Editor’s Note:  This article differs from the regular format we use at Divergent Options per a request from Nate Freier of the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.  This article has the writer imagining that they are a Special Assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense (SecDef).  The writer is responding to a request from the SecDef for a two page memo that defines or describes strategic and military risk and identifies national security situations that may take place from 2017 to 2027 that would require the U.S. Department of Defense to surge personnel or capability to address.  The entire call for papers can be found here.  

  Brian Christopher Darling has served in the United States Army in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Qatar.  He has master’s degrees in Liberal Studies and Public Service Leadership from Rutgers University and Thomas Edison State University, respectively.  Mr. Darling is presently employed at Joint Force Headquarters, New Jersey National Guard.  He can be found on twitter @briancdarling and has written for NCO Journal.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

20 February 2017

Dear Secretary Mattis,

The Department of Defense faces a number of significant challenges in the coming decade.  Some of these situations involve familiar scenarios, some involve rising threats, and worst-case scenarios involve combinations of state and non-state actors and cyber warfare.  Not all threats to national security come from outside influencers either as the current state of the economy places the entire Department on precarious footing.  The purpose of this memorandum is to define strategic and military risk in the context of three areas that might well require a surge of United States armed forces.

It is prudent here to discuss risk assessment.  Although the previous administration sought to create more multilateral relationships and to conclude contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the current President is faced with threats from an unstable North Korea, a resurgent Russia, and continued violence by state and non-state actors in CENTCOM.  The scenarios discussed herein require major risk considerations in terms of force management risk (manpower and readiness), institutional risk (funding and logistics), and future challenges[1].

The first area where the United States may be obligated to commit additional forces is the Middle East, commonly referred to as the CENTCOM Theater.  The Overseas Contingency Operations ongoing in CENTCOM drain manpower and readiness from forces which might otherwise be employed in EUCOM, PACOM, and elsewhere, thereby emboldening adversary states in those regions.  Further, surging forces to existing contingency operation locations risks an appearance of impropriety by the United States through support of oppressive regimes with records of human rights violations[2].

By surging forces in CENTCOM, the United States demonstrates its continued commitment to stability in the region.  Modular escalation of forces also serves to deter Iranian intervention in conflicts in Iraq and Syria[3].  A surge of forces to allied countries in the area would allow for rapid response to conflict within the region, to wit: the destruction of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and ongoing conflicts with Al Qaeda and their affiliates and the Haqqani network[4], the conclusion of the first being a stated goal of the new administration.

A discussion involving the ongoing hostilities in Syria logically leads to a consideration of a rising hegemonic threat.  This second possible area of consideration is the EUCOM Theater, involving a rising Russia and a surge of forces in Eastern Europe.  By surging forces to Eastern European nations formerly associated with the Warsaw Pact, the United States risks escalating tensions with Russia.  Further, reassigning forces from the pool available to CENTCOM creates an operational risk in the Middle East and a future challenges risk in both CENTCOM and PACOM.

A surge of forces in EUCOM would demonstrate the new administration’s continued commitment to NATO[5].  The President has previously publicly questioned the value of the alliance[6]; surging forces to counter Russian territorial expansion is a visible demonstration of the United States’ continued support of the existing international order. A surge of forces in EUCOM would also deter further Russian annexation of territory previously controlled by the former Soviet Union, as it has been aggressively active in previous years[7].

The final area where a surge of forces may be necessary is in South Korea, in the PACOM Theater.  The North Korean regime has become increasingly unstable and its nuclear threat has become more volatile[8].  Surging forces to PACOM risks nuclear intervention by the unstable North Korean regime, as well as grating the Pakistanis and emboldening our Indian allies.  Perhaps most significantly, a surge might also risk aggravating the United States’ relationship with China.

Demonstrating support of our allies in PACOM continues the themes of the previous administration’s pivot to the pacific.  The President has continued to demonstrate an interest in improving America’s Pacific alliances[9].  The United States would provide a balance of power between the rising economies in the area and a hegemonic China.  A surge presence in the Pacific theater would also reassure Taiwan, which might fear Chinese aggression[10], while also balancing potential conflicts between India and Pakistan[11].

Given the current manpower of the armed forces, any of the options above present an unsustainable future challenges risk to the Department of Defense.  Consideration must also be given to the condition of the platforms available to the services; the Air Force and Navy are currently dealing with issues regarding decades-old weapons platforms[12].  Although the President has sought more cost-effective relationships with vendors[13], there is a long-term institutional risk to development and acquisitions.


[1]  Gates, R. (2010). Quadrennial defense review. Washington, DC.

[2]  Dorsey, James. (2017 January 18). “Qatar’s Backtrack On Labor Rights And Cooperation With Russia Reflects New World Order”. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/qatari-backtracking-on-labour-rights-and-cooperation_us_587c5ef5e4b077a19d180f56

[3]  Bar’el, Zvi. (2017, Feb 11). “In Iraq, the U.S. Invests, ISIS Loses and Iran Gains”.  Retrieved from http://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/iraq/.premium-1.770944

[4]  Lamothe, D. (2017 February 9). “Top U.S. commander in Afghanistan opens door to a ‘few thousand’ more troops deploying there”. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2017/02/09/top-u-s-commander-in-afghanistan-opens-door-to-a-few-thousand-more-troops-deploying-there/

[5]  Smith-Spark, L., and A. Shubert. (2017, January). “Poland welcomes thousands of US troops in NATO show of force”.  Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/14/europe/poland-us-troops-nato-welcome/

[6]  Gordon, M.R. (2017, January 15). “Trump Criticizes NATO and Hopes for ‘Good Deals’ With Russia”. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/15/world/europe/donald-trump-nato.html?_r=0

[7]  Dews, F. (2014, March 19). “NATO Secretary-General: Russia’s Annexation of Crimea is illegal and illegitimate”.  Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brookings-now/2014/03/19/nato-secretary-general-russias-annexation-of-crimea-is-illegal-and-illegitimate/

[8]  BBC News. (2017, February 12). “North Korea ballistic missile test sparks condemnation” Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-38950733

[9]  Reuters.  (2017, February 11). “Trump and Japan’s Abe take a swing at golf diplomacy”.  Retrieved from http://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/11/trump-and-japans-abe-take-a-swing-at-golf-diplomacy.html

[10]  Graham-Harrison, E. (2017, February 4). “Islands on the frontline of a new global flashpoint: China v Japan”.  Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/05/china-v-japan-new-global-flashpoint-senkaku-islands-ishigaki

[11]  IANS. (2017, February 12). “Pakistan sounds alarm over ‘nuclearisation’ of Indian Ocean by India”. Retrieved from http://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/pakistan-sounds-alarm-over-nuclearisation-of-indian-ocean-by-india/story-Hdp49Lb4wpsPHYhbjs8A1M.html

[12]  Serbu, J. (2017 February 8).  “Military readiness problems can’t be fixed overnight, Defense chiefs warn”.  Retrieved from http://federalnewsradio.com/defense/2017/02/military-readiness-problems-cant-fixed-overnight-defense-chiefs-warn/

[13]  Cohen, Z. (2017 February 4). “After Trump attack, Lockheed Martin slashes F-35 cost”. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/03/politics/f-35-lockheed-martin-cost-reduction/