Image courtesy of Flikr user The U.S. Army Image courtesy of Flikr user The U.S. Army

Submitted by Major Neil Hollenbeck:

I was wounded by an insurgent hand grenade while leading an infantry platoon in Mosul, Iraq, in 2005.  At a U.S. military hospital in Germany, an Air Force officer asked me how I was injured.  When I responded, “by a hand grenade,” he flinched and asked, incredulously “A hand grenade?  People still use hand grenades?”  “Our enemy uses them and so do we,” I said plainly.  But his reaction had surprised me.  Here was an officer, thinking warfare had advanced beyond fighting with weapons as primitive as hand grenades at exactly the same time I was engaged in just that type of combat.  How was his mental model of contemporary warfare so different from what we were doing at that time?

One answer is that he belonged to a military service that is very forward-looking on the nature of warfare.  I was a high school student in 1998, when an Air Force Academy recruiter sitting at my kitchen table shook her head at the Army and said, “the tank is just obsolete.”  A quick survey of battlefields since then indicates most of the world still did not get that memo.  But air power theorists had been predicting the end of ground operations as decisive in war since the 1920s.[1]  Every major advance in technology—long range strategic bombers, the atom bomb, ballistic missiles, precision-guided munitions, and so on—seemed to breathe new life into those predictions, which may yet but certainly have yet to come true.  The Army, in contrast, made sure I knew how to use grenades.

But the Army did not have the crystal ball either.  Had it, we would have entered the Iraq War ready for counterinsurgency and I might have deployed to Iraq once, instead of four times.  Our Army emerged from the Vietnam War convinced that counterinsurgency was something we should never have been asked to do and would not be asked to do again.  Instead of systematically capturing lessons learned, we systematically cleansed ourselves of them.  The only war for which the U.S. Army ever deliberately and fully prepared—war with the Soviet Union—we are fortunate never happened.  In 2001, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, few expected a major land war, let alone massive counterinsurgency campaigns waged simultaneously in two different countries in the Middle East.

As one of the early contributors to this forum, I want to urge you to be wary of declarations of putative shifts in the nature of warfare.  Some, here and elsewhere, will argue that much more counterinsurgency is in our future.  Others will argue that “COIN” was a fad, that FM 3-24 (Counterinsurgency) is bad doctrine, and that the U.S. will never again attempt nation-building in the Iraq/Afghanistan mode.[2]  Most will agree the U.S. will grapple with transnational, non-state enemies.   Few, I think, will argue that a major, conventional land war is on the horizon, though I hope the voices arguing for a return to preparation for high-intensity combat will be heard, lest we allow ourselves to believe war between states is so unlikely that we set the conditions for the next Task Force Smith.[3]

I will read all with an open mind, not to decide which of them is right, but because any of them could be (including advocates of vigorous investment in sea and air capabilities).  Recent Army strategic planning guidance wisely directs us to be prepared to operate across the spectrum of operations.[4]  Forums such as these are important for that reason.  We should strive to anticipate the future, and share informed opinions.  Just remember that, once you feel certain you know the future, you cannot easily see the evidence to the contrary or hear those who can.  Certainty closes one’s mind, creating blind spots and making it harder to respect and cooperate with people who think differently.

Our society, through its elected leaders and their appointees, decides what military capabilities we maintain.  Military professionals advise civilian leaders making those decisions, and then work with the forces provided.  We are doing it right now, cutting the size of the U.S. military, making disproportionately large cuts to ground forces so that we can maintain and modernize robust sea and air capabilities.  In a few years our Army may be smaller than it was in 1939.[5]  It is important to note that those decisions are driven by more than our assessments of what we can expect from the rest of the world.  They are driven by our assessments of what we can expect of ourselves.  We are not shedding ground combat capability because we think the world is getting away from ground combat.  We are doing it because we think we are getting away ground combat.  In other words, we expect ground conflicts worldwide but we expect ourselves to stay out of them.

This is tricky business.  First, we cannot know what decisions we will make without knowing with what circumstances the world will present us.  Ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were both choices we made and choices that, five years prior, we could not have imagined ourselves making.  In fact, most major wars the U.S. fought were either a complete surprise (e.g., Korea) or wars we struggled to avoid (e.g., WWI and WWII).  Second, the choices we make influence the circumstances the world presents to us.  Our moderate preparedness for war with North Korea is calculated to ensure no such war ever happens.  It may succeed, just as our preparedness for war in Europe, after WWII, likely prevented major war there in the second half of the last century.  This last consideration is an important one.

Today, the U.S. defense budget is about 40% of all defense spending worldwide.[6]  This feels more normal to us than it probably should.  Americans, like the rest of the world, grew-up with massive U.S. investment in defense.  But, given our relationships with our neighbors and the incredible defensive advantages offered by the oceans, one should find that figure baffling.  What accounts for this?  If most of the rest of the world were our enemies, the question would be answered.  But the opposite is true.  All but a handful of the 15 largest defense spenders are actually allies of the U.S.[7]  The defense budgets of China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran combined are not even one third of U.S. spending.[8]  The answer is that this is not the cost of defending the U.S. from the rest of the world, but the cost of the U.S. defending the rest of the world from the rest of the world.

