Opinion

The Great Debate

Counterterrorism: Where are Obama’s policy changes?

It is now roughly five months since President Barack Obama announced a new direction for U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

“America is at a crossroads,” Obama said at the National Defense University in May. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.”

The president proceeded to set out his post-war vision for the nation — the peace dividend earned for the last 12 years of a complicated, costly and at times tragically misguided counterterrorism policy. The president, as usual, gave a good speech. Where he’s weak is on the follow-through, however.

Though five months isn’t that long, when it comes to a war that involves killing and indefinitely detaining a vaguely defined enemy, time is of the essence. It’s also critical to restoring U.S. credibility around the globe, particularly around the constitutional principles the president repeatedly emphasized.

Obama has taken a few steps in the right direction since May. As promised, he appointed an envoy at the State Department to focus on transferring Guantanamo detainees to their home countries, and just this month appointed someone in charge at the Pentagon as well. He’s sent home two of the 86 prisoners already cleared for transfer.

Saving Defense dollars: From BRAC to ORAC

While the government shutdown continues because of the Democrats’ and Republicans’ profound disagreement, the real issue facing the nation is something that both parties agree on, in principle: the need to reduce the size of the federal deficit.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 and sequestration have made some steps in this direction, though aiming indiscriminately at certain parts of government far more than others. Half of all cuts, for example, come from the Defense Department.

There are a wide range of options for domestic spending reduction. But military spending cuts are more narrow and difficult. They can be done responsibly, however. Sequestration’s reductions are severe, perhaps excessive (especially early on), with $500 billion in 10-year cuts, on top of the $500 billion already accepted back in 2011. That said, tens of billions can undoubtedly be saved through smart economies and business practices — without cutting muscle or breaking faith with the men and women in uniform.

The robots of war

Air Force airman performs tests on a Talon robot in Afghanistan in 2011. Photo from Air Force.

Here are just a few of the robots assigned to the U.S. Army’s last combat brigade in Afghanistan: Tractor-size robots that trawl ahead of foot patrols, probing for buried bombs. Smaller ‘bots that help blow up the uncovered incendiary devices. Unmanned aerial vehicles — from tiny, hand-thrown models to a high-endurance version the size of a Cessna. Silent robot sentries that watch over sleeping U.S. troops.

The automaton warriors of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, deployed to volatile Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan since December represent the highs and lows of more than a decade of military robot development.

The case for sea-based drones

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator is towed into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), May 13, 2013. CREDIT: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter

If all goes according to plan, sometime on Tuesday the military balance of power in the Pacific Ocean could tilt to America’s advantage. The U.S. Navy’s main warships, whose firepower now cannot match the range of Chinese missiles, could gain a new weapon that more than levels the playing field.

It all boils down to a 62-foot-wide, hook-nosed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle built by Northrop Grumman. This new drone is set to launch off the 1,092-foot-long flight deck of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, known in Navy parlance as CVN-77 and until Tuesday morning docked at the sprawling naval base in Norfolk, Virginia.

A sequestration solution for the Pentagon

The sequestration drama in Washington is less severe and intractable than you have heard. A partial solution: Block the across-the-board cut of $42.5 billion in military funds this year — the Pentagon’s portion of $85 billion due March 1 — and spread the savings over several years by tweaking military spending caps already on the books.

Because this option preserves deficit reduction without raising taxes and lets the military drawdown intelligently, a congressional majority might support it.

Pentagon leaders are sounding the alarm — warning about the impending sequester and the additional $500 billion reduction in spending over a decade. Furloughed civilian employees, extended deployments, reduced naval patrols and procurement delays, they say, will leave the military unable to perform its job and deter U.S. enemies.

A battleground for weapons of the future

More than a week after a U.S.-Egyptian brokered ceasefire brought a fragile peace to Gaza, military analysts are busily assessing the fighting between Israel and Hamas. Their goal: Apply lessons from the eight-day battle to weaponry still in development.

Israel’s frequent conflicts with its Arab neighbors have historically been proving grounds for the latest in battlefield technology. Arab-Israeli wars inspired the first operational aerial drones, radar-evading stealth warplanes and projectile-defeating armor. All are now staples of the world’s leading militaries.

Analysts now say this recent fighting could spur the proliferation of highly accurate, fast-firing defenses against rocket barrages, a threat that has long flummoxed military planners. The solution could be inspired by Israel’s now-famous Iron Dome, a rocket-intercepting missile system that shot down hundreds of Hamas’ rockets before they could strike Israeli settlements.

The U.S. war in Iraq is over. Who won?

The end of America’s combat mission, after seven and a half costly years, has raised questions that will provide fodder for argument for a long time to come: Was it worth it? And who, if anyone, won?

It’s too early to answer the first question, according to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a man of sober judgment. “It really requires a historian’s perspective in terms of what happens here in the long run … How it all weighs in the balance over time remains to be seen.”

For a sizeable group of Middle East experts, the second question is easier to answer than the first. “So, who won the war in Iraq? Iran,” says the headline over an analysis by scholar Mohammed Bazzi for the Council on Foreign relations, a New York-based think-tank. His argument: “The U.S. ousted Tehran’s sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein, from power. Then Washington helped install a Shi’ite government for the first time in Iraq’s modern history.

U.S. military power: When is enough enough?

– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. —

The numbers tell the story of a superpower addicted to overwhelming military might: the United States accounts for five percent of the world’s population, around 23 percent of its economic output and more than 40 percent of its military spending. America spends as much on its soldiers and weapons as the next 18 countries put together.

Why such a huge margin? The question is rarely asked although there is spirited debate over specific big-ticket weapons systems whose conception dates back to the days when the United States was not the only superpower and large-scale conventional war against the other superpower, the Soviet Union, was an ever-present possibility. Those days are over.

U.S. military giant, diplomatic dwarf?

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate— Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

The U.S. armed forces, the world’s most powerful, outnumber the country’s diplomatic service and its major aid agency by a ratio of more than 180:1, vastly higher than in other Western democracies. Military giant, diplomatic dwarf?

The ratio applies to people in uniform (or pin-striped suits). In terms of money, the U.S. military towers just as tall. Roughly half of all military spending in the world is American. Even potential adversaries in a conventional war spend puny sums in comparison. The 2010 defense budget now before Congress totals $534 billion, not including funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. China’s defense budget is $70 billion, Russia’s around $50 billion.giant_dwarf_w350

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