Robert Gates, former United States Secretary of Defense, warned against nextwaritis, the syndrome of focusing attention on the “wars of the future” and leaving the current ones unattended. He was referring to the obsession with high-tech weapons and the “Chinese threat” when the war in Afghanistan was still running its course and Irak was still not pacified. But the reasons given by Gates for not looking into the future seem to not make much sense anymore.
The recent State of the Union Address announced the withdrawal of 34,000 additional troops from Afghanistan. 2014 was set as the date for turning over full responsibilities to Kabul’s government. And it seems like regardless of the state of affairs, a “mission accomplished” will be proclaimed and attention will be focused somewhere else. Even if special forces, private contractors and drones will remain in place. We will see American think tanks producing a flurry of ideas and prospective exercises about the conflicts of the future. But what is clear is that there already is a winner in this process: Asia-Pacific.
On November 12th 2011, while at a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, president Obama announced that “we’ve turned our attention back to the Asia Pacific region,” and explained that this renewed interest for the region would have two concrete consequences: a free trade agreement, and a pivot to Asia, a redeployment of military forces from Europe and the Middle East.
What does it mean to leave Afghanistan and Irak behind for focusing on Asia-Pacific? It means to stop thinking in counterinsurgency campaigns against irregular forces in which it is crucial to gain over the support from the local population. It means to stop thinking about the phenomena that interrelates with armed conflicts that arise in postmodern wars, like drug-trafficking in Afghanistan and piracy in Somalia. During the ten years of the first phase of the Global War on Terror (2001-2011), the United States’ air force did not shoot down a single enemy airplane, and the Navy did not shoot a single anti-ship missile or torpedo. Instead, they were dedicated to carrying out missions of transport, intelligence-gathering and distribution of humanitary aid. Now nobody hides the fact that talking about Asia-Pacific is an euphemism for talking about a hypothetical high-tech war with China. The model is already in place. It is called Air-Sea Battle, the brainchild of those who coined the concept of Revolution in Military Affairs.
The actual armed forces of the United States are not prepared to develop the Air-Sea Battle, and doing it will imply incurring staggering costs. It is easy to imagine the entrenched interests that will push to go ahead with it, for which Thomas Barnett has called it the military-industrial complex’s self-serving fantasy. The problems with Air-Sea Battle are evident. It is not backed up by a study of the evolution of the international scene and armed conflicts. It is a simple war hypothesis that does not analyze China’s likely evolution, that of its armed forces and its relations with the United States. And what is worse, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy because it has not gone unnoticed at all in China. Air-Sea Battle is a product of the same school of thought that, during the 90’s, thought of the next great technological war, and that led the Bush Administration to promote the development of an anti-missile defense shield in 2001 based on the inexistent threat of North-Korean and Iranian nuclear missiles, months before 9/11.