The most decisive act of judgement which the Statesmen and General exercises is rightly to understand the War in which he engages.
— Carl von Clausewitz
In August 1945, when America initiated the atomic age, the dominant character of land war between great powers transitioned from operational maneuver to positional defense. Now, almost a century later, the US Army is mistakenly structuring for offensive clashes of mass and scale reminiscent of 1944 while competitors like Russia and China have adapted to twenty-first-century reality. This new paradigm—which favors fait accompli acquisitions, projection from sovereign sanctuary, and indirect proxy wars—combines incremental military actions with weaponized political, informational, and economic agendas under the protection of nuclear-fires complexes to advance territorial influence. The Army’s failure to conceptualize these features of the future battlefield is a dangerous mistake.
The modern context of positional warfare, as argued by British theorist J.F.C Fuller, thus renders “physical” land invasion between nuclear powers an “obsolete thing.” Regional powers like Russia and China are protecting sovereign and adjacent territories with unprecedented reconnaissance-strike defenses that cannot be degraded without attacking systems in home territory and incurring instant strategic escalation. The US Army’s renewed focus on large-scale ground combat against peer threats with maneuvering field armies, as directed in its capstone doctrine, FM 3-0: Operations, presents a mismatch of problem and solution to these hybrid challenges.
While many strategists idealize the Napoleonic Era or Second World War as the theoretical foundation for nation-state warfare, the era of Frederick the Great in the seventeenth century better describes the current strategic landscape. That period of European rivalry featured interlocking cannon forts and political alliances at depth that made offensives by small and expensive armies problematic. Instead, states typically acquired territory though positional advances or dynastic realignment while protecting lines of communication. This approach, similar to contemporary threat strategies, saw regimes routinely extend influence by co-opting sympathetic populations and expanding hardened networks.
Failure to recognize the ascendency of nuclear-based defense—with the consequent potential for only limited maneuver, as in the seventeenth century—incurs risk for expeditionary forces. Even as it idealizes Patton’s Third Army with ambiguous “multi-domain” cyber and space enhancements, the US Army’s fixation with massive counter-offensives to defeat unrealistic Russian and Chinese conquests of Europe and Asia misaligns priorities. Instead of preparing for past wars, the Army should embrace forward positional and proxy engagement within integrated political, economic, and informational strategies to seize and exploit initiative. This approach, reflecting evidence-based threat analysis, should account for the following factors:
- Nuclear Primacy.
The expansion of opposing nuclear arsenals has defined great-power competition throughout the post–World War II era. In land warfare, these weapons provide maximum area-denial capability by empowering both tactical and strategic defenses. Now, with the addition of multi-domain ballistic complexes at scale, insecure regional powers have integrated tactical and strategic warheads into conventional fires networks to protect sovereignty, enable political warfare, and negate American conventional dominance. The fact of positional nuclear primacy, more than any other, explains the historically unprecedented absence of major land invasions between great powers since 1945.
Despite this reality, the US Army has continued to perpetuate an amazing fiction—which gained traction with AirLand Battle doctrine in 1984—where intensive ground wars against Russia or China may occur beneath the nuclear threshold. When it does account for such threats, the institution incredibly predicts that “dispersion” and “reduced signatures” will negate them. More problematically, the US Army has a naive, if convenient, tendency to indicate that adversaries’ nonstrategic nuclear weapons specifically designed to target its command nodes and formations are the problem of other services. The resulting avoidance has led to an unrealistic interpretation of land war between great powers.
This dissonance is acute in Eastern Europe, where Russia—with 6,800 active warheads—has explicitly threatened first use of nuclear weapons to offset its maneuver weakness. While the US Army intellectually separates nuclear from conventional, Moscow has fully integrated a range of tactical nuclear capabilities into its larger fires complex. Furthermore, it is inconceivable that Russians, remembering horrific Nazi invasions, would view any NATO offensive in any context other than regime survival, or that they would not escalate accordingly. This suggests that the US Army is preparing for a conventional contest in a complicated theater where nuclear-based defense would define the character of the conflict.
- Sanctuary of Sovereignty.
