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.
I am not persuaded.
First I believe that nuclear escalation, while a real danger, remains improbable so long as neither side perceives its existence to be threatened. The authors cite the seizure of Crimea and the Donbas as an example, but had Ukraine been a NATO state, NATO armies would have counter-attacked and re-captured all of the lost territory. Yes, it would have been costly, as Russia has sophisticated strike capabilities and NTO armies are not used to things like having their airbases or headquarters destroyed. But in the end NATO heavy ground forces, in classic battle with their Russian counterparts, would have re-occupied the territory of Ukraine and destroyed all Russian forces inside it. Russia would not resort to nuclear use because defeat would not be existential but escalation clearly would be.
Yes, that battle would probably involve kinetic strikes against targets inside Russia and those targets would have to be carefully selected so as not to give Russia the impression that it was under existential threat. This is achievable by measures such as: Not striking deep into Russia, but only targets in the tactical depth. Targeting only in retaliation – targeting artillery that has fired into Ukraine, for example, or only striking airbases if NATO airbases have been struck. Not targeting headquarters or nuclear delivery systems. Prohibiting ground forces from entering Russia. And by explicitly declaring these (or any similar restrictions) to Russia and the world. In such constrained circumstances neither side would need or want to escalate to nuclear use and the conflict would be resolved by conventional armies.
This is the war for which we must prepare. Economic and proxy wars are not a problem for NATO armies – other folks will deal with those. We must be able to recapture Crimea, or Estonia, or wherever.
A good analysis that I share. Russian operational capabilities enable them to take Suwalki Gap or even all Baltic States in a quick move without offering a noteworthy resistance. If there is a political will (this is the key question); than Russia can acquire NATO territory and threaten with nuclear escalation which has the potential to disintegrate the alliance. Would Poland or the Baltic Countries agree on limited nuclear strikes on their territory? Would Germany do so? Would France sacrifice it’s citizens for a limited but bloody intervention to retake the former Soviet Staates?
What is the price that western societies are willing to pay?
The best way to prohibit this is a strong presence in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in order to make a fait acomply impossible. Here I don’t agree with the authors: Deep strikes and the threat of own tactical nuclear weapons on the other hand would raise the danger of an escalation or at least an arms race. Instead, we need a robust conventional force from all NATO, the size of at least a Brigade in each of those states as well as pre deployed equipment for 3 Divisions.
The authors addressed this and your retorts don't convince me they were wrong. The fact is that both Russia and China are expanding their global influence and are doing so largely uncontested and mostly unopposed (Russia just positioned bombers in Venezuela). If the US were to continue to permit these actions, through indifference or ignorance, it will be at a strategic disadvantage when the balloon goes up.
Capability and a willingness to use it; Russia has demonstrated both. Have we?
The title of the piece is about future war, not conflict short of war. And specifically, what the US Army should prepare for. As I understand it, the thesis seems to be that A2AD capabilities and nuclear weapons will render armies useless. I don't agree. The authors make several distinct arguments and I respond to them individually like this:
1. nuclear escalation. I have already addressed this in the thread above but, briefly: Escalation is a always a risk to be avoided but it has been one since the Soviet Union became a nuclear power. Since then, NATO has deterred its opponents from using nuclear weapons by the threat of retaliation in kind. Russian doctrine notwithstanding, there is no reason to believe that deterrence will not be effective in the future as well.
2. fait accompli acquisitions: The core of the argument is this statement: "the task of forcibly reversing the “illegitimate” gains becomes nearly impossible without provoking disproportional escalation". This is simply untrue unless you accept the highly problematic assumption that Russia or China would actually use nuclear weapons to defend small gains, the loss of which would not be existential. If we assume (as most people do) that no antagonist would risk nuclear Armageddon for minor advantage, then reversing gains by counter-attack is logical. And an obvious task for classic manoeuvre forces.
