Friday, June 10, 2016

The Next War

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 Soviet 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,

  1. Who’s mad at us?
  2. Of those that are mad at us, who has, or is building, a credible military force?
  3. 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, China, and India have credible forces.

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, NKorea, Russia, and China.  This is our set of potential next-war possibilities.

Iran barely qualifies as having a credible military threat.  Further, they seem content with tweaking America when they can and funding terrorism.  They are probably the least likely to initiate an actual war.  Of course, when they obtain nuclear weapons this assessment will change given the fanatical and zealot nature of their leaders.  The most likely future with regards to Iran is an endless series of small scale confrontations though we could be dragged into a war on behalf of Israel.

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 Iran, war is relatively unlikely although smaller scale confrontations will continue.

China has a peer level military that is on track to surpass us in the relatively near future.  Disturbingly, their near term goals of seizing the entire South and East China Seas and every disputed territory, combined with their longer term goals of recapturing Taiwan and their poorly concealed interest in the second island chain and, eventually the entire Pacific, put them on a collision course with the US.  Add to that their demonstrated willingness to physically confront the US and eventual war seems inevitable.

Russia has a near-peer military but is a bit of an unknown in that their long term goals are yet unclear.  Unfortunately, it looks as though Russia will not be content with the few territories already seized.  Russia appears to be preparing to seize the Black Sea and Baltic Sea, operating bases in Syria to support further Middle East expansion, and is solidifying their hold on the far eastern territories and the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea.  The unanswered question is whether Russia will continue to seize territories and expand west and south into Europe.  At the moment this appears somewhere between possible and likely.  Further, like China, Russia has clearly demonstrated a willingness, almost enthusiasm, to engage in confrontation with the US.  They clearly are not deterred by US military, political, or economic power.  While eventual war with Russia seems less inevitable than is the case with China, war is certainly possible.

We see, then, that there are two likely war scenarios.  War with China is almost  inevitable and war with Russia is possible.  These, then are the future wars we should be preparing for.  Other wars, such as with NKorea, Iran, South American or African countries, are subsets.  If we’re prepared to handle war with Russia and China then we can handle war with other, lesser militaries.

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 China?  Will we have to drive Russia back to previous boundaries?  Will we have to assault a seized Taiwan?  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.

For any kind of conflict with China 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.

A war with Russia 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. 

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.

I’ve laid out the future for the military.  Now, they need to take heed and begin preparing for it.


  1. "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. "

    Sort of
    Information networking, mobility, and precision over volume fires were very much geared towards the high end near peer armour clash.

    The belief was that massed soviet armour formations could be destroyed at a distance by smarter, lighter, informed NATO formations.
    It all came crashing down in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the resistance refused to politely line up in a field and get obliterated by artilery, well, if we exclude the opening days when, in Afghanistan especially, entire dug in divisions were slaughtered by gunships.

    One of the reasons MRAPS were resisted for so long was they didnt fit in to the "lightning wars" planned by the top brass.

    Thats not to judge the thinking as sensible, expecting the Ivans to line up and be slaughtered seems even less sensible than expecting Iraqis to do it, but light originally had a point for high end combat.

    1. Oh there was a rationale for lightness. It was wrong, misguided, ill-conceived, idiotic, stupid, naive, ignorant, unfounded, ... well, you get the idea.

      Just because there was a rationale doesn't mean it was a good one. Not only is the military not immune from bad ideas, they positively seem to sprout them!

    2. Lightness also was, and is, fashionable. It fits in with the changes in the ways we use new technology in our everyday lives.

      The military should always be alert to ways to exploit technology developed for other purposes, but this often turns into a perceived need to apply civilian fashions to military operations.

    3. Quite right. The tendency to apply civilian fads also extends to the military's management system. Recall the ill-fated attempts to adopt civilian industry quality and business management programs?

    4. It's interesting that PCs became really popular, as opposed to a geek item, mobile phones became small and highly usable, and the Internet took off in popular culture, within a few years of the end of the Cold War. This could be coincidental, or the need for electronics firms to find new markets once the military weren't buying so much, might have something to do with it.

    5. I hadn't thought about that connection. You could be right. Good thought!

    6. The US military has usually had a technological advantage in the past, and it still behaves as if it had, aided in that piece of self-deception by its conflicts against substate actors.

      But its technological advantages are rapidly disappearing, or have already been lost, because of the ready availability of digital technologies to everyone. This doesn't seem to be appreciated. I suspect this is because (a) officers haven't been updated on what the Russians and Chinese have, and assume it hasn't changed much since they were in training and (b) it's really unacceptable to say that the US isn't the best at anything.

      If the US wants to restore its technological advantage, then it needs to start requiring and buying something radically new. At present, it's trailing behind civilian technology, and that technology is available at low cost to all potential enemies.

      Now, it's too late to recork the current bottle. The current generation of technologies are designed and produced world-wide, and the US can't change that.

      It's time to demand something new.

    7. The rise of the PC could simply be just Moore's Law at work around that time period.

      The problem here is that the US has underinvested in basic research, along with the decline in US manufacturing.

