Today the Army is spending great time and energy to adapt and innovate in the context of great power competition. A significant portion of that emphasis is occurring at the upper tactical and operational levels of warfare. A survey of the current operating environment, as well as our peer and near-peer threats, suggests that much of those reforms are occurring precisely at the echelon that will be specifically disrupted during a crisis or conflict. As such, the US Army’s maneuver brigades too must adapt. Change at this echelon will be just as vital for ensuring success in future conflict.
At the same time, there are also important lessons to remember from the last two decades of low-intensity conflict and counterinsurgency. The return of great power competition does not necessarily mean a return to large-scale conventional operations. In fact, the forms of conflict with other great powers that are most likely to emerge in the near future will not resemble the major combat engagements of the Cold War. This report analyzes current trends in warfare alongside the capabilities of the United States’ most powerful rivals, China and Russia. In doing so, it seeks to reconcile current American practices in training, reform, and modernization efforts with the realities that will be faced at lower echelons.
In Part 1, this report examines contemporary conflict trends in order to challenge the typical assumptions associated with newer, great power–oriented strategic thinking. The increasing frequency of low-intensity conflict, the rise of hybrid tactics, the proliferation of weapons to nonstate actors, and the use of underground and urban terrain specifically enable American adversaries to avoid large-scale combat operations. If not addressed, the tactical organizations critical to success in a crisis or conflict will be less effective.
Part 2 then uses these trends as a lens through which to analyze the combat capabilities and doctrine of Chinese and Russian forces. Although each actor possesses different interests and objectives and utilizes different tactics, they do share several things in common. Their perceptions of the United States and investments within their respective defense establishments are surprisingly similar. Each is also attempting to maximize long-term asymmetric advantages against the United States by taking advantage of the trends described above. By imagining potential conflict scenarios on the Korean Peninsula and in the vicinity of Kaliningrad, we can highlight the asymmetries that will matter most in future combat operations.
Part 3 applies this analysis to American combat maneuver brigades, with the goal of recommending reforms that can increase effectiveness in great power conflict. This analysis shows that Russian and Chinese ways of war will require the United States to use combat brigades in shaping operations as well as in maneuver options. To do this effectively, there are a number of things conventional forces can do at the tactical level that we might miss if we adopt too strict a focus on the large-scale operations of the past. In particular, conventional forces should revisit special operations forces–conventional forces integration concepts, gain authorities for action during short but intense kinetic events, gain quicker access to fires and effects systems, move to a more distributed mission command architecture, and adopt better frameworks for urban and underground warfare. Although time and material resources are always in short supply, it is important to increase the technological and cultural literacy of the force that will participate in these conflicts.
Captain Paul Erickson is an infantry officer and Class of 2021 General Wayne A. Downing Scholar. He earned a masters of arts in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University in 2021, and is currently studying at the Command and General Staff College. His research focuses on international security and US foreign policy.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Spc. Uriel Ramirez, US Army
This is the same army that hasn't won a war since 1945.
Their latest failure being 20 years in Afghanistan losing to a ragtag bunch of jihadi bandits with no armor, artillery, air force, logistics train or medical service.
But they're real serious about transgenders, "inclusion", and female "rangerettes."
You know how they plan on beating China?
The Chinese will die….laughing.
The Afghan War, IMO, was "fought wrong," but not by the brave men and women who all gave some and some gave all.
Oh, SURE, coming from another "Armchair Quarterback" behind a computer who wasn't there–others can say.
But the general American public consensus is that the American people are indifferent to a war far, far, far away, depending on the location in the USA.
If you look at Wikipedia's list of weapons for the Afghan National Army (ANA), if has few, if any explosives, rockets, heavy weapons, artillery, armored vehicles, or heavy firepower. Like Vietnam, the Taliban won by the AK, RPG, PKM, RPD, and SVD. One can say that the firepower of the enemy looks more impressive than the ANA, but if the going gets tough, the Taliban, like the NVA and the VC, can always put an RPG through it. The ANA often can't, limited to rifles and machine guns. When you fight wars like this, how does one expect the ANA to win with just LOS bullets when the enemy uses rockets, IEDs, explosives, VBIEDs, and mortars? You can't win with just LOS bullets! The strategy is wrong even though it is the SAME strategy applied just like Vietnam—a war of rifles when one side has rocket launchers and the other side didn't.
And the Taliban had a steady stream of reinforcements from Pakistan…sound familiar? Just like Vietnam and the neighboring countries…
Did the Soviets win Afghanistan? No, but the Soviets committed War Crimes that tired the Afghan populace to war. The Soviets had tanks, heavy mechanized divisions, and helicopters and warplanes, but they didn't win in Afghanistan either. The US mainly fought OEF like Vietnam, first with SOFs and then troops, but like Vietnam, the US failed in obtaining decisive victory early on at Tora Bora, 2001. Hubris might play a factor, and the fact that the ANA was allowed to reluctantly participate with results that lead to 20 years of war after Tora Bora.