3. projection from sovereign sanctuary. This argument seems weak to me inasmuch as a border works both ways. Yes Russia can project power over its borders in various kinetic and non-kinetic ways. So can NATO. Yes Russia can shoot across its borders and threaten to escalate if NATO responds in kind. So can we. Yes Russian can draw red lines and hide behind them. We can as well. The basic principle of deterrence relies on the perception in the other guys's mind that we are willing to use force in whatever circumstance we say we will. In the case of Russia its simple. NATOs line has always been, and continues to be: Anything you do to us we will do to you. If you just assume away our willingness to retaliate in kind then yes we cannot deter attacks. But that's a problematic assumption to say the least. And if you accept it we don't need an Army at all.
4. indirect proxy wars. If its a proxy war then by definition the US Army will not be fighting it. So it would not seem to have much relevance to the question "What should the US Army prepare for?". Proxy wars are an issue for statesmen and strategists of course, but not US armed forces.
5. weaponized political, informational, and economic agendas under the protection of nuclear-fires complexes to advance territorial influence. Again, conflict short of armed conflict is not a problem for US armed forces. Those types of conflict are the domain of other departments and agencies that may or may not being doing a good job at it but, like proxy wars, it has nothing to do with "What kind of war will the US Army be required to fight?" As has been discussed, the bit about "under the protection of nuclear-fires complexes" is irrelevant unless you assume that NATOs nuclear deterrent is a bluf. In which case there is no point in having an Army at all since we would presumably accede to any demand made under threat of nuclear use.
An effective analysis and well written, but not sure I agree with the premise. Since August 1945 are there any cases in which positional warfare has succeeded? Israel, four offensive campaigns that all succeeded. British Falklands the offense succeeded US JUST CAUSE, DESERT STORK and OIF 1 the offense succeeded. Perhaps Iran-Iraq could be called a peer conflict in which there was at least a stalemate by positional warfare. IADS have proven remarkably easy to take down through offensive action by both the Israelis and USA and without IADS no recon-strike complex can prevail. That said, the likelihood is that the US will conduct hybrid wars against non-peers and we should be preparing for that.
Sir, let's define the terms. What do you call defense?
From the point of view of the Kremlin, the revolt in Ukraine, including the “Battle of the Eight Battalions” and “Buryat Horse Divers” near Debaltseve, is precisely defense. Active defenses.
What will you achieve by placing 2nd Cavalry in the suburbs of Tallinn or Riga? You want to give the political leadership of Latvia and Estonia leverage to manipulate the White House and the Pentagon? 🙂
Why should Russia seize the Baltic states while they do not interfere with sea, rail and road links with the Kaliningrad Enclave? What is the strategic goal? In the Crimea people loyal to Russia.The FSB and the authorities managed to ensure first neutrality, and then loyalty, even among of the Crimean Tatars. Why capture the Baltic States, if these countries can be neutralized economically?
The result can be seen now. In Riga, those Latvians who did not go to wash the WCs in the United Kingdom, are learning Russian. Decent work without knowledge of the Russian language is simply not there. All local industry died as unnecessary.
With the revenue part of the budget of Latvia for 2017 in 8+ billion euros, approximately 20 % of this amount is subsidized by the European Union. And now many people in Brussels are wondering if this market is worth the money.
In this regard, the question arises, how ready are the soldiers of the 2nd Dragoon to burn in the flames of tactical nuclear strikes (I think there will be three, according to the number of battalion defense areas) if the efforts of politicians to knock out money for" the only barrier from Russian aggression " get out of control? 🙂
I like your comment the most. It is closest to my own assessment. Another consideration absent here is with our forces in such proximity, how would Russia (or the U.S.) use nuclear weapons, especially if the soppoedly planned on moving into these areas afterward? There are some good insights here, but others are inexperianced junior officers playing general.
DESERT STORK was a great offensive. It's just too bad our guns couldn't elevate high enough to mass fires on the storks.
