Tag Archives: China

Sainthoood for Robert Gates, really?

Every few days, something about former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, soon to be nominated for sainthood, flows into my in box.  The latest is some bumph from Drew University where Gates is lauded as the “soldier’s secretary” and a lot of blah, blah, blah proving that Gates has fully transformed into the Warren Buffett of national security, the nation’s grandpa with wit and wisdom about Washington; and, despite seemingly no political ambition …  auditioner to be Mitt Romney’s vice president?

The Gates legacy as Secretary still remains unclear.  After Rumsfeld, of course, one couldn’t help but label him the soldier’s man; Rumsfeld was such a cold and indifferent taskmaster.  Gates also became Secretary at a time when others had already solved the Iraq conundrum, and when the dollars were still flowing freely.

Gates’ record does include his decision to cap the F-22 fighter buy against Air Force objections, his decision to eliminate Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) and his other ‘efficiencies,’ and his embrace of irregular warfare and counter-insurgency as the everything of the future.

I’m an agnostic on the F-22, but I don’t agree with the old Gates’ line that the airplane was worthless because it wasn’t doing anything for the troops on the ground right at that moment in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And Gates’ decision to side with the Army over control of unmanned drones that fly above 3,500 feet and his support of efforts – in the name of jointness — to make everyone in the Air Force and Navy battlefield helpers was short-sighted, demonstrating the kind of courage of breaking eggs to make a Washington omelet but hardly being a designer of a larger menu.

The decision to eliminate JFCOM particularly will go down as short-sighted, IMHO: Jointness in the U.S. military is in name only and has not reached any working-level where the military no longer needs an advocate for it – Gate’s basic position.  If anything, under Gates, we’ve just seen a continuation of the proliferation of un-jointness, with institutions beyond the Army, Navy, and Air Force obtaining quasi-service status and working in their own self-interested bubbles: special operations forces, the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) – a virtual Army in itself, Cyber Command (the first combatant command of the intelligence community), homeland “defense” (a post-9/11 perpetual resource suck); even the National Guard, which has now lobbied successfully for full joint privileges.

This is not the man who ‘beat the Pentagon bureaucracy,’ and I remain surprised at how many Pentagon reporters and national security analysts can be so convinced merely because he was such a pleasant vacation from Grumsfeld.

Meanwhile, Gates never really did anything about contractors – let’s track them better was his initiative, especially after in-sourcing went nowhere – and Mr. Strategic vision, the former CIA analyst – seemed oblivious to the Obama administration’s do-anything-to-get-us-out-of-the-Middle-East pivot to Asia.  Also, by every account, Gates as Secretary had nothing to say in the early Obama period about Afghanistan that was useful, contributing mightily to leaving behind the same mess there.

Gates’ is labeled an airpower skeptic because of his supposed courageous decisions, but in reality he was little more than a traditionalist pro-Army-dominant, pro-boots-on-the-ground power broker who went with the institution that had the power.  I admit to being an airpower fan, but not a fan of the Air Force, which conflates a non-boots-on-the-ground future with its institutional interests.  Slogging it out Korean War style or even, one village/hill/tribe at a time in Afghanistan in a manpower intensive military is not the future, but nor is the war on terrorism myopic head hunting ISR war.

The future is something that fully leverages the cyber domain and the qualities of air and space power – the global reach, the ability to compress time so that it isn’t equal to distance, the non-kinetic elements of military defeat – but this is not, I repeat not, anywhere close to what today’s Air Force really is, nor could be.  I say could be because if U.S. defense is going to be defined by the ability to either defend against or defeat China, we certainly aren’t going to do it with boots; or F-22s and a new bomber.

So Gates, what’s his gig?  Washington is filled with smart people, in fact, Washington is filled with smart people who make a living telling us how hopeless Washington is.  But as for the future of U.S. national security?  I just don’t see the Gates’ era as exceptional, nor any trend that he put in place that changes the everyman for himself culture.

