A number of commenters were concerned last night, and rightly so, about reporting that seemed to indicate that the Administration is considering escalating US operations in Afghanistan. These operations are currently called Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and were referred to as Operation Enduring Freedom through the end of 2014. When you actually dive into the reporting you find something much more routine is being proposed.
Senior Trump administration and military officials are recommending sending several thousand additional American troops to Afghanistan to try to break a military deadlock in the 15-year war there, in part by pressuring the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government.
The added troops would allow American advisers to work with a greater number of Afghan forces, and closer to the front lines.
The recommendation, which has yet to be approved by President Trump, is the product of a broad review by the Pentagon, the State Department, intelligence community and other government agencies on America’s longest war. It is broadly consistent with advice Gen. John W. Nicholson, the top American commander in Afghanistan, gave Congress in February.
Warning that the United States and its NATO allies faced a “stalemate,” General Nicholson told lawmakers that he had a shortfall of a “few thousand” troops and said more personnel would enable the American military to advise the Afghan military more effectively and at lower levels in the chain of command.
American officials said that 3,000 to 5,000 additional troops, including hundreds of Special Operations forces, could be sent. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
NATO nations would also be asked to send thousands of troops, and the precise number of American forces deployed would probably depend on what those allies were prepared to do.
Last week General Thomas, the Commander of US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM/SOCOM), testified that US Special Forces are stretched.
The head of U.S. Special Forces told Congress Thursday that constant deployments and unrealistic mission expectations were taking a major toll on his troops.
Army General Raymond Thomas, top commander of Special Operations Command (SOCOM), testified before the Senate Armed Service Committee, saying his elite forces had been engaged in “continuous combat over the past 15 and half years.”
During Thursday’s testimony, Thomas also criticized “media circles” for promoting the idea that Special Forces could solve any issue around the world. Special Forces, about 8,000 of which are currently active in an estimated 80 nations, are not a “panacea” to remedy all global conflicts, he argued.
So there aren’t a lot of Special Forces left to spread around. And US conventional forces are also spread thin. The US Air Force, as well as US Navy aviators, have been in almost constant combat operations since Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm. As Lt. Gen. (ret) David Deptula, the Dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies has stated:
The U.S. Air Force (USAF) has been at war not just since 9/11, but since 1991. After 25 years of continuous combat operations, coupled with budget instability and lower-than-planned top lines, have made the USAF the oldest, smallest, and least ready it has ever been in its history. The average USAF aircraft age is 27 years—the youngest B-52 is over 50 years old. Going into Operation Desert Storm, the USAF had over 530,000 active duty personnel, today that number is 320,000—40 percent less, and the USAF has almost 60 percent fewer combat fighter squadrons today (55) than it did during the first Gulf War in 1991 (134). Today, over 50 percent of USAF forces are not sufficiently ready for a high-end fight against near-peer capabilities posed by China or Russia.
Lt. Gen. Deptula goes on to state in the same interview that the major problem facing readiness is:
The key challenge standing in the way of improving readiness is the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011. It has resulted in a disproportionate loss of USAF capability, because it hinders the Air Force’s role as America’s “first response force.” The damage to readiness caused by the BCA and subsequent sequestration in 2013, means that the U.S. has a growing strategy-resource mismatch: a widening gap between what our leaders say they want to be able to accomplish, and what the nation’s USAF can actually accomplish.
Sequestration was designed to be so irresponsible that Congress would prevent its implementation. However, the danger is that because its consequences are not immediately visible, Congress is on a path to continue imposing resource constraints on the military that inhibit meeting the demands of our national security strategy. Combat readiness doesn’t have a constituency—except for the entire nation— when fighting needs to be accomplished.
There is a very important point here that needs to be emphasized:
…Congress is on a path to continue imposing resource constraints on the military that inhibit meeting the demands of our national security strategy.