With regard to the ease of degrading or destroying an IADS, it depends on which conflict one refers to. The “easy” takedowns you refer to by Israel and the US were probably the wars against Syria and Iraq (ODS/OIF), respectively. In these conflicts, the IADS operators were poorly trained and did not employ disciplined survivability/effectiveness tactics.
Operation Allied Force (Kosovo, 1999) and the air war in Vietnam provide some contrary examples. For example, during OAF a single SA-3 battalion shot down or damaged 2xF-117 stealth fighters (Ball, 2003). 1960s technology vs state-of-the-art. The difference was that the Serb operators were much better-trained and employed the disciplined Russian tactics to a fuller extent. The type of technology involved with IADS now is 3 generations more modern than what we saw in OAF. While not impossible to take down, modern IADS do constitute a credible means of deterrence because of the uncertainty inherent in the cost required to penetrate them.
I agree in essence with Jim Greer. The things that make getting your preparation for the next war "correct" almost impossible include the inevitable gap between your preparation and the myriad realities of the complexity of the practice of war. Given the global responsibilities of the US, given the advantages of autocratic states in their immediate neighborhood, and given the eventual peace dividend which we have not seen yet since victory in the Cold War, the operative challenge is to prepare enough of the intellectual backbone of educated officers, and an expansible economy and weapons industry, and, hardest of all, national will to defeat the autocratic states in their neigborhoods. Couching the challenges we face in the next several decades in nearly entirely theoretical terms, and glossing over the practical issues which can only be solved by the professional officer corps, gives this analysis something of the flavor of a bit too much fancy terminology, and insufficient cataloging of the challenges of practice.
As an old timer who lived through the Cold War and the era of Active Defense, I would like to offer the following commentary on this well written and researched piece. It is representative of the intellectual thinking that Dr. Schifferle deems essential to the Army’s continued success. I do, however, concur with Dr. Schifferle’s assessment that it ignores the practical realities the Army faces as in its important task of preparing for the next conflict.
Jim Greer correctly points out the examples of the success of current doctrine. The authors ignore those examples at their peril. Greer does, however, overlook the fact that Active Defense and previous doctrines did play a role in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War; a fact I think should not be dismissed out of hand. I believe the original argument did place too great an emphasis on the ‘willingness’ of our foes to quickly resort to the use of nuclear weapons. Doing so ignores the fact that the world after WWII weathered a myriad of serious crises (Korea, Vietnam, Suez, Cuba, proxy wars in Africa, and the Arab-Israeli conflicts to name a few) without resorting to the use of nuclear weapons. While I agree that nuclear proliferation does muddy the waters, I refuse to accept the inevitability of the use of nuclear weapons. That being said, I do support their construct that any future doctrine must give more attention to counter-nuclear defense-something I see as lacking in current doctrine.
Dr. Schifferle touches upon the most critical factor I believe is missing from the original argument—the role of national will. The absence of national will, however defined, is fatal to the success of any military endeavor in the long run. The Vietnam experience is a principal example of this principle; however, I would argue that what the nation was willing to sustain played a role in Bush 41’s decision to cease the advance into Iraq during the First Gulf War. Additionally, I would posit that the lack of a real base of national support for any policy surrounding the current Iraqi situation has hampered the efforts of Bush 43, Obama, and Trump administrations to achieve any actual resolution.
Future doctrine must be adaptive to the many scenarios that the authors and commentators have addressed. Again, agreeing with Schifferle I caution against becoming too theoretical in the discussion. Continue the discussions but focus on the practical.
Good insight. The title is a bit pretentious, but there are several correct points. The most precious is this one: "…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."
After taking time to reflect on the arguments in this essay, I would ask the authors to review their military history (if they ever received it due to cuts in PME over the years) and study the Strategy of Appeasement that was encouraged by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain during the interwar years. Many of us are also very familiar with the George Santayana quote that "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The ultimate Road to Victory first began with the Remilitarization of the Rhineland, Anschluss, and the Munich Agreement. Poland was invaded on 1 September 1939. Those who support the Modern War Institute proposition, are asking for the rest of us to end up in the same predicament of 1939.