The rise of the nuclear-fires defense has empowered great powers to protect sovereign territory to an unprecedented degree in human history. This has created nearly inviolable sanctuaries, or fortified strategic positions, from which aggressive regimes can project political, economic, informational, and military influence to counter peer competitors and dominate weaker states. The phenomenon has resulted in complex scenarios—which the West has yet to effectively deter—where regional powers are extending cross-border kinetic and informational fires, in addition to covert or false-flag ground forces, to reclaim historic spheres of influence in adjacent territories.
These cross-border attacks, which can only be countered directly by attacking people and systems in sovereign spaces, challenge the US Army’s expeditionary approach because of the risk of instant conventional, covert, and nuclear escalation. While such events usually occur in distant areas of limited interest to Western powers, far more interested regimes in Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang cannot suffer obvious violation of home territory and remain politically viable. The inverse proportion of concern between expeditionary and local parties means that US and allied responses are almost invariably limited to indirect forms of economic and proxy intervention.
This equation suggests that the US Army’s focus on large-scale ground combat will not deter hybrid attacks that originate from nuclear-protected sanctuaries. In Russia’s war in Ukraine, for example, the deployment of NATO armored brigades to Eastern Europe has not dissuaded Russia’s campaign to leverage its influence to redraw borders and undermine the political viability of a neighboring state. The tepid European economic sanctions against Moscow, in addition to lackluster support to the Ukrainian army, stems, in part, from an unwillingness to violate Russian core territorial interests. The situation ultimately reflects how the Kremlin has adroitly exploited the positional advantages of sovereign sanctuary to achieve limited political aims.
- Integrated Fires Complex.
The preeminence of nuclear security has conspired with advances in reconnaissance-strike technologies to allow regional powers to establish robust strategic defenses. For states like Russia, China, North Korea, and even Iran, who perceive themselves as historical victims of Western imperialism, extended ballistic defenses against invasion have become the symbolic and physical embodiment of sovereignty. The idea that they will allow American-led coalitions to destroy their integrated fires shield and their elite ground forces—both within or forward of national borders—without immediately escalating beyond the nuclear threshold is dangerously naive.
This nationalistic dynamic introduces enormous complexity into any US response to limited territorial aggression by a regional power. Even in a purely conventional setting, a Persian Gulf War–sized offensive against a defensive complex with integrated air defense, rocket, cannon, drone, cyber, informational, and nuclear fires—empowered by forward political, economic, social, and special operations disruption—could reveal the vulnerability of the US Army’s cumbersome field headquarters and logistically intensive brigades. The resulting attrition would likely require national mobilization and costly attempts to restore mobility to potentially radioactive maneuver corridors.
The expansion of China’s integrated fires network across the South China Sea with constructed missile platforms and a rapidly expanding navy exemplifies how positional defense is challenging operational maneuver. For the US Army, recreating the 1944 “island-hopping” campaign of the Pacific War would require near dominance by joint fires—a nuclear trigger in itself—with follow-on transport through targeted air and sea lanes, fixed basing on exposed islands, and amphibious assaults against prepared defenses. At any time Beijing would retain the optionality to threaten, demonstrate, or employ tactical nuclear strikes to halt the advance in order to ensure regime survival and national sovereignty.
- Limited Fait Accompli.
The strengthening of positional advantages since 1945 has empowered belligerent powers to occasionally execute sudden territorial acquisitions. These actions, especially when conducted in areas contiguous to nuclear-protected borders, are based on calculations that rivals will decide the cost to reverse the outcome is not worth the required diplomatic capital or military resources. Because most fait accompi “land grabs” pursue limited aims rather than absolute or continental objectives, aggressors have learned that they can seize adjacent territory without provoking a major counter-intervention and then weather the subsequent political controversy.
The reason for increasing reliance on fait accompli acquisition is because, as argued by scholar Dan Altman, “states make territorial gains” solely through coercion “with surprising rarity.” Now, with nuclear-armed powers extending fires complexes to cover seized territories, the task of forcibly reversing the “illegitimate” gains becomes nearly impossible without provoking disproportional escalation. This means that US Army options for ejecting nuclear powers from suddenly occupied territories are practically limited to indirect approaches such as positioning reciprocal forces against further expansion or coercing a retrograde through economic, political, or social interference.