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Are the Marines Landing on the Beach of a new Cold War?

Nothing quite says the start of a new war than Marines hitting the beach, so the news this week that the first of 2,500 Marines hit the beach in northwest Australia put some substance to the Obama administration’s declaration of a “pivot” to Asia.

The shift – refocusing U.S. foreign and military policy away from its fixation on the Middle East – is partly a public relations ploy, partly “strategic,” but there is also a cynical element: The national security establishment and big spenders yearn for an old school problem to tackle, one where classic geopolitics rule and Red is Red.  The only problem – the only problem? – is that declaring China the next enemy more likely makes it so.  And that’s idiotic.

The good news here is that after declaring its eternal commitment to Afghanistan and the terror war, the pivot can and should be read as the true desire on the part of the establishment to extricate the United States from the Middle East quagmire.  I’m not saying that the U.S. will give up on fighting terrorism or abandon Israel; the United States has declared everything from al Qaeda to the Arctic strategic and seems to be unable to have it any other way.  But the last big declaration of national military strategy — that everything was being dropped to focus singularly on counter-insurgency (COIN) and irregular warfare – seems to be in the process of being supplanted.  Not only didn’t COIN sit well with many traditionalists, but it also didn’t provide enough script to engage the entire cast.  After all, how many ships and bombers are needed to muck about in the jungle?

So, the United States and Australia are beefing up their cooperation under the guise of joint exercises, and there’s even talk of stationing ships or submarines down under.  The Australian government assures its public that the U.S. won’t have permanent bases in the country, as if somehow that’s the issue.

Meanwhile, Guam is being stuffed with more air, naval, and Marine forces; and Japan is fully wired into the anti-North Korea-cum-China missile defense shield.  Military cooperation with Indonesia is on the rise; the Singapore Defense Minister is in Washington this week; a submarine and tender are publicly in port in Malaysia.  Other Asian nations are being enlisted in the nascent efforts to “contain” China.

There’s a scene is George Bush the elder’s book with Brent Scowcroft – A World Transformed – where the two end their chapter on Desert Storm, the first war with Iraq under Saddam Hussein in 1990-1991: after only four days of ground combat, the Republican Guards have been routed, a ceasefire has been agreed to at Safwan, the coalition has triumphed.  The next chapter gets back to the situation in a crumbling Soviet Union, and it is abundantly clear that the two couldn’t wait to get off their Middle East detour and get back to the men’s work that they were so familiar with.

“The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay,” President Obama declared last November when he visited Australia.  It is a declaration that has a feel of impatience for a president who came to office promising to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and so many other things that he hasn’t been able to maneuver.

Here to stay is so much more homey and stable, and in the pivot to Asia – to China – Obama can collect together many happy allies:  In Washington, the Congress, think tanks, lobbyists, and opinion-shapers are all game.  The new cyber warriors can hardly wait to get to their keyboards.  In the U.S. military, there is a strong Pacific legacy and institutional bloc, even after 10 plus years of war they are far more powerful than the junior varsity at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the rather unglamorous command headquarters stuck in Florida and under lock-down in Qatar.  Success at pivoting takes the heat off of the white hot poker of Iran.  It even disses those arrogant collective annoying do-gooders in Europe, making it clear that America is a global power while they are, as Rumsfeld once said, just old.  And in the public mind, though I can’t prove it, China – even if it might be confusing why we would pick a fight or militarize our relationship with them – represents a more dignified and clear-cut peer competitor.  The Middle East in contrast is so messy and unresolved.

One can write, almost without thinking twice, the words that the Asian-Pacific region offers greater threats and opportunities to American security (and economic) interests than do Iraq or Afghanistan.  Serious thinkers and armchair strategists are writing variations of this more and more frequently.  China’s nukes, China’s economy, China’s spreading influence beyond Asia; it’s all there the ingredients for a good-ole Cold War.

Three Stooges of the Apocalypse?