The US National Security Strategy* states what the US will do in regards to national security (ends) and how the US will do it (ways). How the US will pay for it, the means, are up to Congress via the budget and appropriations. The budget, or since we no longer have a functioning budgetary and appropriations process in the US and may never have one again**, or year on year and temporary continuing resolutions are unable to sustain America’s national security strategy. At this point most of you are probably asking: we spend all this money on defense, right? Yes and no. Global military expenditures are currently 2.25% of GDP. US military spending, as of 2016, is 3.61% of GDP. You can find all the NATO country comparative data here. While the US spends a large total number, especially in comparison to everyone else, which is reflected in having the highest military spending as a percentage of GDP, we are only 1.61% higher than the agreed upon NATO minimum requirements that we have heard so much about.
This is not a flippant argument for additional spending. Rather it is a realization that our ends, ways, and means are out of alignment. And that makes it very difficult for the US to do much more militarily than it is already doing. As Lt. Gen. Deptula indicated, the US Air Force has been at war continuously since 1991. And the aviation components of the US Navy have been as well. We have, perhaps, more air combat experience than at any time in US history and at the same time some of the lowest actual combat readiness. And as GEN Thomas indicated in his testimony, the ongoing operational tempo is also negatively effecting Special Forces.
LTGs Anderson, Bingham, and Piggee submitted a joint statement at the 8 MAR 2017 US House of Representatives hearing on the current state of Army readiness. In it they state:
Today, the Army remains globally engaged with over 182,000 trained and ready Soldiers committed to meeting Combatant Command deterrence and counter-terrorist requirements. These requirements fall disproportionally on the Army to fulfill: the Army meets 48% of Combatant Command base demand and is set to meet 70% of FY17 emergent force demand. This demand commits all major Regular Army combat formations that are assigned or allocated to Combatant Commands, or that are under orders to be prepared to deploy. In order to sustain this considerable level of demand, the Army has been forced to accept risk in end strength, capacity, readiness, modernization, installations, and sustainment. Simultaneously, rival nations have aggressively updated their armed forces, thus creating capability gaps that impose a significant threat to U.S. forces and contingency missions.
We echo the testimony of General Allyn on 7 February that the Army requires sustained, long-term, and predictable funding to build and sustain readiness. Under funding caps in current law, the Army will be forced to draw down end strength and underinvest in readiness. If the 2011 Budget Control Act is not further revised or repealed, we will be unable to sustain our force, leading to an underprepared and underequipped Army. We ask that you establish new budget authorizations to prevent this outcome and ensure investments in Army readiness are not wasted. Sustainable, consistent, long-term funding will allow us to rebuild the Army’s readiness. Ready forces are not just available for contingencies, they prevent contingencies by deterring potential adversaries.
What does all that mean in reality? It means that the conventional Army can’t do much more than what it is actually doing. And neither can the Air Force or the Navy or Special Forces. Eventually something will have to give. Either the US will have to adjust its national security strategy expectations down so they are in line with the ways and means available/likely to be available or it will have to adjust the ways and means available up so they are in line with our national security strategy expectations and obligations. Given that the US is the only country to ever cut taxes, twice, while waging two wars, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to increase our means in any significant manner. To do so would require actually increasing Federal revenue, which is anathema to the GOP majorities in both the House and the Senate, as well as movement conservative and Republican party orthodoxy.
(For an in depth understanding of US military force structure, here is the Congressional Budget Office’s primer on the subject.)
* This is the last Obama Administration National Security Strategy. As is the case with every new administration, the new Administration has not yet issued a new one.
** Almost 75% of the members of the GOP House Caucus have been elected since the 2010 midterm elections. Those GOP members of Congress have only ever participated in crisis budgeting and appropriations. They have no actual experience with regular order and, as we saw with last week’s passage of the AHCA, even when they have an overwhelming majority in the House, they have no interest in returning to regular order.
Full disclosure: every cent I have made since 2017 is as the result of US defense spending.