In The Tank: This Week’s Best Defense and National Security Think Tank Offerings

The latest in wonk reads on national security, tech, and more. By Kedar Pavgi

Welcome to “In the Tank”, Defense One’s weekly think tank roundup. Every week, we’ll present the latest research and commentary published by think tanks from around the world on defense, national security, foreign policy, technology, and management – a tool to help the national security community navigate the future. If you’d like to submit your latest research, email Kedar Pavgi at

Possible U.S. Intervention in Syria: Issues for Congress
Jeremy M. Sharp, Christopher M. Blanchard
Congressional Research Service

Researchers at the Congressional Research Service outline everything that members of Congress need to know about the ongoing crisis in Syria as they prepare to vote on whether to authorize military action. Though the paper is written with the intention of educating lawmakers, it contains details and analyses that are helpful to anyone as they try to better understand this complex issue.

Besides the legal issues behind the alleged chemical weapons use by President Bashar al-Assad’s military, the paper delves into the management and budget concerns behind a military strike on Syrian targets, including the impact of ongoing sequestration on any operation. There’s also a backgrounder on how an international coalition could work with the United States. For example, it discusses possible budgetary concerns behind a possible strike,

Airpower Options for Syria
Karl P. Mueller, Jeffrey Martini, Thomas Hamilton
RAND Corporation

Obama administration officials are emphasizing that a strike in Syria would be limited in time and scope and only targeted at Assad's chemical weapons capabilities. The U.S. military has a range of weapons it can use against the Syrian regime, including Tomahawk missiles and B-2 bombers. Still, what would a strike against Assad look like?

To answer that question, a group of researchers at the RAND Corporation laid out the military’s available capabilities, how they could be used and the location of key targets that could be hit. It’s a must read for anyone interested in seeing the military options for a strike against Syria.

An air strike would have mixed results, according to the researchers. They say that bringing down the Syrian Air Force would have only “marginal benefits” towards protecting civilians, but would be a significant blow for the Syrian military. A strike could be used to reduce Assad’s ability to launch a large-scale chemical weapons attack, but fully neutralizing all the weapons would require ground forces—a non-starter in the current intervention debate in Washington.

“Choices about whether and how to intervene depend on more than military considerations alone,” the researchers write. “At the same time, failing to take military strategic and operational realities into account is a recipe for policy disaster.”

Statement on Syria
International Crisis Group

Brussels-based International Crisis Group sparked a vigorous debate online between activists, academics and journalists this week when it released a strongly worded, but well-nuanced statement regarding a military intervention in Syria. It said that a possible military strike would be “largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people,” and outlined why action may further deteriorate conditions in the country.

The ICG suggests that any strike that punishes Assad for chemical weapons use while leaving the door open for a diplomatic solution “would not be feasible.” The group encourages the U.S. to “optimize” the chances of a “realistic compromise,” and urges diplomats to reach out to Russia and Iran with a meaningful offer to help spur a compromise.

“Debate over a possible strike - its wisdom, preferred scope and legitimacy in the absence of United Nations Security Council approval - has obscured and distracted from what ought to be the overriding international preoccupation: how to revitalize the search for a political settlement,” the ICG wrote.

Understanding an Adversary’s Strategic and Operational Calculus: A Late Cold War Case Study with 21st Century Applicability

Peter M. Swartz
CNA Strategic Studies

It’s time for the Navy’s planners to go back to the future and re-read their history books, says Peter M. Swartz from CNA Strategic Studies. During the Cold War, the Navy spent thousands of man-hours scouring the Kremlin’s military doctrine and war-gaming possible scenarios to plan out a sea battle against the Soviet Union. Swartz says that the same plans can be used to address a possible naval threat posed by Iran.

Even then, Iran is not the Soviet Union, so why should anyone read those dusty plans from the 1970s? Because many of the lessons have the same usefulness in 2013 that they did when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was in power.  Some of the ideas he underscores:

-       Using more open source intelligence to obtain a better understanding of the enemy

-       Better integrating intelligence with front line forces, and avoiding the “stovepiping” of different analyst groups

Silver Bullet? Asking the Right Questions About Conventional Prompt Global Strike
James M. Acton
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

While defense officials are concerned about nuclear tipped missiles (especially from Iran and North Korea), it’s the long-distance missiles loaded with conventional weapons that may open a Pandora’s box for planners, James Acton writes for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Conventional Prompt Global Strike is a system that would allow the military to use a long-distance missile to strike any target in the world nearly instantaneously. The Defense Department has been planning to implement a CPGS system for several decades, but budget concerns along with questions surrounding the system’s actual usability have held back progress. In theory, the system would be able to strike a target around the world within an hour.

Acton says that defense managers need to use a “scenario-based approach” to figure out if CPGS is necessary, ensure that the purchased weapons actually meet mission requirements, and compare the missiles to “non-prompt” alternatives like planes and ship-based missiles. He argues that Congress, which has been reluctant to throw money at the program, needs to know the conditions under which CPGS would be worth the billions of dollars of investment especially under current budget austerity.

Another problem is the possible blowback from Russia and China if the system is put in place. Though U.S. officials have emphasized that the system would be targeted at “rogue” states like Iran and North Korea, Russia and China have protested the system because of concerns that it would be used during a “deep crisis” to target their own military systems. The system could also accidently be mistaken for an ICBM launch, inadvertently escalating a conflict into something much worse.

Though the system would reduce the reliance on troops and other military systems in the event of a conflict, Acton says DoD has many hurdles to clear before it convinces policymakers of the need of this futuristic weapons system.