Military history is replete with examples of armies seeking some advantage (technological, organizational, or doctrinal) that will give them the ability to easily defeat their enemies. Unfortunately, while there are several examples of militaries succeeding in finding this edge, every single one eventually found their advantages countered or balanced. Any battlefield advantage, it seems, has a shelf life. This is not to say that these armies failed, but rather they had to win against a peer opponent, and suffered the attendant casualties as well. For nearly forty years the United States military has relied upon technological superiority to make up for numerical weakness. Particularly in the quarter-century since Operation DESERT STORM, the Army has assumed technological superiority will assure it victory. However, history tells us that is an unrealistic expectation. As the Army advances into the future, while it must always strive to find the advantages to win cheaply, it must be prepared to win in any circumstance. Simply put, any technological edge is fleeting, and a continued reliance on technology to mask weakness in numbers is fraught with danger. What this necessarily means is that, in future wars, the Army must be prepared to take significant casualties and losses in equipment, replace them, and win.
Why are decisive advantages so fleeting? Warfare is the most competitive realm in human existence; the stakes are literally life and death. Therefore, while every side is seeking an advantage, every side is also seeking to counter the advantages of their enemies. These counters range across the spectrum from full mimicry to using technology, terrain, or tactics to negate an opponent’s edge. The result is that any advantage is situational and fleeting, and thus cannot be relied upon in the long term.
Decisive Advantage: History’s Fickle Mistress
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Napoleon rode his edge in army organization and personal skill to acquire command of vast tracts of Europe. While the “little corporal” combined many innovations in his army, perhaps the greatest was his use of the corps system, which allowed his army to conduct distributed operational maneuver, fight in many directions at once, and avoid being destroyed in one set piece. These advantages facilitated a series of relatively easy victories up to approximately 1809. However, in the War of the Fifth Coalition, the Austrians copied his corps system. Napoleon still eventually won the war, but the cost proved substantial. At Aspern-Essling, he lost for the first time, and even his triumph at Wagram was a bloody mess. He had won, but at the cost of nearly ruining his army. Moreover, the Austrians had shown that he could be beaten. Around the same time in Spain, the British used a combination of naval maneuver and the use of Spanish guerrillas to harass, demoralize, and then defeat the French armies there, despite French superiority in numbers and tactical doctrine. In 1812, the Russians used French logistical weaknesses and inability to cope with the Russian winter to fatally weaken Napoleon’s army before destroying it in its epic retreat from Moscow.
As the nineteenth century progressed, Prussia gained a decisive military edge over its rivals through innovative technology and tactics. The bolt-action, breech-loading Dreyse needle gun gave the Prussian infantry a significant edge in weight of firepower against opponents using muzzleloaders. Additionally, the Prussians discovered that since a platoon now had the same weight of firepower as an older company, they could break up companies and platoons to maneuver independently. This adjustment allowed the Prussian infantry to find their enemy’s flanks and pour in destructive fire. Prussian advances helped them secure a great victory at Koniggratz in 1866 against the Austrians. However, by the Franco-Prussian War, just five years later, the Prussians had lost most of their advantage. Rather than simply aping the Prussians, the French had created their own doctrine, which in many ways proved superior. They had also developed breech-loading rifles that were more reliable and effective at longer ranges than those of the Prussians. Studying their own and Prussian history, the French decided that the best approach was to not fight the Prussians in a war of maneuver but to hunker down in defensive positions and engage at long range. While the Prussians eventually won the war, the cost proved dramatically higher than they had anticipated. Most of the battles came down to the Prussians doggedly working their way around the static French flanks under intense fire. They succeeded through maneuver, but with hideous losses.
In 1944 the United States and its allies possessed a massive edge in airpower and production over the Germans in northwestern Europe. Despite these advantages, the Germans used terrain and weather (and Allied logistical issues) to negate the Allies’ firepower superiority, forcing the Americans and British into a series of costly break-in battles that consumed the better part of six months from October 1944 to March 1945. A mere five years after the end of the Second World War, the Chinese used similar methods during the Korean War to negate the United Nations Command’s advantages in the air and in firepower, turning the conflict into an evenly matched infantry slugfest.