The argument's fundamental components of Nuclear Primacy, Sanctuary of Sovereignty, Integrated Fires Complex, Limited Fait Accompli, Indirect Proxy Wars, and Political/Economic Warfare are all representative of a "Risk Averse" mentality toward National Security in the 21st Century. For those of us that served in Germany during the Cold War, we knew what it felt like to be prepared to fight outnumbered and win. Never mind that we were potentially outnumbered by a ratio of five-to-one in certain GDP sectors. The "Risk Embracing" Mentality was prevalent in the early 1980's thanks to the confidence in the Reagan Build-up and the warfighting concept to go along with the material procurement. The willingness to embrace a War with Limited Nuclear exchanges was a foundational underpinning for the Cold War force. Investments in the Pershing II missile system, MADM/SADM capability, and the Neutron bomb were made alongside with the Big Five of the Abrams Main Battle Tank, Bradley Fighting Vehicle, Apache Attack Helicopter, Black Hawk and Patriot systems. The Big Five were tactical systems but highly representative of an Operational Maneuver mindset. In my mind, the reflections of a Positional Warfare strategy leads me to remember the failed Maginot Line fortress of the French, and highly representative of their defensive mindset.
The U.S. Army's warfighting concept of Multi-Domain Operations reflects an offensive maneuverist approach to warfare. In an age of opportunistic and predatorial leaders such as Putin; an offensive mindset and offensive strategies will prove to be far more effective than the PM Neville Chamberlain proposals of the mid 1930's. Also, a Neville Chamberlain approach will foster a debilitating and demoralizing effect on junior leaders in the force of tomorrow.
Large scale conflict (nation versus nation as opposed to proxy versus proxy) is highly unlikely due to several constraints each exclusive to one another.If war is diplomacy/politics by other means and trade/economics is war is diplomacy/politics by other means, then they can all be tied together. The use of economic sanctions in the modern day can be a potent weapon when employed properly. Given this fact, another deterrent is added to the equation that restrains nations from direct large scale conflict…the totality of lethality that comes from losses attributed to direct conflict, nuclear engagement, economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation would be staggering (Smith, The Utility of Force (2007) and Boot, War Made New (2006)). Any three of the four can combine to cripple a nation, one of the four is unto itself lethal…nuclear engagement. Nuclear engagement can not be controlled as it is no longer just in the hands of the Russians and Americans. Try to imagine a conflict where either the US or Russia uses nuclear weapons that doesn't pull in the outlying nuclear powers…Israel, Pakistan, India, China, North Korea. Can anyone reasonably imagine a nuclear exchange between the US and Russia not prompting nuclear exchanges between long held rivals such as India and Pakistan, or Israel and Iran, or North Korea and everybody else ? The threat of national annihilation that would result from a direct conflict between near peer military powers on a large scale is too painful to contemplate or risk (ask the Soviets or the Europeans). So the debate about strategies and tactics involving large industrial nation conflict is academic unless a devastating series of events would force one nation or group of nation to attack, which in that "Black Swan" scenario all bets and preparations are for naught as the defender would be dealing with a suicidal attacker and there is no preparation a reasonable nation can afford to prepare for in that situation. So as much as theorists abhor "impossible" scenarios, the current parameters of international trade and relations combined with nuclear deterrence makes large scale conflict between industrial nations so remote as to be near impossible.
