U.S. at Inflection Point?

U.S. strategists sometimes talk about an inflection point for the military in Asia. But what do they mean?

George Orwell had a dark worldview on his sunniest days. He opened his essay on “Politics and the English Language” with a characteristically downcast analysis of the relationship between sloppy use of language and the decay of Western civilization. Jargon and casual metaphors were two of his favorite targets. Slipshod use of English, says Orwell, begets foolish thoughts. Foolish thoughts beget even more slipshod use of the language. Around and around the cycle goes – unless everyone insists on clear thinking and discourse, arresting the downward spiral.

Orwell had nothing on the Pentagon, where acronyms and jargon are the coin of the realm. What, for example, does it mean to say that America’s strategic posture has reached an “inflection point”? Beats me, but influential people keep saying it. Speaking last November in London, U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey likened today’s circumstances to the “strategic inflection point” supposedly confronted by Allied leaders at the Tehran Conference of November 1943. When asked to define his terms, Gen. Dempsey answered that the situation “feels to me like it’s a strategic inflection point and that the structures and…our effort to kind of shape the world is changing. And I don’t know what it means yet, but…I want to generate that conversation.”

And so he has. The Defense Strategic Guidance issued by the Obama administration in early January added some details to Dempsey’s conversation. The document declares that “we face an inflection point” after waging war in Afghanistan for over a decade. Reforming a stagnant economy and turning to meet new challenges warrants introspection, and a shift of strategy and forces to meet these challenges. “Out of the assessment we developed a defense strategy that transitions our Defense enterprise from an emphasis on today’s wars to preparing for future challenges, protects the broad range of U.S. national security interests, advances the department’s efforts to rebalance and reform, and supports the national security imperative of deficit reduction through a lower level of defense spending.”

Dempsey confirmed the “grand-strategic” character of an inflection point shortly afterward. Grand strategy is about alloying all elements of national power into one political implement. Diplomacy, economics, and communicating ideas and information all play their part alongside military forces. The chairman told Bob Schieffer of CBS News’ Face the Nation that “We’re at a strategic inflection point, where we find a different geopolitical challenge, different economic challenges, shifting of economic and military power. And what we’re trying to do is to challenge ourselves to respond to that shift and to react to that strategic inflection point and adapt ourselves.” So, it appears, an inflection point involves adapting to shifting realities.

The U.S. Navy got into the act last month when it convened a Joint War fighting Conference & Exposition in Virginia Beach to explore the “Joint Forces’ Inflection Point.” The website recounting one day’s events maintains that “war fighting is soon to hit or has hit an inflection point.” Two things are evident from reading the commentary on the United States’ supposed inflection point. One, speakers deploy the metaphor rather cavalierly, never quite defining what they mean by it apart from change of some sort. Orwell would grimace. And two, it’s a misnomer to talk about an – singular inflection point. There are many judging from the words of those who invoke this mathematical term. Here are the main strands of inflection-point-speak that I’ve detected, in no particular order:

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

1) Things Are Going to Change, Get Ready. A summary from the Virginia Beach conference observed that “… it is agreed that strategies and tactics will have to change” amid shifting priorities the “pivot” to Asia among them and fiscal stress. “But what about the tools and equipment the military will use? And with budget cuts, how can the equipment currently in place be used to meet the demands of this new type of war fighting?” The subtitle of the conference was “What to Hold and What to Fold?” Mixed metaphors aside (poker and differential calculus), it appears the U.S. military must drop some of its cards capabilities, hardware, missions on the table while presumably holding its best ones.

2) Things Have Changed, Get Used to It. Speaking at the Joint War fighting Conference & Exposition, retired Lt. Gen. John R. Wood, a former deputy commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, suggested that the challenge before the Pentagon is “knowing what to hold and what to fold” now that change has taken place. General Wood put things in historical perspective. “It really does seem that we’re at another inflection point but it’s not unusual that we are…Summer is ahead and the budget season is playing out, no different than we’ve seen in the past and other times in history in which we’ve approached an inflection point at the conclusion or beginning of war.” Budgetary infighting is nothing new after prolonged warfare. The services adjust.

4) We’re Entering New Domains.Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn, the deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for combat development and integration and commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, declared that “Another thing that is going to change as an inflection point is [that] cyber is a new domain and offers both symmetric and asymmetrical advantages and also vulnerabilities.” The military, then, must widen its field of view to encompass new arenas of competition, the way it did with the advent of air power a century ago and nuclear weapons seventy-odd years ago.

5) We’re Going from One Place on the Map to Another.Retired Marine Gen. James E. “Hoss” Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that some changes have “less to do with a budgetary standpoint and more to do with a geographical one…We are pivoting to the Pacific a really poor choice of words, unfortunately, because the rest of the world interprets you’re turning your back on them.” While “That’s not our intent,” declared Cartwright, “that’s what been interpreted from the word ‘pivot.’” Geographic realignment not only imposes new strategic and operational demands but carries unintended diplomatic consequences.

Now, I was raised by mathematicians, worked with boilers, motors, and other machinery, and in a (thankfully fleeting) moment of insanity considered making mathematics my life’s work. So, metaphors describing politics and strategy in numerical terms intrigue me. They also worry me. Theorist Carl von Clausewitz reproached scholars who “reduce everything to a few mathematical formulas of equilibrium and superiority, of time and space limited by a few angles and lines.” Human affairs a realm where “living forces” animated by clashing interests, danger, and dark passions contend can’t be reduced to material factors alone. Clausewitz must’ve glimpsed the future of academic political science when he warned against judging human interactions by what scholars can easily quantify. Quantitative disciplines must be used with care lest they mislead more than enlighten.

