Expeditionary Homeland Defense?

Herewith a Tale of Two Buzzwords, and of their implications for the common defense.
Buzzwords (as though the readers didn’t already know this) are terms which encapsulate, evoke, express, and otherwise elucidate ideas currently in favor. This is especially true in Washington, DC, where buzz often generates and accompanies cash.

Today, the Pentagon’s abuzz with two phrases: “expeditionary forces” and “homeland defense.” Both are eminently valid concepts. However, as they’re explored and developed, two unwelcome questions arise:

Can the defense establishment, as currently structured, do both?

And does American military strategy require a fundamental change?

The answers are far from obvious. Before venturing toward a possible conclusion, let’s take the buzzes in turn.

By definition, expeditionary forces are those which go somewhere else to fight. Ever since Appomatox, America’s forces have been fundamentally expeditionary.

Still, as the Marines like to point out, “There’s expeditionary and there’s expeditionary.” Simply going somewhere else en masse and settling in to fight a major war (US forces in Cold War Europe) doth not an expedition make. In the post Cold War world, “expeditionary” means smallish yet highly lethal forces, capable of deploying rapidly across long distances, going into combat quickly, and getting it (whatever “it” might entail) right the first time.

The Marines have been doing this for ages. So has the Navy, when it participates in power projection and land operations via aircraft carriers, surface action forces, and (increasingly) submarines. Today, however, the Army and Air Force are busily and properly developing expeditionary structures of their own. The Army talks of “strike forces,” tailored for rapid deployment and high-tech lethality. The Air Force reorganizes into “air expeditionary forces,” capable of operating from austere forward bases and striking within hours of arrival.

Human nature and bureaucratic imperatives being what they are, neither the Marines nor the Navy seems overly impressed. However, given the requirements of 21st century warfare, these developments are both necessary and desirable.

Homeland defense is also necessary and desirable. But it’s a far more complex and ambiguous problem.

As a concept in play, homeland defense first buzzed in late 1997, with the “Transforming Defense” report of the National Defense Panel. The NDP had been chartered by Congress to critique the work of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which came about at least partially because of the shortcomings of the Commission on Roles and Missions (CORM), which had hoped to address the deficiencies of the Bottom-Up Review (BUR), undertaken to deal with the stuff-left-out of the Base Force Study (BFS).

(There is progress here. QDR II is due out in 2001, and a National Defense Study Group (NDSG, Son of NDP) is already into its task of pre-emptive critiquing.)

In any event, homeland defense, comprehensively buzzed, includes an array of activities, from old-fashioned border control to ballistic missile and air defense, with a nasty gray area–counter-terrorism–where domestic law enforcement and military activities meld. It also includes something known in the jargon as “consequence management,” dealing with the effects of enemy and/or terrorist attack, especially with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons of mass destruction . . . with the greatest carnage on this continent since the Civil War.

The defense establishment’s attitude toward homeland defense can be described, albeit somewhat charitably, as conflicted. Recent pronouncements on missile defense evoke images of T. S. Eliot’s favorite, wuss, J. Alfred Prufrock – “Decisions and revisions that a moment will reverse.” And although the military is moving ever more deeply into counter-terrorism, information operations, and consequence management, it entertains certain legitimate fears. The chances of homeland defense, an enormous undertaking, being adequately funded seem minimal at best. Opportunities for turf battles, bad PR, and major screw-ups abound. And, not least among their concerns, serious homeland defense could damage the vital transition to expeditionary forces and missions.

It’s not just that homeland defense might siphon money. It’s that the services may have to abandon another cherished buzzword: “general purpose forces.” High-tech expeditionary combat is getting so complex that those tasked with it (active, reserve, and National Guard) should not be distracted by lesser concerns.

True, some assets have across-the-board utility: aircraft, trucks, engineers, etc. And when the balloon hits the fan, you go with what you’ve got. But it may be a mistake to assume that combat forces can or should handle homeland defense tasks, which can occur anywhere.

Or that they will even be here to do so.

Which brings us to the National Guard, the obvious place to put most homeland defense missions, including consequence management. This is happening, but perhaps in too limited a way.

The Army Guard is organized as a mirror image of active combat and combat support units. Guard leaders fiercely resist any suggestion that they surrender or move away from expeditionary missions. Further, the Guard argues that most of its equipment is relevant to disaster response and consequence management, and is already on-site at over 3000 armories. Quite so. But:

While Guard combat brigades and many smaller units rightly train for demanding expeditionary missions, it is highly unlikely that the bulk of the Guard will ever again be mobilized for foreign combat. Perhaps it is time to consider restructuring and expanding part of the Guard into a homeland defense force, organized and trained accordingly.

And perhaps it is time to do more than start separating expeditionary and homeland defense capabilities. Current defense planning is based upon the need (some call it the fantasy) to fight two major foreign wars more or less simultaneously. But it might be more realistic to start planning to fight abroad while dealing, simultaneously, with major attacks, events, and disruptions at home.

Two very different tasks, requiring very different capabilities . . . and decision-makers willing to accept and act upon the differences.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.