Too many American political and military strategists have been sleepwalking since the end of the Cold War. Will the Russia-Ukraine war awaken them from this self-induced state?
The answer depends upon what changes these leaders are willing to make in the coming months and years.
American strategic sleepwalking began right after the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the First Gulf War of 1990–91. Both were startling victories. In Panama, a strategic coup de main forcibly removed military dictator Manuel Noriega and returned a democratic government to Panama. The invasion began on Dec. 20; by Christmas, the Panama Defense Forces were crushed, and in the first week of January 1990, Noriega was arrested.
In the First Gulf War, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces were ejected from Kuwait, reinforcing the global norm against using aggression to alter the political sovereignty and territorial integrity of another nation. After the coalition force buildup and the defense of Saudi Arabia with Operation Desert Shield, the Operation Desert Storm offensive began in mid-January 1991. First was an extensive air campaign, followed by a ground assault on Feb. 24. By Feb. 26, the Iraqi forces were defeated and in full flight.
In retrospect, these operations lulled American strategic thinking by distorting the understanding of war in two important ways. First, they gave rise to the concepts of “shock and awe” and “rapid decisive operations.” In and of themselves, neither concept is without merit. But together, applied incorrectly, they led some to believe that war has changed fundamentally. They were misunderstood as demonstrations that future wars, not just battles, could be won quickly. And they persuaded still others that fighting alone—when done rapidly and decisively—could end wars.
Furthermore, the use of long-range precision munitions, delivered from the air and ground, plus multiple means of remote sensing and advanced digital integrative technologies, created a common (false) belief that technology had finally lifted the fog of war. Some military theorists—at the time and even now—claimed the world had entered a period when an unblinking eye would provide commanders and political leaders with near-perfect and real-time understanding of what was happening on any battlefield. Technology-enabled, rapid and decisive operations, it was claimed, had created a revolution in military affairs. America could offset size with advanced technology.
While some reductions made sense, the U.S. went overboard. Even during the 20 years of America’s post-9/11 wars—a time when the country’s military forces fought simultaneously in Afghanistan, Iraq and the wider war against jihadi terrorists, as well as maintained alliance commitments in Europe and Asia—the U.S. military expanded little, resulting in a worn-out force and significant reliance on contractors.
Taken together, these beliefs reinforced a U.S. bias: that a technology-driven, American capability to shock and awe under any conditions anywhere in the world would allow us to win wars quickly, decisively and remotely (or at least with fewer boots on the ground than before). The era of long wars, industrial wars and messy wars was over—or so the myth went. With this reinforced bias, the U.S. reduced not only the size of its armed forces but also their composition.
Additionally, the U.S. reduced the size of its military ammunition and equipment stockpiles, shrunk the capacity of its industrial base and let its ability to expand beyond its current size atrophy. A large force, capable of sustained combat, was no longer necessary in the post-Cold War era. Rather, small wars and operations other than war, now called gray zone operations, were the future. This kind of conventional pseudo-wisdom put the U.S. in its strategic somnambulist state.
It was the reigning idea at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, guiding America’s initial response in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. rapidly and decisively routed the Taliban in 2001. The result: a tactical, and perhaps operational, success that did not end the war. Neither did the rapid defeat of Saddam’s forces in 2003 end the Iraq War.
The initial military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq should have been the first clue that something was wrong with America’s understanding of war and the roles that force and technology played in it. U.S. strategists should have realized that many of them were conflating fighting a war and winning battles with waging a war and attaining strategic objectives. This is an old lesson that America should have learned from Vietnam.
Col. Harry Summers Jr., in his 1982 book, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, starts with making this exact point: “ ‘You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,’ said the American colonel [to his Vietnamese counterpart in Hanoi].
“The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. ‘That may be so,’ he replied, ‘but it is also irrelevant.’ ”
Blowing Up the Myth
The Russia-Ukraine war is providing more evidence countering the American myth that technology has not changed the nature of war. War remains an instrument of policy; wars come in many forms, with the form determined by political purposes and the means available to those engaged. Rapid, decisive operations are but one form that fighting may take. Technology is important but not the sole determinant in war, and the age of industrial warfare is not over. Stockpiles still matter, as do an industrial base, logistics/transportation networks and the size and expansibility of a nation’s armed services. Further, fighting alone will not win a war.