Fear of nuclear conflict is what the Russian military expects from decadent Western nations. By not preparing for a nuclear conflict, the U.S. military will have given up a strong hand to deal with potential territorial threats from peer competitors in the current operating environment. Credible deterrence relies upon capability and will. While the U.S. capability may exist to deter; the lack of political will to use this capability will certainly encourage Russian aggression and further territorial expansion. The Russian military approach in Georgia, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine has been to initiate clandestine preparatory actions followed by an aggressive takeover of foreign territory. Upon accomplishing a rapid takeover, the threat of a defensive nuclear umbrella is all that is needed to secure territorial gains. The threat of Nuclear escalation without a credible NATO response will ensure that the Russian military can continue its hostile territorial seizures unhampered. This playbook will be replayed simply because U.S. leaders lack the will to respond.
Fear of a nuclear conflict is exactly what Putin expects to exploit U.S. weaknesses. Lack of will to use Nuclear weapons = Lack of Deterrence.
I find your analysis to be quite excellent.
The capability to respond is deterrence, the Russians can continue with their games because the us and nato has decided that absense of an existential threat, nuclear weapons are not an option because there is no limited use of these weapon systems. You are advocating that we need to “show them commies” what we got in order for us to be effective in deterring their actions but that will simply lead to escalation and bad times for all. Armchair academics can question the political will of the nato counties but with no actual skin in the game you simply will continue this shallow analysis that every act of aggression should be met with a big foot in the ass or else we look weak. No one on this planet has the time nor inclination to engage more low level threats after the us and partner countries blew there metaphorical load all over the Middle East for the last 2 decades, spurred on by folks like you who demanded a big show of force to show them Iraqis and taliban/etc who is boss. It’s old, tiresome and most importantly, wrong.
This article raises interesting ideas (massive and conventional assaults are not sufficient to win). But the demonstration is not convincing because of confusions. Indeed, I do not think that (US) Army is the only responsible for the direction of the US strategy (means combination of politics + economy + diplomacy and influence + armed forces), especially when focusing on countering the "fait accompli" or the "proxys" activity. I do not believe that the nuclear counter-strike is an enabling capability relevant only for the "bad states" (Iran, China and Russia). This capability is worth for the USA too. Moreover, I do not believe that China and Russia may use nuclear weapons just to protect extra-territorial gains. Their population would not agree this risk because they are more and more peaceful and individualist people.
Russia took more advantage of the European weakness rather than of an US inappropriate warfare capability. Crimee was possible because of large population agreement for this (local russian population is a fact) and was a retaliation to the US active propaganda in Ukrania… By the way, do not forget the US made the same in the 90s when pushing for the expansion of NATO umbrella throughout eastern Europe… Same errors make same diseases.
Defensive wars like WWI trench war are horrific wars of attrition. But this is determined by the tech of the day. When missiles can hit any known target with pinpoint accuracy, sitting in a defensive location is a death warrant. What is needed is even greater speed and mobility. Imagine a 30-foot android drone. Remotely controlled by a man in a feedback suit, and as many other troops (gunners, intel, command, etc…) as needed. With muscles replaced by pneumatic/hydraulic/internal combustion pistons, senses replaced by their modern upgrades like radar, thermal, etc., and machine level endurance replacing fatigue and combat exhaustion. A 30-foot drone would be capable of running at 125+ mph (all day), jumping tall buildings, and throwing supersonic (depleted Uranium javelins would be cool) with computer supported accuracy. Such mobility would make targeting difficult, zig-zags at 125 mph are hard to follow with a tank gun or heavy weapon turret. Once a 30 ft drone got close, its strength would make turtling a tank take seconds.
Eventually it takes boots on the ground, America should have super big boots. Nothing is more versatile on the battlefield than a man, except for a Drone that replaces that man, so he can stay safe and fight from an undisclosed location, like a VIP.
Since you begin with some Clausewitz to frame your position, I will counter with some Clausewitz
"Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow." Book 1 Chapter 2.