Here’s something that passes for “news” that I submit even though it is repeated almost daily we could have read it any day in the last decade: Cyber networks are insecure, the Russians – Chinese, French, Israelis, Iranians – are coming, and, here’s the punch line, we have to spend more!

First of all, let me say that I’m not questioning the “threat.”  When DNI James Clapper says, as he did in his January 31 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee that China and Russia and even an increasingly aggressive Iran are improving their cyber capabilities and increasingly penetrating U.S. networks, I believe the intelligence.

“Iran’s intelligence operations against the United States, including cyber capabilities, have dramatically increased in recent years in depth and complexity,” Clappers said.

But point one, and Clapper said it, this is spying.   And as spying, we should remind ourselves that the United States has the most extensive – and I would say most capable – cyber intelligence capability in the world; and the U.S. is itself “increasingly aggressive” in its efforts to penetrate, manipulate, and even figure out how to electronically disable foreign networks.

Hence the creation of the U.S. Cyber Command lodged at the NSA in 2009.  Hence a provision of the fiscal 2012 national defense authorization act authorizes the military to conduct offensive cyberspace operations subject to the same provisions of the law of armed conflict.  That would be the principles of military necessity, proportionality, and discrimination.

So not only do we live in a glass house, but if we want to continue to call it war, that is, an act of aggression justifying military response, war is what we’ll get.

If it is intelligence operations, on the other hand, and is thus a tacitly recognized international activity with its own conventions, then we should stop acting both surprised and indignant.

Which brings us to the mega-business of cyber security, whether it is the home purveyors of personal computer firewalls and malware detection and removal; or the multi-billion dollar federal efforts (a veritable hidden Platinum Valley for the contractors) to achieve what appears to be the impossible: securing American networks.

Anyone hear the anthem of the war on drugs or airport security playing in the background?  It is a never-ending, never enough gift that keeps on giving.  Failure to produce the result will be rewarded: It always is.

There are a number of inter-locking reasons why the cyber threat has been very very good to defense industry and the threat mongers:

– Everything is moving to public networks whether on land or in the cloud, from the mundane of billing to drone killings and even nuclear weapons command and control.  Networked data grows at rates that can’t even be quantified.  Net vulnerabilities – here I mean the number remaining after a deduction taking into consideration growth — may or may not be increasing.  No one seems to know and no one seems to have an incentive to counsel calm.

– There is a double dis-incentive to actually locking down cyber communications: intelligence and commerce.  On the intelligence side, secure networks impede spying, destroyed networks eliminate sources of information.  Hence the tensions that do exist in the classified world, for instance, between the existences of thousands of radical Islamic websites which the intelligence agencies monitor but logic might tell you should just be destroyed.  It is a perpetual conundrum.  Which leaves commerce, not just the business of supporting the pro-longed war against terrorism, but also the riches available in the private sector’s protection; the cyber threat is a Godsend.

At what point does all of this morph into an act of war?  At what point will we wake up some morning to the news that some digital Gary Francis Powers has been shot down inside Russia?

If my answer is “soon,” then I’m just falling for the same B.S. and have to remind myself that this same question was being asked a decade or longer ago.  And just like the WMD “threat,” I need to remind myself that there is a subtle devil’s alliance between those who truly believe that the threat is out there and hostile and demands (military) response and those who equally build up the threat in their efforts to agitate for non-military solutions but just end up inadvertently affirming the existence and importance of the threat, thus creating an environment that seems to affirm military action.

So there might be some cyber incident soon, but given that there are all sorts of incidents – penetrations, spies getting caught, screw-ups — all the time, I guess I’ll say, well that’s what happens when you play with fire; big deal.

What I can’t say is that this will all sort itself out.  There are subtle short-term developments afoot and long term implications that demand greater brain power and less throwing of money.  For those who don’t follow this too closely, we’ve seen just in the past two weeks bold announcements by the Secretary of Defense that cyber threats are his main worry and that security won’t be short-changed in budget reductions; arguments over whether all of this should be a Pentagon or Department of Homeland Security responsibility; the FBI calling for more control; a scuffle over whether the government should take control of protection of private networks such as the electrical grid.  Meanwhile, NASA’s network isn’t secure, its IG says; DARPA will provide increased funding for offensive cyber warfare research.

