By Nicolò Donà dalle Rose
For the first time since 2012, the United States defense budget will increase considerably in both magnitude and scope. Obama’s February 2 Defense Department budget request paints an interesting picture when considering the country’s upcoming foreign policy priorities. Much of the surge in research and development funding will be designated to technologies that are clearly directed towards naval and aerial measures to contain geopolitical foes in East Asia. An electronic and laser weapon systems is chief among these technologies, which will likely be integrated into carrier-group platforms. Most importantly, however, the budget gives us some important signals about Obama’s intended security legacy, especially with regards to the Middle East.
The first element within the new strategic plan focuses heavily on research. In fact, Obama requested to boost overall R&D spending by as much as $500 million to $13.5 billion. As part of this, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) budgetary power will be increased to $3 billion in an attempt to work on developing fields such as synthetic biology. Some of these investments have no clear short-term application, but they give me the sense that the United States is looking for new technological domains on top of conventional platforms and capabilities.
The second, sizable component of the budget entails the purchase of 29 additional Reaper drones, a source of guaranteed business for General Atomics. The use of drones for imagery and strikes has been a centerpiece of the past two presidencies’ policies, particularly in Iraq. Yet not all drone programs were as successful as claimed by the White House. For example, the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system was postponed due to technical difficulties, decreasing its budget from $400 million to $134 million after incurring considerable wastes of funding.
The third and final key element is the strong emphasis the military is placing on the development of space technologies, an industry now gravitating more towards the private sector. The best example of this is one of the latest requests for information (RFI) by the government, which states the Pentagon is looking for ideas related to advanced propulsion, 3D printing, radar affordability and electronic warfare, transparent ceramics, and pervasive technologies. This means the military establishment is beginning to recognize the importance of space-related technologies, a slow and long overdue shift. In fact, the Navy’s Rapid Technology Transition (RTT) program, which seeks to incorporate non-defense technologies into R&D, is probably going to be granted an additional $10 million in the next fiscal year.
R&D, drones, and space. What does this mean for the Middle East?
Let’s start with the short term. The acquisition of additional UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) shows that the Pentagon is turning to the MQ-9 Reaper as its preferred measure to deal with security threats in the region without utilizing land forces. This is increasingly important considering the most recent temporary suspension of Da’ash-targeted airstrikes by the United Arab Emirates. While the country later resumed its participation, US action represents 90% of all efforts in the current campaign. If the United States will be required to conduct operations of this sort on its own, it will try to do it with its gloves on, using more and more drones to do the job.
Beyond the moral and legal question marks revolving around the use of UAVs, this trajectory is extremely dangerous for the region. The use of unmanned aircrafts clearly reduces the political cost of intervening in the Middle East. At the same time, it does very little to prevent the creation of new security vacuums as aerial military action alone does not build institutions, trust, and foreign relations. In an attempt to maintain, unsuccessfully, a non-interventionist approach to the region, Obama has continued to doom its security framework just like his predecessor. While defeating or containing Da’ash aids Iraqi institutions, mere armed action fails to facilitate the establishment of a political environment that can aid Iraqis as they would try, for the first time, to determine their own future with limited foreign intrusion.
As we look at the longer term, Obama’s strong return to investment in space and other adjacent technologies may be beneficial to the United States as it seeks new avenues for disengagement from the region. As the United States gradually turns its eyes East, the ability to acquire intelligence, imagery, and the ability to strike remotely in any part of the region will enable the reallocation of other resources, like carrier groups, aerial platforms, and manpower, to other parts of the world. While this may suit the country’s strategy as it decreases its dependence on Middle East-based resources and energy, the timing of the technological transition will prove decisive for the fate of many Arab and South Asian countries, particularly Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states.
As the United States re-evaluates its security strategy and priorities, the political stakes are higher in the region than anywhere else. While moving away from military occupation will certainly benefit countries like Iraq and Afghanistan in the long term, the very nature of disengagement will determine the fates of these countries. The United States cannot simply become an actor that occasionally identifies and destroys some terrorist cell and leaves. Policymakers need to pay more attention to diplomacy and foreign relations before the United States can leave a now more chaotic region than when it last entered in 2001.