Just about anyone who follows American foreign policy understands the predictable early U.S. responses to a global crisis. The Navy is asked to dispatch vessels into nearby seas — thereby signaling American interests, power and resolve. Or so the thinking goes.

These deployments are certainly cheaper than direct involvement in a crisis and rarely lead to any kind of active (hostile) U.S. military operations.

Since 2001, however, the U.S. has developed a Global Strike Task Force (GSTF) that seems to offer a fundamentally new approach to handling crisis. USAF General John Jumper (then the commander, Headquarters Air Combat Command, Langley Air Force Base) wrote the following in Aerospace Power Journal in 2001:

GSTF is a rapid-reaction, leading-edge, power- projection concept that will deliver massive around-the-clock firepower. It will mass effects early, from longer ranges, and with more precision than our current capabilities and methods of employment; it will give adversaries pause to quit and virtually guarantee air dominance for our CINCs [Commanders in Chief].

GSTF is typically described as “transformational,” which echoes former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld’s attempts to “transform” the military. Incidentally, Rumfeld’s transformation included moving many military capabilities east, as he saw future hotspots in Asia rather than Europe. Robert Kaplan explains more in his July/August 2008 Atlantic article on “What Rumsfeld Got Right.”

What does GSTF mean in practice?

Here’s a hint: Kaplan says Rumsfeld’s transformation of the military “would help the United States react in expeditionary style to unforeseen emergencies.”

The US Joint Forces Command website somewhat colorfully describes the mission:

At the start of operations, GSTF will…“kick down the door” into denied battlespace.

GlobalSecurity.org has a somewhat longer description of GSTF operations — and goals:

The task force leads with F-22 stealth fighters to clear a path, taking out enemy aircraft and advanced anti-aircraft missile launchers. B-2 stealth bombers follow to destroy assets that threaten U.S. deployments: Scud missile launchers, chemical-weapon bunkers, air and shore defenses, for example. Sea- and air-launched cruise missiles help that effort….

The shock effect of this B-2/F-22 “one-two” punch will be unprecedented. In the first 24 hours of Desert Storm, after six months of buildup, the US launched 1,223 strike sorties, hitting 203 targets. Stealth assets accounted for 40 sorties and 61 targets. With GSTF, four B-2s and 48 F-22s carrying miniature munitions can strike 380 targets in only 52 sorties….

Precision strikes against an enemy’s crucial war-fighting assets in the opening days of a conflict “give him an excuse to quit.”

If the enemy doesn’t take that opportunity, kicking down the door opens the way for the rest of America’s warfighting team.

Back in the early 1980s, defense analysts, especially on the left, used to worry that American creation of a “Rapid Deployment Force” — ostensibly designed to deter Soviet intervention into the Persian Gulf — was dangerous because it would increase the likelihood that the US would use armed troops in crisis situations.

This was still the Vietnam hangover period after all. Historian Andrew Bacevich has said that RDF set “in motion the militarization of US policy that has continued ever since.” Even more traditional defense analysts often preferred a Naval-based force.

In any event, there’s surprisingly little criticism of the GSTF, despite the obvious implications. Oh sure, if one discusses a specific scenario — like Iran — then critics are quick to point out that “the United States is now a first-strike nation.”

Perhaps Rob Farley’s critique of the air force as an institution gets closest to the problem I’m describing:

Moreover, the presence of the Air Force in the high councils of war and peace tends to provide presidents with predictions of quick and easy military victories. Advocates of airpower have been making such cases since the run-up to World War II. Though these prophecies have been proven false time and again, they nevertheless remain attractive to civilian leaders who fear public disillusionment with casualties, and who wish to go to war while resisting the dangers of full military involvement. Airpower advocates offer military power on the cheap; the wars they lay out entail few casualties and many spectacular successes.

Bluntly, America’s global strike air capability might be used prematurely in virtually any crisis scenario. Rumsfeld’s transformation has essentially made striking first part of US military doctrine.

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