What history tells us we’ll need tomorrow
Here we go again. As active participation in Iraq and Afghanistan fizzle out, the defense intellectual community casts about looking for the next enemy. Picking tomorrow’s enemy is big business, with thousands of jobs and billions of dollars held captive to the musings of Beltway gurus who seek to convince those who write the checks that their choice of our next enemy is the right one.
So far, at least, the gurus have left behind a sad record of failure. From 9/11 to the appearance of the Sunni insurgency in 2003 in Iraq to the more recent return of the Taliban, our second-guessing about the nature and character of the enemy has left a sorrowful trail of missed guesses and informational black holes. In fairness to current political leaders, our record of forecasting threats has a long and uninterrupted pedigree. Korea caught Truman completely by surprise. Kennedy and Johnson would never have gone to war in Vietnam had they suspected the price would be 60,000 dead. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 followed an intelligence meltdown of the first order.
The current debate inside the Beltway over whom we will fight next would be merely interesting if so much weren’t at stake. Failure to predict the time, place, cost, duration, intensity and nature of the threat has cost the lives of tens of thousands. Poor threat prediction has too often led to the purchase of weapons and deployment of forces ill-suited to the exigencies of future battlefields.
Threat prediction fails in part because the process is done today using methodologies inherited from the Cold War and hard-wired into a bureaucratic process that virtually guarantees failure at every turn. These methodologies generally divide themselves into several analytical approaches. The culture that spawned each shapes the nature of the inquiry. The sum of the processes practiced by each exerts a subtle influence that inevitably identifies future threats that tend to be more like the enemies we want to fight, rather than the enemies we have fought since the end of World War II.
One approach forecasts future war through the lens of global trends and seeks to launder politically and socially popular global concerns into future military threats. The most fashionable include diminishing global water supplies, urbanization, the AIDS/HIV epidemic, global warming and the general misery suffered by unfortunates in repressed regions of the globe.
A glance at wars fought by the U.S. strongly suggests the vacuity of this approach. Other than our short-lived and disastrous effort in Somalia, human misery and global disasters have not been followed by shooting wars involving American combat forces. The bad taste left by the Somali expedition pretty much rules out any similar adventure in killing and being killed for humanitarian reasons.
At present, the most influential future-gazing scheme involves the creation of “alternative futures” or “scenarios.” The approach is as simple as it is deceiving: Pick one of the usual suspects with serious military capabilities who sit athwart a piece of ground of strategic relevance to the U.S., then encourage the stimulation of excuses for going to war with him. Since the end of the Cold War, the list of usual suspects has been monotonously consistent: China, Iran and North Korea, with Russia as the nostalgic favorite. Again, the problem with the scenario approach has been that, try as they might — and they really try, particularly at budget time — the alternative-futures gurus haven’t been able to elevate the overt intentions of these actors to a level approaching imminent danger.
Techno warriors inside the Beltway constantly scan the threat horizon, anxiously scanning for enemies who may be harnessing the diabolical genius of weapons makers. To be sure, we must guard against being surprised by leap-ahead technologies, particularly in the field of nuclear weapons. But too often, this kind of technological fear-mongering has led to a Chicken Little effect that has proven both illusionary and very expensive.
Fear-mongering comes from cultural arrogance that assumes our enemies put the same trust in the technologies of war that we do. Battlefield experience strongly suggests that we have been surprised and bested on the battlefield not by super weapons but by enemies who have employed simple technologies creatively. Our combat deaths have been suffered mostly from mortars, mines and machine guns in Korea and Vietnam, and by many of these same weapons adapted to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The most insidious, and certainly the most irritating, contemporary thinking about the future course of warfare comes from gurus who mistake problems for strategies. About every five years or so, some defense luminary turns a bright idea into the military equivalent of a cult movement. They began before the Iraq War with Harlan Ullman’s shock and awe and Adm. Art Cebrowski’s net-centric warfare. Then came lifting the fog of war, effects-based operations, cyberwarfare and today’s topper, AirSea Battle. All share the same provenance: They define legitimate war-fighting problems as new strategies (and in some extreme cases, a new theory of war) and profess that their approach will reduce the cost of war in blood. So far, at least, our enemies have put paid to most of them, but the Holy Grail of bloodless warfare continues to attract a following from those who know marketing but not war.
When all else fails, the military services in particular have a bad habit of resorting to the most regressive method for anticipating the future: capabilities-based assessments. This approach seeks to perpetuate the status quo by arguing that flexibility is the safest means for dealing with the ambiguity of today’s conflict environment; security comes from creating a huge military toolbox from which weapons and forces can be retrieved and tailored to meet unforeseen threats.