The interesting aspect now is that the Afghan CIVILIANS are picking up arms to fight the Taliban alongside the ANA! Had NATO and the US known about this, then would Afghanistan become a feudal and tribal military society? It already is. When the civilians want to fight to protect their homes and families, then you know that the Fighting Spirit is present in Afghanistan if not in the ANA. Masses of ANA surrendered their Western gear, guns, ammo, and M1114s to the Taliban to use. If the ANA is so low in morale, and the local militia so high in morale, then something is wrong in the Intel Assessment as to WHO and WHAT the ANA actually is and where the fighting morale is!
The fear that the ANA will use their tanks, artillery, rockets, air power, and explosives against Blue Force is what and how OEF was fought wrongly. Just like Vietnam, the loyalty of the ANA came into question as they abandoned their posts and surrendered without a fight. If the West can root out those without the Ethos to fight, then perhaps the ANA could have fared better. The South Koreans have this Fighting Spirit and it shows…they take no BLEEP from anyone because they know that is their Homeland and to drive them off it will be the sea. The same with the Japanese. So too can be said of the Taiwanese. But some Europeans…the have strong powerful armies that they don't maintain or want to pay for anymore. That's not tactics or strategy—that's politics and budgets and Fighting Spirit! One always has to maintain that Fighting Spirit for self-defense, and I think that NATO is beginning to see this again.
If future US wars will be like this, where the CIVILIANS want to fight, but the Army protecting them doesn't or lacks the firepower to, then the US will never win such wars as Vietnam, Afghan, and other similar wars such as Syria and Arab Spring. The Syrian Rebels will never win a war against Syrian tanks, helicopters, and warplanes with just M-16s…the defensive firepower is imbalanced. And the US Army is too small to fight wars for protracted periods that bog it down.
When it comes time of desperation, the Home Guard fights to protect the families and cities, but that's the last resort…the last stand…against an encroaching enemy heavily armed and capturing ANA weaponry. In the 20 years of US war in Afghanistan, how and why did Western Intel not see who is or was a fighter and who wasn't? Corruption, politics, illiteracy, low morale, and culture definitely played a role, and yet Joseph Kony's forces were defeated due to US propaganda than fighting CQB with rifles and bullets.
The US Army and West Point don't need to take a hard look at tactics and soldier sacrifice; it needs to take a hard look at hubris, history repeating itself, and why officers study war history and don't learn from it (because perhaps they're too young to read and recall Vietnam).
A future fear would be that a foreign power sets up shop in Afghanistan and creates domestic factories of capable war machines to fight an endless war and populate Afghanistan with new heavy war machines. The US didn't do that, flying in weaponry and troops and now is flying them out, leaving the ANA with no domestic arms production to fight against the Taliban or any other foreign invader.
IF such a country does this, it is similar to those video games where one builds a base and then creates troops, planes, tanks, flamethrowers, grenadiers, MLRS, base defenses, etc. The USA created FOBs, but it didn't create any Afghan domestic arms production. It's hard to win those old PC games with just paratroopers and infantry…one needs to set up bases for arms production….the strategy of the game where one starts with troops and then gathers enough money to build tanks, warplanes, and then superweapons.
It is sad and unfortunate that swords into plowshares occurs too soon and one doesn't know how to produce domestic swords. In a country that uses the plow, one has to know how to make the sword and wield and use it. If every Afghan man has an AK for self-defense, then the local militia is armed, but not every farmer is a trained Jedi. If the Afghan women were trained in the AK and RPG, would the defense of Afghanistan be better? One has to know that swords cannot be put down if sword fighting still ensues, and for Afghanistan, a remote poor desert country, then perhaps the sword will reign for a long time to come, but now the ANA has to lead their own sword fights.
The issues, obviously, come from the domestic production of arms that can be captured or exported to the wrong people, causing more problems for The West. Now that the US and NATO are flying away, what domestic arms and ammo production does the ANA and Afghan civilians have to defend themselves? There can be a booming Black Market of arms, but is that enough to protect the country? Even a strategy of Mad Max armored vehicles might be obtainable as a form of Homeland defense–but did and will that happen to hold the country for a few more weeks, months, or even years?
Western culture loves shiny tech toys that go bang. But there is power in a fighter that walks to war in sandals, with a simple bag lunch, and a cheap Kalishnikov rifle. Grozny, Mogadishu, Iraq, Afghanistan and other battles were won by simplicity and staying power.