LeRoy Collins Commentary 22

Commentary #24
8 January 2007

A change in strategic thinking for the Middle East?

Dear Bill,...the essay by Ralph Peters you sent me re Admiral Fallon's forthcoming assignment to lead the U. S. Central Command, replacing General John Abizaid, contained some interesting logic. Not only is this assignment vital to our Nation's strategic interests, it is of great interest to us in Tampa because the CENTCOM Headquarters are at MacDill Air Force Base, on Tampa's southern boundary.

I know Admiral Fallon, but just barely. He chaired a conference of retired Flag Officers at Bolling Air Force Base (just south of WASHDC) just 3-4 years ago, which I attended. At the time he was Vice Chief of Naval Operations; I thought he was terrific. I know his communicative skills are quite outstanding. I have only one caveat.....

You will recall six months ago when the issue du jour was North Korea's test of one (or several?) nuclear weapons, plus the flight test of their long-range missile to carry such warheads. At the same time I saw a TV special which sought to discuss the options available to the U.S. and its allies, hoping to discourage the North Korean nuclear tests. The discussion was very interesting, but it failed to mention the easiest, quickest and most effective options, i.e. direct strikes by submarine-launched ballistic or cruise missiles.

If the nuclear ballistic missile(s) were used (it only takes one), we would probably want to give them prior notice (1-2 hrs) to evacuate the people within a 20-mile radius. If non-nuclear cruise missiles were to be launched from a submarine, a one hour notice should be sufficient to avoid any loss of life.

You and I know that resort to a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile would be the first time we have used a nuclear warhead in a tactical environment since 1945. In the interim, our arsenals of nuclear weapons have been effective deterrents. But today, the world's nuclear weapons do not seem to be deterring North Korea or Iran.

I maintain the mere offer of this alternative for international debate would emphasize 1. we still have the capability, 2. it still works on short notice, 3. we have the launchers in place, and 4. we are ready to use them within an hour!

If they would call our bluff, they would find out any submarine deployed in the Western Pacific would deliver AS ADVERTISED! The beauty of this alternative is that no one needs to be hurt. But the facilities to manufacture, launch, and store nuclear weapons must be neutralized under international supervision, or....by force....from afar.

Admiral Fallon was the Commander of all our National forces in the Pacific region six months ago when this discussion was going on. I wonder if he ever considered the options I discussed above?

/s/ Roy



January 6, 2007 -- WORD that Adm. William Fallon will move laterally from our Pacific Command to take charge of Central Command - responsible for the Middle East - while two ground wars rage in the region baffled the media.

Why put a swabbie in charge of grunt operations? There's a one-word answer: Iran.

ASSIGNING a Navy aviator and combat veteran to oversee our military operations in the Persian Gulf makes perfect sense when seen as a preparatory step for striking Iran's nuclear-weapons facilities - if that becomes necessary.

While the Air Force would deliver the heaviest tonnage of ordnance in a campaign to frustrate Tehran's quest for nukes, the toughest strategic missions would fall to our Navy. Iran would seek to retaliate asymmetrically by attacking oil platforms and tankers, closing the Strait of Hormuz - and trying to hit oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates.

Only the U.S. Navy - hopefully, with Royal Navy and Aussie vessels underway beside us - could keep the oil flowing to a thirsty world.

In short, the toughest side of an offensive operation against Iran would be the defensive aspects - requiring virtually every air and sea capability we could muster. (Incidentally, an additional U.S. carrier battle group is now headed for the Gulf; Britain and Australia are also strengthening their naval forces in the region.)

Not only did Adm. Fallon command a carrier air wing during Operation Desert Storm, he also did shore duty at a joint headquarters in Saudi Arabia. He knows the complexity and treacherousness of the Middle East first-hand.

STRENGTHENING his qualifications, numerous blue-water assignments and his duties at PACOM schooled him on the intricacies of the greater Indian Ocean - the key strategic region for the 21st-century and the one that would be affected immediately by a U.S. conflict with Iran.

The admiral also understands China's junkie-frantic oil dependency and its consequent taste for geopolitical street-crime: During a U.S. operation against Iran, Beijing would need its fix guaranteed.

While Congress obsesses on Iraq and Iraq alone, the administration's thinking about the future. And it looks as if the White House is preparing options to mitigate a failure in Iraq and contain Iran. President Bush continues to have a much-underrated strategic vision - the administration's consistent problems have been in the abysmal execution of its policies, not in the over-arching purpose.

Now, pressed by strategic dilemmas and humiliating reverses, President Bush is doing what FDR had to do in the dark, early months of 1942: He's turning to the Navy.

As a retired Army officer, I remain proud of and loyal to my service. I realize that the Army's leaders are disappointed to see the CentCom slot go to an admiral in the midst of multiple ground wars. But, beyond the need for a Navy man at the helm should we have to take on Iran, there's yet another reason for sending Fallon to his new assignment: The Army's leadership has failed us at the strategic level.

After Gen. Eric Shinseki was sidelined for insisting on a professional approach to Iraq, Army generals did plenty of fine tactical and operational work - but they never produced a strategic vision for the greater Middle East.

Our Army is deployed globally, but our generals never seem to acquire the knack of thinking beyond the threat hypnotizing them at the moment (the Marines, with their step-brother ties to the Navy, do a better job of acting locally while thinking globally.)

Perhaps the Army's Gen. Dave Petraeus will emerge as an incisive strategic thinker after he takes command in Baghdad, but his predecessors routinely got mired in tactical details and relied - fatally - on other arms of government to do the strategic thinking.

The reasons are complex, ranging from service culture to educational traditions, but it's incontestable that the Navy long has produced our military's best strategic thinkers - captains and admirals able to transcend parochial interests to see the global security environment as a whole. Adm. Fallon's job is to avoid the tyranny of the moment, to see past the jumble of operational pieces and visualize how those pieces ultimately might fit together.

NOR is the Iran problem the only Navy-first issue facing CENTCOM. As you read this, our ships are patrolling the coast of Somalia to intercept fleeing terrorists - and have been hunting pirates in the same waters for years. China's future development (and internal peace) is tied to dependable supplies of Middle-Eastern and African oil transiting Indian-Ocean sea lanes, as well as to shipping goods along the same routes. In a future confrontation with China, our ability to shut down the very routes we're now challenged to protect would be vital.

Not least because of the botch-up in Iraq, there's a growing sense of the limitations of U.S. ground-force involvement in the Middle East. That doesn't mean we won't see further necessity-driven interventions and even other occupations, only that our strategic planners have begun to grasp that positive change in the region - if it comes at all - is going to take far longer than many of us hoped and won't always be amenable to boots-on-the-ground prodding.

If we can't determine everything that happens in the Big Sandbox, we need to be able to control access to and from the playground - a classic Navy mission.

And in the end the United States remains primarily a maritime power. As Sir Walter Raleigh pointed out 400 years ago, he who controls the waters controls the world.

Gen. Petraeus is going to Baghdad to deal with our present problems. Adm. Fallon is going to the U.S. Central Command to deal with the future.


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