Here is how we got to where we are today.  Before the U.S. entered WWII, the U.S. had no significant strategic military commitments other than the defense of U.S. territory.  Isolationist sentiment prevailed and the U.S. military was small (the Army was 17th in the world, by size, and very poorly equipped).[9]  We emerged from the war with, or shortly thereafter assumed, strategic commitments to the defense of Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—accepting the lead role in countering the spread of communism, which indirectly drew us into conflicts with radical Islamists.  When the communist threat receded, our general global military engagement did not.  Were it to now, it is fair to say that no one knows what would happen.  But it is safe to assume that U.S. military disengagement with the world would be extremely destabilizing.

For example, consider the situation in Asia.  If, tomorrow, the U.S. declared the withdrawal of all forces from the Pacific and the intention to avoid military entanglements there, there would be little short-term impact on the security of Americans.  But, without U.S. commitment to local allies, several potential conflicts—North and South Korea, China and Taiwan, China and Japan— would slide up the probability scale, from “could but probably will not happen” to  “certainly might.”  There is even question, because of distrust and animosities with deep historical roots, as to how well Japan and South Korea would cooperate in a partnership not dominated by their joint ally, the U.S.  Realizing increased potential for conflict, it would be rational for all of the above to increase defense expenditures.  The region is already home to several of the largest defense spenders in the world, and with rapidly growing economies that would make a regional arms race economically feasible.

Few realize that Japan already spends more on its own defense than any country in the world, except for the U.S., China, Russia, and Great Britain.  Still, Japan could triple its own defense expenditures and still be spending a smaller percentage of its GDP than the U.S. does today.[10]  Many have speculated that, without U.S. assurances, Japan and South Korea might develop independent nuclear capabilities.  That the economic interdependence of these countries provides a strong disincentive for war is certain.  But that’s merely a very good reason they should not go to war, not a reliable guarantee against it.  That economies are too economically interdependent for countries to rationally choose war was an argument made in Europe, on the eve of WWI.[11]  Other variables count, including the less rational forces of human nature.

My point is this: everything at every point on the spectrum of operations is possible for us.  To anticipate what will be required of the U.S. military, we must consider global trends, likely U.S. responses, and the very great extent to which U.S. actions, in turn, can affect global trends.  We are a big actor in a complex system.  This is not as simple as anticipating the future of warfare, as if it is an inevitability which need only be discerned, and choosing how to best position ourselves for it.  We and others are literally co-creating that future.  This is not an answer, regarding what is coming.  This is a recommendation, regarding how we should think about it.

[1] An often-cited, early treatise on the future of air power is The Command of the Air, first published in 1921 by an Italian general, Giulio Douhet, and republished several times in the U.S.  The best known American air power advocate of this era was Brigadier General Billy Mitchell.

[2] For an excellent background on this military strategy debate, see Gorka and Kilcullen’s paper, “An Actor-centric Theory of War,” published in the 1st Quarter 2011 issue of Joint Force Quarterly, available at http://www.ndu.edu/press/coin-and-counterinsurgency.html.

[3] Task Force Smith was the first U.S. military ground combat battalion deployed to Korea after the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950.  After WWII the U.S. military had demobilized and national security strategy was built around nuclear deterrence.  An often-cited example of U.S. military unpreparedness, TF Smith was rushed from occupation duty in Japan, only to disintegrate before North Korean advance.

[4] See Army Strategic Planning Guidance, 2013.

[5] See NYTimes.com, “Hagel Gives Dire  Assessment of Choices He Expects Cuts to Force on Pentagon,” July 31, 2013, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/01/us/politics/hagel-sees-2-paths-for-cuts-paring-militarys-size-or-capability.html?_r=0

[6] Information about global defense spending is readily available from many online sources.  A particularly user-friendly, up-to-date analysis is made available by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, at http://armscontrolcenter.org/issues/securityspending/articles/2012_topline_global_defense_spending/

[7] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Fact Sheet, published April, 2012, available at http://books.sipri.org/files/FS/SIPRIFS1304.pdf

[8] The DPRK (North Korea) does not make defense budget figures publically available.  Estimates are that the country spends between 20 and 33% of its GDP on defense.  A reasonable estimate for the 2013 budget is $8.2 billion.  See the GlobalPost.com, March 3, 2013, at http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130330/military-balance-the-korean-peninsula.

[9] Nelson, John T.  “General George C. Marshall: Strategic Leadership and the Challenges of Reconstituting the Army, 1939-41.”  February, 1993.  Published by the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.  Available at http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/summary.cfm?q=358

[10] Information about global defense spending is readily available from many online sources.  A particularly user-friendly, up-to-date analysis is made available by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation: http://armscontrolcenter.org/issues/securityspending/articles/2012_topline_global_defense_spending/

[11] See The Great Illusion, first published in 1909, by Norman Angell.


Print pagePDF pageEmail page