The Cost of Not Bringing the Pentagon into the Post-Cold War Era

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Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics.  He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders.  Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.

View all articles by Walter Pincus

OPINION — We are in a new kind of warfare with Russia and a little-noticed House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing last Tuesday showed, as a result of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the fiscal 2023 defense budget will be rising, perhaps significantly.

“I’m not going to talk about the status of the FY 23 budget,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Friday. “We’re still hard at work at that…and I am not going to get ahead of that process and how that’s going.  But we’re working on that real hard.”

Also still being worked on thanks to Putin’s actions, President Biden’s February-expected, National Security Strategy and the Defense Department’s National Defense Strategy, which would include the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review.

At last week’s House hearing, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Sasha Baker first reassured members that billion-dollar programs, begun under President Obama and continued under Trump, to build new delivery systems for the nation’s nuclear weapons Triad – strategic submarines, bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – would continue.

Later, Adm. Charles Richard, Commander of United States Strategic Command, deferred answering a question in open session about keeping three controversial, nuclear weapons programs [the aging, one-megaton B-83 bomb; a new Navy cruise missile and the low-yield W-76-2 missile warhead] that were promoted during the Trump administration.

Putin’s recent, repeated nuclear threats may have made it difficult for Biden to follow through on cutting those programs, an action which would fulfill his own promise to “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in [U.S.] national security strategy.”

Baker also talked of the need to meet “competitors ‘gray zone’ operations below the threshold of armed conflict [meaning cyber and information warfare] …as well as the development of new [conventional] weapons systems, all of which erode strategic stability.”

Baker first described how important U.S. space capabilities have become saying they “provide indications and warnings of emerging threats and attacks; deliver the positioning, navigation, and timing signals that support rapid and precise global power projection; generate intelligence on operationally relevant timelines; and allow national decision makers to anticipate risks, deescalate crises, and simultaneously command and control forces in multiple theaters around the globe.”

As a result, she said, “Ensuring the availability of our space capabilities in the face of mounting threats is fundamental to maintaining military superiority across all domains, as is the availability of capabilities to deny hostile uses of space.”

General James H. Dickinson, Commander, United States Space Command, then told the subcommittee, “Both the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and Russia continue to develop and test sophisticated anti-satellite weapons to hold U.S. and allied and partner space assets at risk.  These counter-space capabilities include cyber, electronic warfare (EW), directed-energy weapons, anti-satellite missiles, and space-based weapons, which enables our competitors to achieve a range of effects.”

“To negate the growing EW and cyber threat,” Dickinson said, “we are partnering with the U.S. Intelligence Community to explore a test-bed to assess new jam and spoof resistant waveforms for all satellite telemetry, tracking, and command.”

He noted that China had developed a space-based satellite with a robotic arm that could be used in the future for grappling and disabling satellites. Last July, China tested a re-usable space vehicle that could carry a payload designed to disable an opponent’s satellites.

To “better protect and defend our vital space assets when there may be only minutes to respond,” Dickinson told the subcommittee members, “my priority request to Congress is to authorize and fund Space Domain Awareness (SDA) programs that enable us to monitor the domain effectively and provide combat-relevant indicators and warning of potential threats to U.S. government, allied, and partner space systems.”

He said, “SDA encompasses identifying, characterizing and understanding objects to enable real-time assessments of potentially threatening activities in space and developing appropriate options for a response.”

Dickinson also made clear he is looking for new offensive as well as defensive space hardware.

“Non-kinetic, reversible solutions—to include space electronic warfare and cyberspace capabilities are critical in achieving space superiority and controlling conflict escalations,” he explained. He added, “They directly affect our ability to deter malign behavior, and to complicate our competitors’ ability to threaten our space assets. Of particular importance, non-kinetic engagements do not create debris.”


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The commander of United States Northern Command and Northern Aerospace Defense Command, General Glen D. Vanherck, told the subcommittee his ability to conduct missions assigned to him “has eroded and continues to erode.”

Why?

Because, he said, “Our country is under attack every day in the information space and cyber domain. Competitors are spreading disinformation, actively sowing division and fanning the flames of internal discord with the intent to undermine the foundation of our nation, our democracy, and democracies around the world. These competitors are also constantly seeking to exploit security vulnerabilities and policy gaps, especially in the cyber domain. They are preparing for potential crisis or conflict with the intent to limit decision space for our senior leaders by holding national critical infrastructure at risk, disrupting and delaying
our ability to project power from the homeland, and undermining our will to intervene in a regional crisis.”

Vanherk’s proposed solution: “While some new domain awareness platforms will be required, it is possible to make exponential improvements in our nation’s ability to detect and track potential threats by improving the ways data is collected, processed, and shared.”

How?

According to Vanherk, by “incorporating artificial intelligence and machine learning into existing capabilities will allow users to pull needed information from existing data sets and share that data with leaders at all levels to expand their decision space and options necessary to achieve desirable outcomes.”

In fact, Vanherk’s Northen Command last July, held the third in a series of Global Information Dominance Experiment (GIDE), in collaboration with all 11 U.S. combatant commands, which provided, Vanherk said, “combatant commanders, intelligence and operations directors, and other participants at multiple sites with a shared, customizable, and near real-time data sets.”

Asked to explain GIDE, Vanherk said, “It’s about taking data and information from all domains, from global sensors around the world, allies and partners, to include missile defense system capabilities and sharing them to a cloud and realizing artificial intelligence and machine learning to process them in real time and that gives you the ability to collaborate amongst the various functions intelligence, operations and logistics in real time to develop a picture, and to develop options and be able to evaluate whether those options are realistic.”

Gen. Dickinson added that it would be important to have “one common operating picture that we can all look at in order to make decisions and recommendations to the national level leadership.”


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To make the changes work, Vanherk made reference to subjects that senior Pentagon officers almost never mention in public – bureaucratic inertia and rules governing procurement and hiring.

“The current regional approach to plans, strategies, and force design is outdated,” Vanherk said, “and more influenced by bureaucratic inertia than the realities of the modern strategic environment.”

He went on, “The same is true of stagnant acquisition practices and cumbersome civilian hiring rules that only impede progress and hinder the Department’s ability to move at the speed of relevance necessary to compete in today’s environment.”

Perhaps most interesting, Vanherk also included among the “difficult choices today” for both administration leaders [and I would add Congress] would be “divesting legacy systems and capabilities that consume significant personnel and fiscal resources and are of little to no use in today’s strategic environment.”

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in last Sunday’s Washington Post, said almost the same thing in calling for doing away with “parochial defense of legacy weapons systems and unnecessary bases and facilities must give way to the imperative of deploying new equipment and advanced weapons.”

Gates called for “a larger, more advanced military in every branch, taking full advantage of new technologies to fight in new ways,” adding, “There must be radical reform inside the Pentagon. The current ways of doing business there put us at risk. Old bureaucratic habits must give way to new approaches that force speed and agility in moving new technologies and acquisitions from decision to deployment.”

Gates also agreed Russia and China “are challenging us not only militarily, but also in their use of other instruments of power — development assistance, strategic communications, covert and other influence operations, and advances in cyber- and other technologies.”

In order to avoid actual warfare, Gates said major power competition should “be waged using nonmilitary instruments of power — the same kind of instruments that played a significant role in winning the Cold War: diplomacy, development assistance, strategic communications, science and technology, ideology, nationalism, and more.”

These early views set the stage for upcoming congressional hearings on the Biden fiscal 2023 defense budget, which clearly needs to focus as much on modernizing Pentagon approaches and policies as they do on the dollars involved.


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Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics.  He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders.  Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.

View all articles by Walter Pincus

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