Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, previous CIA director and now successor to Robert Gates, has clear ideas of what he wants for the US Armed Forces of the future, and arguably he has a clear idea of the main strategic challenges he will have to deal with. It of course does not mean that he has the RIGHT vision of the future and its challenges, but he could hardly blamed for being wrong: as far as i'm aware, foreseeing the future is something no one can actually do, and if they say they can, don't believe them, it is a lie.
However, he has made a reasoning, and brought it to overall realistic and agreeable conclusions, and he is building a strategic vision atop these conditions: he's making a serious and coherent effort at strategy, something that in the UK is sorely missing ever since the SDR98, which had built on good conclusions and planned a majestic force to deal with them, only to betray the whole plan soon after by using the money that should have financed that force to fight two wars at once without using Treasury's reserves. A sorry story, we all know it, and it'll be at least a further 9 years before, eventually, the Armed Forces come out of the tunnel, and regardless of what will be of FF2020, they will have been massacred and downsized savagely.
Panetta's points are clear and sharp. Of course its first great challenge is managing the withdrawal from Afghanistan. His view is that intelligence and deadly force have driven al-Qaida to strategic defeat, and while this might be overoptimistic speaking, there's certainly been a great degree of success, culminating with the killing of Bin Laden in the Abottabad raid.
This sets the stage for the drawdown of Big Army in Afghanistan and guiding the transition of U.S. forces as they modernize for threats such as China and Iran, the latter having a well known role in arming forces attacking allies in Afghanistan, as Panetta said without hesitations.
Panetta is clear on what the Armed Forces must be capable to do to counter the future threats: rebuilding U.S. power-projection forces is central to his plan. And the U.S. Army must be part of the solution to a reconfigured power-projection force.
Shaping a force that can finish off al-Qaida on a worldwide basis and contain outside threats to Afghanistan and Iraq becomes highlighted. And this force structure is not a big occupation Army. It seems clear that Panetta understands the opportunity to use Afghan withdrawal as a key element in shaping a new modernization strategy, which keeps in consideration the warning given already by Robert Gates: no new endless land struggles and decade-long COIN ops in the Middle East or Asia.
Panetta can now size the force necessary in Afghanistan to checkmate any residual al-Qaida. However, he makes clear that it is long past time that the Taliban become an Afghan Army/police problem as they are no strategic threat anymore to America, and, consequently, not to NATO i think i can add. This brutal point is made because the U.S. does not have the resources to build for their future and also squander resources to build for an Afghan future. Gods know that is just as valid a point for the UK.
The US is likely to keep in Afghanistan a smaller force, centered around a "strategic airfield", providing options to shape not just Afghanistan itself, but the whole area. The strategic relevance of a base in Stan is evident.
The recognized threats are, unsurprisingly:
A weakened but still existent Al-Quaida. Tactically, like a few poisonous snakes in the grass, al-Qaida can always strike, but not a strategic blow unless they get a nuke - the Iranian issue.
Iran and its nuclear programme. This brings with itself a tremendous potential for trouble, as Israel feels itself threatened and the tension is incredibly high, and countries such as Saudi Arabia feel just as menaced. While western industry is reaping the benefit of the "shopping mania" of the Gulf states which seek weapons to counter the iranian threat, the situation is far from being a welcome economic stimulus: it is pushing forwards a dangerous arms race, which could see the Gulf states quickly getting their own nuclear arsenals to re-balance the status quo. And in the Middle stands one of the most vital waterways and economic resources of the world.
The rise of China.
North Korea is not mentioned directly, but it remains a very real problem as well. Of most immediate interest, to the UK as well, are the first two major issues. It is worth taking a look at the geopolitic bomb that the Middle East is:
the Council of Cooperation for the arab states of the Gulf (CCG) is an Alliance made up by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and UAE. Together, they are one of the most powerful economic players in the world, and the leading military force in the Gulf.
Qatar and UAE are currently engaged, alongside NATO, in operations over Libya, with Qatar contributing 6 Mirage 2000-5 working with together with the French Air Force and UAE fiedling 6 F-16E and 6 Mirage 2000-9A.
These countries have of course a lot in common, from richness to their hate of Gaddafi, which has never been a mistery.
The CCG was the first organization who asked for a No-Fly-Zone over Libya, later supported by the Arabian League as well. But attention: don't put the CCG on the side of the "Arabian Spring" rebels (my position is that the revolutions in the Middle East are not a "spring" of democracy and freedom at all, but this is another consideration) as, back at home, all these countries are suffocating the rebel movement.
In Bahrain, against the protests of the Shiite muslim, which make up 70% of the population, the government elite, which is Sunnite, there's been a strong military reaction, which saw the direct intervention of the CCG allies: Abdallah, king of Saudi Arabia, sent 1200 men of the 'National Guard', an autonomous saudi army counting 125.000 men, dedicated to the security of the monarchy and not controlled by the Ministry of Defence or any other power other than the Royals. Currently, it is lead by prince Miteb, son of Abdallah, who guided the Guard by himself for over 50 years, until 2010.
The Saudi National Guard has been operating also in Yemen.
The CCG accuses Iran of encouraging, supporting and spurring up the rebellions, and this is one of many causes of conflict and tension. In the middle, it is worth remembering it, there's the Gulf, which represents 50% of the world's total reserves of oil, and 30% of the global production. Iran and Qatar, besides, are the second biggest producers of natural gas after Russia. Natural gas that is becoming more and more important, for the UK as well, and that all moves through the narrow, vulnerable choke-point of the strait of Hormuz, which Iran would undoubtedly try to block during a war.
The CCG is the center of gravity of the US and UK's policy in the Middle East. Bahrain hosts the HQs of the US Navy's 5th fleet, and in Bahrain there's a constant RN presence as well, in the form of 4 minesweepers and, normally, a support ship (a Bay class) with a further base of the RN in Oman, where RFA Diligence acts as a deployed base in support of 10-months 'east of Suez' deployments of the Navy's SSNs.
Many more US bases are present in the CCG area.
But the CCG has its own policy and schedule of operations: last May, the CCG announced that Morocco and Jordain will join the alliance, and when this happen, the Council will have really changed into an "Holy Alliance" of conservative, Sunnite monarchies opposing the Arab Spring. Morocco is of course not a Gulf country, but has deep ties with Saudi Arabia, while Jordain is a small country who has always wanted to join the CCG and has a tiny but efficient and modern western-like military.
Saudi Arabia leads the alliance, and is long working to increase internal cohesion in the Council to make it a solid block with a great power and a loud voice. And prince Turki el-Feisal, brother of king Abdallah, ex-ambassador in London and Washington, for 25 years director of the kingdom's intelligence, has expressed the proposal that the council develops a nuclear arsenal.
The CCG is gaining strength, both military and diplomatic: last march it managed to cause the cancellation and delay of an Arabian League meeting in Baghdad which would have celebrated the "return" of Iraq on the scene. The Sunnite monarchies of the CCG, however, oppose the current iraqi government, dominated by Shiite factions seen as dangerously pro-Iran. Despite Iraq being a majorly Shiite country, the CCG has an ambition to see a Sunnite-lead Iraq becoming part of the alliance.
The CCG is, in practice, actuating a strategy of expansion of its power, in all directions, and not just against Iran: a probable objective in the near and medium term is to limit the influence of Turkey over the Middle East, and isolate the Egypt of the "post-Mubarak" age. The relationship between Riyadh and Washington has been strained by the Arab Spring: king Abdallah opposed furiously the way the americans 'abandoned' the egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, fallen because of the recent rebellion. Saudi Arabia also opposes the withdrawal of the US Forces from Iraq, and of course, they also never appreciated the US support to Israel to start with, the one thing they share with Iran. Riyadh is pursuing an ambitious policy which clashes with western interests in more than one point. Underpinning this policy, is an expansion of military power with little precedents in history.
Consequently, the Iranian issue is far more complex than it appears: Iran is only the most evident part of the problem, the "allies" in the area are becoming an issue themselves.
Deterring (and/or fighting) Iran or China revolves around strengthened U.S. power-projection forces, shaped by the AirSea vision set by the US Navy and USAF in collaboration. The US Army of the post-Afghanistan era needs to become lighter and more agile. Its more agile and lethal components can be elevated in importance to shape the force remaining in Afghanistan throughout the transition and to become a key element of the power-projection reset, fitting in the AirSea picture. This is happening despite suggestions that the Ground Combat Vehicle (successor to the cancelled vehicle-element of the Future Combat Systems, and intended replacement of Bradley, M113 and others) might well be 70 tons if the protection level required is set to the highest levels.
The US are shaping a strategy for their future, which is an Expeditionary, Strategic-Raiding, Joint approach to the problems, included the constant development of "Access Denial" weaponry such as carrier-killer ballistic anti-ship missiles.
The UK, via Future Force 2020, is arguably following the same path, without admitting it, and without making the whole range of decisions needed to fully aim on this kind of strategic plan. Future Force 2020 is an "incomplete" plan, with some conflicting decisions, such as the reduction in amphibious assault capability and dedicated shipping, and the insufficient firmness on the Carrier Strike element, which is an indispensable pillar of this strategy.
However, an hidden, careful, incomplete but present development twist can be seen in Future Force 2020 as it takes shape.
I think it is the right path to follow. And at least, apparently it will give us coherence with the main Coalition partner's planning and force structure, judging from the direction that the US is taking.