Here endeth the sermon. An inflection point is a simple thing in visual terms. It’s the point at which a curve changes from concave up to concave down or vice versa. Think about a sine wave, the simplest way to picture this. If the curve is ascending, it may keep ascending even as it starts bending toward the peak, and then downward. Similarly, if the curve is descending, it starts bending upward even before it bottoms out. Or, imagine you’re driving along a hilly country road. About halfway up the hill, its slope starts leveling out. Then you reach the hilltop and start descending. About halfway down, the downslope maxes out and starts leveling out. Then you reach the trough. The halfway points are the inflection points. Waveforms follow the same pattern. So do many natural phenomena. Inflection points are commonplace in physics, chemistry, and engineering. They’re just not always as visually intelligible as North Atlantic waves or Tennessee roads.

Probably the easiest way to relate inflection points to politics and strategy is by comparing human interactions to physical motion. You can graph a curve, with the value of the vertical, or y, axis as a function of each point on the horizontal, or x, axis. In physics terms, the “first derivative” of the equation yields the velocity of an object moving along the curve at that point. Taking the “second derivative” reveals the acceleration the rate at which the object’s speed is changing at that point. At the inflection point the acceleration is zero for an instant. It flips from negative to positive if the object accelerates, from positive to negative if it decelerates. It’s like reversing the engines in an aircraft carrier. Momentum carries the ship ahead, but more and more slowly as reverse thrust takes hold. Ultimately the vessel stops, then backs down.

Let’s apply this template to history, beginning with Dempsey’s example: the November 1943 Tehran Conference, where Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin met to confer about combined strategy. With apologies to Dempsey, the belligerents had passed any number of inflection points by that stage in World War II. Japan’s offensive momentum had long since stalled out in the Pacific. Indeed, Tokyo probably reached the inflection point between offense and defense in early 1942, when the Imperial Japanese Navy had accomplished its prewar aims and was casting about for things to do. It sought to lure the US Pacific Fleet out for battle, and was mauled at the Battle of Midway (whose 70th anniversary we commemorate this week). It started trying to firm up its maritime defense perimeter along Asia’s second island chain but was evicted from Guadalcanal by the US Marines and Army. In short, the Japanese military started playing defense after its interlude of strategic drift in the spring of 1942 its strategic inflection point even though it remained on the offense for much of the remainder of the year. Ultimately, the tide of war reversed.

Similarly, Germany’s offensive momentum in the East petered out long before the Tehran Conference. Soviet armies retook German-occupied Stalingrad in February 1943, following a prolonged siege and bloodletting. From then on, German forces merely sought to hold what Soviet ground they could. Meanwhile, Marshal Zhukov and the Soviet armies had passed an inflection point of their own, holding the line while gathering momentum for the titanic counteroffensive that would ultimately drive the German invaders from Soviet soil and penetrate deep into Central Europe.

Or, we can broaden our view beyond the battlefield. American industry had geared up fully and was turning out engines of war in vast quantities by the time the Tehran Conference convened. In fact, you might date the inflection point in U.S. industrial mobilization to 1940, before U.S. entry into the war. That’s when Congress ordered keels laid for the nation’s first two-ocean navy. Alliance politics reached an inflection point as the United States started contributing the bulk of the Grand Alliance’s war making materiel. Generally speaking, the ally that contributes the most men and materiel gets the dominant say in decision-making circles. Whereas Roosevelt deferred to Churchill throughout 1942, influence increasingly gravitated from London to Washington and Churchill started deferring to FDR.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

And so forth. The inflection-point analogy remains worthwhile for several reasons, provided it’s deployed with some precision and care. First, strategists are apt to be forward-looking if they think in these terms. After all, an inflection point precedes real-world events. It’s a leading indicator of change, not change itself. It’s the point where the rate of change in something switches from positive to negative or the reverse. It’s not the peaks or valleys in that thing’s trajectory. The example of Imperial Japan, which appeared unstoppable at its inflection point, is worth remembering. Second, it’s a fallacy to say an enterprise as variegated as the U.S. defense community stands at “an” inflection point. There are many such points, varying by geographic theater, warfare domain, organization, and so forth. Thinking in mathematical terms yields a more granular perspective on complex events. And third, strategists can use inflection points as a device for assessing interaction. Competitors, allies, and bystanders have inflection points of their own and their actions or inaction can influence the trajectory of one’s own endeavors.

Does the much-ballyhooed pivot to Asia mark an inflection point for the United States? If so, it’s a pretty nondescript one. From an intellectual standpoint, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard inaugurated a strategic pivot from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean five years and a change of presidential administration ago. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed the shift last fall. What about Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s announcement at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore this past Saturday that the U.S. Navy will reapportion the fleet between the Pacific and Atlantic fleets, stationing 60 percent of its assets in Pacific and Indian Ocean waters rather than dividing everything up evenly? Well, the submarine force is already redeploying to the Pacific in keeping with the 60-40 thumb rule, and it has been doing so for about six years now. Nor will Panetta’s redeployment be complete until 2020. If this is a strategic inflection point, it lies along a curve with a very gentle slope signaling a very gradual pace of change. Panetta’s remarks were a welcome statement of U.S. resolve, but not much more than that. And that may be fine. There’s something to be said for slow, resolute adjustments to the Asian equilibrium.

We can never reduce human competition to numbers, formulas, or graphs nor should we try but as it turns out, that old calculus or physics textbook isn’t a bad optic for surveying the world around us. Orwell was a wordsmith, not a number-cruncher. Still, I think he would approve.

James Holmes is an associate professor at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.