  2. Col. Doug Mcgregor offered the best explanation. We are following the path of the British whose military became focused on constable duties in the empire. Chasing down terrorists, guerillas, and armed gangs throughout the world. When suddenly faced with peer enemies like the Japanese and Germans, the Brits were not properly equipped or trained for that, and failed miserably. The enemy dared attack them! And the enemy had aircraft and ships!

    1. No one expected the japanese to fight as well as they did. As for the Germans, there is an old saying that 'you dont know war till you have fought the Germans'. The US struggled with their first actions against lower strength German forces in Africa.
      Looking to more recent times, even after the recent experience of WW2, the US couldnt dominate against N Korea / China, nor the same in Vietnam

    2. Imagine if Hitler had never launched Operation Barbarossa. Then the US and the British Empire would have really had to fight the Germans.

  3. You rightly wrote: "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, NKorea, Russia, and China. This is our set of potential next-war possibilities.
    Iran barely qualifies as having a credible military threat."

    Absolutely agreed. That being so, the US doesn't need over-the-beach or port-seizure capabilities for a conflict with N Korea (common land frontier with ports behind it); hardly needs anything against Iran; and if it comes to a war with seriously nuclear-armed Russia or somewhat nuclear-armed and manpower-rich China, o-t-b or p-s capacities will be irrelevant.

    Therefore ...

    1. Thats the last war syndrome. having ready reaction forces with their equipment on ships means that you can go to a port or over the beach and it can be done fairly quickly. The beauty of todays maritime land forces is they can be landed by helicopter as well. Plus marines can operate far from the sea as well. Like a SUV you can operate on and off road, why not have both if its a reasonable cost to do so.

    2. Konrad: You're entirely right, but I think you are missing the point, Going over the beach, or seizing a port, could easily be done by existing US forces against relatively trivial opponents. More serious opponents divide into those who, as CNO rightly says, are not on the possible list of enemies; or those against whom, as far as I can see, it does not have to be done or cannot be done. That being so, why bother with having abilities to attack non-existent or non-attainable possible enemies?

    3. stephen, I happen to concur with your assessment regarding the likelihood of amphibious assaults. I think it's very unlikely. I can't really foresee a scenario in which we would conduct a large scale landing. Of course, that begs the question why we have 33 big deck amphibious ships!

      There is certainly a reasonable chance that we would need to conduct an amphibious landing against a lesser threat but that also requires lesser assets, again leading to asking why 33 'phibs?

  4. I think you're right on Russia but I think China is a different story. Firstly, I wouldn't expect China to operate like Russia; China seems to be just keeping up a steady pressure until someone pushes back hard - a nibble here and a nibble there. The ethnic Chinese population in many target countries (and elsewhere) is huge and growing so why wreck the economy by fighting a war and incurring reconstruction costs when you don't have to - look at what's happenened in Tibet. The Chinese are much more patient and play a longer game, which is not something the Americans are good at!

    Secondly, you can't defeat China militarily - sure you could push them out of Taiwan or Japan using the methods you describe above but that's only a temporary solution. I'm sure US leaders understand what impact damage to the Chinese economy has on the USA. The long-term solution to US/Chinese competition can't be military - the best weapons are going to be McDonalds and Coca Cola so perhaps the US Armed Forces already have the equipment they need.....

    1. Guy, for my much more in-depth analysis of war with China, see

      War With China - Part 1
      War With China - Part 2

      I've essentially described just what you said.

    2. A key fact is that our Admirals don't take the prospect of war with China seriously. They talk about it, but refuse to change. For example, does it makes sense for our second biggest naval logistical support base in WestPac to be at Sasebo? Does it make sense to keep amphibs and minesweepers homeported there along with 6000 dependents?

      This is an important issue that no one discusses, except for one article found on the net:

  5. Interesting! I agree with your points but would add a few more :

    - China has clearly stated an ambition to take over Japan etc to improve it's access to the sea.

    - Elements within the Chinese government do want revenge for the way they were treated by the colonial powers

    - China is prepared to take actions that Western governments aren't.

    - The PLA can and does own extensive businesses and sees business as part of its miltary strategy. The US is not adequately protected from key military suppliers being quite legally purchased by overseas interests or being in a position to exert internal control over those businesses through management processes.

    1. All good and valid points.

      One of the challenges of blog writing is the limited space. If you get beyond the lengths that I write, you tend to lose all but the most passionate readers of any given subject. The challenge is to convey what you want in a very limited space. That's why, for every post I put up, people invariably reply with points they feel I've overlooked. Usually, it's less a case of overlooking and more a case of space limitation editing. I could write books on many of these blog topics!

      Thanks for reading the China posts!

  6. The F-35 is the real sore thumb. For fighting the type of non peers we don't need stealth, sensor fusion, and all the other things that lead to a trillion dollar development program. The A4 would do nicely.

    1. Actual, we can make good with a Super Bronco for for most COIN missions. And for other close support mission an armed version of the T-45s should do nicely as it is basically a BAE HAWK after all.

      Still, we have one major flaw with this plan, we need good Air-to-Air Interceptors to deal with all those surplus MacH 2 fighters being sold to second would counties.

  7. Just one point CNO, shouldn't we finish is war before we start looking at he next one?

    1. It would be nice to have that luxury of taking wars in a nice, orderly sequence but given the length of time it takes to execute acquisition programs, we're already too late for the next war, in terms of acquiring the equipment we need to fight it!


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