The success of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 from Ukraine perfectly illustrates the dilemma created by fait accompli actions. Moscow’s surprise offensive with synchronized commando, naval, and limited conventional forces to neutralize the Ukrainian military and empower friendly leaders on the peninsula compelled a rapid capitulation and acquiescence by Kiev. The subsequent NATO response proved ineffectual as Russia consolidated its gains and explicitly threatened a nuclear response if Western forces intervened. The success of the Crimean acquisition, however malign, reflects an instance where a sudden, well-executed positional advance decisively negated any potential maneuver response.
- Indirect Proxy Wars.
With the establishment of nuclear-based defenses that constrain attacks on sovereign spaces, great powers have increasingly resorted to more indirect approaches to project influence. This has made proxy wars, where states counter each other through engagement in third-party countries, an increasingly attractive option for undermining American military dominance. While such interventions often emerge when a power proactively seeks to align a weaker state with its interests through political, military and economic support, this often invites a counter-intervention by an external adversary or coalition to prevent an undesired ideological or strategic outcome.
Regional powers like Russia, China, and Iran have embraced proxy warfare as a means to avoid American conventional strengths and exploit seams in the international order. Their move towards indirect engagement at the expense of US interests reflects recognition of the salience of positional warfare over distance with reduced fear of direct retaliation against their homelands. Since invading Afghanistan in 2001, the US Army has repeatedly failed to achieve promised strategic outcomes in a variety of theaters where external adversaries have creatively intervened to prolong stabilization campaigns at great cost to both the American people and client states.
The ongoing US-led interventions in Afghanistan and Syria offer compelling examples where opponents have leveraged proxy interference to deny American success and preserve regional interests. Unable to directly counter the external source, NATO and other coalitions have proven largely inept at blocking intervening actors and achieving lasting political and social stability. Pakistan, Iran, and Russia have enabled the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, and Iran and Russia have likewise ensured the survival, and eventual victory, of the Assad Regime in Syria. This suggests that the US Army needs a more realistic—and less aspirational—approach to messy proxy contests in order to achieve desired strategic outcomes.
- Political/Economic Warfare.
A final factor in the rise of positional warfare is the unprecedented ability for authoritarian bureaucracies to unite and direct diverse elements of national power towards strategic objectives. Regimes in Russia, China, and Iran have made meaningful advances in weaponizing economic and informational agendas that exploit and enhance social dynamics. While often limited in scope, the tendency for aggressors to operate within narrow alliances or alone can facilitate rapid decision making and unified agendas as they apply “whole of government” approaches to foreign policy agendas.
This refinement of political and economic warfare directly enables positional military strategies designed to achieve limited aims. While the US Army is preparing for large conventional contests, adversaries are empowering hybrid approaches that adroitly avoid American strengths while exploiting opportunities across physical and virtual spaces. As with cross-border attacks, the nuclear-fires defense provides a protected platform from which to synergize efforts by military branches, government agencies, international organizations, religious groups, corporations, private entities, and partisans into integrated campaigns—ranging from overt to covert and false-flag—to achieve national objectives.
The contrast between how NATO and Russia align, or misalign, military efforts with economic agendas illustrates differing approaches. While Moscow has repeatedly weaponized its energy exports to shape favorable strategic conditions, Germany, the largest NATO member in Europe, pays the Russian threat over ten billion dollars annually for natural gas. Russia has had to reduce the price at which it sells its natural gas as European governments have sought alternative sources, but the effect amounts to little, given European imports from Russia continue to rise. This reveals a stunning contrast in political will by an alliance that has a combined forty-trillion-dollar GDP advantage over Russia’s 1.9 trillion. The US Army’s reinforcement of NATO and Europe unintentionally provides assurance for allies to increase reliance on Russian energy and fund the Kremlin’s war machine even as coalition priorities drift in isolation.
Competition and Conflict
These factors suggest, cumulatively, that the advantage in military confrontation between great powers has decisively shifted to those that combine strategic offense with tactical defense. The role of nuclear-fires complexes in incremental aggression, while not insurmountable, means that twenty-first-century competition and conflict resemble the defensive era of Frederick the Great more than the sweeping maneuvers of the Napoleonic Wars or Second World War. As proven in Russia’s and China’s successful schemes to expand territorial influence, limited actions projected from strategic sanctuaries have replaced massive air and ground campaigns as the strategy of choice.