The global security environment of the 21st century is proving to be both more dangerous and complex than the previously forecasted small wars, remote wars, gray zone operations and other reductionist predictions. America is not in a Cold War 2.0; it’s facing something much more difficult. China is trying to rewrite the post-World War II rules-based order to its advantage. Iran is trying to become a regional hegemon. Russia is trying to reestablish an empire. North Korea remains the world’s rogue spoiler. And jihadi terrorists remain active globally.
Two other global trends add even more complexity. First is the velocity of social and economic change caused by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological worlds. As in the other three periods of industrial revolution, disruptive change is often accompanied by domestic political violence as well as foreign wars. This creates a geometric stress on political leaders, societies and institutions to adapt quickly.
But not all leaders and institutions are able to do so quickly enough or correctly enough. Rapid and widely dispersed information is available to more people in more ways than ever before, creating a growing gap between what people around the world expect and what their political leaders and economies can provide.
The second trend is the increasing pace of changes in the global environment. Climate-induced change compounds the stress on political leaders and institutions already struggling to adapt to the velocity of changes brought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and trends in the international security situation. These trends mix together, making the ground rich for potential conflict and war.
This is no time for either political or military strategists to be sleepwalking, guided by myth and a distorted understanding of war that mask necessary preparatory requirements. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the service chiefs, as well as the combatant and functional commanders and their staffs seem to grasp the magnitude of the moment. Together, they are trying to modernize and realign their forces and training to match emerging technologies and the complexities of the global security environment. But preparing for the actual future the nation faces is not simply a military task. This is a time for civilian leaders—executive and legislative—and military leaders to ask serious questions, then use the answers to make fundamental changes.
Some questions to address are these: Is America’s military force properly sized and composed to face the already emerging future security challenges in multiple theaters? Are America’s military forces positioned properly, and are U.S. alliances postured to support global operations? Are existing ground, air, rail and sea transportation networks—domestic and global—adequate to meet foreseeable demands? Are the current active-Reserve-National Guard capacities adequate to ensure both operational and strategic expansibility?
Is it possible for U.S. forces to grow and remain a professional, volunteer force—if so, how; if not, what options must be considered? Are the available stockpiles of U.S. arms, ammunition, equipment and major end items sufficient to meet reasonably projected demands? Is the U.S. industrial base large enough and capable enough to meet reasonably projected demands? Are the raw materials necessary for today’s sophisticated arms and equipment available in sufficient quantity?
Can America scale its industrial base quickly enough, if necessary? Are the plans, if any, to grow America’s industrial base feasible, suitable and affordable? Is the U.S. professional military education system adequately focused on understanding and succeeding in war in all its varieties, or has it been captured by reigning false beliefs? Are American senior military and political leaders as prepared to wage war as their operational forces are to fight war?
These, and others, are serious questions that should be addressed, answered and acted upon thoroughly before a crisis.
Take Quick Action
Again, none of these questions or their answers are solely military affairs. A civil-military process to investigate and answer such questions is necessary. Given the complexity of the task, the urgency and difficulty of immediate problems and the divisiveness that is now part of the U.S. political landscape, the challenges appear daunting.
But America’s leaders faced major challenges in difficult times before, such as during the years immediately preceding Pearl Harbor. Political and military leaders then were able to succeed well enough. They saw further than the immediate problems they faced, and took anticipatory action in ways that gradually prepared the U.S. for its role in World War II.
The social, economic, political and informational dimensions of life today are vastly different from those in the late 1930s and early 1940s. And the security environment is more complex than that faced by our pre-World War II forefathers. But today’s leaders must also succeed “well enough.” Political and military leaders, together, must think and act in the future tense guided by facts, not myths and biases. They cannot wait, for the velocity of change facing them may make actions taken at the last minute moot. The question is, will they?
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Lt. Gen. James Dubik, U.S. Army retired, a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, is a senior fellow of the Association of the U.S. Army. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and is the author of Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory.