On Strategy, Drones, and Climate Change

Try this exercise.

Open up the new Defense Strategic Guidance DOD released today. Hit Ctrl-F. Type in “drone.” Count how many times the word appears in the strategic document that is supposed to guide us through 2020.

Now do the same, Ctrl-F, “Climate change.” Count the mentions of the phenomenon that will cause accelerating amounts of instability between now and 2020.

The number of appearances, for both phrases, is zero.


DOD just rolled out new strategic guidance without once mentioning the fancy new toys that are a cornerstone of their new-and-improved small footprint strategy or the phenomenon that will serve as significant a disruptive force as terrorism, China, and cyberwar in the next 8 years, all things that show up in this defense strategy.

And all that in a defense strategy that basically forswears large scale stability operations (AKA Iraq and Afghanistan).

Conduct Stability and Counterinsurgency Operations. In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will emphasize non-military means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability and reduce the demand for significant U.S. force commitments to stability operations. U.S. forces will nevertheless be ready to conduct limited counterinsurgency and other stability operations if required, operating alongside coalition forces wherever possible. Accordingly, U.S. forces will retain and continue to refine the lessons learned, expertise, and specialized capabilities that have been developed over the past ten years of counterinsurgency and stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.

Mind you, the defense strategy doesn’t ignore stability–which it mentions ten more times than it does drones or climate change. But in a thoroughly Rumsfeldian manner, it seems to just believe stability … happens.

All in a time when America’s neoliberal economic policies (“commerce,” “prosperity,” and “economic growth”–at 2, 4, and 1–also show up more times than drones or climate change) also contribute to instability and where more and more countries seem to be falling as states.

Now, partly, the defense strategy forswears large scale stability operations, because this entire strategy is an effort to pretend it’s cutting $487 billion over ten years when it’s really just ending two expensive wars, refocusing from Europe to Asia, and assuming we’ll make do with things like Special Forces and those drones the strategy doesn’t mention. To a significant degree, this new defense strategy is a pre-emptive (and thoroughly successful, from the looks of things) attempt to convince the press that DOD is suffering under the same rules of austerity the rest of us are, while really only moving some shells around on a card table.

I suspect the defense strategy also forswears large scale stability operations–AKA nation building–because we suck at it, and no President wants to embrace something we’ve failed at for ten years straight, no matter how important for our security. (Note, it does say it will retain the ability to “regenerate”–like a lizard’s limb–stability operations if the need arises. How we’re going to regenerate something we never had, I don’t know.)

So rather than explaining what we’re going to do with all the countries we destabilize with drone campaigns (AKA Pakistan) or what we’re going to do as Bangladesh and North Africa and the Horn of Africa and much of Southeast Asia increasingly suffer from droughts or floods, setting off catastrophe and migration and more failing central governments, we’re just going to assume stability … happens.

It’s a nice strategy (and an even neater trick, convincing journalists that an increase in defense spending equates to a cut). I’m all in favor of ending these big land wars. But the whole thing also seems to be a strategy for fostering instability as much as one to prevent it. And it doesn’t even consider two of the most destabilizing forces on the horizon in the next 8 years.

Update: Bill Michtom had to remind me that 2020 is 8, not 18, years away.

15 replies
  1. MD Rackham says:

    I assumed that drones were just referred to as “UAVs” (Unmanned Autonomous Vehicles) but, nope, no mentions of those either.

    I didn’t try looking for “hoax” in place of “climate change” because the thought of finding it was just too depressing.

  2. Bill Michtom says:

    @emptywheel ” Egads. And I once was superb at math.”

    Once “stability” means “regime change,” it’s easy to get confused.

  3. prostratedragon says:

    [Gleep!] Probably not your math. Probably not wanting to admit that that date is just 8 years off.

  4. Bob Schacht says:

    Just for funsies, I’d like to know how the new draw-down compares with Rumsfeld’s pre-9/11 plan to “modernize” our military forces.

    Bob in AZ

  5. Jim White says:

    So what is Reuters basing their story on tonight? As you point out, “drone” does not appear in the strategy document and they don’t put the word in any quotes from any government figures in the article:

    New Pentagon strategy stresses Asia, cyber, drones

    President Barack Obama unveiled a defense strategy on Thursday that would expand the U.S. military presence in Asia but shrink the overall size of the force as the Pentagon seeks to slash spending by nearly half a trillion dollars after a decade of war.

    The strategy, if carried out, would significantly reshape the world’s most powerful military following the buildup that was a key part of President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Cyberwarfare and unmanned drones would continue to grow in priority, as would countering attempts by China and Iran to block U.S. power projection capabilities in areas like the South China Sea and the Strait of Hormuz.

  6. Peterr says:

    From the NYT, August 2009:

    The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say. . . .

    Recent war games and intelligence studies conclude that over the next 20 to 30 years, vulnerable regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia, will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises and catastrophic flooding driven by climate change that could demand an American humanitarian relief or military response.

    An exercise last December [2008] at the National Defense University, an educational institute that is overseen by the military, explored the potential impact of a destructive flood in Bangladesh that sent hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into neighboring India, touching off religious conflict, the spread of contagious diseases and vast damage to infrastructure. “It gets real complicated real quickly,” said Amanda J. Dory, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy, who is working with a Pentagon group assigned to incorporate climate change into national security strategy planning.

    Ms. Dory is still in her position at the Pentagon. From the sounds of the post, however, one wonders is that working group is still at work.

  7. emptywheel says:

    @Peterr: Oh, they’re definitely “war-gaming” climate change. They just seem not to have considered it in this strategy, in spite of considering other disruptive forces. It’s … weird.

    The absence of the drones in the document is perhaps less weird. They mention other weapons platforms–missile defense, for example–but try to avoid questions about F-35s being cut, so don’t get into nitty gritty. Nevertheless, I happen to think our increased reliance on drones is not just a tactical, but a strategic issue (because of they way they infringe on sovereignty). And I’m not sure anyone in DOD has thought about that.

  8. Peterr says:


    Oh, I’m sure they’ve thought about the drones and sovereignty. They just don’t think that anyone who matters will call them on it.

    But the climate change this is really weird. From that NYT piece, it’s not that they’re simply wargaming it. Note again the last sentence: “Dory . . . is working with a Pentagon group assigned to incorporate climate change into national security strategy planning.”

    Sounds like (a) they gave up on incorporating CC into the strategy, (b) they still haven’t figured out how to do it, or (c) they don’t want anyone to see what they’ve come up with.

    Upon further reflection, part of me leans toward (c).

    Some of the DODs biggest friends in Congress right now are GOP reactionaries who think all the talk about CC is a socialist plot designed by gay atheist scientists to destroy the family and set up a one world government. Or something like that. With the budget cuts that are coming down the road, the DOD doesn’t want to alienate their biggest friends, no matter how wrongheaded they are on the military implications of the undeniable changes to global climate.

  9. emptywheel says:

    @Peterr: Actually, watch me put drones AND climate change into the strategy (as I hope to do at more length in a post later today). The strategy does include this:

    Defend the Homeland and Provide Support to Civil Authorities. U.S. forces will continue to defend U.S. territory from direct attack by state and non-state actors. We will also come to the assistance of domestic civil authorities in the event such defense fails or in case of natural disasters, potentially in response to a very significant or even catastrophic event. Homeland defense and support to civil authorities require strong, steady––state force readiness, to include a robust missile defense capability. Threats to the homeland may be highest when U.S. forces are engaged in conflict with an adversary

    Two things the NDAA includes are language clarifying the reporting chain for the use of national guard in such cases and the roll out of test sites for drones to operate in civilian airspace. If you go back and look for their explanation of why they need drones in civilian airspace, they talk about training, but also disasters.

    So the idea is when climate change results in floods and tornadoes, we simply roll out the drones.

    Or something like that.

  10. Bill says:

    “…or what we’re going to do as Bangladesh and North Africa and the Horn of Africa suffer…”

    I thought the report was pretty clear that Africa is no longer in our arc of interests. Poor Africom, it’s barely born and already the ignored little runt.

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