The Limits of a Smaller U.S. Military

Lessons can be learned from interventions in El Salvador, Colombia, and the Philippines.

Joint Salvadoran and U.S. search and rescue crews practice an aquatic rescue over Lake Ilopango in Ilopango, El Salvador, Tuesday, February 24, 1998. Two Blackhawks and crews from the 305th Air Squadron of Davis Mountain Air Force Base in Arizona are in the Central American nation for the joint operations.

Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Tuesday over at his "Best Defense" blog at Tom Ricks from CNAS argued that there was a study to be written entitled "More Salvadors, Fewer Vietnams." His line of thinking is that:

That's the title for a study I'd like to write about the future force structure of the U.S. military. The military would be relatively small, and it would be told to focus on having two capabilities: To quickly provide long-term, indirect, small-footprint support in irregular conflicts, but also to have a cadre force that could, given time, expand conventional forces. It would be designed to avoid attempts to fight insurgencies with large deployments of conventional forces.

While I agree with him that, in the main, it is better to use a "long-term, indirect, small-footprint support in irregular conflicts"—what the U.S. military refers to as "Foreign Internal Defense" when we are supporting a country against an insurgency, subversion, or criminality or as "Unconventional Warfare" when we are supporting insurgents against a foreign government—this sort of approach will not always be possible. First, such these approaches generally work best when they are not receiving a lot of attention—both from the public and from the military bureaucracy. For instance, the most successful U.S. Foreign Internal Defense campaigns of the past 30 years have been in El Salvador, Colombia, and the southern Philippines. In the case of El Salvador while there was press and activist attention it was seen as a sideshow by much of the military brass who were focused on the Fulda Gap and the conventional defense of Western Europe and the cases of Colombia and the southern Philippines were largely unnoticed while attention was focused on Afghanistan and Iraq. Second, such support can only be indirect and small-footprint when there is a functioning government in place that has a modicum of capabilities needing development and enhancement.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

His second thought on this smaller military being a cadre force that would be expandable in times of war is also seductive—and sounds like something that might come out of the more minimalist foreign and defense policy positions of some corners of the Tea Party or from many contemporary neorealist scholars of international relations. In some ways this sounds almost like a 21st Century version of the Abrams Doctrine.* But it is unclear whether the ethos necessary to maintain this force could survive the bureaucratic tensions that the divergent mission types would generate.

The above having been said, nothing above is meant as too much of criticism of Ricks's ideas. I am certain that there is much "muscle and skin" he has in mind not presented to cover the above "skeleton" he sketches. As always he does a service to the defense community by throwing these intellectual Molotov cocktails out there to generate debate and thinking.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

…And speaking of fighting insurgencies, if you are bored on the afternoon of February 21st FPRI is having a panel discussion in Washington, DC—also involving Tom Ricks—on "Why We Lost Vietnam, Revisited." Details about the event and details to sign up for the free webcast can be found here.

* The Abrams Doctrine was named after the post-Vietnam Army Chief of Staff General Creighton Abrams who redesigned the Army's force structure in such a way as to locate some of the combat power and much of the combat support and combat service and support functions in the Army National Guard and Reserve. This was seen by some as an attempt to keep the U.S. out of unpopular wars by ensuring that civilian politicians would need to mobilize the reserves in order to carry out any large military operation. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan point out, however, the heavy use of the reserve component does not appear to be a brake on policy.