1 February 2010
Chris McGreal in Washington
The Pentagon is discarding its core strategy of being prepared to fight two large-scale wars simultaneously in favour of coping with smaller conflicts, launching pre-emptive assaults to contain terrorists and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and combating attacks in cyberspace.
The defence secretary, Robert Gates, presented what he called a "wartime" Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) of military thinking and requirements today, which said that while the US must continue to maintain a robust force capable of protecting the country from "capable nation-state aggressors", the focus of future American attention will be on the kinds of conflicts the US has been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq while holding off "the transnational terrorist threats, including al-Qaida".
The review, required by Congress as an insight in to each administration's military thinking in years to come, puts a heavy emphasis on buying more attack drones, helicopters and "weapons that are usable, affordable, and truly needed" while dropping expensive advanced weapons systems that are of limited use in conflicts such as Afghanistan. It also proposes the largest increase in special operations forces since the Vietnam war and said "the department's force planning assumes an ability to undertake a broader and deeper range of prevent and deter missions".
But the strategy, parts of which have already been put in place, has met with resistance from arms manufacturers who fear the loss of multibillion-dollar weapons contracts and so could face difficulties with their allies in Congress.
Some critics also say the strategy is little more than a PR exercise aimed at justifying another increase in defence spending to a record $708bn (£443bn) in Barack Obama's budget announced today - although that is likely to rise to closer to $900bn with additional spending - as well as the cancellation or delay of major military equipment including navy cruisers, transport aircraft and a satellite system.
Gates described the document as "truly a wartime" defence review. "For the first time, it places the current conflicts at the top of our budgeting, policy, and programme priorities," he said.
"It breaks from the past, however, in its insistence that the US armed forces must be capable of conducting a wide range of operations, from homeland defence and defence support to civil authorities, to deterrence and preparedness missions, to the conflicts we are in and the wars we may someday face," he added.
The report said the US faces "a broad range of security challenges" from established military threats to "non-state groups developing more cunning and destructive means" to attack the US and its allies.
"The instability or collapse of a weapons of mass destruction-armed state is among our most troubling concerns," the report said.
The review calls for the establishment of a "joint task force elimination headquarters to plan, train and execute WMD-elimination operations".
The report also warns of a growing threat of cyber attacks on space-based surveillance and communications systems that could leave the US military blind.
"On any given day, there are as many as 7 million DoD (Department of Defence) computers and telecommunications tools in use in 88 countries using thousands of warfighting and support applications. The number of potential vulnerabilities, therefore, is staggering.
Moreover, the speed of cyber attacks and the anonymity of cyberspace greatly favour the offence. This advantage is growing as hacker tools become cheaper and easier to employ by adversaries whose skills are growing in sophistication," the review said. Although the report does not identify any particular threat, analysts say the Pentagon has one eye on China.
However, the Pentagon said that the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq would continue to have the most significant influence on strategy for years to come.
"These efforts will substantially determine the size and shape of major elements of US military forces for several years," it said. "In the mid-to-long term we expect there to be enduring operational requirements in Afghanistan and elsewhere to defeat al-Qaida and its allies"
But critics, such as Winslow Wheeler, who worked on national security issues on the staff of several senators and now leads a military reform project at the Centre for Defence Information, said that the review does not confront some of the military's most basic problems.
"It's a profoundly disappointing document in terms of addressing the serious and fundamental problems our defences face. We are currently at a post world war two high in terms of spending, adjusted for inflation, and our forces have never been smaller or older," he said. "None of these trends are being reversed. Manpower costs are growing much faster than the rest of the defence budget which sets up a competition between hardware and people. All these forces of decay and ever growing costs are continuing."
Wheeler also challenged Gates's claim to be implementing a new strategy, saying that President Bush's defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, backed away from the large-scale wars strategy.
"Last year, secretary Gates complained about next war-itis, focusing on high-end conventional systems when we're getting our asses whipped in low-end irregular warfare.