The authors gloss over the political objectives of Russia and China. You are correct that Russia is fearful of invasion from the West, however, you take it to the extreme when you interpret this fear as that of the West's intention to overthrow their government. There is no desire on the part of NATO to invade Russia for the sake of territorial acquisition or to establish a new government there. If NATO truly had the desire to encroach further into former Soviet Satellites, it would have invited the Ukraine in long ago. Likewise, China is trying to edge out U.S. influence in the Western Pacific to make them the sole regional hegemon. In both cases, their virtually unchecked territorial expansion is designed to create a physical and legal buffer between their regional interests and the West.
So the question then is why are they conducting very limited military operations to establish and maintain these buffer zones? My thinking is that they are trying to preserve their territorial sovereignty and expand their regional political and economic influence by pushing the West back in small increments. If that is the case, why would they risk the calamitous destruction to their homelands brought by a nuclear exchange when, as I see it, their recent and likely future actions are designed to protect their homelands and societal structures. The proposed future war does not align with their national policy in magnitude.
Your argument that the Russians and Chinese are way more willing to use the nuclear option than the Western allies runs against their political objectives. I doubt that NATO partners are unwilling to retaliate in kind if Russia conducts a nuclear strike against a conventional operation against an invasion of the Baltic states.
Therefore we end up where we have been since the Russians acquired nuclear capability. Future war with other states will remain conventional in nature. The advantage we are rapidly ceding to our adversaries is in the information and economic domains. That is where we need to buttress our capabilities, and quick.
Three years later, in a split decision, the Authors win! Good season. On to next…
There were important considerations implied in the article and more matter-of-factly recognized in the comments, but the bottom line is war is never an isolated act. The gapping hole is our national defense policy is our nation. It may soon be you-bet-your-society time. Are we hardened enough for intense surges of electromagnetic radiation across a wide spectrum of attack? In consequence, are we hardened enough socially as a Nation, undivided in liberty we stand. I wish I was more sure. I think we are dancing on the edge. To stay in the game we need to focus on the internal weaknesses of our adversaries. They all have them. Mobilizing their populations against them is the key. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are making the same mistakes. People are everything. Let's go that way and play to our strengths.
Claiming NATO forces failed to deter the invasion of Ukraine (they were everywhere other than in Ukraine) is the equivalent of bemoaning the neighborhood watch’s failure to prevent your house from being broken into because they were in the next county over. Large, well-armed forces tend to work better as a deterrent when they are positioned where needed.
Certain things from the 70s such as bellbottoms, butterfly collars, wide ties, the Partridge Family, gas lines, economic malaise, and telling us to turn down our thermostats and put on sweaters ought to remain in the 70s. This applies to other silly things like Active Defense.
Making Clausewitz’s argument that defense is the strongest form of war is only convincing if you develop the rest of his thought—all defenses transition to the offense at the earliest possible moment. That cult of the offense is hard to avoid.
But it’s good to know that in our postmodern world this naïve primacy of the offense to which we’ve slavishly and mistakenly (and apparently dangerously) thitherto adhered has really been rendered obsolete by nuclear weapons and we’ve just finally realized it. But I oversimplify, it’s actually sanctuary sovereignty guaranteed by those nukes arrayed in an integrated fires complex for the purpose of fait accompli land grabs on the fringes of empire by proxy forces directly enabled by the economics and politics of nation-state authoritarian bureaucracies, hence a new era of positional warfare writ the 18th Century is upon us, that has now made large scale conventional warfare between peer adversaries archaic. Right. I see now why this has been obscured for so long.
The Army needs to go to a “fires-dominant force.” Concur. Unfortunately, not for any of the reasons given in this article.
And finally, perhaps some irony is being lost here (certainly on the authors) that those whose job it is to place the Army on the right track for the future are now telling us the Army is getting it all wrong. Stultifying. Perhaps the new Army Operating Concept will rectify this most disconcerting of situations.
This is a thoughtful analysis, and while it doesn't apply 100% of the time, I think it has considerable merit. Overcoming our cultural bias for a war of movement will prove difficult though. Arguably we had both bases covered during the peak of the Cold War.