You all know the old adage that Generals are always preparing to fight the last war. Like most adages, it’s largely true.
As a side note, possibly the best exception to the rule is the military’s preparation to fight Desert Storm. We had pretty much the right equipment, tactics, and mindset for that conflict before the conflict started. We were prepared. Of course, one could make a legitimate argument that the preparations for Desert Storm were the result of having prepared for the old
Union conflict rather than
correctly anticipating the future Desert Storm and that the resulting match
between forces and warfare needs was more fortuitous than predicted. Moving on …
If the adage is generally correct, what is today’s military and Navy preparing to fight – the last “war” of neverending low end conflict or the next war, whatever that might be?
Let’s start with the easier question – what are we preparing for. Our preparations are fairly clear and straightforward. We’re downsizing our explosive power and armor in favor of lightness, mobility, and information (networks and data/sensor sharing). The Marines are shedding tanks and artillery, ignoring amphibious assault, and focusing on expeditionary aviation and aviation based light infantry operations. That’s clearly a terrorist, low end, third world focus which is exactly the “war” we’ve been fighting for the last two decades.
On the Navy side, we’re focused on increasing the numbers of low end, light vessels like the LCS, JHSV, and LPD-17 while shedding Aegis cruisers, frigates, and large amphibious ships. Air wings are shrinking, the fleet is steadily shrinking, and explosive combat power is vanishing. The Navy is clearly moving from a combat force to a presence force which is what we’ve been doing for the last two decades.
On a more general level, we’re increasing the number of women in combat, increasing our diversity efforts, focusing on sexual assault prevention, changing titles to eliminate “man” from them, requiring sensitivity training, and debating women’s uniforms. Honestly, I’m not sure what war this is preparing us for!
So, our actions make it clear that we’re preparing to fight the last war, meaning a continued focus on low end, anti-terrorist, anti-insurgency, peacekeeping, and democracy building with a dash of social engineering thrown in. We are living proof of the “preparing to fight the last war” adage.
Recognizing the trap we’ve fallen into, what war should we be preparing to fight? Well, that’s the challenge, isn’t it? It’s easy to see the last war but it’s harder to predict the next war, right? Wrong! It’s easy to see the next war(s) coming. All we have to do is ask ourselves,
- Who’s mad at us?
- Of those that are mad at us, who has, or is building, a credible military force?
- Of those that are mad at us and have a credible military force, who has a demonstrated set of actions and goals that conflict with our interests?
The countries remaining at the end of that simple set of questions will be the ones that constitute the next-war possibilities.
Who’s mad at us? Perhaps an easier question is to ask who isn’t? The list of countries and entities that are mad at us is long. Aside from the obvious answers of Iran, NKorea, Russia, and China, we have to add several Central and South American countries, several African countries, every Middle East country to varying degrees, Pakistan, India (from time to time), Philippines, Japan (wherever our military comes in contact with their civilians), every terrorist organization (by definition!), the entire Islamic faith, and others.
Well that didn’t narrow things down much!
Of those countries and entities that are mad at us, which ones have, or are building, a credible military force? This is where the list begins to narrow rapidly. Only
, Iran , NKorea, Russia , Japan , and China have credible forces. India
Finally, of those countries who are mad at us and have credible military forces, which ones have demonstrated actions and goals that conflict with our interests? That leaves
, Iran , and NKorea, Russia . This is our
set of potential next-war possibilities. China
NKorea has a credible, though low end, military and possesses nuclear weapons though without a reliable delivery system. NKorea’s actions are generally contained and limited although that assessment has to be tempered by the realization that their leader is mentally unstable. As with
, war is relatively unlikely although smaller scale
confrontations will continue. Iran
We see, then, that there are two likely war scenarios. War with
inevitable and war with China is possible.
These, then are the future wars we should be preparing for. Other wars, such as with Russia , South American or African countries, are
subsets. If we’re prepared to handle war
with NKorea, Iran and Russia then we can handle war with other, lesser
There, now that wasn’t so hard, was it? We can see who we’ll have to fight. The next question is how we’ll have to fight. Will we have to invade mainland
? Will we have
to drive China back to previous boundaries? Will we have to assault a seized Russia ? These are
geopolitical strategic questions that must be answered in order for the
military to come up with comprehensive operational plans. Still, there are certain absolutes that
transcend specific strategies. Taiwan
For any kind of conflict with
we will need very long range aircraft and lots of
them. We will need a Navy that can
support long range Air Force strikes and conduct their own strikes while
suppressing China ’s Navy and Air Force. A war with
China will be one fought over vast distances from the air
and sea. Ground combat will be quite
limited. Long range, high explosive
missiles will be the predominant weapon. China
A war with
will be a ground and air war with limited direct naval
involvement. Such a war will be up close
and incredibly violent – European WWII combat on steroids. Heavy armor and artillery will rule the
battlefield. Operational strategy will
be subservient to attrition. Last man
standing will decide the victor. Russia
In both cases, electronic warfare will play a major role.
With all of the above in mind, and knowing, clearly, what the future war will be, why are we still preparing to fight the last war? It’s clear that the future war requires a vastly different preparation path than we are currently on. We need heavy tanks, more and heavier artillery, supersonic high explosive missiles (cruise and ballistic), long range air superiority fighters, high end naval forces, etc. Instead, we’re building LCSs, JHSVs, Joint Light Tactical Vehicles, short range, small payload F-35s, and short range, subsonic anti-ship missiles.
There’s no excuse. We know what war we should be preparing for. Let’s start doing it.
I would be remiss to close out this discussion without briefly touching on the Third Offset Strategy. Let’s be perfectly fair. Very recently the military has taken the first steps towards planning for the next war. Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work has imposed his personal vision of future warfare which he calls the Third Offset Strategy. The cornerstone of this vision is networked sensors and weapons and a heavy focus on unmanned vehicles. The premise is that superior information will compensate for the lack of numbers and explosiveness that we’ve created for ourselves.
I give the military leadership some tiny bit of credit for beginning to plan ahead. Unfortunately, the chosen path of the Third Offset Strategy completely misses the mark as to what wars we will fight and what we will need to fight them. Work’s personal vision for the next war is as flawed as his championing of the LCS. Continued pursuit of the Third Offset Strategy is going leave us woefully unprepared for the next war.