbas out in the fleet (and my just back from a year+ with USF-I O-5 squid wife) to square activities at the pointy end with the big, fat tail. They don’t really square. Not a novel insight. What lands on my desk and what is discussed in the halls here in the rear of the rear is that the Navy is preoccupied China, AA/AD, AirSea, etc. Well, that and small boats.

    I’m not pro-China but an appropriate approach to their emerging growth and power is to rethink the idea of our global “control” which seems almost defensive, as in expanding our steel & tech walls out to a global perimeter, or even active policing – overall less forward presense – with something more like patrolling/reconnaisance. Jim Hasik has brought up some interesting points about the value of forward deployed carriers and is, last time I checked, working on a paper that examines the economics of all of our naval patrolling.

    You aptly point out in your second post that Lalwani and Shifrinson stake a bigger claim than they deliver upon in mostly only addressing the sea commons, but they’ve moved the intellectual ball, at least, in a realm of thought that’s become scelerotic. E.g. when Popular Mechanics runs an overview of the war scenario in recent months (guy down the hall showed me), we’ve stabilized into a conventional wisdom and have hunkered down in status quo. We model and game the hell out of the scenario which drives what the Navy thinks it needs to buy. From what I see I think we’re consumed with this conventional wisdom and there are likely better ways to order ourselves viz China.

    S/F, Dave


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