What the Candidates Aren't Talking About

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Contributing Sr. National Security Columnist, The Cipher Brief

Too bad the Republican and Democratic Presidential candidates weren’t present to hear former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last Tuesday after receiving the inaugural Zbigniew Brzezinski Annual Prize.

Gates described the responsibility of political leaders, “presidents in particular,” to educate the American public as to why “the rest of the world is important to us.” That’s because, as Gates frankly put it, “most American people have never been interested in engagement with the rest of the world. Most Americans essentially want to tend to their own affairs and to the degree they are involved in public or political affairs or have an interest – it’s more local.”

What’s been missing recently, Gates said, “is presidents who try patiently to educate other political leaders as well as the American people on why they need to be engaged.”

He described how U.S. leaders dealt with past foreign policy challenges that, much as today, involved choices between spreading American democratic values, such as freedom – or defending U.S. national interests, starting with our own security.

He talked, in short, about the historic dilemma between American leaders being realists or idealists, allying with dictators in order to defeat a more threatening common enemy, or opposing tyrants while aiding internal groups seeking to overthrow them, or at times standing aside for fear of not knowing what would come next.

Listening to Gates’ thoughtful analysis, one could not help but put it into sharp contrast with the superficiality of the current presidential rhetoric, the few times foreign policy or national security has even been discussed. Often it focused on making America “stronger,” or withdrawing from the world at large, or who voted 14 years ago to use or not use force in Iraq.

While Gates was dealing with the broader ideas growing out of “strategic thinking with a moral purpose,” that same day the Senate Armed Services Committee heard testimony on how the Defense Department was planning to spend $3.6 billion in the coming year and $18 billion over the next five years seeking new generations of sophisticated weaponry – another matter that has drawn minimal public attention and none from the presidential candidates.

“Today, we see the emergence of increasing technological symmetry. And that’s why the Department is discussing the need for a new offset strategy,” Assistant Defense Secretary for Research and Engineering Stephen Welby told the panel last Tuesday. In Pentagon terminology, that means seeking to find new military advantage over a potential enemy through advanced technology or unique operational concepts.

Welby described how the first offset strategy occurred in the 1950s, when in the Cold War, “President Eisenhower sought to overcome the Warsaw Pact’s numerical [tank and manpower] advantage by leveraging U.S. nuclear superiority to introduce battlefield nuclear weapons, which shifted the axis of competition from competing on conventional force numbers to competing in an area where the U.S. had an advantage.”

It was in the 1980s, when it became clear the Soviet Union had achieved nuclear parity, that a second offset strategy was developed. Through it, the U.S. “sought to create an enduring advantage by pursuing a brand new approach to joint operations, leveraging the combined effects of near-zero-miss-distance weapons, real-time targeting, and joint battle networks to create a new era of conventional precision engagement,” Welby said. “The second offset strategy…gave the U.S. a fundamental advantage that we sustained for the last 30 years, capabilities that provide the U.S. and its allies with an asymmetrical advantage in every fight.”

Today, there are only plans for a third offset strategy, to be achieved in coming years “by spurring research, development, and procurement of advanced capabilities” that will result in quicker “decision-making and enabling faster-than-human reaction time in new and emerging areas of conflicts such as cyber and electronic warfare,” Welby said.

It will also require “supporting new models of manned, unmanned combat teaming and finally, permitting new weapons concepts that can operate in critically challenging cyber and electronic warfare constrained environments,” he added.

Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), pointed out that in the past decade, his agency had put intense focus on the ground war in counter insurgency, developing technologies to track insurgents’ pick-up trucks from the air to offset adversaries’ capabilities.

At that time, “there was a very limited appetite in the department to move ahead with the kinds of technologies that are going to be necessary to deter and defeat a very sophisticated nation state adversary,” Prabhakar said.

In the third offset era that has changed, he said, pointing to the April 7 christening of the U.S. Navy’s new unmanned vessel, the Sea Hunter. Prabhakar described it as “the world’s first ship that’s able to leave the pier, to navigate thousands of miles across open seas without a single sailor on board.”

That will mean missions can be carried out “for a tiny fraction of today’s operating cost,” but beyond that he said, “This kind of unmanned ship now allows us to invent whole new ways to exercise the [Navy’s] influence across the vastness of the oceans.”

While it faces at least two years of further testing, the Sea Hunter prototype, which took six years to develop, eventually could be used to track other vessels, including diesel-electric submarines.

William Roper Jr., director of the Strategic Capabilities Office, told the Senators that a weapon previously used for one purpose, can also, with added new technology, take on a new role. He cited the “Navy’s Standard Missile-6 [that] was originally designed to defend our ships. We partnered with the Navy to give it an offensive anti-ship role.”

That’s been expanded to doing “unconventional defense,” Roper said where “Army howitzer, Navy projectiles, Air Force radars [that] weren’t designed to be a defensive system but we’re partnering to Frankenstein these into a low cost supersonic missile defense shield.”

He also talked of using stealth fighters, originally designed to fire their own weapons, with large Air Force standoff arsenal planes to turn them into what Roper described as “unconventional teams or kill chains” so that the stealth fighters “don’t have to go land and resupply during a fight.”

Finally, Roper warned that there will be new threats to space, where key elements guiding most of American weaponry and communications exist. The U.S. will need “distributed space architectures in a future where maybe individual satellites are contestable, but the architecture as a whole isn’t.”

He predicted that “war fighting is going to be messy… Satellites that are available won’t be. Networks that are available won’t be. And if we’re wise, we’ll have architectures in place where we hop between different assets that are available.”

No presidential candidate today is talking about the complicated issues brought up at that Senate hearing – and that is understandable, because future weapons research is too much in the weeds for most politicians.   However, those issues will be important to decisions made by whomever is the next commander-in-chief.   He or she will have to know and understand them.

The public should have some indication – beyond bumper sticker slogans – of how candidates see and will deal with the broader national security issues they will face.

Gates recognized the absence of such a serious discussion when he said early in his remarks that he was discussing his own realist views “at the risk of introducing historical context and strategic substance into a current political environment notably lacking both.”

The candidates need to speak publicly about this most important part of the role they are seeking.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.

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