Unfortunately, the US Army continues to prioritize reactionary counter-offensives that will not impede powers that have already seized positional advantage through incremental advances. Even as the service acknowledges how adversaries have learned to avoid American strengths, it envisions wars where nuclear-armed opponents will aggressively blunder into purely conventional contests they obviously cannot win—and then eschew escalation even as their sovereign defenses are destroyed. More worrisome, the Army is virtually ignoring how its recent posturing and rhetoric have failed to deter fait accompli, cross-border, and proxy actions at the expense of the United States and its allies.
Critics of this analysis would argue that major land wars between nuclear powers may remain conventional in “neutral” spaces, or that the US Army is prepared to fight dispersed with reduced signatures through lethal environments. These ideas, however, mostly reflect wishful thinking. While American-led coalitions may certainly invade weak, non-nuclear nations like Iran or Syria, the US military should first organize for the most realistic and challenging scenarios. This means planning to counter rising, yet insecure, peer adversaries who will employ their full range of conventional and nuclear capabilities to prevent dislodgment from seized territory or overt violation of home territory.
Embracing Positional Warfare
Looking to the future, the US Army should recognize the evolved character of modern warfare and embrace strategies that establish forward positions of advantage in contested areas like Eastern Europe and the South China Sea. This means reorganizing its current maneuver-centric structure into a fires-dominant force with robust capacity to defend in depth. While airborne and armored capability remains critical, it is more pressing for the Army to lead multi-domain coalitions bristling with integrated densities of air defense, rocket, cannon, drone, cyber, space, informational, special forces, and covert capabilities, with backing from nuclear weaponry, to facilitate instant strike and counter-strike overmatch over opposing arsenals.
This strategic realignment should begin with adopting an approach more reminiscent of the US Army’s Active Defense doctrine of the 1970s than the vaunted AirLand Battle concept of the 1980s. While many distain Active Defense for running counter to institutional culture, it clearly recognized the primacy of the combined-arms defense in depth with supporting joint fires in the nuclear era. The concept’s elevation of the sciences of terrain and weaponry at scale—rather than today’s cult of the offense—is better suited to the current strategic environment. More importantly, this methodology would enable stated political aims to prevent adversary aggression rather than to invade their home territory.
A second adjustment in US Army strategy would be to dramatically recalibrate its approach to proxy warfare. This means executing operational art that realistically links tactical actions to strategic objectives within contexts of culture, history, economics, and politics. Unlike in the recent Mosul campaign, where the US Army enabled the defeat of ISIS only to empower Iranian hegemony, future efforts should directly and overtly lead to continuing American advantage instead of conflating missile strikes with strategic progress. More importantly, such “limited contingency” efforts must accurately account for adversary interference in places like Afghanistan and Syria instead of relying upon attractive command narratives that perennially inflate client capabilities and downplay enemy success.
A third modification compels joint, interagency and multinational coordination in order to deliberately align economic, informational, and political agendas in support of military objectives. The US Army, with support from American industry, could lead coalitions to establish advanced nuclear-fires complexes that center and integrate diverse elements of national power instead of resorting to incomplete solutions like scattering “trip wire” battalions in Eastern Europe. This means empowering allied nations to meaningfully resource forward security postures that deny adversary initiative in all domains instead of literally funding the Russian and Chinese militaries through counterproductive trade policies.
Adoption of these reforms, though dramatic, will become more critical as political and technological trends continue to favor states that preemptively posture for success in forward areas. The prospect of drone swarms annihilating entire armored, airborne, and amphibious formations, the ability for autonomous obstacles and surveillance to deny surprise, the potential for hypersonic missiles to target large headquarters and logistics hubs, and the miniaturization of electromagnetic-pulse and nuclear devices will challenge expeditionary campaigns. These advances, when coupled with decreased appetite for costly wars in Western democracies, will enable authoritarian defenses.
Given these realities, the US Army must adapt and evolve to dominate great-power confrontation in the nuclear age. Instead of organizing for unrealistic conventional clashes between maneuvering field armies, it should leverage judicious fait accompli actions, power projection from sovereign sanctuaries, and indirect proxy wars—all under the protection of the integrated nuclear-fires defenses—to seize, retain, and exploit forward positions of advantage. While past victories always hold allure, America’s primary landpower institution would do better, for itself and its country, to embrace a more dynamic transformation to negotiate the challenges of the twenty-first century.
Nathan Jennings, Amos Fox, and Adam Taliaferro are US Army officers and graduates of the School of Advanced Military Studies who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.