A new approach: fight the last war
Too often, generals are accused of trying to “fight the next war like the last.” I suggest that, in fact, much of our failure to properly anticipate the future rests on the fact that generals fail to look at history and the past behaviors of our enemies. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. military has gotten it wrong by ignoring “last wars.” President Eisenhower’s New Look sought to replace conventional with strategic forces, and the nation went to war in Vietnam woefully underresourced for a manpower-intensive counterinsurgency campaign. We paid a similar price in 2003, when the American command delayed too long in applying the lessons of Vietnam to the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, in today’s Beltway culture, history and behavior are neither studied nor understood adequately. Thus, touting the past as a reliable road map for the future is a tough sell, to be sure.
Let me make the case with a bit of reflection on our past few wars. I propose the premise, in company with other military historians — in particular, William Lind (fourth-generation warfare) and Frank Hoffman (hybrid wars) — that wars follow long periods of epochal continuity interrupted infrequently by seismic shifts induced by radical changes in technology, geopolitics and materiel wealth. Along with others, I contend that the last epochal shift occurred at the end of World War II, when a 300-year run of global “total” European wars ended. Of course, not all major wars of this period were fought by European militaries, but the shadow of European military skill, technology and global reach affected most. Virtually all historically significant wars fought between the Treaty of Westphalia and the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay were shaped by the colonial and state-on-state actions of Western European antagonists.
The epochal shift from a European to an “American Era” has been defined by two seismic events in the global climate of conflict: the American development of and willingness to use nuclear weapons, and the dominance of American war-fighting doctrine and materiel among the world’s fighting forces.
American nuclear dominance has led to two generations of “limited” conflicts fought for limited strategic ends, often in the most distant and inhospitable corners of the globe. Often these wars have involved another Western military (Israel, Britain and France) pitted against a non-Western military often acting as a surrogate for a competing nuclear-armed adversary.
The power of an historical approach comes from the realization that regardless of region, actor, motive, geopolitical circumstances, intensity or type of conflict, our enemies have consistently and reliably repeated behaviors that they believe offer the greatest chance of success against us in battle. Patterns of behavior wind their way through all of our contemporary wars and are repeated at all levels of war from strategic to tactical.
At the strategic level, wars in the American Era generally have started through mutual miscalculation. The enemy, usually a regional potentate with limited hegemonic ambitions, has sought to achieve his aggressive intent while dissuading the Western power from interfering. When the Western power fails to deter aggression, the gods of war close the door on peaceful alternatives.
From Lin Biao to Ho Chi Minh to Osama bin Laden, our enemy’s leaders have embraced a consistent operational and tactical pattern of behavior. Their intent has not been to win in battle so much as to avoid losing. They have sought to stretch out the war and to kill Americans, not as means to an end, but as an end in itself. They are able to match American firepower with iron will, familiarity with terrain and culture, and the selection of a battlefield in very far and inhospitable places.
None has succeeded in challenging the U.S. to a conventional fight. All of these regional hegemonic leaders clearly telegraphed their intent in unambiguous language and actions. They also have established a remarkably unambiguous pattern of response based on common sense, a keen sense of American military capabilities and will to persevere. This collection of bad actors has demonstrated a remarkably refined ability to learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of their malevolent fellow travelers.
In a curious twist of conventional wisdom, enemies in the American Era have been remarkably open and forthright about their aggressive intent. Kim Il Sung and Mao Zedong stated their objective as the reunification of Korea, and the North Koreans have held to this intent for 60 years. Ho Chi Minh never strayed from his dream of reunifying Vietnam under his rule. Saddam and bin Laden never wavered from their aggressive intent, while a succession of American leaders has shifted strategic objectives based on momentary perceptions of popular support. If the enemy’s publicly declared behavior is consistent, then we should factor his declarations as truthful, sincere and consequently worthy of our attention. And we should add the enemy’s confidence, fidelity and winning style into our calculation of future challenges.
We know from many years of observed behavior that aggression in the American Era is suitable and preferred by an assortment of healthy conventional states, rogue states and transnational entities. It works for enemies at many places along the spectrum of warfare, from pre-insurgency in places like the Philippines to full blown insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan to something approaching conventional war in Lebanon.
The recasting of warfare in the American Era is manifested in many ways. Militaries are undergoing “demechanization” in all dimensions of war: air, land and sea. By some accounts, the armies of the world have shed tens of thousands of fighting vehicles since the end of the Cold War. To be sure, much of this diminution is due to the collapse of the Soviet Army. But a similar reduction has occurred in other militaries as well.
European armies now exercise and project companies and battalions of mounted forces rather than brigades and divisions. The recent examples of wars fought in Georgia and Libya suggest that only the U.S. can project power to all corners of the globe in all three dimensions. Other militaries simply do not have the machines to match us.
In spite of fear-mongering by the techno warriors cited above, potential adversaries have pursued a similar course. They begin by “spotting” us control of the air and sea. On the ground, they generally follow a strategy of repurposing older materiel to remain relevant on tomorrow’s battlefields. They have replaced large and sophisticated air and ground systems with an assortment of substitutes to be carried by infantry, such as shoulder-fired and tripod-mounted anti-air and anti-tank missiles. Newer weapons of our enemies are also derivative in nature, from cellphones to replicate networks to off-the-shelf drones for aerial reconnaissance.