Finally, in 1973 the Egyptian Army managed to balance Israeli advantages in airpower and maneuver warfare with the introduction of tactics that relied heavily upon ground forces staying inside a surface-to-air missile “bubble” as well as the introduction of man-portable anti-tank guided missiles. The Egyptians knew that they could not win a maneuver war with the Israelis on the ground or in the air, so they sought alternate means of stripping away the Israelis’ strengths and force them into a position of weakness. The Israelis eventually won the war, albeit with extremely heavy casualties made good only by emergency shipments of American war stocks from Germany.
High-Intensity Conflict: the Army’s Achilles’ Heel?
These examples show a historical constant: while technology and appropriate doctrine are always necessary, they are not panaceas. Decisive advantages are temporary. In several of the examples listed above, and in dozens of other cases, victory went to the side that can take casualties and still function despite not having a marked edge over their enemy. The US Army must be able to do the same. Unfortunately, it appears to have lost this ability. In rotation after rotation at combat training centers (CTCs), high-intensity combat chews up units at an alarming rate. Entire companies are often destroyed in a matter of minutes. These rotations have been perfectly designed to replicate conditions under which US forces have lost their asymmetric edge and are forced to fight on a level playing field. While these observations are nothing new, the implications are alarming. A modern armored brigade combat team (ABCT) has precisely six tank companies, four infantry companies, and three cavalry troops, and currently there are nine of them in the active Army (soon to be ten). This means that, based on casualty rates during rotations at the National Training Center (or any CTC), an ABCT—the primary unit for high-intensity conflict—would be rendered combat ineffective within a week of entering high-intensity combat. Moreover, due to our current procurement methods of buying ever more expensive and complicated weapon systems, we could not replace these materiel losses in anything approximating an appropriate time scale. Additionally, even with this year’s end strength increase, the Army’s pool of trained manpower is still substantially smaller (by nearly 100,000 active duty soldiers) than what it was even five years ago. While we can perhaps quickly recruit more privates, it still takes at least a year to develop experienced infantrymen and tankers, and years to grow capable noncommissioned officers. Thus, there is a lag built into any effort to grow the force. These challenges mean that for the near future we will struggle to replace casualties with trained soldiers.
For IBCTs and SBCTs, the problems of replacing equipment are easier, but the casualty rates would probably be worse than for ABCTs, both in numbers and percentages. These formations simply do not have the firepower, mobility, or armor protection that gives ABCTs their survivability on the battlefield, while at the same time, their missions would take them into situations producing significantly more casualties. Therefore, while these brigades are more numerous than ABCTs the same basic problems of replacing equipment and manpower still exist.
While not the focus of this article, the Air Force and Navy are facing similar problems. The expense of new aircraft and ships mean that while these services possess great capability, they are also very brittle due to the overall small size of the force. Considering historical examples as well as open-source information regarding enemy air defense capabilities, whether these services can gain and maintain the air supremacy—which, incidentally, has come to be expected by US ground forces—is perhaps a toss-up.
Difficult Problems Require Difficult Solutions
With these challenges firmly in mind, the Army must take a hard look at how it organizes its combat power. Units should be built with a little “fat,” with the expectation that casualties will occur. In particular, additional 19- (armor) and 11-series (infantry) in the ranks from private to staff sergeant should be placed no higher than brigade headquarters in positions where they could quickly move to replace combat losses—enough to replace at least 10 percent of the combat vehicle crews in the brigade. These personnel must be in addition to those already in the current TO&E (table of organization and equipment), as tactical headquarters are now so lean in design that fielding enough drivers and radio operators is a constant struggle. Furthermore, they should be given the opportunity to conduct job-specific refresher training to keep them relevant in their fields. Finding these personnel will be challenging, and would require culling combat arms soldiers out of the institutional army and higher headquarters to make up the initial shortfall. Doing so would be difficult, and even then, it might not provide sufficient numbers considering current manning problems. Additionally, the Army might rearrange its manning requirements to train more armor and infantry soldiers, though this would come at the cost of fewer support personnel. The Army might even consider deactivating some units in order to make the remaining ones more durable. Of course, this approach would exacerbate the Army’s already longstanding problem of having too few units to do too many missions. The long-term solution is simply to increase Army end strength and the number of units, but until funding for such a course of action is approved, the Army must address the manning issue within the existing force.
