QDR: The Triumph of Integrated Defense Thinking

I haven’t had a chance to do more than skim through the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (.pdf), despite the fact that Congress Daily helpfully managed to acquire it over the weekend. I have read through some of the early reviews, though, and recommend Robert Farley, Spencer Ackerman and the gang at Information Dissemination for a start.

I don’t think anyone who’s been following the military’s operational soul searching and evolution over the past five years will be surprised by anything here. But I’d offer one alternative reading of the degree to which COIN figures prominently in this year’s edition, as compared to conventional warfighting. Certainly it is a priority, and if we’re to go by the order of appearance, it now comes just after homeland defense on the Pentagon’s “to do” list. That makes sense, since we’ve currently got roughly 200,000 soldiers taking part in COIN operations, compared to roughly zero taking part in conventional warfare.

But operating in anti-access environments comes just after (security mentoring with partner states being an aspect of the broader COIN/CT campaign). And as I argued last week, anti-access is another way of saying China, and to a lesser degree North Korea and Iran.

Now, let’s take the scenario of an armed conflict on the Korean Penisula, since it’s a bit easier to tackle than one involving China and Taiwan. The immediate challenge would be deploying the necessary reinforcements in the face of North Korea’s offensive missile threat and anti-access defenses. Let’s also assume, for the sake of making my argument easier to defend, that the normal probablilities of warfare apply and the force with the greater capacity — i.e., us — prevails. Unless the fighting results in a negotiated ceasefire along the lines of the status quo ante, which is difficult to imagine, what follows is most likely the complete destabilization of North Korea, with all of the security, governance and humanitarian contingencies we’ve seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Haiti.

Now, if you consider that China barely holds together as a cohesive state now, imagine the implications of winning a conventional war against the PLA. (It reminds me of the advice every man should receive on his wedding day: When you’ve won an argument with your wife, what have you really won?)

In other words, more than signaling the ultimate victory of COIN over conventional, it seems to me that the 2010 QDR signals the ultimate victory of integrated thinking in defense circles. It’s not that conventional warfighting has been downgraded, so much as that the way in which we conceive of conventional warfighting now includes a very realistic assumption that it will sooner or later devolve into stability operations.

COIN is a part of stability ops capacity, the part we’re now operationalizing more than any other. But to my mind, once the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the real doctrinal innovation we’ll remember from the last decade is less the COIN field manual than the emergence of Stability Ops as a keystone doctrine. Naturally, you read about it here at WPR first, in Jack Kem’s feature article on the Army’s doctrinal renaissance, back in October 2008.

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