The downside of global demechanization has been a marked increase in the number and quality of close-combat forces worldwide. For friend and foe alike, small units are more useful in today’s multidimensional conflict environment that stretches from low-key insurgencies to high-end conventional warfare usually between a Western-style military and an unconventional opponent. Technology has also played a part in the rising value of close-combat forces. For two millennia, dominance on the battlefield has shifted between mounted shock forces and infantry. Just as shoulder weapons ended the dominance of the mounted knight, so too have long-range precision missiles practically ended large-scale armored shock formations of tanks supported by infantry fighting vehicles.
Mounted forces are still vital to American dominance on the battlefield. But future fighting vehicles will be optimized for carrying infantry. Before the American Era, infantry prepared the way for mechanized shock effect. Today, armored vehicles are optimized to deliver infantry to the close fight. For better or worse, the American Era is contained within a larger renaissance of dismounted close combat forces, which run the gamut from the Taliban to Hezbollah to mechanized and air mobile small units of first-rate Western militaries.
Instead of betting the future on the failed approaches described above, consider the value of a new approach that exploits contemporary history and behavior as the principal components of a way to modernize our military. Begin with what the enemy already knows. He seeks the advantage where in the past he has hurt us most. In wars in the American Era, four out of five deaths at the hands of this enemy have been close-combat forces, infantry, both Army and Marine. If our vulnerable center of gravity in the American Era is dead Americans, then it would make good strategic sense to make more and better use of those most needed and most likely to die.
Consider a scheme that builds our future force from the ground up. At present, we have about 7,500 small close-combat units — squads, combat crews and teams — in the Army, Marine Corps and the special operations communities. This number has proved insufficient in the past; but for argument’s sake, let’s stipulate that such a number barely meets the challenges of a substantial war against a savvy, adaptive enemy. Now let’s come down on the extreme conservative side (and meet the fiscal intent of the secretary of defense) by reducing the number to an even 7,000 mounted and dismounted small, close-combat units.
Making the 7,000 dominant on tomorrow’s battlefield begins by focusing on the human dimension: investing the time necessary to select, train, bond and develop leaders for small units. The second priority would be to make the 7,000 absolutely overwhelming at all levels of the conflict spectrum, from nation-building and counterinsurgency to high-end conventional warfare. A superbly trained “hybrid” force such as this would effectively remove the quality barrier that exists between special and conventional small units. Every one of the 7,000 would have to be “special” in order for quality to offset the enemy’s likely superiority in numbers. They would become extraordinarily proficient in all aspects of ground combat, from training indigenous armies to acting as the training cadre for a ground force that might have to expand geometrically in the unlikely event of a large-scale war.
Next let’s amplify the fighting advantage of the 7,000 with technology that promises to ensure dominance at the small-unit level in all dimensions of war. In the American Era, Western militaries fight short wars well and long wars poorly. So as a first order of priority, the 7,000 should be able to arrive early in distant, inhospitable, contested areas in order to take away the enemy’s ability to prolong the killing. Small units should possess the ability to dominate in geographical areas more familiar to the enemy. Key to such dominance is the ability of the small unit to sense the enemy all around, from tactical (to avoid ambushes) to operational and strategic (to defeat any enemy who seeks to mass).
Not once in the American Era has any enemy ever sought to wrest American dominance of the air, sea or space. There is absolutely no credible evidence that any enemy today is capable of or can afford to deviate from past behaviors. Nor should they. All of our enemies have achieved success on the battlefield by adapting their tactics to minimize the effect of American air and sea power. Building a future force from the bottom up will demand that the fighting strength of the 7,000 be amplified by support from air and sea power directly to include strategic lift, close-in fire support from ships and aircraft, and the dedication of unmanned aerial platforms directly to small unit commanders in harm’s way.
How the 7,000 are apportioned between services and how they are aggregated in larger formations and supported by “enablers” are issues for a longer article. Suffice it to say that a commitment by the nation to build and nurture the 7,000 must become a moral endeavor of the first order. To have any lesser goal would be to risk another in a long list of tactical failures suffered in the formative stages of wars fought in the American Era.
Of course, the risk inherent in building a new military around the 7,000 is that seismic activity has returned unexpectedly and another epochal shift away from the American Era is underway. Gurus of the approaches above would certainly entertain such a thought. I disagree. Peer competitors of all stripes continue to develop new weapons, to be sure. But I see no evidence of intent to use these weapons to challenge us directly. Until proven otherwise, it would be wise to steer a course defined and proven by contemporary history.
History and behavior do count; the lessons of wars in the American Era prove convincingly that cycles of change in warfare turn very slowly and that we are best served by a predictive system that in fact does seek, with cautious modification, to fight the next war like the last.
MAJ. GEN. ROBERT H. SCALES (RET.) is president of Colgen, a consulting firm. He served more than 30 years in the Army, commanding two units in Vietnam.