In addition to reexamining how we use our personnel, we must also examine how we acquire and maintain our equipment. Items, particularly vehicles, should be acquired with an eye to whether they can take a hit and still function, their ability to be repaired in the field, how expensive they will be to replace, and how long that process will take. We might also decide to buy less survivable equipment that is cheaper and can be produced in greater numbers. Our current fixation with every vehicle in theater being up-armored and equipped with increasing amounts of electronic warfare gear has cut casualty rates but has also dramatically increased the unit cost for every vehicle in the fleet, meaning we can afford fewer units and every vehicle loss costs us a greater share of combat power. The result? The enemy is able to bleed us financially, causing us to spend millions while they spend hundreds. Even considering the vast financial advantage we have over our adversaries, we are chasing our tails and destroying ourselves with ever-costlier solutions in search of a technological answer to every problem.
Similarly, the search for “information dominance” is not, in and of itself, a bad idea. But it has led to expensive acquisition decisions in favor of networking and connectivity over ruggedness, survivability, and mobility. The fighting in Ukraine has come as a significant wake-up call about the survivability of a tactical digital network against a peer or near-peer threat. Perhaps reorienting communications acquisitions priorities toward ruggedized, survivable, easy-to-use equipment would not only save money, but also lives.
Finally, we should look at our stocks of older equipment and bring them to a higher state of readiness so that we can more quickly replace combat losses. In 2003, units deployed with an extra tank or two. Today that is an unheard of luxury. Again, we must expect combat losses in a high-intensity fight to be numerous and prepare for the need to replace them quickly. Even assuming that tanks sitting in storage in the United States can be brought to combat readiness in a matter of weeks (a major assumption), they must be brought into theater and then disseminated to units for use—posing significant logistical hurdles. In 1944, a lost tank could be replaced in a matter of hours. In 2017, it is doubtful that we could replace one in weeks. Thus, the Army should look at ensuring that war stocks are in theater, modernized, and ready for immediate use. Alternatively, replacing combat losses could come from stripping uncommitted units of vehicles, weapons, or other materiel, but that leaves those units unable to be sent into battle themselves. Finally, the Army could simply swap entire units out. However, with only nine (or ten) active and six National Guard ABCTs in the entire Army, this could quickly become infeasible without denuding other theaters of armored assets, and would require substantial time and strategic movement assets to mobilize and shift these forces. So increasing the readiness state of older equipment remains the most viable way, outside of raising several new ABCTs, of preparing to replace combat losses.
These proposed solutions are difficult ones, not least because they would cost a substantial amount of money. There are no perfect answers. Making things particularly challenging is that the military has at least three separate theaters for which to plan. However, it could save substantial amounts of money by reviewing much of its acquisition process. Multi-billion-dollar programs that provide incremental increases in capability should be carefully assessed for their actual utility. Moreover, buying gear for combat units that is known to be vulnerable to enemy capabilities or that is so fragile or immobile that it will struggle to survive in a kinetic environment should be challenged and evaluated thoroughly. The Army has already started making some of these moves with its review of the WIN-T tactical networks program, but that is only the first step, not the last.
We do not know what the next war will look like. However, we do know with certainty that our enemies will try very hard to win. We must be able to absorb their best blows and persevere to victory. While hoping for a short war, we must be prepared to fight a longer one. We cannot do that if we don’t have enough equipment or soldiers in the right places. Thus, we must make the hard choices now. Otherwise, we will find ourselves failing in our most basic responsibility—to fight and win the nation’s wars.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Micah VanDyke, US Army
David Zabecki, in his book on Hermann Balck, quotes Balck (before WWII as a planner in the logistics section of the General Staff) as saying you need something like 20% spare tanks to fight a war*, and German industry couldn't guarantee that additional production. I suspect US capacity is equivalently limited to only enough to equip formations without war spares. That's probably a better investment than trying to make the ultimate field-repairable vehicle.
* I don't remember the exact number, but I think this gets the sense across even if the quote isn't fully accurate.
The U.S. Army needs an approved tool and a formal methodology for estimating personnel and equipment combat losses. Extrapolating from NTC exercises is not a reliable solution.
Attrition In Future Land Combat