The United States is widely believed to have the strongest conventional and non-conventional force worldwide and none of its competitors possess even half the size of its projection power capabilities. Yet U.S. influence and political clout is dwindling in many regions, especially the Middle East. Russia, which has only one aircraft carrier compared to America’s ten aircraft carriers, seems to be gaining the upper hand in the Middle East and the growing public perception is that it is the new boss in town. Thousands of American troops and assets are still in the region but do not seem as effective as before and the main reason is the non-consistent foreign policies and the bad utilization for the “economy of force” principle.
Many war strategists and historians wrote about the “economy of force,” and the most known ones are Major General John C. Fuller and Carl Von Clausewitz. To simplify it, the economy of force is basically how to use just the adequate size of force at the right place and time with the strong will to follow through preset plans with resilience and determination in order to achieve the objectives of the war strategy. Clausewitz said “Every unnecessary expenditure of time, every unnecessary detour, is a waste of power, and therefore contrary to the principles of strategy.”
In the U.S. there has actually been a lot of “detours” and waste of time over the past 17 years – beginning with the initiation of the Global War on Terrorism in 2001. The problem has become worse in the last decade with constantly changing policies and strategies for Iraq, Iran and Syria. Many in the United States would attribute this to either the country suffering from war-fatigue or to the American democratic system. But in fact what seems to be the problem is failed political leadership with inconsistent and sometimes impulsive policies that have turned military gains into political disasters.
The same U.S. democratic system under previous leaderships saw the U.S. support the Allies to consecutive victories in World War I and World War II, to emerge victorious from the Cold War, and to elevate America as the sole global superpower. The “economy of force” principle was used so efficiently during the Cold War that the U.S. beat the Soviet Union without ever having a direct military confrontation. Now the Soviet Union’s successor, the Russian Federation, is bullying the U.S. on various fronts in Europe and the Middle East.
The current doctrinal manual for the U.S. Army describes and defines the economy of force as follows: “Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts. Economy of force is the reciprocal of mass. It requires accepting prudent risk in selected areas to achieve superiority—overwhelming effects—in the decisive operation. Economy of force involves the discriminating employment and distribution of forces. Commanders never leave any element without a purpose. When the time comes to execute, all elements should have tasks to perform.”
The principles of “economy of force” are applied by Armed Forces worldwide across all types of military operations. However, it is most important for militaries that want efficient power projection capability. Superpowers that dispatch troops to combat missions thousands of miles away from home must ensure they are well-equipped to accomplish the tasks allocated to them in the execution of their country’s foreign policies. Having bases abroad must be part of a policy upon which the military leadership decides the size of force in each base and what sort of assets are required. In the U.S. case the military wants to have as little boots on the ground as possible in the Middle East by relying on airpower, standoff weapons and local partners.
If one examines the implementation of the “economy of force” in the U.S. military deployments in the Middle East since 2003, it will not be hard to conclude that America greatly succeeded militarily but failed miserably on the strategic level. American military commanders did a brilliant job militarily in achieving control of Iraq within three weeks with a very small number of casualties. However, managing Iraq subsequently proved a big failure because the war strategy the military prepared for was to remove weapons of mass destruction from Iraq while the political leadership had a different, hidden agenda. Even when the U.S. military succeeded in regaining control of the situation there through gradual buildup of forces and the training of local groups to combat Islamist insurgents – what was known then as the “surge” – the change of leadership at the White House ended it through the withdrawal of all forces from Iraq, leaving a huge vacuum for both Iran and Al-Qaeda terrorists to occupy.
When the public revolts in Syria and Iraq created turmoil and ignited sectarian conflicts allowing tens of thousands of militants of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to occupy vast areas in both countries, an opportunity presented itself for the U.S. to deploy its forces to combat terrorism and to contain Iran’s rapid expansion.
Iran has sent tens of thousands of Shi’ite militias led by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) into Iraq and Syria under the pretext of combating terrorism. However, the war strategy during President Barak Obama’s administration, which was normalizing ties with Tehran, was to limit U.S. military involvement to airpower and provide support to land forces made up of the IRGC, Iraqi Shi’ite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and regular Iraqi troops. The new U.S. administration under Donald Trump reversed course and no longer coordinates with the PMF and Iran in the war on ISIS in Iraq, which has come to an end largely due to America’s powerful air support and intelligence capabilities. The current U.S. forces deployed in Iraq might have become insufficient to deal with a rising threat from PMF and IRGC if Tehran decides to escalate activities against the U.S.
In Syria, the U.S. “no boots on the ground” policy worked very well. After a brief but unsuccessful trial with the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, the U.S. military decided to use Kurdish fighters in ground offensives against ISIS in northeastern Syria. Only 2,000 U.S. troops were deployed to train and assist the Kurdish fighters who now control the Syrian territories east of the Euphrates River, and with some Arab tribesmen control the Tanaf area along the Iraqi-Syrian-Jordanian borders. So not only did the U.S. manage to defeat ISIS, but also sandwiched the Iraq-Syria main highway that Iran had been using to establish its land bridge connecting Tehran with the Mediterranean. This was a brilliant application of the “economy of force” because it achieved the objective with minimum resources. However, President Trump surprised not least of all his own National Security Council colleagues, especially military members, with a request to pull out U.S. forces from Syria as soon as possible.
Russia, in turn teamed up with Iran and the Syrian regime to pave the way for its big comeback to the Middle East region. With a few air force squadrons, the S-400 air defense system and several hundred special operations forces at hand, Moscow has established itself as the main powerbroker in Syria after helping the Syrian regime and Iranian-backed militiamen recapture vast areas from ISIS and Syrian rebels. Moscow even brought its only aircraft carrier for a few weeks to the Syrian coastline to demonstrate its projection power and assert itself regionally. Russia has signed treaties with the Syrian regime granting it a long term military presence in Syria and is leading the talks with Iran and Turkey to draw the map for the future of Syria, which will certainly impact the future of all countries bordering Syria: Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. So the economy of force employed by the Russians in their war strategy in Syria seems to be in full sink with the Kremlin’s agenda.
It is not a question of how many aircraft carriers a county has or how advanced its military technologies are but how resources and assets are allocated to achieve a war strategy with a consistent policy. The continuous policy changes in successive U.S. administrations – and in today’s case within one administration – has severely impacted its image and standing in the world as well as its military which has seen resources spent and lives wasted with few rewards. Impulsive policies related to U.S. military deployments have a huge impact – short- and long-term – and their damage can be irrecoverable.
Now that the war on ISIS is almost over what will be the subsequent task of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria? If it is to contain the IRGC and their allied militias – as the White House called for repeatedly – are U.S. forces well-equipped and at the right operational size for this mission? If the U.S. forces were to pull-out from Iraq and Syria today, would they not be leaving room for ISIS to return or the IRGC to take full control? How will the U.S. deter the Syrian regime from further use of chemical weapons against the civilian population if it does not have assets deployed to punish the regime when it crosses a red line? Moscow and Tehran seem clear on what they want in Iraq and Syria and are doing well achieving their objectives with minimum resources. It is time for Washington to decide on a firm and consistent policy that will enable its military to prevail with a proper use of the “economy of force.”