Can the U.S. Fight the Wars of the Future?

The U.S. is ill-prepared for the next phase of warfare.

By + More
WideModern_Soldiers_072613.jpg
Soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., are silhouetted by the setting sun as they walk across the Campbell Army Airfield.

This week, the four U.S. military service chiefs marched to Capitol Hill and testified about the impending doom that a deepening sequestration would do to our capabilities. Only one service chief, Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos, testified that his service could handle one major theater operation* if sequestration sticks. But is this too much doom and gloom?

Are the threats of the future the same as the threats of the past and thus necessitating similar, but better, capabilities? Or does the maintenance of those overwhelming conventional capabilities cause a form of lockout dissuading other major and minor powers to not try to compete with such capabilities, but try to compete in different ways?

Over at The XX Committee, John R. Schindler, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, has an interesting post up today entitled "The Coming Age of Special War," where he argues that the United States today is being schooled in "what Eastern intelligence services term ‘special war,' an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense." (This also includes, in large part, the extensive use of other forms of political warfare which I discussed here back in August.) Exhibit A for this is how Russian President Vladimir Putin has handled the Syrian crisis.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

According to Schindler:

The post-modern American war of warfare, which very few if any countries could hope to match in complexity and cost, is now so expensive that even Americans can no longer afford it. The strategic impact of this realization promises to be vast and far-reaching.

Conflict, though, shows no signs of evaporating. We can expect a gradual move away from the high-intensity warfare that the U.S. has perfected in the tactical-operational realm. Which may be just as well, given the current state of the U.S. military, particularly our ground forces, which are tired after 12 years of counterinsurgency in CENTCOM. Although the possibility of force-on-force conflict with China seems plausible, particularly given rising tensions in East Asian waters, the rest of the world appears uninterested in fighting the United States the way the U.S. likes to fight.

This, paradoxically, may not actually be good news in the long run, as the United States is seriously unready for other forms of conflict. Worse, the U.S. Government has persuaded itself that it is more ready for lower-intensity forms of conflict than it actually is. To be fair, in recent years the Pentagon, in collaboration with the Intelligence Community, has made UAVs a serious threat to terrorists around the world, while DoD's Special Operations Forces [SOF] – as large as the entire militaries of many Western countries – are the envy of the world in terms of their size, budgets, and capabilities. Yet all these are really just somewhat more subtle forms of traditional military applications of force.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

These realities are pushing both our adversaries and ourselves toward "special war," but this will be difficult for the U.S. because:

Special war is the default setting for countries that are unable or unwilling to fight major wars, but there are prerequisites, above all a degree of cunning and a willingness to accept operational risk to achieve strategic aims. I'm afraid the U.S. Government falls quite short in those two departments.

The apparently total inability of the U.S. Government to keep secrets these days indicates a basic unreadiness for special war. Just as serious an obstacle is the mindset of most U.S. warfighters, which remains vividly conventional and unimaginative. No less, the risk aversion that characterizes too many American military and intelligence operations, caused by having lawyers oversee everything the Pentagon and the [intelligence community] do, will have to be dispensed with if America wants to develop any real capabilities in special war.

Special war works when competently handled. It's very cheap compared to any conventional military operations, and if executed properly it offers states a degree of plausible deniability while achieving state interests without fighting. The United States at present is not ready – organizationally, legally, politically, or culturally – to compete in special war. But getting proficient in special war will soon not be a choice, but a necessity. We're already losing at it, whether we realize it or not, and the current trajectory is worrying. Over 2,500 years ago Sun Tzu, an early advocate of special war, argued that the acme of skill is not winning battles, rather subduing your enemy without actually fighting. It's about time the Pentagon caught on.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

This tracks very closely with comments made by the military anthropologist Anna Simons in her monograph "21st Century Cultures of War: Advantage Them." She argues that the United States has difficulty in the conduct of such operations because foreign cultures have increasingly become much more aware about us than we have of them and that we do not specifically screen and recruit individuals for wile. In her words wile:

…requires at least four attributes: 1) the ability to identify that feature or set of features in an adversary's culture that can be used as the fulcrum by, with, and through which to permanently alter conditions, 2) the ability to read all players so that you know how to appeal to, neutralize, and/or outwit each equally well, 3) an intuitive ability to tease, test, and probe so that you can make your own opportunities and don't operate on others' timeline(s), and 4) an appetite for twitting others, which means relishing the idea of turning the tables on adversaries in order to cause them to undo themselves.

Such wile must also be applied "a) locally, b) coordinating across locations and over time, and c) supralocally in order to both buy and control time."

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Congress Vote to Strike Syria?]

Some will dismiss such views as a creeping "SOF-ication" of national security affairs. Taken too far, I would agree. But I don't think that either Schindler or Simons take their views too far or argue this is the only way forward. Both are cognizant of potential conflicts with conventional powers such as China.

Rather, they both are trying to send a wakeup call, in different ways, that "special war," or whatever one would like to call it, matters and that people need to think about this threat and how we organize, train, and equip to both counter and conduct such activities — and not just with military means. Conventional military capabilities will always be important to provide the mailed fist to complement the velvet glove of diplomacy, but unconventional military and non-military capabilities will also be important to shape and defend interests.

*Major theater operation refers to a large-scale operation such as an Iraq 1990-91 or Iraq 2003 scenario. In the post-Cold War era the gold standard was that the U.S. military would be able to fight and win two simultaneous major theater wars, but budgetary hits to funding and more expensive procurement costs eventually shifted that to "win-hold-win" (i.e., win the first conflict while holding the second until forces could arrive to win that conflict, too) and various other permutations. Many saw this as a force sizing construct rather than a strategy, but it did seem prudent.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

  • Read Robert Nolan: Brazil, Russia and the Impact of Edward Snowden on U.S. Foreign Relations
  • Read Ingrid Akerlind: For U.S., Germany Offers a Cautionary Clean Energy Tale
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad