The U.S. is taking a bold and risky gamble by publicly naming a specific region as the locus for its decision-making about which overseas facilities to retain, which weapons and intelligence equipment to buy, and where to focus intelligence collections.
When Robert Gates was defense secretary, he warned against fixating on a specific region in strategic planning, and he was wise to do so. A slimmed-down national security apparatus must retain a global outlook and open-mindedness about where the next national security crises will emerge. The risk the administration taking is to send a message that it does not care about other parts of the world. And history tells us that our next adversary is often a surprise.
In the strategic intelligence realm, the administration’s focus on the Asia-Pacific region will make it harder for the nation to stay vigilant about developments elsewhere. The country’s spy satellites, whose coverage is uncomfortably thin, cannot look everywhere. One can imagine a lowly area expert trying to convince the intelligence bureaucracy to train the nation’s satellites at the jungles of South America instead of at Iran after the president and secretary of defense have proclaimed Asia as the nation’s security focus. Remember, prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, terrorism was viewed as a thorn rather than the single greatest threat to American lives at home and abroad.
Evidence and analytical curiosity must always guide intelligence tasking decisions. The administration needs to make clear that this will remain the case.
Unfortunately, the administration’s decision to make the Asia-Pacific region the focus of its new guidance was not the result of an intelligence review identifying that region as the most likely source of threats for years to come.
The national intelligence community’s job is to prevent strategic surprise. By enshrining a region-centric view into the national security vernacular, the guidance makes it harder for the community to do that.
The administration has tried to prepare for uncertainty by adopting, in a word used by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, “reversibility.” This concept might apply to quickly reconstituting military forces, but you can’t go back and look at intelligence you never gathered. You can’t go back and develop a collection system or weapon you chose not to develop.
The guidance could also create a temptation to ease off of military-to-military partner engagements in South America or other regions. These regions are important in their own rights, and in an increasingly networked world, Asian competitors are likely to make even more inroads in them. Even if Asia turns out to be the most dangerous place, countering adversaries there will require vigorous intelligence collections and military partnership elsewhere.
In the technology realm, one can imagine the Asia-Pacific focus being misconstrued in the coming arguments over the requirements and specifications for new soldier equipment. Will a technologist someday argue that a smartphone, high-tech goggles or a radio need not withstand the cold of the Arctic because contingencies are unlikely there based on the guidance?
The administration also must think carefully about the strategic consequences of the kinds of weapons it employs in the region. The decision to reduce the size of the Army and Marine Corps will make it harder to conduct counterinsurgency operations, which explains why the country is moving toward a counterterrorism strategy. Instead of taking on the labor-intensive work of winning over populations — counterinsurgency — the military and CIA will counter terrorists one at a time by killing them in drone strikes. This strategy produces a big tactical impact with relatively little human power, but the tradeoff is this: China or Iran could be inspired to fly armed drones off the U.S. coast or those of allies in Asia, making Americans less secure. This realization is why in the outer space realm, the U.S. and other space-faring nations have decided against arming satellites. The same conversation needs to take place in the unmanned aircraft realm.
If the administration does not clarify how its guidance should and should not be interpreted, it could be setting up the intelligence community for a dangerous case of tunnel vision.
This editorial appeared in the January-February issue of C4ISR Journal.