“In the not too distant future we anticipate that the cyber threat will pose the number one threat to our country,” FBI director Robert Mueller told delegates at the RSA 2012 conference in San Francisco last week.  “We need to take lessons learned from terrorism and apply them to cybercrime.”

Some wag observed long ago that the information security schnorers reminded them of the three stooges 1936 “Ants in the Pantry” episode.  There, employees of the Lightning Exterminating Co., they were directed to drum up business.  They did nicely, releasing ants and mice and snakes at a fancy party and then arriving to save the day.  They were so entertaining and effective, they ended up being invited to the Fox Hunt!

So beware the warnings of those who profit from the threat.  More important though, wording is really essential to get right, and my hats off to Clapper for calling it spying, but then he’s the Director of National Intelligence and that’s his portfolio.  So I couldn’t help notice that Leon Panetta minces no words in calling it attacks:  “We are literally getting hundreds or thousands of attacks every day that try to exploit information in various [U.S.] agencies or departments,” he told an audience at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville.

Does it make a difference which it is?  Hell yes, and the promiscuous wordings and flabby rhetoric of top government officials aren’t helping.  When the DNI yells spying, the Secretary of Defense yells attack, the FBI head yells crime, and the Department of Homeland Security yells help, the debate is more than just whether Certs is a breath mint or a candy mint.  This is the true sign of an ongoing and unresolved government food fight.

Meanwhile, while the heads of intelligence and defense are braying loudly about cyber security, the Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel, while speaking at a February 24 conference, announced that security was one of the Obama Administration’s top five priorities!  Top five?  What the hell could the other four be?

Today in Secret History: January 30

On January 30, 2002, the Navy awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman to proceed with development of a Tomahawk cruise missile launcher to be fitted into four retired Ohio class submarines.  The “SSGN” conversion program, approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld prior to 9/11, was to take retiring strategic nuclear submarines and transform them into cruise missile firing platforms.  In additional to 154 cruise missiles each, firing from Northrop Grumman seven-pack launchers, each boat was also to be extensively renovated to support sustained operations with 66 Navy SEALs and their equipment, or carry up to 102 special operations personnel in one-time missions.

Want to know why we spend gazillions on defense and can’t seem to stop?  The Congressional Research Service reported that the SSGN conversion cost – for four submarines – ended up being about $4.0 billion.  The first of the four was declared operational on November 1, 2007.   As far as I’m aware, not a single cruise missile has been fired from an SSGN in combat, nor has any daring SEAL mission, such as this month’s hostage rescue or the killing of Osama bin Laden, been launched from these submarines.

What happened then to a program initially funded as counter-terrorism in emergency supplemental bills?   First, the patented Clinton administration cruise missile strike fell far out of favor as unmanned aerial drones (and cheaper and more capable precision bombs) proliferated.  Second, nothing of much military value that needs to be done in the Middle East can be done with an independent stealthy force of 66 men; and as The Washington Post reported last week, the Navy now wants to develop a new floating base to serve as a special operations staging platform.  That’s probably why, as GlobalSecurity.org reported, that three of the four converted SSGNs showed up in South Korea, the Philippines, and Diego Garcia in June 2010, tools for some sort of signaling of the bad guys in Asia.

They call it the silent service, and coupled with the even more secretive special operations community, we end up with military capability that I’m sure is awesome to many but is neither visible nor persuasive.  The falsehood of current defense budget cuts is that programs like this get started in the first place to satisfy certain constituencies or appeal to questionable strategies and forms of combat.  Oh I’m not saying that someday a bevy of SSGNs won’t fire their cumulative 600 missiles at some North Korea, but then what?