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The Defense Budget and the Future of Conflict

With the long-awaited announcement of Defense Secretary Bob Gates’ “hard-choices” budget coming in about an hour, there’s been a lot of talk this morning about Greg Jaffe’s piece in The Washington Post on U.S. defense planners’ fascination with the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006. As Greg writes, and many others discuss, the war is viewed in the United States as something between a cipher and a test case for the future of U.S. involvement in asymmetric conflict. If you think that the lesson of the last several wars fought by the United States and its allies — Israel-Hezbollah, Iraq, Afghanistan — is that the United States is likely to fight more such wars, you’re pretty likely to view the forthcoming budget favorably. If you think the lesson of the last several wars fought by the United States and its allies is that such wars are anomalies, you’re pretty likely to view the forthcoming budget unfavorably. If you have no idea how to predict the future, you’re pretty likely to worry that the forthcoming budget can’t get the balance between support for conventional and unconventional conflict right.

One thing that unites all factions is that each will publicly say that they don’t want to exclude the others. The Army’s big catchphrase these days is “full-spectrum operations,” which both the counterinsurgents and their critics favor. (As Gen. David Petraeus told me last year, “.”) After all, no one wants to be the one to say he or she knows for certain what the next threat to national security looks like, and no one wants to say the military shouldn’t be prepared for a particular species of conflict. That just means you have to watch which way everyone leans to cut or preserve a favored program that radiates one or another such color in the spectrum.

Here’s Geoff Morrell, spokesman for Gates, talking about the budget to Jaffe:

“This budget moves the needle closer to irregular warfare and counterinsurgency,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said. “It is not an abandonment of the need to prepare for conventional conflicts. But even moving that needle is a revolutionary thing in this building.”

I personally incline toward the counterinsurgents’ view that theirs best captures the sort of wars the United States will most need to prepare for in the future, although there’s a lot that remains unclear about that view. For instance, will the United States be *fighting *these wars, or, after Iraq and Afghanistan, will it be supporting warfighters, as with the Pakistani Frontier Corps’ counterinsurgency against al-Qaeda and the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans in western Pakistan? If the latter, the biggest and most important change that the U.S. Army can make would be to embrace John Nagl’s proposal for a standing corps of soldiers to train and mentor foreign military partners. But people don’t really like the idea of a military service that’s not entirely used just to fight and win the nation’s wars. Check out Galrahn’s opposition to a recent statement from Vice Adm. John Bird that the “purpose of the Navy is not to fight.”

Along those lines, here’s a preliminary bit of opposition from Kori Schake at Shadow Government to Gates’ budget. And here’s Jason Sigger’s agnosticism.

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